Before we look at the passage, I've got a question for you and it's very appropriate for a baptism service. How can more mature Christians help to build up those who are newer in the faith? Have a think – there's a big clue in the title! We'll come back to the answer in a moment.
Now you might be asking after a first look at chapter 8 – which is Paul's answer to a question about eating food that's been offered to idols – what on earth has this got to do with me today?
Well, far more than maybe you're imagining! As this passage contains a key principle. A key principle for how we should relate to one another as a fellowship if we're to grow in Christ and grow as a church, in how we're to build one another up in the Christian faith, in how more 'mature' Christians are to encourage newer believers. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul says – if I have all faith, which can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing; if I give away all I have but have not love, I gain nothing. And the thought here in 1 Corinthians 8 is similar – it's this: The use of 'knowledge' or the exercising of freedom that we have in Christ without love is dangerous. Knowledge without love creates a one-upmanship mentality which can destroy others rather than build them up. Love builds up. Love for others comes before our own freedom. Verse 1:
"This 'knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up."
Let me give you some modern-day examples to help you get your head around what this passage is saying. You're a Christian, Christ has set you free to live for him and not to sin, you know you're "called to be holy" as 1 Corinthians 1 puts it. You and a friend, who's just become a Christian, are invited to a party by someone who's not a Christian. You know it's very likely that some people will get drunk and drugs will be offered and used. Do you accept the invitation? Do you take the new Christian along with you? Exercising freedom without love here is dangerous. Now you might see it as an opportunity to witness to Christ and you may know that you're 'free' to attend especially with that goal in mind but what impact could it have on your new brother or sister in Christ? Would they cope? Would it be a good example to them? Would your 'knowledge' or the exercising of your freedom lead you to become arrogant and unwise and lead to a fall for the new Christian? And how will that affect the non-Christians? Real love builds up. "This 'knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up."
A movie's been suggested to you as thought-provoking, but its values are profoundly hostile to Christianity, there are lots of blaspheming, and immorality is portrayed in a positive way – which is most movies! What would you do? Do you go and watch it, remembering Paul's teaching in Philippians 4, to think on what is pure, lovely and true? Do you take other younger Christian friends along with you? Again, you might be 'free' to go and see it but not to sin as a result – but exercising freedom without love here is dangerous, especially for the younger Christians. Apart from not being a good use of time or money in what way does going to see such a movie build them up or even yourself? What example does it set? 'Knowledge' without love is dangerous. Do we really love our brothers and sisters in Christ if we take them? Genuine love builds up. This 'knowledge' puffs up, but love builds up. Do you see?
You see the overriding principle or big idea of 1 Corinthian 8 is Love Builds Up
Love for others comes before our own freedom. Christians are free to do all sorts of things – not everything of course, the Bible is very clear about that – but of what we're free to do, we should only do what will build up and not tear down other believers.
So, having identified the principle, let's now look at what it means that: Christ Has Won Freedom For Us, verses 1 to 8 and to Exercise Your Freedom In Love, verses 9 to 13
1. Christ Has Won Freedom For Us (v1-8)
Christians have freedom because we're not united to God by rituals or law-keeping but by what Jesus Christ has already done in setting us from a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5.1 says, "For freedom Christ has set us free." Freedom ultimately to serve God and others. And although that freedom to serve can be costly we need to remember that in God's service there is perfect freedom.
The specific issue mentioned to Paul is: 'Should Christians eat food which may have been previously sacrificed to idols'? But before he answers he introduces this principle of love for others coming before our own freedom, verses 1 to 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."
And Paul also warns them: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up". The true test of Christian maturity isn't merely knowledge, it's not simply knowing the right answer, which builds ourselves up and tends toward pride, but love which builds others up. You see Paul knows the Corinthians. He knows they value learning and admire gifted speakers but they often forget love. We can too.
Now please don't misunderstand. We value knowledge, we value truths about God and praise God for that knowledge, which is important! But only, Paul says, when it's accompanied by love. You see for those of us who love to understand there's a danger that we love to understand but don't love others.
Now let's see how this principle of loving others coming before our own freedom works out as Paul in verse 4 addresses the issue of Christians eating meat which might have been previously offered to idols.
Christians are being invited to celebrate with friends or family and a popular place to do so would've been the pagan temple where meat was served which may have been previously ritually cleansed in a sacrifice to idols. What should a Christian do in this situation? There are two views:
Libertarian - Idols aren't real. So Christians shouldn't worry where any meat served to them has come from and can enjoy all food with a clear conscience. After all Jesus declared all foods clean in Mark 7.
Legalistic - This meat may have been used in a pagan, religious ritual in a temple where we know all kinds of immorality occurs. Christians shouldn't eat any meat lest they accidentally eat meat that's been sacrificed to another 'god' and so somehow endorse these practices. Who's right? Paul answers in 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 maybe so-called gods in heaven or on earth - as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords' - yet for 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."
Paul sides with the libertarians. Christians are free to enjoy all food with a clear conscience. But let's take a closer look at Paul's reasoning: First, idols themselves are nonsense, they're just bits of carved wood and metal made by men (Isaiah 46). They're not real gods in that sense. To a Christian who's
trusting in the true and living God a piece of meat that's previously been used in a pagan sacrifice is no different from a piece that hasn't.
Second, Paul goes further in verse 5 to 6 saying that even if food were being offered to a real 'god' or 'lord' - say a king on earth - it still wouldn't matter because there's only one God 'from whom are all things', who created everything, to whom everything including all food belongs. In reality all food is God's, no idol can lay claim to it because God made it, it's rightfully his and no ritual sacrifice to an idol or claim by a king can ever change that reality.
Third, Paul says that Christians are united to God in a very special way through Jesus. Look at verse 6:
"yet for 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."
Paul uses very particular language linking Jesus to God he says 'there is but one God' and 'there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ'. Paul deliberately applies the same title used in the Old Testament for YAHWEH to Jesus. Jesus is God, he's God the Son, he's co-creator and it's through him that we live.
A Christian's relationship to God isn't a matter of food; saving faith in Jesus is not compromised by eating meat which may or may not have been sacrificed to a non-existent idol. Christians aren't saved through rules or human regulations - they're set free from these things by Christ's death on the cross. Because of it we're bound and united to Christ through faith.
What's important isn't the meat we eat but who we're uniting ourselves to. Later in chapter 10 Paul will warn the Corinthians not to participate in pagan sacrifices which are offered to demons. There's a spiritual reality behind pagan practices which is dangerous, we're in no way to unite ourselves to them. However, unknowingly eating meat that may have been used in pagan sacrifices is a different matter, there's nothing magical about the meat that can somehow link us to what it had previously been used for. Do you see?
However, some don't understand this. They still think that eating certain foods affects their relationship with God. Verse 7:
"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."
Christians are Christians because they've been united to Jesus through his death and resurrection. They're not Christians because they eat certain foods or dress a particular way. Something far more fundamental has happened and so issues like the food we eat are matters of conscience and wisdom not of salvation. We have freedom in such areas.
Now let's be clear we're not free to murder, or to commit adultery or lie or steal etc etc - these things are clearly taught against across Scripture but there are many areas in which we as Christians have freedom. The moral law still stands but laws about food and clothing and the sacrificial laws have all been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. So, we're no longer bound by the food laws found in the Old Testament. Christians aren't to get drunk, but they're not prohibited from drinking a little alcohol. We're free because God has created all things and your relationship to him isn't dependent upon the origin of the food you eat. Christians are free; BUT Christians should exercise their freedoms carefully out of love for others. So secondly
2. Exercise Your Freedom in Love (v9-13)
Christians who know that their freedom has been bought by Christ can eat all foods with a clear conscience, enjoy at least some films and even thank God for them. However, there are some circumstances in which we will willingly choose not to exercise our freedoms for the sake of others. Verse 7 again:
"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 effectively becomes defiled if a person eats it whilst thinking of it as having been sacrificed to an idol. So, Paul argues that we should constrain our freedoms to avoid causing others to act against their conscience. Idols may not be real but the effects of acting against our consciences are. Verses 9 to 10:
"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?"
Paul imagines someone seeing a more mature Christian sitting in the temple happily eating and going away thinking that eating things sacrificed to idols is fine. He warns that this is potentially very serious. Verse 11:
"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."
The knowledge of a more mature Christian, the exercise of their freedom may damage a weaker brother or sister. Paul reminds the Corinthians that Jesus died on the cross for this weaker brother and sister. God loves them and does not think less of them for acting according to their conscience. Therefore, if a more mature Christian, by claiming their freedoms, causes a weaker person to fall they sin both against their brother or sister and against Christ himself.
Therefore, verse 13, "if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble."
Do you get this? Paul offers to radically constrain his freedom in order to serve his brother or sister. He says he'd rather never eat meat again than lead another, for whom Christ died, into sin. He places love for others before his own personal freedom. That's just one example of this principle at work. The question today is: are we willing to give up our freedom for the sake of others? Can we sacrifice what's rightfully ours so that others will be built up?
That's what Jesus did for us. He gave up the glory and splendour of heaven for us. He's our example. Real maturity, real Christ-likeness isn't just knowing your rights, its willingly laying down those rights, those freedoms for the sake of others. So gladly choose to put your love for others before your own freedom.
How are you going to act? Perhaps you need to stop drinking for the sake of a friend who struggles with alcohol? When I was in America travelling with a Christian speaker, one of my fellow interns objected strongly to me playing rock music. It had been part of his life before becoming a Christian and hearing it again badly affected him. I didn't understand at first but after realising the impact on my brother in Christ I stopped playing it, for which he was very grateful. What I learnt was don't be a stumbling block for others. Christians are free in Christ to enjoy with thankful hearts all that God has created for our enjoyment but we're also free to give up those very same things, in love, for the sake of our brother and sister for whom Christ also died.