Today, I begin a series of posts exploring the key principles of Christian liberty taught by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. As we learn from the application of the life-transforming gospel to the lives of those redeemed from paganism, and many other enslavements of human depravity, we notice how the apostle willingly limits his liberty for the sake of others, i.e. chooses love above liberty. Therefore, I submit the apostle’s choice as a selfless example for us to follow today.
Corinth was a metropolis known for its idolatry. The Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of fertility, with its 1,000 prostitutes was one of its largest tourist attractions. There pagans made sacrifices to their gods, which were divided into three parts. One part was burned on an altar. The second was kept by the offerer and the third was given to the priests as payment for their services. So enormous was the amount of meat sacrifices offered that the priests could not eat their whole portion. Therefore, they sold the excess to the local market. There it could be purchased and eaten at home or taken back to the temple to be used in a gluttonous feast in honor of the gods. That was temple life in Corinth. But now things were different for some of the Corinthians since they had received the truth of the gospel and had been converted to Christianity. How were they to relate to these temple feasts? What were they to do when someone invited them? What did their new relationship with God mean as far as sacrificial meat was concerned? These were legitimate questions.
Some of the believers knew the idols were just blocks of stone, or brass, or wood, or clay, and were not really gods at all. The gods the idols represented were only figments of the worshipper’s imagination. Therefore, meat that had been offered to them was just meat. It did not matter where it had previously been. After all, “it was for freedom that Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). However, other believers did not think this way. They remembered the exhortation from the Jerusalem Council; that you abstain from things offered to idols (Acts 15:29). For them the association was too real. To purchase sacrificial meat, or to attend a feast where it was served, would cause their newly-cleansed consciences to be defiled. They could not do this. They could not separate one from the other in their minds. Thus there were two kinds of believers in the church: Those who were not bothered at all and those whose consciences were at risk of being defiled and harmed. F. F. Bruce writes,
The issue of food that had been sacrificed to idols could not be considered in isolation in a pagan city like Corinth: it was part of the wider problem of idolatrous associations. The more enlightened members of the church maintained that since ‘there is no God but one’, it followed that ‘an idol has no real existence’ (8:4), and that therefore food was neither better nor worse for coming from an animal which had been sacrificed in a pagan temple. Paul agreed; nevertheless, as he pointed out, for many less enlightened Christians an idol had a real existence; it was a demonic power to those who ascribed a measure of reality to it, even if they did not worship it but rather abominated it. In the eyes of such people, the food had been in some sense contaminated by its association with the idol, and if they ate it they might become demon possessed.
So, as Paul sat down to write this portion of his letter, he directed his words to those who understood their liberty—those who had no problem with leftover sacrificial meat.
“Now concerning things sacrificed to idols” marks a shift in thinking from chapter seven to eight and marks the beginning of the apostle’s answer to the second of the questions posed in their letter (7:1). “We all have knowledge” was one of their sayings, a way of boasting about their knowledge. This time the ones doing the boasting were those who understood their liberty and freely exercised it regardless of negative effects it may have had on more immature believers. In other words there were some who were in effect saying, “We all have superior knowledge and understand gods are not really gods at all so what is the big deal?” However, “love edifies.” This seed thought is planted in the very first verse since the principle of brotherly love dominates the chapter.
As a result of this priority, God wants us to choose love above liberty for eight reasons.
REASON 1: Because choosing liberty over love is arrogant (vv. 1a, 2) – “Knowledge makes arrogant.” Knowledge puffs up, i.e. blows up like billows. Choosing liberty over love swells one’s heart and head with a subtle form of spiritual pride leading to a false sense of knowledge. “If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know.” The person who chooses liberty over love supposes he has arrived at knowledge, but instead he has not even begun to know. Why? Knowledge without love is nothing. Knowledge without love does no good, only harm, because it is incomplete (Cf. 1 Cor 13:1-3). Paul’s point is that anything done separate from love is of no eternal profit. Charles Hodge wrote, “Knowledge divorced from love tends to inflate the mind, i.e. renders it vain and conceited.” But, “love is not arrogant” (13:4).
REASON 2: Because choosing love above liberty is selfless (v. 1b) – Love is what ought to dictate the activities a Christian chooses because love is the supreme Christian ethic. Love edifies. That is, love does what is best for the other person even if it means the surrendering of one’s own liberty. “Edifies” (oikodomei) applies to the building of buildings. It is one of Paul’s favorite metaphors for the development of Christian character. The New Testament is littered with exhortations to edify one another. For example, “Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing” (1 Thess. 5:11). “So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Rom. 14:19). “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification” (Rom. 15:2).
“Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:8). Love is permanent. Knowledge is not. With that in mind, it is inconceivable for a Christian to not choose the path of biblical love in place of the path of self-love. Love, by biblical definition, is others-focused. Gordon Fee says it this way: “The abuse of others in the name of ‘knowledge’ indicates a total misunderstanding of the nature of Christian ethics, which springs not from knowledge but from love.”
Tomorrow, in Part 2, we will explore some additional reasons to choose love over liberty.