Scripture readings: Deut. 18:15-20; Ps. 111:1-10; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28 Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Cor. 8:1-13 (drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and Bruce Winter in The New Bible Commentary)
Exercising Our Freedom in Christ, part 1
Today is the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, which celebrates the revealing (epiphany) of Christ to the world. Let’s begin with a video of the song, Mary Did You Know?—it says a lot about who Jesus is as the one who brings light into a dark world.
On YouTube at https://youtu.be/ifCWN5pJGIE.
Our reading today in the Epistles takes us to 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul shows how we, through our actions, show forth (reveal) the nature of Jesus who came to give us true freedom.
In chapter 7, Paul answers questions from Christians in Corinth concerning being single or married. Then in chapters 8 through 10, he answers their question concerning whether it is permissible to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. I don’t suppose this is a question we think about on a daily basis, but Paul’s answer tells us a lot about how we appropriately exercise the freedom that we, by the Spirit, have in our union with Jesus.
To help us think about this issue with the mind of Christ, Paul provides four guiding principles:
1. Balance knowledge with love (1 Cor. 8)
2. Balance authority with discipline (1 Cor. 9)
3. Balance experience with caution (1 Cor. 10:1–22)
4. Balance freedom with responsibility (1 Cor. 10:23–33)
Next Sunday we’ll look at the 4th principle. Today, let’s look at the 1st one, beginning in 1 Cor. 8:1:
Now about food sacrificed to idols…
If you wanted to buy meat in the ancient city of Corinth, you typically had two choices: meat sold in the commercial markets (with high prices), and meat sold in the pagan temples (where meat that had been sacrificed to idols was offered at a lower price).
Spiritually strong Christians knew that idols, being nothing but the work of human hands, could not contaminate food. So they saved money by purchasing meat at the temples, and if non-Christian friends or family invited them to a meal at a temple, they felt free to attend and partake of the meat being served there.
But these practices were highly offensive to Christians who were not as strong in the faith—not as confident in the freedom they had in Christ. Many of them had come to Christ out of paganism and could not understand why fellow believers would have anything to do with meat sacrificed to idols. This situation had the potential to divide the church in Corinth, so the local leaders of the church wrote Paul asking his advice. In reply, Paul calls to their attention three vital factors: knowledge, love and conscience.
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. (1 Cor. 8:1-2)
In general, the Corinthians knew rightly that an idol “is nothing” (1 Cor. 8:4)—merely a man-made representation of a non-existent god. But according to Paul, such knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or it can be a tool to build with. If knowledge “puffs up” it cannot “build up.” In fact, a know-it-all attitude is evidence of underlying ignorance of what makes knowledge useful, namely love, the second factor to which Paul now turns.
But whoever loves God is known by God. 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.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 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. (1 Cor. 8:3-6)
The greatest knowledge of all is to know the true God, who has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, “through whom we live.” In Jesus, knowledge and love are inseparable. The “strong” in the Corinthian church had knowledge, but they were short on love. Instead of building up the weak, they were puffing up themselves.
Paul wants for the strong, in love and according to knowledge, to help the weak grow in both knowledge and love. When spiritual knowledge is tempered with love, the strong take the hand of the weak and help them stand and walk so as to enjoy the freedom that is theirs in Christ. But, one cannot force-feed weak believers, for there is a third factor to consider, namely their conscience.
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. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 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? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. (1 Cor. 8:7-12)
Conscience is where our actions are judged and then approved or condemned. Note how Paul makes this point in Romans 2:
When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Rom. 2:14-15)
However, one’s conscience is only as reliable as the knowledge that informs it. The more we rightly know and then act upon, the stronger (and more accurate) our conscience becomes. Some Christians have weak consciences because they lack knowledge and other elements of maturity in Christ. But note a key point here—their weak consciences must be guarded carefully.
While it might not harm the conscience of a strong Christian to share a meal with non-Christian friends in a pagan temple or at home, it might harm the conscience of a weaker Christian who might decide to imitate a stronger brother or sister and thus be led into what would offend their conscience and thus be, for them, a sin.
Note that when the strong defer to the weak in such matters of conscience, they do so not to encourage their immaturity, but to help them grow in maturity. Thus the bottom line for Paul in a situation like this one is that we are all free in Christ to follow the lead of the Spirit in obeying the Word of the Lord in each situation as it presents itself—indeed, as Paul says in Galatians 5:1, It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. However, we must take care that our knowledge (and thus practice) of this freedom is balanced (tempered) by love, which trumps all else.
In the way we live out our freedom in Christ, we must be careful not to tempt the weak among us by leading them to run ahead of their consciences.
Where knowledge is balanced by love, the strong will minister to the weak, and the weak (unless they are obstinate) will grow and become strong. I say “obstinate,” because some who are weak use their weakness as an excuse, refusing to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, which is the very basis of our life in Christ. Paul elsewhere corrects such people, but here his primary focus is on instructing the strong to be careful not to offend the consciences of those who are weak.
Paul then goes on in the rest of this letter to note that the strong in living out the freedom that is theirs in Christ, must not only balance knowledge with love, but also balance experience with caution (1 Cor. 10:1–22) and freedom with responsibility (1 Cor. 10:23–33; 11:1).
In these ways, Paul reminds those who are strong in the faith to not, by their behavior, make it difficult for other people (weak believers, in particular) to trust the Lord. As those who are mature in Christ—those strong in the faith—we are not to seek our own good. Instead, we are to seek after the benefit of others, that they may be encouraged to trust in Christ and so grow in maturity, including a mature exercise of the freedom they, too, have in Christ.
It is in this spirit that Paul writes, “I try to please everybody in every way” (1 Cor. 10:33). By saying this, Paul is not suggesting that we should be people-pleasers. Rather, he is affirming the fact that his life and ministry were centered on helping others rather than on promoting himself and his own desires.
The way of Christ in which we are to live is the way of exercising freedom in order to love God and love others. Paul’s own way of doing so no doubt appeared inconsistent to some (the Judaizers were particularly critical of Paul). At times, Paul would eat what Gentiles were eating (including the meats that were unclean to Jews and meat that had been sacrificed to idols). But instead of being inconsistent, Paul was living consistently by the principles he lays down here in 1 Corinthians. Rather than selfishly asserting his freedom in Christ, he balanced knowledge with love. To do so he implied that if it would be helpful to his weaker brothers and sisters, he would become a vegetarian:
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. (1 Cor. 8:13)
May each of us follow Paul as he follows Christ by balancing our knowledge with love.