In the eighth chapter of 1 Corinthians the Spirit of God deals in a very remarkable way with the great theme of Christian liberty and brotherly concern. It is almost impossible for us, in a land like ours, to comprehend the customs of the society in which the early Christians lived, but missionaries who have labored for any length of time among heathen people will understand the problem that the apostle was dealing with here. It was the question of whether a Christian was at liberty to eat the meat of animals that at the time of their killing had been dedicated to idols. This was a common practice; in fact practically all the meat that was sold in the markets had been so dedicated.
One can understand that many of the early Christians feared that if they ate such meat, they would dishonor the name of the Lord and possibly appear to tolerate idol worship. I have noticed a similar concern among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Arizona and among Navajo and other Indians when they become Christians. They are concerned about doing anything that looks like participation in or recognition of heathen ceremonies, because they want everyone to understand that they have made a clean break with the old life. In Corinth eating meat offered to idols was quite a problem and it is evident that the believers there had written to the apostle Paul for guidance.
We read in 7:1, “Concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me,” and this expression introduces the rest of the Epistle. From that point on the apostle dealt with matters that had been submitted to him so that he might give his inspired judgment for the guidance of the church. One of these matters was “things offered unto idols.”
Knowledge Puffs Up (1 Corinthians 8:1-3)
“As touching things offered unto idols,” Paul said, “we know that we all have knowledge.” He was indicating that “we all”—that is, we Christians—know the one true and living God and we know the folly of idolatry. However, the apostle went on to stress the importance of not being proud of our attainments in grace and our knowledge of the truth. Since we know certain things that others do not, we might act on our knowledge in such a way as to put a stumblingblock in the path of someone else, so the knowledge that God has given us should be held in the spirit of humility.
We understand that there are no such beings in the world as those represented by the idols, but that does not do away with the fact that Satanic power is behind idolatry. “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God” (10:20) and therefore there must be no compromise whatever between Christianity and pagan religions. We know that those who are in the darkness of heathenism are in the bondage of Satan, and therefore our missionaries are not to take the good from the pagan religions and then share what we have with the pagans. Not at all. Our missionaries are to turn lost people from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. This was what the apostles and their fellow workers set out to do, and their methods should be our methods. We need nothing new. The gospel is still “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16). Where the gospel is preached in dependence on the Holy Spirit, miracles will happen in the hearts and lives of heathen men just as truly today as in Paul’s day and the centuries that followed.
“We know that an idol is nothing in the world” (1 Corinthians 8:4), but everybody does not have this knowledge; therefore it may not be wise to claim, “It does not make any difference to me whether these meats were offered to idols, so I am at liberty to eat.” Yes, as far as your own conscience is concerned, you are at liberty to eat, but you should stop to consider the effect on others.
“But,” you say, “I know that idols are nothing.” Yes, but “knowledge [mere knowledge] puffeth up.” It is quite possible for you to be conceited and proud over the fact that you have a little knowledge that someone else does not have, but “what hast thou that thou didst not receive?” (4:7) There is a tendency to pride in all our hearts even in the things of God. We get a smattering of His Word that some others do not have and instantly we are lifted up in our own conceit.
“Knowledge [if it is only that] puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” Do you see the difference? Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Some of us get to be like a great swollen frog, puffed up with wind and sitting on a log. We imagine that we have advanced wonderfully over other folk. But if you throw a stone at that frog, he will suddenly shrink to about one-fifth of the size he seemed to be. Yes, knowledge puffs up, but love encourages real solid growth.
We need to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). If we put knowledge before grace, it will work harm to ourselves as well as to others. Paul said, “If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” Although God has given me a little light on His Word, I still know very little compared with the many things I do not yet know, and so let me thank Him for what He has imparted, hold it in all humility, and walk carefully before Him.
Paul continued, “If any man love God, the same is known of him.” We might have expected the apostle to say, “If a man loves God, he knows God.” That is true, but the other side is the wonderful part of it. If a man loves God, God knows him, and it is that in which we can rejoice. I like the way the apostle John spoke of himself so often as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” If you or I had been writing, we probably would have said “the disciple who loved Jesus.” And I do not know if we would even have stopped there; we might have said “the disciple who loved Jesus and whose name is so-and-so.” That is what most of us do. Naturally we all like to get our own names to the front, so we need to be brought low to the feet of our blessed Savior. John gloried in the fact that he was the disciple whom Jesus loved, and we should rejoice in the fact that we are known and loved of God.
Only One God (1 Corinthians 8:4-6)
There is a science, one of relatively recent vintage, known as the science of comparative religions. I think it had its origin largely in the world’s fair held in Chicago in 1893, when there was a great congress of religion, and teachers came from all parts of the world to exchange thoughts on religious concepts. From that time on men began comparing one religion with another. So there is a science of comparative religions, but Christianity is not one of them. Christianity is not a religion; it is a revelation.
Christianity is not something that men have thought out; it is not a system of philosophy or ethics. It is something revealed from Heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit. Idolatrous systems, on the other hand, are the works of men energized by the enemy. These systems are hollow and empty, as Paul showed in 8:4-6.
“We know,” the apostle said, “that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.” That God is the God who has been revealed as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul continued, “For though [in the world around and in the pagan nations] there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) But to us [to those of us who have accepted the revelation that has been given in this holy Word] 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.” Observe, the apostle was not speaking here of the doctrine of the trinity; neither was he intimating that it might be a mistake to put our Lord Jesus Christ, the divine eternal Son, on the same level with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Paul was saying that there is one God, and that God is the One who has revealed Himself in the Word as the Creator of all men and the Father of all who believe.
He is the Father of the universe because it was through Him that it came into existence; it came out of Him and therefore there is a sense in which it is perfectly right to speak of the universal fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. He is the God of the spirits of all flesh; all men came into existence through Him. But man is a fallen creature; he has turned away from God. Man is dead spiritually and therefore needs to be quickened into newness of life, and it is only when he is regenerated, when he is born again, that he comes into the family of God through redemption. Then he can look up into the face of God and say “our Father,” which is something that he could not do in his unconverted state.
The apostle said, “There is but one God,” and that is perfectly true. Elsewhere in Scripture we find that He subsists in three persons: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That comes out very clearly in the baptismal formula: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). How incongruous it would be to insert the name of a mere created being in there! We revere the one who was blessed and favored above all women because she was chosen to be the mother of the Son of God, but suppose that we said “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the blessed virgin Mary.” How instinctively every Christian heart would shrink from that!
We must never put a creature in the place of deity, but we can say “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” for the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit is God. The Father without the Son and the Holy Spirit would not be God. The Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit is God; the Son without the Father and Holy Spirit would not be God. The Spirit with the Father and the Son is God; but the Spirit without the Father and the Son would not be God. That is a definition that was coined some years ago by the venerable Joseph Cook of England, and it sets forth the truth as it is in Scripture.
When we speak of Christ in His mediatorial position, we bring Him down to the place He took in grace as a man without denying His deity. Someone asked me this question: “Is there any sense in which God the Father is greater than Jesus Christ?” When we think of the Lord Jesus as the eternal only-begotten Son, He is coequal with the Father. When He speaks of Himself as the Son, He says, “All men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him… I and my Father are one” (John 5:23; 10:30). But having stooped in grace to become man, the man Christ Jesus voluntarily took a place of subjection to the Father and therefore, as the Son born on earth of a virgin mother, He was the same person, but the same person in different circumstances. He voluntarily assumed humiliation and said, “My Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). There is no difficulty about this if we remember that He is Son of God in two senses: God the Son from eternity; and the Son of God born of a virgin mother here on earth, with no human father.
“There is but one God, the Father,… and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” We recognize that the Lord Jesus, the One to whom we yield the allegiance of our hearts, is our Savior and the originator of both creations. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The entire creation came into existence through the word of His power. “He spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast” (Psalm 33:9). He who is God is the Son from all eternity.
But this creation fell and a mediator was needed, so He came into the world in lowly grace; He assumed a servant’s form and became man without ceasing for one moment to be God. As man He went to Calvary’s cross to settle the sin question. He was buried, but He rose again in triumph and as the risen One He is Head of the new creation. “By whom are all things”—that is the old creation. “And we by him”—that is the new creation. God has “raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
We who were dead in sins have been quickened together with Christ (see Ephesians 2:5) and it is because we know this, because we know that God has thus revealed Himself, that we are through forever with idols. There are those who speak slightingly of the work of missionaries, as though it yields very poor returns. But we only have to go back a few centuries to find that our own ancestors were idolaters. The gospel came to them with the knowledge of God; faith in the Lord Jesus Christ delivered them from their idolatry; and thus we are what we are today. Should we think for one moment of refusing to share the gospel with those still sitting in the darkness in which our forefathers once sat?
Brotherly Care (1 Corinthians 8:7-13)
In this passage the apostle dwelled especially on the importance of concern for the consciences of others. We may not face exactly the same problems that the Corinthians did, but we need to have the same care for the consciences of other people. As a Christian you may say, “I am quite sure that this thing is right; I have perfect liberty and I am not going to let somebody else dictate to me what I should or should not do.” But stop for a moment. Suppose someone who does not have as much light as you have is quite convinced that you are deliberately and willfully disobeying the Word of God. If by and by that person comes to the conclusion that since you, a stronger Christian, feel free to do that thing, he is free to do it too, what then? Do you not see that his conscience might be dulled and his testimony eventually ruined?
So the apostle said, “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”—that is, they believe that an idol is a reality and they believe that they are committing an idolatrous act. Under such circumstances we can deny ourselves of that which might injure and hurt others if they were to persist in the activity.
“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.” Why do I need to be concerned about nonessentials like these? If such a matter will trouble someone else, I will put it out of my life. I will not use my liberty to gratify my own desires if doing so will cause another to stumble.
“Take heed,” Paul said to the Corinthians, “lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. 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?” Let us suppose that you exercise your liberty in some way and another individual observes your behavior. Perhaps he is just a young convert, or simply an inquirer, or maybe someone not at all established, or perhaps a person not yet truly regenerated. If he sees you do something that hurts his conscience and he does the same thing, he defiles his conscience, and thus your lack of concern may lead to the shipwreck of his faith. Because you insist on your liberty, “shall the weak brother perish?” When Paul made that appeal, he was not affirming that any true child of God will ever be lost; the apostle was just raising a question. He was asking, “Would you be willing so to behave that it would cause another’s shipwreck?”
Some years ago when I was preaching in a gospel hall in Detroit, I met a former Muslim from India who had been brought to know the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Sunday school had its annual outing, we all went over to a beautiful spot, and spent the day together. I was chatting with this brother, Mr. Ali by name, when a young girl came by passing out sandwiches. She said, “Won’t you have a sandwich?”
“Thank you,” I said. “What kind have you?”
“I have several different kinds.”
“I will help myself to several of them.”
And then she turned to Mr. Ali and said, “Will you have one?”
“What kind are they?” he asked.
“There is fresh pork and there is ham.”
“Have you any beef?”
“No, I do not.”
“Have you any lamb?”
“Thank you, my dear young lady, but I won’t take any.”
Laughingly she said, “Why, Mr. Ali, you surprise me. Are you so under law that you cannot eat pork? Don’t you know that a Christian is at liberty to eat any kind of meat?”
“I am at liberty to eat it,” he answered, “but I am also at liberty to let it alone. You know I was brought up a strict Muslim. My old father, nearly eighty years of age now, is still a Muslim. Every three years I go back to India to render an account of my tea business, of which my father is really the head, and to visit with the folks at home. Always when I get home I know how I will be greeted. The friends will be sitting inside and my father will come to the door when the servant announces that I am there. My father will ask, ‘Son, have those infidels taught you to eat their filthy hog meat yet?’ ‘No, Father,’ I will say. ‘Pork has never passed my lips.’ Then I can go in and have the opportunity to preach Christ to them. If I took one of your sandwiches, the next time I go home I would have to answer my father’s question honestly and as a result I would not be able to go in and preach the gospel.”
Of course the young lady understood. He was acting exactly as the apostle was suggesting here. We have liberty to refrain from doing certain things if they will trouble other people. Love is to be the dominating motive. Paul wrote, “When ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.”
The chapter comes to this striking conclusion: “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” This is true Christian liberty coupled with brotherly care.