1 Corinthians 8 1-13 New International Version (NIV)
8 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
When I was in Middle School, our school participated in something called Outdoor Education. I don’t remember how long of an event it was, maybe two nights and three days spent at a local campground. We learned about different animals and plants. I still recall dissecting owl pellets and how to identify white pines by the number of needles in a cluster. White pines have five needles, one for each letter of the word “white.”
Looking back, I now realize that we were learning about a lot more than just nature. We were learning about human nature. We learned about kindness, and we learned something that we might call “team building” today. One of the rules at the campground was that if you put someone down, you owed them three put-ups. I recall hiking with a group of classmates that included a kid named Jeremy and another named Sam. I think we were all grouped together because none of us were really in great shape, so we weren’t going to slow down the rest of the group. Jeremey was especially heavy, and he was just struggling the entire time. We would sit and wait on Jeremy. We would walk a little slower for Jeremy. And after we climbed an especially steep ravine, Sam said out loud so everyone but Jeremey could hear, “There’s no way that fat boy is going to make it up that hill.”
Yeah, our group leader didn’t like that very much. So Sam had to give Jeremy three “put-ups;” I think he said “I like your shoes. You’re a nice guy. You’re funny.” But even more important, Sam had to help Jeremy up that hill.
In the middle of 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul offers one of his famous “vice lists.” This includes swindling, lying, idolatry, cheating, and the sexual immorality. Then in verse 6, Paul writes, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything.”
Then, after our scripture today, which deals with eating food sacrificed to idols, Paul revisits the issue. And in regard to this practice, Paul writes in 10:23-24, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”
In both passages, Paul states that Christians have some flexibility in what they are permitted to do. I don’t think we should read Paul as giving a complete pass on ethics, because if how we live didn’t matter, Paul wouldn’t have included that vice list in chapter 6. But when compared to the Torah, Christianity seems pretty libertine. We go from 613 commandments in the Torah to 2 in the New Testament. That’s quite a reduction (praise God!).
What I hear Paul saying here is that “all things,” or at least a lot of things, are permissible. But not all are beneficial. You might be doing harm to yourself, to others, or to your relationships.
Biblical Corinth was located on the southern part of an isthmus connecting the northern and southern parts of Greece. It was also about the halfway point between Athens and Sparta, and situated close to the gulfs on either side. So there would have been a lot of travelers, and a lot of traders in this region. These people brought with them their culture and their religion. In or near Corinth you could find temples to Aphrodite, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes, Venus-Fortuna, and Isis. Just down the road was the altar to an unknown god at the Areopagus of Athens.
I can’t begin to imagine how many animals were sacrificed in these temples. The number of bulls and lambs sacrificed in Jerusalem alone seems staggering. So imagine that number in a larger city with multiple temples.
It would have been the practice of the time to take the meat left over after the sacrificial rituals and sell it in the market. So for the new Christians in Corinth, the question was, Can we eat this meat if we know it was used in a pagan ritual?
Paul’s answer is deeply theological and rhetorically convicting. Paul says, “Yep.” Sure, eat it. He writes in verse 4, “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’”
What Paul is saying is that those idols are just wood and clay. There is no living being represented in them. And then he goes on and says even if there are other gods, they don’t stack up to our God. So the meat, hey, if you get a good deal, grab me a T-bone while you’re at it.
So when it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, Paul says, It’s all good…except…All things are permissible, but they aren’t all beneficial.
Paul gets to thinking about some of the new converts to Christianity, and some of the people who maybe haven’t been convinced yet that these idols are just wood and clay. Some of those who are newer to the faith, Paul calls them “the weak,” may not realize that eating that meat isn’t an act of worship to these pagan deities. Those people shouldn’t eat the meat sacrificed to idols. Furthermore, Paul says, those who are more mature, those who are stronger in their faith and can eat that meat without worshipping other gods, they should choose to give up the meat as well so as to not cause a brother or sister to be confused and stumble.
Imagine being a young convert to Christianity and seeing the elder from your house church eating meat that was used in a religious service to Zeus. What would go through your mind? Are the God of the Christians and Zeus the same? Is there a pantheon of gods? Are they all equal? Paul says that those who have a firmer grip on the teachings of Christianity need to be careful not to make things more difficult on new believers. We want to see them succeed.
Paul then closes our passage with these words of encouragement in verse 13: “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”
Maybe Paul is using hyperbole a bit to make his point here, but I respect him for this statement. The longest I have gone without meat has been a 40-day Lenten fast, and that was tough! So for Paul to say that he will give up meat for the rest of his life if it helps a brother or sister out, I am impressed. And I am convicted. I want to know what I can do to help my brothers and sisters succeed in their attempt to follow Jesus.
Most of us don’t need to worry about food sacrificed to idols today. Although, when I was a student, our World’s Missions class went to a Hindu Temple, where they served a meal that was prepared in honor of Vishnu. Pancakes are good, no matter how many arms your deity has. But Paul’s point is just as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago, even if the issue has changed. Are we helping or hindering others? Are we secretly cheering when other Christians slip up because it makes us look better, or are we there to help them along the way? I think the way of Jesus would be to want to see everyone succeed. No matter who they are, we should be asking what we can do to help others follow Jesus better.
Look at the second half of verse 1: “We know that we all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.”
We’ve probably all heard that before. Knowledge puffs up, makes you walk around with your chest out, like you just won an award. There’s nothing wrong with knowledge, but that’s not the end goal. What Paul values greater than knowledge is love. Love builds up.
Paul includes this phrase at the beginning of the section about food sacrificed to idols because those who understand the freedom that they have in Christ to eat food sacrificed to idols have knowledge. They get that those idols are made of wood and clay. And they are a little puffed up about what they know. They are arrogant. They obviously know more than those new converts who won’t touch that tainted meat. Ha, ha, ha! Silly converts. The lack of knowledge on the part of the converts makes the more established Christians look even more learned and more knowledgably. They get even more puffed up!
How many of you are familiar with the term “frenemy?” A frenemy is a person who is both a friend and an enemy at the same time. Maybe you like certain things about this person, you may share some interests, and you probably share some friends. But deep down, you really don’t like that person. And because you have shared interests and shared friends, you probably see them at parties and community events. So you’re cordial and polite when you see them, even if you do secretly find a little bit of pleasure when they spill that red punch on their white shirt.
It might be a little bit of a stretch to say that I have a frenemy, but there is one guy who I went to seminary with who is as close to a frenemy as I have. Let’s call him John. John is a nice guy; people like John. John started Seminary a year after I did, so we had a few classes together, and we saw each other outside of class a lot. John is tall, just a little taller than I am. John has a good set of hair and a better set of teeth. He is outdoorsy, and in great physical shape. He bikes around town rather than using a car. In many ways, John was just a little bit better than me.
That alone is enough to make me a little uncomfortable around John. Then one day in class, John responded to something I said, and his response began with two words: “I disagree.” John then went on to offer bullet points articulating why he disagreed with my statement.
Maybe “frenemy” isn’t too much of a stretch.
But I got a better job out of seminary. I was a lead pastor, he was a youth pastor in another state (there’s nothing wrong with that, but as far as seniority goes, I win). And like many youth pastors, he didn’t last long in that position.
Yeah, then he moved to a large, established church where he became lead pastor. And in June of 2016, John was featured in one of our denomination publications in an article about 20 leaders under the age of 40.
I’m under 40, too, you know.
Pause that story for one minute, and we will come back to it shortly.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted an article about teachers online. The author had put out a request for teachers across all levels to reply to one question. And Elementary, Middle, and High School teachers, along with college professors did just that. The question was simply something along the lines of, “What has surprised you the most during your years of teaching?”
Some teachers replied with things like, “I was surprised just how involved some parents are in their children’s educations.” Others said, “I was surprised just how little some parents are involved in their children’s educations.” “I was surprised at how caught up I could get in supporting school sports after never being an athlete myself.” “I was surprised at the relationships I’ve had with students years after they graduated.”
Then there was one from a college professor that caught my attention. It went something like, “I was surprised at how truly happy I have been for my colleagues’ successes.”
So I come back to my experience with my frenemy, John. There is one word that gets right down to how I viewed John’s successes. That word is jealousy. If the college professor could be truly happy for her colleagues when they got a promotion or published a book, what was keeping me from being truly happy for my frenemy?
Upon further reflection, I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t want John to be successful. I just didn’t want him to be more successful than me. When it comes right down to it, I wanted people to think that I was better than him.
I realize that I was just being petty. And if you really think about it, since John and I are both in the same line of work, what I was really wanting was for people to think that I was the better pastor, the better leader, the better preacher, the better man of God.
Why wouldn’t I want to see John succeed? It isn’t like we were competing for a job or even a trophy. There’s enough starry crowns to go around. His success doesn’t make me any less successful. I was just getting puffed up, and John came along and let a little air out of my inflated ego.
It comes down to a choice that I must make. Will I be jealous, or will I cheer him on? I know which is easier, but I also know which I need to do. I need to be less worried about being all puffed up on knowledge and start building people up in love.
Here’s my point: if we really believe that following Jesus is the best, most beautiful, and most important thing that we can do with our lives, we should want to see others succeed. We should want others to follow Jesus as best as they possibly can, even if it means we must give up something. For me, I know that I need to give up being the best at everything. And I need to give up jealousy. For you, it might be something else. For Paul, it was eating food sacrificed to idols. We must give these things up so that we can build others up.
I want to be the kind of person who is truly happy about the successes of others. Not just in matters of the church, but in all walks of life. I hope that you will join me in this as well, because we are not called to be puffed up on ourselves. We are called to build one another up in love.
Whatever it is that is keeping you from encouraging others and celebrating in their success, I pray that you will give that up, too. We aren’t competing against one another. The church is a team, and when one person succeeds, we all succeed.