Knowledge is Not Enough
Knowledge is not Enough
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
by William Klock
This morning I want to start looking at the next part of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church. We’re in the part of the book where Paul is addressing the issues they raised in their letter to him. At some point previous to this, he had sent them a letter in which he tried to correct some of their problems. They responded by telling him that they rejected his authority as an apostle and then got argumentative with him. The first issues had to do with sex, marriage, and divorce. Now in chapters 8 through 10 Paul deals with the issue of what, in the Greek, he literally calls “idol food.”
Here’s what we can piece together of what was going on. A big part of worship in the ancient world had to do with meals and banquets served in the temples. In fact, it wasn’t something that only the pagans did; it was part of the Israelite worship too – just as God had established it in the Old Testament. When a sacrifice was made, a portion of the meat was burned on an altar, a portion was reserved for the priests, and a portion was served at a public banquet. In fact, there was often so much meat left over that the temples would turn a profit selling that meat in the market. In Greece and Rome these sorts of religious festival meals were happening all the time. People would often do this to celebrate a birth or a wedding or even as part of funeral rites in addition to the regular banquets served at the temples on feast days and other celebrations related to the god of the temple. And remember, there were lots of gods, so this happened a lot. And it wasn’t just a strictly religious thing. These were social gatherings – events that brought the people of the city together. Think of it like a community Canada Day barbeque, but with religious overtones. Everybody went. It was where you socialised with family and friends – and they were happening all the time.
Now obviously this is going to pose a problem for the typical Greek who has just come to faith in Christ. To us it probably seems like a no-brainer that a follower of Jesus shouldn’t be whooping it up in the temple of Aphrodite. But that was just the problem. At some point after Paul left Corinth, some of the Christians there started going back and taking part in these festival meals at the various pagan temples. Paul wrote and told them not to, but they wrote back with a list of reasons why they thought it was just fine – and for the next three chapters, Paul’s going to be addressing those reasons point by point. So let’s begin with 8:1-3.
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.
One of the most important ideas in a lot of Greek philosophy was the idea of “knowledge.” The Greek words is gnosis, which you might recognise from “Gnostic.” The Gnostics were religious sects at that time that had one thing in common: the idea that knowledge is what saves you – especially secret or hidden knowledge that was only revealed to a few. And in what Paul writes to the Corinthians one of the things we see is that this idea of special knowledge was creeping into their theology. They put especially high stock in it if it was some kind of new revelation that they thought was being given to them by the Holy Spirit – and Paul addresses that head on in chapters 12 and 13. But in general, they were started to get the idea that faith was all about knowledge – that their knowledge was what made them free. They argued to Paul, “Why shouldn’t we eat in the temples? After all, we all know that there’s only one God and that these temples and feasts are dedicated to imaginary beings. And we also know from your own teaching that God doesn’t care what we eat. So why not have some fun and socialise with our friends and family? It’s no big deal and if someone has a problem with it, they just need to get with the programme.”
And so Paul stops them right there. “There’s more to Christian maturity than knowledge,” he says to them. Knowledge, all by itself and as an end in itself, only does one thing: it makes you prideful. We all need it – in fact, knowledge is essential to true faith. As Christians we have to be clear in what we believe. Sincerity alone doesn’t save you. A lot of people out there sincerely believe in the wrong thing, because they lack true knowledge of God and true knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the true knowledge that we’re saved by grace and not by our own merit. Knowledge is crucial to our faith, but there’s more to it than that. Our primary motivator when it comes to applying and using our knowledge is love.
Verses 2 and 3 are difficult to sort out, but a couple of the earliest manuscripts of 1 Corinthians and St. Clement’s quotation of these verses really make good sense of them, putting them this way:
If anyone thinks he has arrived at knowledge, he does not yet know as he ought to know; but if anyone loves, this one truly knows.
In other words, first, if you think you’ve arrived – which was the big problem in Corinth – it’s just proof that you haven’t. If you think you know it all, it’s just proof that in reality you don’t know. Instead, the person who is able to apply what they know through love, that’s the person who has it figured out – that’s the person who really knows. True knowledge isn’t just the accumulation of facts and data or even correct theology. True knowledge is the ability to live in love towards others.
Paul lays all this out, because he’s going to say that when it comes to knowledge – when it comes to their understanding that the gods in the temples are false gods and that when it comes to food, God doesn’t care what we eat – the Corinthians are right about those things. The problem, though, isn’t the content of their knowledge – the problem is that they aren’t applying that knowledge in love. Look at verses 4 to 6:
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”— yetfor 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.
He starts with their argument: we can do what we want, because idols don’t have any real existence – we know there’s only one God and that the idols in those temple are nothing more than wood or stone. And Paul agrees with them, at least in terms of their doctrine. There indeed is only one God, and yet our ethics – our behaviour – aren’t based so much on the simple knowledge that God is one, but on who God is and what he has done for us. It was the Father who created all things for himself, including each of us, and Paul reminds us that it was through Jesus Christ – through God’s Word – that the creation came into being. We rejected him, but through Jesus Christ he offers us the gift of redemption, and so through Christ we are once again his – and that has a lot to do with this situation in Corinth. Again, they’re arguing in the abstract, that idols don’t exist because there’s only one God. Paul agrees; but the way we act – the choices we make and the things we do – need to be made in light of the redemption the Father offers through the Son. As Christians our relationship with God needs to be the thing that determines how we relate to others.
J.I. Packer was my systematic theology professor in seminary. Now systematic theology is one of those subjects that a lot of students are prone to seeing as purely academic. It’s all abstract. On the first day of class, before starting his lecture, Dr. Packer spent about fifteen minutes stressing to us the importance that the study of theology should never be merely academic. He said that the purpose of theological study is not just to learn about God, but to know God, to know his ways, and to know what he desires from us. We’ve all met people who have all the abstract knowledge. They’ve studied. They know all about God and tell you everything you want to know. But they’re jerks. They’re like Christian versions of the Pharisees. They know all the rules, but they missed the point. They know all about God, but somehow all that knowledge has never impacted their relationship with him. It’s the relationship that makes the difference – that teaches us what love is and that teaches us how to show it to others. For those of us who are married, consider that when you met your future husband or wife, you probably didn’t know much about them. The relationship you had was built on attraction and love, and yet it was getting to know about them – the knowledge part – that over time helped you to know what your mate likes and dislikes and helped you to grow into deeper relationship with them. Just so with God. Our knowledge of him drives the relationship deeper, but out of the deepness springs love that grows and grows and impacts everyone around us.
Now Paul goes back to his original line of thinking. The Corinthians argued that they had knowledge. Paul goes on in verses 7-13:
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.
You see, here’s the problem if you argue for personal freedom based strictly on knowledge: not everyone has that knowledge. I mean, as Christians we all understand in our heads that those idols represent false gods, but what’s going on in our hearts might not necessarily follow. For some people those idols, those false gods, were a reality to them their whole lives, and now no matter how much they might tell their head that the god is false, their former way of life is so woven into their consciousness and emotions that those old associations are still there. For them, to go back to that old place of worship to eat a meal is going to cause them to stumble, to fall, back into idolatry, as if the food were “really offered to an idol,” and in doing that they defile their relationship with Christ.
He takes them back to the second part of their argument: God doesn’t care what you eat. Paul agrees with them, “Correct! Indeed, God does not care what you eat. Eating this or that is never going to being you closer to God or earn you his favour, so if it doesn’t matter to God, why insist on eating something that’s going to cause your weaker brother or sister to stumble?” That’s a good question. They were staking out their rights, saying, “We’re free in Christ to do what we want!” So Paul says, “Yes, the choice is open to you and choosing not to eat in the temple is as much an exercise of your freedom as if you choose to eat there. He throws it back at them: if it doesn’t matter one way or the other, why not exercise your freedom to avoid something that’s going to cause a problem? Why, indeed!
The stakes are high and this is where love comes into it. These folks were so self-absorbed that they were only wanting to show off their superior knowledge – or maybe worse, wanting to show off their superior ability to avoid this particular sin of idolatry. I’m reminded of a guy I knew in university who could really hold is liquor – he could drink anybody under the table. The problem was that he was a show-off and he’d start making fun of the guys who knew their limit was a drink or two. One night he pushed one of my friends over the edge and my friend ended up so drunk after trying to keep up with this guy, that he fell down three flights of stairs and ended up in hospital. In the case of eating in the Corinthian temples, though, it wasn’t just a matter of breaking some bones, it was a serious spiritual issues and Paul’s fear was that these weaker brothers and sisters might be encouraged into an activity that would ultimately destroy their faith.
In verse ten he flips it around again. These people writing to him are insisting on their rights, but Paul says, “What about the rights of your weaker brother? Jesus died for him as much as he died for you. What about his rights? Do you love him or are you only interested in lording your own perceived super-spirituality over him? You think you’re “in the know” when it comes to what the faith is all about, and yet all your supposed “knowledge” is spiritually destroying your brother or sister in Christ. Get this: you’re the one in the wrong – you’re the one guilty of sin!”
Seriously, what do you do with the weakness? Do you kick it in the face? Do you trample it? Do you show off your strength and show off your freedom in the face of weakness? No. As Christians we should instead desire to help the weak – to build them up.
And so in verse 13 he says, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Is indulging my freedom worth my brother losing his soul? Once again, Paul takes us back to the cross of Christ. They knew they were free in Christ. For them the idol was meaningless and they knew it didn’t matter to God what they ate, so they insisted on exercising their freedom. But Paul steps in and reminds them that freedom means that we’re free to choose to do something or not to do it. We have been saved unto love and good works. The motivation of the Christian, once again, is love and while we’re free to do what we please, love demands – the cross demands – that we look at our freedom from the standpoint of what is going to build up our brothers and sisters in the Lord and what will grow the kingdom.
That said, I think it’s important to say here that Paul isn’t talking about us irritating someone’s prejudices. This chapter of First Corinthians has been misused and misapplied by a lot of Christians. There are plenty of situations where people are in no danger of losing their faith or not growing in the Lord, because they see someone exercise their liberty, and yet they complain about it. We get irritated and annoyed by someone else and we want to stop them from exercising their liberty. That’s not what Paul’s talking about here. Yes, Christians need to be courteous, and that means that we never flaunt our liberty in front of our brothers and sisters who might feel strongly about something. Some Christians feel strongly about drinking, or smoking, or dancing, or playing cards, or working on Sunday. Freedom in Christ isn’t a licence to be a jerk or to flaunt it front of a brother you know disagrees on the issue. And yet a lot of damage has been done in the church by trying to accommodate the behaviour of Christians to the conscience of the lowest common denominator, to the weakest brother in the church. Inevitably it leads to legalism.
What Paul is talking about is when we would use our liberty in such a way as to damage the faith of someone else. “In that case,” he says, “I will gladly give up my right.” The soul of a brother or sister, or even an unbeliever, is more important than my right to exercise my liberty.
Let me close with an example that Dr. Henry Ironside gave many years ago. He tells a story about being at a church picnic. There was a man there who had converted to Christianity from Islam. A girl was distributing sandwiches to everyone there, and as she approached this man he asked, “What kind do you have?” “Oh,” she said, “I’m afraid all I have left are ham or pork.” He asked if she had any beef and she answered that they were all gone. “Well,” he said, “then I won’t have any.” She knew that he had been a Muslim, but also knew that he was a Christian and said, “Well, sir, I’m really surprised. Don’t you know that as a Christian you’re freed from all those food restrictions and that you can eat pork or ham or whatever, if you like?” He said, “Yes, I know that. I know I’m free to eat pork, but I’m also not free to eat it. I’m still involved with my family in the Near East, and I know that when I go home once a year, and I come to my father’s door, the first question he will ask me is, ‘Have those filthy infidels taught you to eat the filthy hog meat yet?’ If I have to say to him, ‘Yes, father,’ I will be banished from that home and have no further witness in it. But if I can say, as I always have been able to say, ‘No, father, no pork has ever passed my lips,’ then I have admittance to the family circle and I am free to tell them of the joy I have found in Jesus Christ. Therefore I am free to eat, or I am free not to eat, as the case may be.”
I think that story really puts things in perspective. We may have rights, but the cross of Christ calls us to put the rights of others before our own rights. It calls on us not only to know but also to love, because our calling in Christ is higher than ourselves.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, we thank you for words of wisdom and love that guide us. Help us always to act in love in the things we do, and not act just in knowledge alone. We thank you for the knowledge and the truth that set us free, but also for the love that still restrains us and makes us give consideration to the welfare of others, not just our own. Help us always to put you and your kingdom first as we choose how to exercise our freedom. We ask this in the name of Jesus. Amen.