Let me again welcome you if you are visiting. We’re so glad you’re here. I know some of you are students returning or you’re family members with your children coming to college. We’re so glad that you are here. If we can serve you in any way at all, please will you let me know? I’ll be at the back as you leave, the North State Street entrance. I’d love to greet you and get to know you a little then.
Now if you would take a copy of God’s Word in your hands and turn with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 8, we are working our way through the book of 1 Corinthians in our Sunday morning services together. We’re at 1 Corinthians chapter 8 on page 956. Paul, you will remember, is writing in response to a letter that had reached him from the Corinthians. They’re asking for help on an array of practical and theological subjects and they’re looking for direction from Paul. And so far he has dealt with sinful divisions in the church at Corinth and the pride that stands behind them. He has dealt with sexual immorality and the need for loving, faithful church discipline. He has addressed questions connected to marriage and singleness and divorce.
And here in chapter 8 verse 1, if you’ll look there with me briefly, you’ll see language that signals that Paul is moving on to the next subject about which they have written to him – “Now concerning food offered to idols.” In a previous chapter, he said, “Now concerning those things about which you wrote to me.” “Now concerning food offered to idols” – that’s the next subject that they want Paul to weigh in on. You see it again in verse 4. “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols.” Now I rather suspect that for most of us, the last time we were in Kroger buying a steak, we did not pause to wonder if it had been offered to idols first. This is not a problem with which most of us wrestle on any kind of regular basis. Although if you speak with John and Kelley Beth Prabhakar, who led the team to India, you will discover that for new believers coming from a Hindu context this may well very much be a live issue still. But not for most of us in our contemporary context and place. And yet, as I hope we’re going to see, the principles that Paul articulates as he helps the Corinthians navigate their particular set of issues here, continue to be extremely relevant and useful in our situation today.
Meat was available in an ancient city like Corinth in two main places. First of all, you could go to the agora, the main market place. You could buy meat directly from the vendor. That was usually more expensive. A less expensive option was to go to one of the many pagan temples in the city and the meat would be offered there in sacrifice every day and the portions of the meat not used in the sacrifice would be sold onto the public, often behind the temple. Or in some cases, there were even temple dining rooms where you could go, perhaps for a business meeting or for a particular celebration, and you could have a meal using the leftovers from sacrifice and be together that way. And the Corinthians have been converted to faith in Jesus out of a pagan background of many gods. And some of them understood that since there is only one God and whatever pagan superstition may say to the contrary, that must mean that meat offered to idols is still only meat and they felt free in their conscience to go and eat the meat without a second thought, knowing that it’s just meat. But others, maybe more recently converted from paganism, found doing that almost unthinkable. The associations with their old life were too raw, too vivid. And for them, eating meat in the temple precincts, eating meat they knew had been offered to idols, was a breach of their conscience and they simply could not do it.
And these two groups in the church at Corinth were beginning to look at one another with some suspicion and each was causing problems for the other. Those with weaker consciences who would not eat felt that those who did eat were categorically wrong. You know, "They're compromising with the world!" That was their perspective. Meanwhile, those with stronger consciences who did eat the meat felt that the weaker brothers and weaker sisters were imposing needless and excessive restrictions on their freedom and they felt judged. Actually in Corinth it went a little further than that because some of the strong believers, by the exercise of peer pressure, were persuading some of the weaker believers to go against their own consciences and in order to fit in were being brought along to these temple dining rooms or to a dinner in someone's private home and eat the meat that had been offered to idols. And their consciences were stinging. No doubt, the stronger believers thought that they were helping out. You know, get these weaker Christians past their needless scruples. But in fact, as we’re going to see, Paul tells them that they were needlessly wounding their brothers for whom Christ died.
So that is the situation at Corinth. That’s not our circumstance, but we do have contemporary parallels that we need to wrestle with even in our situation today. And the principles that Paul provides about the nature of Christian liberty and its limits are timelessly important for us all. So those are the issues. Let’s, before we read the passage and pray together, let’s try and see the general outline of Paul’s thought, first of all, and then we’ll dive right into the teaching of the passage. First of all, if you’ll look at it with me briefly, verses 1 to 4, Paul explores how a robust Christian knowledge is constrained by an equally robust Christian love. Knowledge, knowing what’s right, isn’t the only principle to guide our behavior. We also need to love one another. So he brings love and knowledge and shows us how they relate together in verses 1 to 4. And then in the remainder of the chapter, he takes each in turn. He goes back and talks about knowledge next in verses 4 to 6, and then finally love in verses 7 to 13. So love and knowledge, then knowledge, and then love. Alright? That’s the pattern of Paul’s thought here. Before we read it together, let’s bow our heads as we pray.
Our Father, we do very much need Your help now to understand Your Word and to begin to live in its light. Would You show us where we have used love as an excuse to reject the need to know truly and bring us to repentance? And would You show us where we've used knowing truth as a weapon in the hands of our loveless and uncaring Christian lives, and bring us to repentance there as well? Instead, would You discipline us to pursue Christian knowledge with urgency and passion because it is the knowledge of our God and Savior? And to give it hands and feet with Christ-like and sacrificial love in our lives that we might be a blessing and never a burden to others. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 8. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
Amen, and we give thanks to God who has spoken to us in His holy Word.
Relationship between Love and Knowledge
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the most important piece of real-estate in your life is the eighteen inches from your head to your heart. Ensuring that Biblical truth travels those eighteen inches really is the secret, the secret you might say, of a growing Christian life. No matter how many books you’ve read, no matter how well you know the catechism, no matter how doctrinal savvy you may be, all your knowledge will be useless to you unless it makes that eighteen-inch commute and stops being mere theoretical conviction and starts to become spiritual reality.
I can describe to you a beautiful ripe apple. I can measure it and I can weigh it. I can trace its contours. I can follow the subtle transitions from one shade of red to another as it ripens. I can read about it. I can study its biology. I can learn how to grow apple trees and how to harvest their fruit. I can commend apples to others. But what use is all of that to me, what’s the point of dwelling so intensely, accumulating so much knowledge about apples, if after all of that I never taste an apple myself? Authentic Christianity tastes the apple. It is never content with simply knowing. It always wants to taste. True Christian knowledge, known truly, always leads to deepening Christian love. It never stays in the mind, but penetrates to the heart and changes the life.
And that is Paul’s argument in verses 1 to 4. If you’ll look there with me please for a moment. Paul, you will have noticed, is quoting the Corinthians. The English translation includes in quotation marks the reference from the Corinthians’ original letter. You’ll see it there. “All of us possess knowledge,” they were saying. These are the strong, mature believers at Corinth. “We all possess knowledge.” If you look down at verse 4, you’ll even see the content of their knowledge. They know that an idol has no real existence and that there is no God but one. They have been marvelously converted from polytheism to worship one, true and living God. They have come to know Jesus Christ. They know that the worship of many gods is nothing but foolishness and superstition. There is only one God – the triune God of holy Scripture – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Well, so far so good.
Knowledge Unmixed with Love
But there is a problem for these strong believers at Corinth. Look at the text again. This knowledge, Paul says, “puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” Knowledge, Paul is saying, knowledge unmixed with love, is poison. Knowledge unmixed with love is poison. You know, like an undercooked meal. Let’s say you grill some chicken but it’s still a little raw in the middle. You know it looks really good, but it is going to make you sick in the end. Knowledge unmixed with love is an undercooked meal that will prove toxic in your Christian life. That’s Paul’s point. What is it the Beatles sang? “All you need is love.” Paul would abominate that sentiment. He’s not saying here that knowledge is irrelevant. He’s not playing love and knowledge against one another as though to say, “Well, you all have knowledge. What you really need isn’t knowledge; you need love. So don’t worry about knowing truth truly. Just love each other.” That’s not what he’s saying at all. That’s a fairly popular sentiment today but that is not Paul’s argument here at all.
He wants you to know deeply. In fact, you will remember, he wants you to remember that God has revealed Himself to us in a book and he wants you to know it and learn it and study it, to store it up in your mind, to identify its doctrines and to see how each connects to the other so that you see in the whole, a coherent system of truth that magnifies God and humbles us and melts our hearts with love for others and compassion for the lost and propels the church in service and in mission. Paul wants you to know truth. You will never grow in your Christian life beyond the limits of what you know of His Word and of His truth. He’s not saying, “Don’t worry about knowing; just get busy loving.” That’s not his point. What he is saying is that no matter how much you know, if it isn’t given hands and feet, if it isn’t given expression in love, and if it doesn’t generate love in your heart for others, you do not yet know as you ought to know. You may know true truth, but you do not yet know true truth truly. It hasn’t penetrated the way it ought.
God First Knows You
And he does more here, however, than simply issue a corrective. He also offers positive help. He doesn’t just rap them over the knuckles for the arrogant claims of being the knowledgeable doctrinaire ones. He offers a different approach; a different model. If you’ll look at verse 3 you can see it. “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” The way Paul has been arguing so far, the structure of his rhetoric, actually leads us to expect him to say, “If anyone loves God, he knows God.” And that’s true enough as far as it goes, but Paul’s point is actually far more radical. Paul’s point, rather, is, if you love God, you only love Him because He first knows you. God knows you in such a way that it generates love in your heart in response. As Christians, God knows us with more than just a list of facts and figures. He knows us with that knowledge of loving, intimate fellowship and communion. He has drawn us into fellowship with Himself by His saving grace and showered His love upon us, adopting us as His children, giving us a new nature and uniting us to His Son. He knows us intimately and profoundly. He knows us in our sin and in our failure. And though we grieve Him, nevertheless He doesn’t withdraw from us but He presses in and perseveres with us. He knows us. And being known like that, makes us love Him. The Corinthians, Paul is saying, ought to be able to say with the apostle John, “We love God because He first loved us.” The way God loves us, makes us love Him.
“Well now,” Paul, I think is saying, “in the same way, the way we know ought to make others love us.” I think that actually a searching test of my own Christian life, one I confess I often fail. I wonder about you. Ask yourself this. Does the way the truth I know about God and Christ and myself and the world, does the way I know Christian truth so affect me that others are attracted or are they repelled? Are others made to love me by the way truth changes me? Do I know in such a way that others who know me, love me? I think it was William Still, the late minister of Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen who said that there are some Christians who look like they've been baptized in vinegar. None of you, none of you look like that. Don't worry! I don't have any of you in mind! But there are some Christians like that, maybe you know some, who know so much and yet their knowledge seems to generate this ugly, angry, judgmental, censorious, sharp attitude and demeanor. Knowledge does not draw others to them but repels them. Does your knowledge of the truth, does your knowledge of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the truth of the Word of God make you beautiful or ugly? Does it beautify your life? Does it make you attractive and compelling? That's the question Paul's message is forcing us to wrestle with. If not, you do not yet know as you ought to know, Paul says in verse 2. Knowledge and love – he's relating them both.
And then he goes in the rest of the chapter, he goes on to take each in turn. So if you’ll look at verses 4 to 6, he focuses a little more on the theme of knowledge. And Paul here is substantially agreeing with those believers, those strong believers at Corinth who felt free in their consciences to go and eat in the temple dining rooms or to eat meat offered to idols. He agrees with them that an idol has no real existence and that there is no God but one. “Oh yes,” he says. Verse 5, “You’re quite right. Even though there are many so-called gods – whether the heavenly beings of the Greek pantheon or the so-called gods of the Roman emperors who lived on earth, whatever they may be, yet for us,” verse 6, “that is, for those of us who have come to know the truth, we understand there is only one God.”
Now I want you to look very closely for a moment at verse 6. Anybody who says that you can play love and knowledge off against each other has to reckon with verse 6 here as if to say Paul was interested in promoting Christian love and doesn't care about doctrine. Well in this very context, in the middle of his argument about love and knowledge, he offers us one of the most rich and profound statements of the Christian doctrine of God in the New Testament Scriptures. Look at verse 6. Do you see it? Paul says, "For us there is one God, the Father from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." You may remember Paul's words in Romans 11 verse 36. "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things." "For from God and through God and to God are all things." God is the origin, the agent, and the end of everything that exists. The originator. He conceived and purposes all that there is. He is the agent; the One who makes all things. And He is the end of all things. That is, all things have a telos, a trajectory, a goal and a purpose – the glory and praise of the living God. The origin, agent, and end of all things. “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things.”
And Paul is using those same categories here, but notice how he assigns them not to God simply conceived as one being, but to God the Father and to the Lord Jesus Christ together, equally; assigning to both the work that belongs to God exclusively. Because for Paul, for the whole of holy Scripture, for those of us who have come to know the living God in Jesus Christ, there is one God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These are not three gods but one. One undivided, divine essence dwelling forever in three co-equal, co-eternal persons; an infinite fellowship of love and joy and beauty and glory and light. This is, if you like, the Pauline equivalent of the prologue to John's gospel. You remember John 1 verse 1. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were made through him, and without him has not anything been made" – "nothing was made that has been made!" He made everything! That was the revised version you just got there – David Strain translation! "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. The glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." This is rich, profound theology that Paul is teaching here.
Incomprehensible Majesty and Glory
And I can’t help but wonder if what he’s really doing is sort of saying to the rather smug, strong Christians at Corinth who are eager to demonstrate that they are the ones who really know – I wonder if what he’s really doing is saying to them, “Oh, you think you know? Let me take you to the brink of the abyss. Let’s stand at the edge of a chasm of ineffability and unknowability and majesty and glory that is incomprehensible. Let’s talk about who God really is. You think you know? If you think you know, you do not yet know as you ought. Behold, your God, and put your hand over your mouth and place yourself in the dust. Behold, your God, and learn humility.” I think that’s what he’s doing. “Yes, you’re quite right,” he says. “The truth you so glibly parrot while you boast and congratulate yourselves, ought to place you in the dust in humility and melt your heart and make you adore rather than make you self-congratulatory, even while you wound those who are your brothers.”
You remember, some of you were here last Lord’s Day Evening when Gabe preached so very helpfully. And he had that great illustration, do you remember is, of Harry Truman sitting on the porch at the White House watching the sun go down and everyone sitting in awkward silence and nothing is said. The sun sets, the stars come out, and then he says, “Gentlemen, we can go to bed now. I believe we are small enough.” It’s a great point that illustrates, I think, what Paul is saying here. Paul wants us to see how small we really are, and if we think we know, we do not yet know as we ought. There’s so much more to know, and knowledge ought not to cause us to self-congratulate and strut and preen. If knowledge becomes a stick to beat others with, we do not yet know as we ought. And so he takes us to the brink of ineffability and leaves us in awe and speechless, barely able to talk about the truth that he articulates here, let alone define it with precision.
So Paul talks about love and knowledge together and helps us see the relationship and need for both. Then he talks about knowledge and calls us to practice a certain humility in all our assertions. And then finally, he talks to us about love. Verses 7 to 13, having laid out the problem, helped the more mature, more knowledgeable Corinthians reign in their self-confidence and their pride, now he tackles the problem more directly. Look at verses 7 to 13. I expect they thought Paul was on their team, so they’re writing to him, these strong Corinthians, expecting him to say, “You’re quite right! Now, you weaker believers at Corinth, you need to apply your theology. You need to go along to these dining halls and get over yourselves! Don’t be so weak and limp-wristed!” But if that’s what they thought Paul was going to say, they’re in for a bit of a shock, aren’t they?
Look at verse 7, please. Some of them, having weaker consciences, were being led to eat idol meat against their conscience. Maybe they were being made to feel ashamed because they weren't participating with the stronger, more mature leaders in the congregation who would eat at the temple dining halls all the time. And yet as they went along, their consciences were screaming at them the whole time, "Don't do it! This isn't right!" Their consciences began to sting and smite them and sear and wound them. Their associations with their old paganism were just far too raw and far too fresh; made to feel unclean and they were ashamed.
Now Paul is quick to say, if you look at verse 8, eating the food or not eating the food is neither here nor there. Food will not commend you to God – we're not worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do. "You might think," he says to the strong believers at Corinth, "your superior knowledge allowing you to eat this meat with a clear conscience makes you look good. But God is not impressed. God is not impressed." But verse 9, "While you're congratulating yourselves on how mature you are as you chow down on" – whatever it was, a Zeus Burger or an Apollo Dog, or whatever they were enjoying at the temple dining rooms – "While you're doing that, their consciences are screaming at them that they are failing, sinning; that they are compromising with the world. And you don't seem to care! What a failure of love. These are your brothers and sisters." And so verses 11 and 12, "By your knowledge this weak person is destroyed. The brother for whom Christ died, thus sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. You've undermined, actually, you've undermined one of God's central tools for our growth in grace. You've undermined the role of conscience. You've helped this weak Christian ignore their conscience and that is never safe to do. You're imposing on them what their conscience condemns. Christ gave up all for them. He gave up all for them and you won't give up your rights for them. Are you better than Jesus in your demand to have your rights recognized? Won't you surrender rather than stand on your liberty? Won't you surrender your liberties for the good of those whom you are called to love?"
Therefore, here’s Paul’s conclusion in verse 13. It’s a little radical; possibly even hyperbole. But it makes the point. I hope you see it. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” If the cost of loving my brother is being a vegetarian, which, let’s be honest, to me sounds at least like a fate worse than death! But if the cost of loving my brother is giving up this thing that I love, I will gladly give it up because I love him more than this thing. “Eat the broccoli!” That’s what Paul’s saying! That’s the David version again, sorry! The revised version! “I’ll give it up. I’ll give it up because I love you more than I love it.” Love constrains liberty, do you see. Love constrains liberty. My knowledge of the truth isn’t the only criterion upon which I base my behavior. But my love for my brothers and my sisters in Christ directs and constrains what I know and helps me live it out in a way that is a blessing and never a burden.
That is, after all, how Jesus Himself loved us. Isn’t it? Giving it all up, all of it, for us, that we might be free. What won’t you give up? If your heart is pushing back right now, I suspect you have just discovered an idol that has a grip, a steely grip on your heart. What won't you give up for the love of your brothers? Now clearly we don't have a problem, I don't think, with food offered to idols, but maybe a close parallel, an obvious parallel perhaps to some of us, is the use of alcohol. We have liberty. The Bible never condemns the right and moderate consumption of alcohol. We have liberty. But not everyone feels so free in their conscience to drink, say, a glass of wine with their meal in the evening. For some, the use of alcohol comes from a context where it was the besetting sin of their lives or the lives of those whom they love. The associations are just so wholly negative for them, that dark, that consuming alcohol would be a real stumbling block. And were you to exercise such social peer pressure upon them that they felt the only way they could fit in was to go against conscience and drink, not only have you caused them to sin, you yourself have sinned and wounded them in a most un-Christlike manner. For them to drink it would be sin, and for you to cause them to drink by the exercise of social pressure is also sin. So what will you do? What is it Paul says? “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” There are circumstances, those of you who like a glass of wine in the evening, where you ought not to drink. Where you will ask yourself not just, “Am I free to do this?” but “Is doing this helpful or a hindrance? Am I a blessing or a burden? Will I make my brother or my sister stumble?”
Love Directs Knowledge
This love principle – let me close with this – I can tell by the way your eyes are rolling back in your heads that I need to wrap this up! This love principle that constrains knowledge and directs how we live our Christian lives, that limits our liberty, was illustrated for me recently in a story I read from Harry Ironside. He was, at one time, the minister years ago of the Moody Church in Chicago. And he was on a Sunday School outing with various folks and one of the people he was with was a man called Mr. Ali who was originally from India and raised a very devout Muslim. And so the sandwiches are being passed around at the Sunday School picnic and this young lady gives some to the pastor, Mr. Ironside, and then turns to Mr. Ali. And he asks, “What kind are they?” And she replies, “Well, there’s fresh pork and there’s ham.” And he replied, “Have you any beef?” “No,” she said. “What about lamb?” “No.” “What about fish?” “No.” “Well then,” he says, “thank you very much. I will refrain.” “Why, Mr. Ali, you surprise me,” the young lady said. “Are you so under law that you cannot eat pork? Don’t you know that a Christian is at liberty to eat any kind of meat?”
"I am at liberty to eat," he said, "but I am also at liberty to let it alone. You know I was brought up a strict Muslim. My old father, nearly eighty years of age now, is still a Muslim. Every few years I go back to India to render an account of my tea business of which my father is really the head and to visit with the folks at home. Always when I get home I know how I will be greeted. The friends will be sitting inside and my father will come to the door when the servant announces that I am there. And my father will ask, ‘Son, have those infidels taught you to eat their filthy hog meat yet?' ‘No father,' I will say. ‘Pork has never passed my lips.' Then I can go and have the opportunity to preach Christ to them. If I took one of your sandwiches, the next time I go home I would have to answer my father's question honestly, and as a result, I would not be able to go in and preach the Gospel."
Love constrains liberty. Love directs knowledge and how we live out our Christian lives for the good of others that we may direct them all to Christ. We are to love like Christ has loved us – giving up His rights that we might be free. Love constrains liberty. Does love constrain liberty in your life? Or is your baptism of the vinegary kind? Does what you know make you beautiful or does it repel? Does the truth make you redolent of Jesus Christ? Is His mirror image beginning to shine in your face, in your deeds, in your words? That is the call of holy Scripture here. Let the truth travel the eighteen inches from head to heart and bear fruit in the way you serve, to the glory and praise of God.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we do love You and we praise You that You know us so profoundly and intimately that You should give Your Son for us and bear with us with such patience, teaching us and sanctifying us degree by degree until we look more and more like Christ. Though often we disappoint, often we betray You, often we turn aside to empty idols. Please, would You have mercy and would You unite our hearts in the fear of You? Teach us to direct what we know along the rule of love. Would You save us from ever consuming the half-cooked meal of knowledge unmixed with love? What a toxic feast. Make us people, rather, who give up their rights for the good of our brothers and sisters, who relinquish it all that we might be a blessing and never a burden. Would You do that please among us? Start with me, and do it for Your glory, in Jesus' name. Amen.
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