Christian Liberty in the Matter of Eating Meat Offered to Idols. 1 Cor. 8, 1—13.

Knowledge and charity: V. 1. Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. V. 2. And if any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. V. 3. But if any man love God, the same is known of Him. In this chapter the apostle offers the answer to a second question which had been laid before him by the Corinthian Christians: Was it right for a Christian to eat flesh that had been offered in sacrifice to an idol? The situation was somewhat complicated, since the entire public and social life of the people of Corinth and of the citizens of all the large cities in those days was permeated with, and to some extent governed by, the worship of idols. Feasts and banquets, both public and private, were usually connected with the name of some heathen god. A large part of the meat on sale in the shops and therefore found on the average table came from the temples, and so it became a difficult matter to avoid its use. This explains the perplexity of the Corinthians which caused their question to the apostle. Before giving his real answer, he reminds them, in the form of a parenthesis, of certain basic facts. With a tinge of sarcasm he writes that he is aware of the fact that all claimed the possession of knowledge. They all were sure that they needed no more information as to the fundamentals of Christianity. Paul proceeds to correct this idea: Knowledge puffs up, inflates, but love builds up. Many of the Corinthian Christians, as many believers are doing to-day, pretended to be so firmly grounded in head knowledge that they rose superior to all prejudices. But the result was an amount of proud self-satisfaction which forgot all considerations for their neighbor. And therefore Paul frankly tells his readers that such an attitude, according to which a person believes himself to be above all heathen superstition and to have the full and complete knowledge of God and His essence, is vain and sinful if it is not attended by the proper fruit of love in good works.

This axiomatic saying the apostle amplifies: But if any one has the idea that he knows something (he is herewith definitely told that) he has never yet learned as he ought to, he has not yet obtained the real basis of true knowledge. Just as soon as a person shows any conceit as to his spiritual knowledge, this fact proves that he is still far from possessing that full, deep, penetrating, exhaustive knowledge which is contained in Christianity. For the more a person in all humility and under the gracious guidance of God studies the wonderful doctrines which God has given to men in His Word of grace, the more this humility must increase, the more he will confess: We know in part only, and a very small part at that. Self-conceit and real knowledge are incompatible in spiritual things. On the other hand: But if any one loves God, this person is known of Him. If the faith of a Christian has found its proper expression in love toward God, from which flows love toward his neighbor, 1 John 5, 2, then he also knows that his knowledge of love is the result of God's having known him. If God knows any one in this way, it is an effective knowledge, Gal. 4, 9; Rom. 8, 29, it brings him into communion, into sonship, with God, into the most intimate relation of mind and spirit. Naturally this includes also this, that every person that is the subject of such an effective knowledge on the part of God will know God in turn, will grow in knowledge day by day until the day of the consummation of all hopes and knowledge. To know God as Him that has known us in Christ, that is the childlike knowledge which does not puff up, but is, on the contrary, a constant spur to us to imitate the great love of God which bent down to us in our misery and wretchedness and brought us salvation.

The knowledge of idols and the knowledge of God: V. 4. As concerning, therefore, the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. V. 5. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many and lords many,) v. 6. but to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things and we in Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things and we by Him. After the parenthetical sentence the apostle here returns to his subject: Concerning now the food of idol sacrifices, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, that no idol has any existence in the world. The horror which the Christians, especially the weaker ones in their midst, felt with regard to the meat which had been offered to idols, is very easily explained, since they had turned from them as from the powers of darkness. This feeling, therefore, is not only justifiable, but highly commendable. At the same time it serves for the reassurance of the readers that all the strange gods which were described in the hymns of the day were not realities into whose power one would come in case he partook of the meat of the sacrifices, but were nothing; they had no existence, there was really no such thing. For all times it stands as incontrovertible truth: There is no God but the One. Cp. Deut. 6, 4. Monotheism is the one true religion, as revealed in the Bible, the only religion which has the right to exist.

The apostle expands this thought for the sake of clearness and emphasis: For indeed, if one should grant the existence of so-called gods, although indeed one speaks of those pictures of man's fantasy in this way, whether they are supposed to be in heaven or on the earth. The Greeks and Romans had filled both earth and sky with their idols, with the products of their imagination, an astonishing multitude of reputed deities. And the Bible itself, for the sake of argument, sometimes speaks of idols as gods, in order to show their nothingness beside the true God, Deut. 10, 17; Ps. 136, 2. Thus the word "gods" would apply to the assumed deities of the Gentiles, and the word "lords" to their assumed dominion. But to us Christians there is only one God, namely, the Father, of whom are all things and we for Him, and one Lord, namely, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through Him. There is only one God, and He is distinguished by the fact that He is the Father, the eternal Father of the eternal Son, who is the Source of all things and has destined all things for His use and glory. Therefore we also are to Him, the aim and object of our life should be to serve Him as His true children and thus to hallow His name, 1 Pet. 2, 9; Jas. 1, 18; John 17, 9. 10. And Christ, whose true deity is here testified to, is the Lord in the absolute sense, for through Him is everything, the universe is a work of His creative power. Cp. Col. 1, 16; Rev. 4, 11; Heb. 1, 3. And we are through Him, Rom. 11, 36, we owe our Christian state to Christ's work of redemption, Eph. 2, 18; Rom. 8, 29. There are not two gods or two lords, but there is only one God and one Lord. Our new life is directed toward God, a result of Christ's mediation in our behalf, and these two are one; the Father and the Son, the Triune God, is the Mediator of our salvation. Note how clearly and emphatically a part of the doctrine of God, of His person and of His chief work toward us, is here brought out. And there is not the smallest spot in all the universe left for other deities.

The weak in faith defile their conscience: V. 7. Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge; for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. V. 8. But meat commendeth us not to God; for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. All the believers of Corinth agreed with Paul in his great confession concerning the true God; in this respect their knowledge was sound. But not all of them had the knowledge that there was no such thing as a false god, an idol, in existence, and that therefore the meat offered to the idols was like any other meat, uncontaminated by the consecration to a thing which did not really exist except in the imagination of the heathen. Some of them, by reason of the fact that they were used to the idol, since that was the familiar way of speaking of the idol, as they had always made use of it, could not get rid of the notion that there was something real about the idol. And therefore, as Paul writes, to the present time they ate the meat as an idol sacrifice, and thus their conscience, since it was weak, was polluted, Rom. 14, 23. "The consciousness of sharing in idol-worship is defiling to the spirit of a Christian." The idea that the idol was, after all, a real being gave them a bad conscience, and for that reason their eating, though in itself not wrong, became sinful. "Their conscience was cleansed through the blood of Christ, Heb. 9, 14, in whom they believed; but it was weak, because the confirming Word of God had not yet worked the knowledge in them by which a Christian knows and is certain in the Lord Jesus that nothing in itself is unclean, Rom. 14, 14." 46)

For the sake of the weak, therefore, Paul writes: But food will not commend us to God, will not affect our relation toward God; the food that we eat cannot influence our spiritual life. When we are presented to God for judgment on the last day, He will not judge and condemn us on the basis of the food that we subsisted on in this world, just as we do not lose our standing before Him at the present time for that reason. For neither if we eat are we the better off, nor if we eat not are we the worse off; it makes no difference before the Lord; these external matters do not affect our standing with Him. In either case our observance or non-observance of eating will not promote us in spiritual grace, nor will it detract from the blessings which we may be enjoying. 47)

A warning against the reckless use of Christian liberty: V. 9. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling-block to them that are weak. V. 10. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols, v. 11. and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? V. 12. But when ye sin so against the brethren and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. V. 13. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend. The connection between this passage and the foregoing one is the following. Paul, writing about defilement of conscience in the case of weak brethren, v. 7, intercepts the objection on the part of the stronger Christians: "You say that the conscience of the weaker brother is defiled by eating of idol sacrifices. But how? We have been taught that God will not judge us on account of such trifling external matters." This Paul shows to be true, but he now adds a word of caution and rebukes the attitude of the stronger Christians with a very serious reference to the consequences of their uncharitable behavior: See to it, beware, lest this your right become an obstacle to the weak. It was true enough that they had the liberty of choice in the matter in itself; they were right in contending that there was nothing sinful in their partaking of meat offered to idols. But this right ceased to be a matter of Christian liberty, a thing indifferent, when indulging in it proved an obstacle to their weak brother over which he stumbled, when their eating gave occasion to their weak brother to sin.48)

Paul now explains in detail: For if any one should see you, a person that has knowledge, that is proud of his right understanding of Christian liberty, reclining at a table in an idol's temple, would not his conscience, while he is still weak, before he has overcome his peculiar prejudices, be edified to the point that he will eat of the idol sacrifices? To such extremes, then, the stronger brethren in the congregation at Corinth went that they freely accepted invitations to banquets in the temples of the heathen gods. In doing so, they probably had the idea that this was the most effective way of persuading the weak of their foolish position. But that was a questionable edification, and could result in only one thing, namely, in harm to the weak. Without having really understood and conceded the matter properly, the latter would also accept such invitations, with the result that their consciences would be defiled. The behavior of the strong was thus the very opposite of charitableness, it was selfish presumption. Instead of building up and strengthening the weak brother, therefore, there perishes the weak person on the ground of thy knowledge, the brother for whom Christ died. The appeal to Christ's work is to the strongest motives which can compel a Christian : brotherly love and loyalty to Christ. The strong Christian should remember that his brother cannot be brought to better knowledge by such inconsiderate behavior; on the contrary, the very object of Christ's death in the case of the weaker brother is frustrated by such thoughtless behavior. Christ died to bring redemption to all men; His salvation is actually ready before the whole world, and it is His intention that it be realized in the case of every person. But here the weak Christian is tempted by the strong to partake in a meal which he regards as sinful, and thus defiles his conscience, loses his faith, and is placed on the road to perdition, all on account of the heartless folly of the Christian that makes it a point to boast of his knowledge and to insist upon the exercise of his Christian liberty.

The apostle now describes the further result of such conduct: In so sinning against the brethren and in striking their weak conscience a blow, you are sinning against Christ. So it is not only the weak brother that sins in such a case by his yielding, but the stronger Christian that tempted him sins as well. And his is the greater damnation; for not only does he strike the conscience of the weaker a blow that dazes him in his spiritual life, shocks and deranges it, renders it useless, but he sins directly against Christ. Cp. Matt. 18, 6 ff.; 25, 40. 45. It is here that the act reaches its climax and exhibits the height of its guiltiness, since the purpose of the Savior's death cannot be realized on its account. Every offense by which we sin against the brethren is offered to Christ, and to strike the weak conscience of a brother is all the more reprehensible since it is done with the pretext of working in his interest, although the offender meanwhile fatuously displays his own selfishness.

All the more strongly, by way of contrast, the self-denial of Paul stands out: Therefore verily, if food offends my brother, I will surely not eat meat forever, lest my brother be offended. Note that he says "my brother," with special emphasis. For the sake of brotherly love and in the interest of weaker brethren, the apostle is ready to yield even more of his liberty; he will give up even other foods about which another may still be in doubt, not only the food offered to sacrifices. So the principle which must regulate the use of things indifferent at all times and under all circumstances is that of love.

Summary. In discussing the question of partaking of foods which have been sacrificed to idols, Paul shows that regard for the spiritual welfare of the weaker brother must be the motive which regulates the behavior of the stronger Christians in things indifferent.