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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
1 Corinthians 8

 

 

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Verse 1

1 COR. 8

Beginning here and through 1 Corinthians 11:1, this epistle discusses food (especially meat) sacrificed to idols; and in the culture and society of the people who first received it the problems here dealt with were paramount and practically universal. The total meat supply, in any practical sense, came from the sacrifices to the idol gods of the Gentiles, a portion of each sacrifice being the perquisite of the pagan priest, and the rest of it consumed in the temple area itself, carried to the homes of the worshipers, or sold, either by them or the priests, in the common meat markets.

It might be inquired, what relevance is the apostolic teaching, with regard to Christians partaking of such meats, to the peoples of this present age; to which it must be replied that they are of the most commanding relevance and importance. This is true because the apostle Paul established four timeless principles of Christian behavior in the course of his writing on this subject, these being: (1) that what is permissible behavior for one man may, in certain circumstances, be dangerous and sinful in another; (2) that no Christian conduct should be evaluated solely from the standpoint of knowledge, but in the light of the love of brethren, with regard to its possible influence upon others, and in the light of what others may think of it; (3) that no Christian has a right to practice anything, however innocent it may be to him, if in so doing he shall damage the faith of another; and (4) that whatever is done, even to the weakest member of the body of Christ, is also done to Christ himself, and that weakening or destroying the faith of even the least and weakest of Christ's members is a sin of the greatest magnitude against Christ himself. "A pleasure or an indulgence which may be the ruin of someone else is not a pleasure but a sin."[1]

ENDNOTE:

[1] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 85.

Now concerning things sacrificed to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but love edifieth. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Now concerning ... These words indicate that "the Corinthians had asked Paul questions in regard to these matters,"[2] a fact also indicated by the use of quotation marks to set off portions of this verse and in 1Cor. 8:4,1 Corinthians 8:5 in the RSV.

We all have knowledge ... This was the conceited declaration of the questioners from Corinth who evidently indulged themselves in the pagan temples without regard to weak brethren; and the first thing Paul did was to nail down the fact that "knowledge" without love was the grossest ignorance.

Knowledge puffeth up, but love buildeth up ... is the way this stands in the Greek (English Revised Version margin); and it is a shame that our translators changed it. Knowledge without love only puffs up the one who fancies he is wise and does nothing for others, whereas love builds up both its possessor and others.

The evident concern of Paul's questioners did not refer to themselves (they already knew everything), but "they wanted to know how to deal with the people who refused to eat meat sacrificed to idols."[3] Despite this conceit, some of them were actually "sitting at meat in an idol's temple"! (1 Corinthians 8:10). As some would say today, they were bringing their "culture" into the church!

The problem regarded several possibilities: (1) Should a Christian partake of the feasts in the idol temples? (2) Was it permissible for him to buy food in the public markets, where most if not all of it had been procured from the sacrifices? (3) Might he, when invited to a friend's house, eat flesh which had been sacrificed to idols?

[2] David Lipscomb, Commentary on First Corinthians (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1935), p. 117.

[3] F. W. Grosheide, The New International Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1953), p. 189.


Verse 2

If any man thinketh that he knoweth anything, he knoweth not yet as he ought to know.

Thinketh that he knoweth ... All earthly knowledge is partial and fragmentary. "Knowledge is proud that it has learned so much. Wisdom is humble that it knows no more."[4] In thinking that they knew everything and at the same time despising the brethren they denominated as ignorant, the Corinthians indeed knew nothing as they should have known.

ENDNOTE:

[4] Attributed to Kay by Leon Morris, Tyndale Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), p. 125.


Verse 3

But if any man loveth God, the same is known by him.

This verse ends surprisingly with "the same is known by him," instead of "the same knows him," as might have been expected; and Farrar was probably correct in the observation that:

Paul did not wish to use any terms which would foster the already overgrown conceit of knowledge which was inflating the minds of his Corinthian converts. Furthermore he felt that "God knoweth them that are his" (2 Timothy 3:19).[5]

Also, as Morris said, "The really important thing is not that we know God, but that he knows us!"[6]

[5] F. W. Farrar, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), p. 264.

[6] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 125.


Verse 4

Concerning therefore the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that no idol is anything in the world, and that there is no God but one.

The sophisticated arguments of the "knowledge" party in Corinth are apparent in this. Since idols had no existence in fact, they felt safe in ignoring the popular superstitions regarding them; and Paul allowed the argument to stand, for the moment, it certainly being true that there is no God but one, and that an idol actually had no existence in reality.

However, although Paul did not recognize idols "as having any real existence, even as false deities,"[7] he was "certain that evil spirits and demons exist, and that in reality these were behind the idols and were using them to seduce men from the worship of the true God."[8] (See 10:20.)

No idol is anything in the world ... Of course, the world was full of idols; but, as Wesley said:

Idol here does not mean a mere image; but, by an inevitable transition of thought, the deity worshipped in the image. By this, Paul says that Zeus, Apollo, etc., have no existence; they are not to be found in the world.[9]

Furthermore, Paul does not by such a statement (that they are not in the world) leave room for the thought that they may be anywhere else. The "world" as used here refers to the whole universe.

There is no God but one ... He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Old Testament and of the Christian scriptures. He only is God in the true sense. He alone may rightfully be worshiped, and that through his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

[7] John William Russell, Compact Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1964), p. 416.

[8] William Barclay, op. cit., p. 83.

[9] John Wesley, One Volume New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1972), in loco.


Verse 5

For though there be that are called gods whether in heaven or on earth; as there are gods many, and lords many; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through him.

The multiple names of pagan mythology illustrate the truth Paul mentioned regarding gods many and lords many; but the very fact of their being thought of as operating in heaven or on earth proved that none of them controlled "all things," hence the fragmented nature of deity as misunderstood in paganism.

One God, the Father, of whom are all things ... There is no limitation with God, who cannot be localized like the false gods of the pagans. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things in heaven or upon earth.

To us there is one God ... There is a difference in Christianity and false religions. "The Christian is not a syncretist, who attempts to harmonize the teachings of all religions."[10]

Gods many and lords many ... Grosheide distinguished between the so-called deities of the pagans and their "heroes or demigods";[11] but the terms are here considered to be synonymous.

LORD was the usual way of referring to deity in the various cults of the time, which makes Paul's frequent application of it to Jesus Christ significant. Paul simply made it clear that the heathen world worshipped a multitude of deities, putting no difference between them.[12]

One Lord Jesus Christ ... There is affirmed here the oneness of God and Christ. God is honored as the Creator of all things and Christ his Son as the Creator of the New Creation. Jesus Christ is called "God" no less than ten times in the Greek New Testament. See my Commentary on Hebrews, p. 31.

We through him ... means "for whom we exist."[13]

Through whom are all things ... in this clause "must be co-extensive with the `all things' in the preceding verse, that is, the universe."[14]

[10] Donald S. Metz, Beacon Bible Commentary (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1968), p. 392.

[11] F. W. Grosheide, op. cit., p. 192.

[12] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 126.

[13] F. W. Grosheide, op. cit., p 192.

[14] David Lipscomb, op. cit., p. 120.


Verse 7

Howbeit there is not in all men that knowledge: but some, being used until now to the idol, eat as of a thing sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.

There is not in all men that knowledge ... Some facts are of a different quality from the ordinary; and, whereas the existence of an idol is no fact at all, there is the psychological fact of its existence in the MINDS OF MEN; and Paul here drew attention to that fact, so totally passed over by the "knowledge" crowd at Corinth.

The great mass of the heathen world did regard the dumb idols as the proper objects of worship, and supposed that they were inhabited by invisible spirits.[15]

Barnes declared that "Although the more intelligent heathen put no confidence in them, yet the effect of the great masses was the same as if they had had a real existence."[16]

Regarding the rationalization by which intelligent people may worship images, and the specious logic by which the historical church itself consecrated and adored them, see full discussion in my Commentary on Romans, pp. 44-45.

Their conscience being weak is defiled ... For fuller comment on the subject of "conscience," see in my Commentary on Romans, p. 469, and in my Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 198-200.

When a man violates his conscience, he assaults the central monitor of his spiritual life; and regardless of whether or not the conscience is properly instructed, the violation of it is a spiritual disaster. This is why a person who thinks a certain action is a sin may not safely take such action.

Defiled ... means polluted, sullied and damaged; and when the conscience is defiled, any true spiritual life becomes impossible.

[15] Donald S. Metz, op. cit., p. 391

[16] Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1949), p. 141.


Verse 8

But food will not commend us to God: neither if we eat not, are we the worse; nor, if we eat, are we the better.

In a sense, it was absolutely immaterial where the meat came from, whether sacrificed to idols or not; because salvation is simply not a matter of diet at all. Christ took away all prohibitions, "making all meats clean" (Mark 7:19); and Paul himself wrote that "every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, etc." (1 Timothy 4:4); but for a Christian who had not learned such vital truth, and who considered it sinful to eat certain things, it was definitely a sin for him to do so. In the situation at Corinth, therefore, it was not a question of determining what was right or wrong, merely in the abstract sense.


Verse 9

But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to the weak.

Many of the Corinthian Christians, so recently won over from paganism, still had lingering impressions of the reality of idol gods; and, besides those, there were many of Jewish background whose entire lives and training were absolutely incompatible with any kind of indulgence regarding meat offered to idols. For both classes, it was against their conscience to eat such things.

This liberty of yours ... If through the example of those who boasted "knowledge" to eat such meat, the weak brethren were induced to follow their example, irreparable damage to their souls would result. Paul here prohibited such heartless indifference toward the weak brethren. He said in effect: "Let your motto be forbearance, not privilege, and your watchword charity, not knowledge."[17]

It is considered significant that Paul here made no reference whatever to that so-called Council in Jerusalem which had directed all Christians to "abstain from things sacrificed to idols" (Acts 15:29); and, as more particularly advocated in my Commentary on Acts, pp. 292ff, Paul's own authority was amply sufficient to teach God's will on such a subject, his authority and understanding of God's true will having been, in fact, the means of correcting the Council itself. Dummelow thought that Paul believed "The Corinthians would be more influenced by argument than by an appeal to authority, seeing they prided themselves on their wisdom";[18] but the conviction expressed here is that Paul did not feel that any word from the Council could have added anything whatever to his own authority. However, as Dummelow said, "Paul said nothing inconsistent"[19] with the judgment of the Council.

[17] F. W. Farrar, op. cit., p. 265.

[18] J. R. Dummelow, Commentary on the Holy Bible (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 904.

[19] Ibid.


Verse 10

For if a man see thee who hast knowledge sitting at meat in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols?

See thee who hast knowledge ... There positively has to be a vein of sarcasm in this. What kind of "knowledge" did any Corinthian have that could justify sitting down in the degrading festival carried on in an idol's temple? "Many of these functions were often accompanied by shameful licentiousness."[20] Paul did not digress here to point out that spiritual damage was almost certain to be sustained even by those who professed to have "knowledge" in such a participation as sitting down to a banquet in the temple of an idol, especially in a place like Corinth. Paul's great concern was damage to the weak brother and the wound thus inflicted upon the body of Christ which is the church. As Macknight said, "Paul could not have meant that they had a right to eat of the sacrifices in the idol's temple."[21] Although he passed over it here, Paul returned in 1 Corinthians 10:15-21 "to treat the other side of the question, that concerning the danger to which the strong believer exposed himself."[22] "To recline at a banquet in the temple of Poseidon or Aphrodite, especially in such a place as Corinth, was certainly an extravagant assertion of their right to Christian liberty.[23]

[20] Henry H. Halley, Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1927), p. 517.

[21] James Macknight, Apostolical Epistles and Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1969), p. 126.

[22] Attributed to Godet by John Wesley, op. cit., in loco.

[23] F. W. Farrar, op. cit., p. 265.


Verse 11

For through thy knowledge he that is weak perisheth, the brother for whose sake Christ died!

This was a hand grenade detonated in the faces of the "knowledge" group in Corinth. The word "knowledge" throughout this chapter belongs in quotations; because certainly it was not knowledge but the most incompetent ignorance that would approve of behavior capable of murdering an immortal soul.

That school of interpreters holding to the impossibility of apostasy on the part of believers strive to soften the impact of "perisheth." Thus Barnes saluted this verse with "No one who has been truly converted will apostatize and be destroyed."[24] Johnson declared this refers "to bodily perishing, not eternal perishing";[25] but he did not explain how eating meat against one's conscience could kill him! As Wesley put it, regarding "he that is weak perisheth":

He is from that moment in the way of perdition ... if this state continues and becomes aggravated, as is inevitable in such cases, eternal perdition is the end of it.[26]

Leon Morris' words regarding the last clause of this verse are beautiful. He wrote:

The last clause could hardly be more forcible in its appeal; every word tells; "the brother," not a mere stranger; "for the sake of whom" precisely to rescue him from destruction; "Christ," no less than he; "died," no less than that![27]

[24] Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 146.

[25] S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 613.

[26] John Wesley, op. cit., in loco.

[27] Leon Morris, op. cit., p. 129.


Verse 12

And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ!

Exclamation points have been used in this and the preceding verse to indicate the epic nature of these pronouncements.

Sinning against the brethren ... ye sin against Christ ... Whatever is done to the church, even in the person of its weakest and most insignificant members (as men count insignificance), is done to Christ. Paul learned this on the Damascus road, and he never forgot it. Was it right to override the scruples of young and weak Christians by indulgence of the appetite for meat? A million times NO! To do so was an unmitigated sin against the Redeemer himself. Paul did not require the support of any opinions from Jerusalem to add any weight to such a decree. This principle is eternally binding, forever true, and as wide in its application as the world itself.

Despite such an apostolic order, however, Paul diligently strove to evoke a feeling of tenderness in the conceited boasters of their "knowledge." The two words repeatedly stressed in the passage are weak (5 times) and BROTHER (4 times). "These should have evoked tenderness and love, but received only the callous disregard of a misguided knowledge."[28]

ENDNOTE:

[28] Paul W. Marsh, A New Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969). p. 391.


Verse 13

Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh forevermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble.

Paul did not lay down rules for others which he was unwilling to honor himself, being of a different sort altogether from the wicked Pharisees (Matthew 23:4).

Despite his firmness, however, Paul's pledge here is conditional. "If meat causeth my brother to stumble," is the qualifying clause; and this has the meaning of "stumble, so as to fall and be lost." Guthrie noted that: "Paul's decision is conditional, not absolute: He does not say he will henceforth always be a total abstainer, but only IF and WHEN such eating may cause a brother to fall."[29] DeHoff also has a fine paragraph on this. He wrote:

On the other hand, there is such a thing as a brother who is not nearly so weak as he thinks, but who has been in the kingdom for years and is a crank and a fanatic. He has a tender conscience, he claims; and he tries to use it to control everybody else. His favorite passage is what Paul said about meats, which he applies to anything he wants to keep other people from doing. Of course, we shall just have to get along with this fellow as best we can![30]

This whole chapter exposed the shallowness and conceit of that "knowledge" which had no loving concern for weak and immature Christians, and bound upon all true Christians their responsibility for setting the correct example, regarding the scruples of others and for establishing a pattern of behavior which will build up others in the holy faith of Jesus Christ.

[29] Donald Guthrie, The New Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 1062.

[30] George W. DeHoff, Sermons on First Corinthians (Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 1947), p. 71.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/1-corinthians-8.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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