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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 8

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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1. The priority of love over knowledge in Christian conduct ch. 8

The amount of corrective instruction concerning knowledge in this epistle makes clear that the Corinthian Christians valued knowledge too highly. Paul wrote that the real aim of the faith should not be knowledge but love.

Verse 1

The key phrase peri de ("now concerning" or "now about") as well as a change in subject matter mark off a new section of this epistle.

Traditional interpreters of this passage have pointed out that in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, pagan Gentiles offered sacrificial animals to various pagan gods and goddesses in temples daily. Only a token portion went to the deity and burned up on the altar. The temple priests, attendants, and their families ate most of the meat, but frequently they could not eat all that the worshippers brought. Consequently they sold what remained to the meat market operators in the agora (marketplace). There the general public purchased it. This meat was very desirable and popular because the pagans usually offered only the best animals in sacrifice. However the butchers did not usually identify it as meat that someone had offered to an idol. Traditional interpreters believe that this is the meat in view in the discussion. [Note: E.g., Barrett, pp. 188-89; and Wiersbe, 1:594.] As mentioned above, I think eating in an idol temple has better support.

In dealing with this issue Paul began as he customarily did in this epistle by identifying common ground of belief with his readers (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 7:1). "We all have knowledge" may have been another Corinthian slogan. All the believers knew that there were no other gods beside the true God. This knowledge was leading some in the church to think that eating in an idol temple was insignificant. It probably led others to make no distinction between the kinds of meat they bought in the market. This was perfectly proper, as Paul pointed out later. Nevertheless knowledge of this fact was not the only factor his readers needed to consider in their relationship to eating this food.

The apostle established at the beginning of his discussion of this important subject that knowledge by itself produces arrogance (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:5; 1 Corinthians 12:8). We have already seen that arrogance was one of the Corinthians’ major weaknesses (1 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Corinthians 4:18-19; 1 Corinthians 5:2). In contrast, love edifies. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 13:4). Paul did not mean his readers should abandon the knowledge that was foundational to their correct conduct. He meant that knowledge without love was incomplete and by itself would not lead them to correct conduct.

Verse 1

B. Food offered to idols 8:1-11:1

The Corinthians had asked Paul another question, evidently in a combative spirit judging by the apostle’s response. It involved a practice common in their culture.

The commentators understand the situation that Paul addressed in two different ways. Some of them believe that the eating of marketplace food that pagans had previously offered to idols was amoral (not a moral issue) in itself, but it was controversial enough to cause division among the church members. If this was indeed the issue that Paul addressed, it is only one of many similar "doubtful things." Advocates of this view believe that the apostle’s directions to his readers here give us guidance in dealing with contemporary doubtful (amoral) matters.

Other interpreters believe that eating food sacrificed to idols involved a specific form of idolatry and was, therefore, not amoral but sinful (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:10-11). They assume that Paul was responding to the Corinthians’ objection to his prohibition of this practice that he had written in his former letter to them. This view sees 1 Corinthians 8:10 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-22 as expressing the basic problem to which Paul was responding. I believe the text supports this interpretation of the facts better than the former one.

"That going to the temples is the real issue is supported by the fact that the eating of cultic meals was a regular part of worship in antiquity. This is true not only of the nations that surrounded Israel, but of Israel itself. In the Corinth of Paul’s time, such meals were still the regular practice both at state festivals and private celebrations of various kinds. There were three parts to these meals: the preparation, the sacrifice proper, and the feast. The meat of the sacrifices apparently was divided into three portions: that burned before the god, that apportioned to the worshipers, and that placed on the ’table of the god,’ which was tended by cultic ministrants but also eaten by the worshipers. The significance of these meals has been much debated, but most likely they involved a combination of religious and social factors. The gods were thought to be present since the meals were held in their honor and sacrifices were made; nonetheless, they were also intensely social occasions for the participants. For the most part the Gentiles who had become believers in Corinth had probably attended such meals all their lives; this was the basic ’restaurant’ in antiquity, and every kind of occasion was celebrated in this fashion.

"The problem, then, is best reconstructed along the following lines. After their conversion-and most likely after the departure of Paul-some of them returned to the practice of attending the cultic meals. In his earlier letter Paul forbade such ’idolatry’; but they have taken exception to that prohibition and in their letter have made four points:

"(1) They argue that ’all have knowledge’ about idols [i.e., that there are no such things, so participation in these meals is not an issue, cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 8:4]. . . .

"(2) They also have knowledge about food, that it is a matter of indifference to God (1 Corinthians 8:8) . . .

"(3) They seem to have a somewhat ’magical’ view of the sacraments; those who have had Christian baptism and who partake of the Lord’s Table are not in any danger of falling (1 Corinthians 10:1-4).

"(4) Besides, there is considerable question in the minds of many whether Paul has the proper apostolic authority to forbid them on this matter. In their minds this has been substantiated by two factors: first, his failure to accept support while with them; and second, his own apparently compromising stance on idol food sold in the marketplace (he abstained when eating with Jews, but ate when eating with Gentiles; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23)." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 360-62.]

Verses 1-3

Knowledge and love compared 8:1-3

Paul began by comparing the way of love and the way of knowledge to show their relative importance.

Verse 2

Paul warned that if anyone thinks he or she has fully mastered any subject he or she can count on the fact that he or she has not. The reason for this is that there is always more to any subject than any one person ever appreciates. There is always another facet to it, another point of view that one has not considered when examining it, or more information about it.

This person’s knowledge is deficient in another sense. His attitude toward his knowledge is wrong. He arrogantly and unrealistically claims to have exhausted his subject rather than humbly realizing that he has not done so. To think one has fully mastered any subject is the height of arrogance. Paul said what he did here to humble some of his readers. Some claimed that since there are no such things as idols it was perfectly obvious what the Christian’s relation to eating meat in an idol’s temple should be.

"True gnosis ["knowledge"] consists not in the accumulation of so much data, nor even in the correctness of one’s theology, but in the fact that one has learned to live in love toward all." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 368.]

"The distinction which it seems that these rather cumbersome clauses seek to express is between, on the one hand, the collection of pieces of information (gnosis) about God, and, on the other, the state of being personally, and rightly, related to him." [Note: Barrett, p. 190.]

"A famous preacher used to say, ’Some Christians grow; others just swell.’" [Note: Wiersbe, 1:595.]

Verse 3

Paul chose one subject to illustrate the proper view. Accumulating all the facts about God that one can will not result in the most realistic knowledge of Him. One must also love God. If a person loves God, then God knows (recognizes) him in an intimate way and reveals Himself to him (1 Corinthians 2:10; Matthew 11:27). Consequently it is really more important that God knows us than that we know Him. When He knows us intimately, He will enable us to know Him intimately.

". . . If a man loves God, this is a sign that God has taken the initiative." [Note: Barrett, p. 190.]

Logically not only will God enable those who love Him to know Him better, but He will also enable those who love Him to understand other subjects as well. Paul said this to establish the priority of love over knowledge in determining our behavior in various situations.

Verse 4

In this verse Paul returned to the original subject of eating meals in idol temples and applied the priority of love over knowledge to it. Unquestionably idols are not spirit beings such as God. There is only one true God (Deuteronomy 6:4). Every Christian should know that, and the Corinthians did. "We know that" affirms what they all knew as true.

Verses 4-6

The content of the way of knowledge 8:4-6

Paul resumed his discussion of knowledge after digressing briefly in 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 to comment on the superiority of love over knowledge.

Verse 5

Nevertheless for many people, the pagans and even Christians who do not have a correct concept of deity, there are many beings they regard as gods and lords over various areas of life. The Greeks applied the term "gods" to their traditional deities and the term "lords" to the deities of their mystery cults. [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 373.]

Verse 6

For instructed Christians there is only one God and one Lord. Paul did not mean that there are two separate beings, God and Lord. These are two names for the one true God who exists as Father and Son. The Scriptures establish the deity of Jesus Christ elsewhere (e.g., John 1:1; John 1:14; John 10:30; Colossians 1:15-19; et al.). Paul did not argue that point here but simply stated the Son’s equality with the Father within the Godhead.

The point of difference is this. The Father is the source and goal of all things whereas the Son is the agent though whom all things have come from God and will return to God. Since Paul’s point was the unity of the Godhead, there was no need to complicate matters by referring to the Holy Spirit here.

Verse 7

The traditional interpretation of this verse is as follows. Whereas every Christian should know that there are no other gods but the one true God, some of the Corinthians, because of their previous belief in idols, had difficulty shaking that belief. They still had needless false guilt about eating meat that someone had previously dedicated to a heathen deity. They thought they were doing something wrong even though they were not. This false guilt created a problem for them in their relationship with God.

A modern equivalent might be a Christian who gets saved out of a pagan background in which he was spending all of his free time and money on recreation of various kinds. He becomes a Christian and realizes that recreation had been his god. As a conscientious Christian he wants to avoid slipping back into that trap so he avoids recreation. He may even become critical of other believers who enjoy the forms of recreation to which he considers himself previously enslaved. He has trouble accepting recreation as a legitimate activity for Christians. When he sees other Christians enjoying recreation, he tends to look down on them as carnal. He has false guilt about participating in recreation.

Probably Paul was describing a Corinthian Christian who would go to a feast in an idol temple, as he or she had done before conversion. That person would have pangs of true guilt because by participating he or she was tacitly approving the worship and consequently the existence of the idol. Paul said the person’s conscience was weak because even though he or she intellectually believed there was only one God, his or her emotions had not fully assimilated that truth. Evidently this was Peter’s problem when he compromised by withdrawing from eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14).

Verses 7-13

The criterion of care for a brother 8:7-13

"He [Paul] develops an airtight case based on a solid theological foundation (1 Corinthians 8:6). But then comes the alla (’however’ [1 Corinthians 8:7]), and the argument moves in an entirely different direction.

"At issue is the nature of the community. Is it a community where those with a correct theology can ignore others who have an aversion to eating the idol-consecrated food? What must prevail is not the principle of superior knowledge but the realization that those who lack knowledge are those ’for whom Christ died’ (1 Corinthians 8:11). Edification takes precedence over freedom; the other person’s advantage takes precedence over one’s own (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). The christological epistemology of 1 Corinthians 1:18 to 1 Corinthians 2:16 applied to the controversy over eating food offered to idols calls for a community of sensitivity and love." [Note: Cousar, "The Theological . . .," p. 99.]

Verse 8

Foods do not make us more or less pleasing to God. In our relationship to Him we are no better or worse if we participate or abstain. However eating food in a pagan temple was something else.

"It is the clean heart, and not clean food, that will matter; and the weak brother confounds the two." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 170.]

Verse 9

The knowledge that some food is all right in itself is not the only factor that should determine whether we eat it or not. Love for a brother that our participation bothers is also important. The weak brother is weak because his emotions have not caught up to his intellect. In this context, a stumbling block is any barrier to another individual’s personal relationship with God. The Corinthian Christians who had returned to the pagan temples for their feasts were disregarding how their participation was affecting their brethren who still viewed participation as worship, or at least approval, of the idol.

Verse 10

In 1 Corinthians 8:10-12 Paul proceeded to appeal on behalf of the rights of the weak. Suppose a Corinthian Christian appreciated the fact that eating meat offered to an idol was insignificant in itself. He might accept an invitation from friends to share a meal in a pagan temple at which the cultic leader served offered meat if he saw another Corinthian believer there. Undoubtedly some of the believers in Corinth were attending these feasts and were encouraging other Christians to take this "knowledgeable" stand. Some have argued that the meals here were spiritually harmless temple meals. [Note: E.g., Bruce K. Fisk, "Eating Meat Offered to Idols: Corinthian Behavior and Pauline Response in 1 Corinthians 8-10 (A Response to Gordon Fee)," Trinity Journal 10 NS:1 (Spring 1989):49-70.] But this seems indefensible to me. This verse is one of the clearest evidences that participating in feasts in idol temples was the issue Paul was addressing rather than simply eating marketplace meat.

Verse 11

Paul explained what had taken place in such a situation. The knowledgeable Christian had by his knowledge of what he considered legitimate, and by acting on the basis of that knowledge alone, destroyed his brother’s relationship with God. "Ruined" seems strong, but Paul evidently anticipated the weaker brother returning to idolatry, the next step after participating in a feast in an idol temple. The apostle stressed the value of the weaker brother by referring to the fact that Christ died for him. Therefore the stronger brother dare not view him and his scruples as insignificant or unimportant.

Verse 12

We are not free to damage another person’s relationship with God. We sin against God and that person when we put an occasion for stumbling before him or her. This is the very opposite of what God has called us to do, namely, love God and other people (cf. Matthew 22:37-39). The ultimate wrong of the person who lives only by his knowledge is not just that he lacks true knowledge or that he causes a brother to stumble. It is that he sins against Christ.

Verse 13

Paul drew a conclusion about his own behavior from what he had said on this subject. He would make love for his brethren the governor over his knowledge of what was permissible.

The Greek word translated "causes to stumble [or fall]" is skandalidzo. A skandalon, the noun form of the word, described the trigger on a trap. Paul viewed eating in an idol temple as a kind of trigger that might set off a trap that could snare a fellow believer. It could retard his progress and cause him pain. Paul was willing to forgo all such eating if by doing so he could avoid creating problems for other Christians in their relationships with God (cf. Romans 14:13-23).

The issue in this chapter is not that of offending someone in the church. Paul dealt with that subject in 1 Corinthians 10:31 to 1 Corinthians 11:1 and Romans 14. It is, rather, doing something that someone else would do to his or her own hurt. Paul dealt with an attitude in the Corinthians. They were arguing for a behavior on the basis of knowledge. Paul said the proper basis was love.

"Love is the solution, not knowledge, in all social problems." [Note: Robertson, 4:137-38.]

Our culture, wherever we may live, promotes our personal rights very strongly. This emphasis has permeated the thinking of most Christians. We need to remember that there is something more important than our freedom to do as we please. That something is the spiritual development of other people. As those to whom other Christians look as examples, it is especially important for you and me to recall this principle as we live. Our willingness to accept this standard for ourselves will reveal our true love for God and people. Our failure to do so will reveal our lack of knowledge as well as our lack of love.

"As a final note to this chapter it should be understood that Paul did not say that a knowledgeable Christian must abandon his freedom to the ignorant prejudice of a ’spiritual’ bigot. The ’weak brother’ (1 Corinthians 8:11) was one who followed the example of another Christian, not one who carped and coerced that knowledgeable Christian into a particular behavioral pattern. Also it was unlikely that Paul saw this weak brother as permanently shackling the freedom of the knowledgeable Christian. The ’weak brother’ was no omnipresent phantom but an individual who was to be taught so that he too could enjoy his freedom (Galatians 5:1)." [Note: Lowery, p. 522.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-corinthians-8.html. 2012.
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