Approximately 20 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and following Paul’s first missionary journey, the apostles and early church leaders met to discuss whether or not the growing number of Gentiles who were coming to the faith needed to be circumcised. This gathering, which is detailed in Acts 15, became known as the Jerusalem Council. It was led by James, the half-brother of Jesus, and both Peter and Paul were present and spoke at this meeting. Ultimately, it was decided that circumcision was not necessary in order to be a Christian. However, a letter was drafted to be carried to and read by the Gentile churches that urged them to abstain from sexual immorality and from consuming certain things, including things sacrificed to idols.
It seems likely that either Paul, Peter, or perhaps both of them taught about and discussed these particular issues during their time in Corinth (as well as in the other cities and churches where they visited). Nevertheless, the Corinthians still had several questions. Paul already spoke about sexual immorality back in chapter 6, and now in chapters 8-10 he deals with eating and drinking things that have been sacrificed to idols. However, he will approach this narrow topic with a much broader explanation of Christian liberty.
I. KNOWLEDGE VS. LOVE (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)
Paul began this portion of his letter by pointing out that everyone had already been made aware of the instruction not to eat or drink anything that had been sacrificed to idols. They all knew what the letter said about this issue. However, this knowledge alone was not sufficient. Paul explained that knowledge, apart from love, simply leads to arrogance. In other words, if our religious practices and doctrinal allegiance are not accompanied by God’s love, mercy, and compassion, we will become pious, puffed up, and haughty like the Pharisees. Paul will revisit this same principle again in chapter 13 when he talks about the imperative nature of love. Here, he briefly said that love edifies, while knowledge does not.
As Christians, we are in a relationship with God. If we claim to know God intellectually, yet lack a genuine love for Him and our fellow man, then we don’t really know Him to the extent that we should. It is only when we sincerely love God and abide in His love that we truly know Him and, more important, are known by Him. In other words, a person can know all sorts of facts about God and the Bible yet still be lost. Satan and the demons are perfect examples. Head knowledge alone will not save us… only heart knowledge will.
II. THERE IS ONLY 1 GOD (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)
Idols are nothing more than lifeless pieces of carved wood, stone, or cast metals. They are powerless, futile images. They are not gods at all, nor do they actually represent real gods, as there are no other gods except for God alone. Over the centuries people have made up all sorts of “so-called” gods, with some residing in heaven and others on earth. They have foolishly worshiped these false gods as though they actually existed and wielded influence over the earth.
However, Christians know that there is only 1 God, the heavenly Father. He is the Creator of all things and we were made by and exist for Him. In addition, there is only 1 Lord, the Son Jesus Christ, through Whom all things were made and exist. Though not mentioned in this passage, we also know there is 1 Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who indwells the life of every believer. There is only 1 true, living, and triune God - Father, Son, And Holy Spirit. Idols are not gods at all.
III. APPLYING THESE TRUTHS (1 Corinthians 8:7-13)
In this chapter, Paul started by laying out 2 foundational principles. First, knowledge apart from love is insufficient and can even be harmful. Second, idols have no real significance because there is only 1 true God. With this pair of truths in place, Paul will now address the question at hand concerning things that had been sacrificed to idols.
Paul explained that not every believer knew the principles he’d just given. There were some who believed that if a person consumed something that had been sacrificed to an idol they would be defiled in some way. Paul described those who held this view as having a weak conscience. Paul wrote that food will not commend us to God, regardless of whether we eat or don’t eat. Food that has been sacrificed to idols is no different than food that hasn’t been - it's still the same. This is similar to Jesus’ teaching about unwashed hands and that it’s not what goes into the man’s mouth that defiles him, but rather what comes out of it (Matthew 15:11,15-20).
That said, Christians who have a stronger conscience and a fuller knowledge of the truth should still be careful as to how they use their liberty. Just because they may know intellectually that it doesn’t actually defile a person to eat things sacrificed to idols, doesn’t necessarily mean they should do so. If their actions would be seen by a Christian with a weaker conscience and become a stumbling block to them, then such behaviors would be sinful. The sin in this instance would not be defilement caused by the eating of food that had been sacrificed to idols, but rather the harming of another believer’s conscience by a misuse of Christian liberty.
In the end, we should take into account how our actions will affect other, less mature Christians and choose not to do things that will hinder their faith or wound their conscience. Our actions should be motivated by love for one another, not merely a knowledge of what is and isn’t permissible. Paul concluded that, though he was free to eat anything, he would voluntarily abstain from eating meat if doing so caused his brother to stumble.
Earlier in this letter, Paul stated that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should (1 Corinthians 6:12). In this chapter, he repeated and applied this same concept specifically to the issue of eating or drinking things that had been sacrificed to idols. The bottom line is that Jesus has set us free from the requirements of the Law, but this freedom is not a blank check to do whatever we want to. We must consider how our choices affect others and must demonstrate love for our fellow man in the things we say and do. We have not been set free to serve ourselves, but rather to serve God by serving others.
In next week’s message, Paul will elaborate on how he has chosen to exercise his own Christian liberty. Until then, may each of us use our freedom to edify and encourage one another, to love and nurture one another, and to build up and strengthen the kingdom of God without compromising the truth of His Word.