Study 14 – 1 Corinthians 9:19-27

Living the work of the gospel

Discussion Question

What does it take to be great at something? For example, becoming a specialist doctor, or a concert musician. Do you have a story of becoming great at something?

Background

Early in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul stated that he determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ crucified. He was distressed by the wavering ways that the Christians in Corinth were behaving and thinking and his antidote was to remind them of the gospel and how central and important it is to us all. In Chapter 8 and the beginning of Chapter 9, we were challenged to put aside the things that we feel we have a right to for the sake of the gospel. No-thing is more important than loving others with the love flowing from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Once we are established in the faith because of our knowledge of the gospel, we must pursue life with others in mind before ourselves. Paul says, for example, that if eating meat will cause a fellow Christian to sin, then he would choose never to eat meat again.

Martin Luther, German reformer, in his treatise titled, “The Freedom of a Christian” , wrote, ““A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” This is something of what Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 9:19-27.

Read 1 Corinthians 9:19-27

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

What did you see?

Structure

  • All things to all people – Submit your life to the gospel (19-23)
  • Like a serious athlete – Submit your body to the gospel (24-27)

All things to all people – Submit your life to the gospel (19-23)

“Though I am free and belong to no one…” A great starting point for Paul’s discussion is to note that nobody owns him. He is not working for a sales company, not bound to some higher order except of course to God himself. He is not bound to the Jewish legal system nor the Pharisees nor his own mother. But this allows him freedom to work out who to serve and how. We’ll see now how he lives out his freedom and what drives him.

“…I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” He will expand on what this means by example in the following verses. His attitude is to submit to people around him with rules and regulations that they feel are important. These regulations mean nothing to Paul in his Christian freedom but for the sake of winning people over he will not become a stumbling block for them. His practice is to see what he ought to abstain from or adhere to in order to bridge relationships and therefore preach the gospel. The maturity in this is that he is willingly submitting to the rules of others without demanding his rights. He is free to do this.

“To the Jew…to those under the law” If you’ve read your bible, it is not difficult to imagine what he means by this. If he is reaching a Jewish community or even attending their synagogue, he will pray like a Jew, dress like a Jew, eat like a Jew. Evangelism 1: make peaceful contact with others. Evangelism 2: win them through words and action.

“To those not having the law…” Just like the previous example, he is referring to the Law of Moses, or the Old Testament and everything flowing from that to do with the old Covenant. He does not mean to the lawless criminals. He is not telling us to break the law and infiltrate the underground to save some through criminal activity. But his freedom in Christ means that he is also not under the law (Verse 20). So he is not disqualified in any way here. But he may cross boundaries that he is not familiar with and crossing boundaries that mean something to some is perhaps his point in all this. We use the phrase ‘cross-cultural mission.’ Anytime we thoughtfully move from our familiar ways in order to walk beside another group for the gospel is cross-cultural mission. Other religions, other ethnic groups, different classes, different ages.

“…though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law…” So, when he says he is free in Verse 19, there is a clause here and that he does not live life in rebellion against God. But there is a distinction made here between the Law of Verse 20 and the law of God in Verse 21. So what is the difference? He defines it as Christ’s law which is helpful but still incomplete. The rule is to love God and love others. God’s kingdom is an ‘other-person-centred’ Kingdom and it is a Jesus above all else Kingdom. This is the law. Galatians 6:2 says that if you carry one another’s burdens then you fulfill law of Christ, and James 2:8 refers to the command to ‘love your neighbour’ as the royal law. We are no longer under the law but we remain in the order that God had created for us all and that is to love.

“To the weak…” If you are not under the law because of the freedom of Christ and yet you are still compelled to this or that, the New Testament describes this category as weak. It also says that the weak ought not be put down but looked after. 1 Cor 8:9-13 and Romans 14 describe this category and how to love one another as weaker and ‘stronger’ Christians. Paul is modelling in Chapter 9 what it looks like to be the stronger Christian and withhold your Christian rights for the sake of others.

“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” Followed correctly, this sentence helps us to push boundaries for the sake of the gospel. We do not need to conform in one way or another but are free to ask, “what if we did this differently” or “do we really need to continue such and such”? Reaching people for the gospel is the goal. It is important not to make the systems and church operating procedure or the church culture that we know and love the goal. This Verse does not mean, however, that we become like everybody else in the world so that nobody would ever even know that we were Christian! There is intentionality in Paul’s words, rather than passive assimilation.

“I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Paul is already a saved man, sins paid for, guilt removed, chosen, loved, adopted and sealed with the Holy Spirit. But to not participate in the work of the kingdom would be a sign of disqualification. We never earn our way to heaven, but we are all called to be disciple-making disciples. The reward we receive for honouring the King is eternal life. This is the gift given to us sinners who have turned to Christ – eternal life (Romans 6:23). In this life, and perhaps in the next (perhaps), we each have different capacity for service in the kingdom. We all ought to consider our opportunities for the gospel and pursue them – not comparing others with ourselves but knowing God and who God has made us. Paul demonstrates his passion to doing everything in his power to serve the King.

This passage, including what comes next (Verses 24-27) may raise the question of rewards in heaven. There is enough language in the New Testament to infer that their might be different responsibilities given but that the reward (singular) that we receive is eternal life. That is a free gift unearned and undeserved. But what we do with this new hope that we have is to tell the world. Be part of the mission. To refuse to get on board is a sign of disinterest in the King. This just makes no sense. (For a brief comment about rewards in heaven, I found this article to be simple and direct: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/you-asked-what-are-the-rewards-in-heaven-jesus-talks-about/ )

Like a serious athlete – Submit your body to the gospel (24-27)

“…in a race all runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” Paul is not inferring that the Christian life is a competition with only one winner. But the example of an athlete who is not interested in second place – that’s a good metaphor for how to dedicate ourselves to the work of the gospel.

“…strict training.” Athletes think carefully about what they will eat, when they will sleep, when and how they will exercise and test their ability. They will get a coach to help them refine their technique. They will abstain from things that distract them from their goal of winning. They want their bodies to be the best they can possibly be in order to win. Paul is an intentional preacher and missionary. He will not let leisure and self-indulgence rule over him. He is for Christ and for winning others to Christ.

“…crown that will last forever.” This refers to eternal life and not a special reward above and beyond that. See the final paragraph of the last section. The principle that Paul is covering here is the principle of active faith. We are running a race here, so get in the race. This world is full of distractions which last momentarily. But the kingdom of God is forever! A day will come when this world is behind us. We will not simply visit heaven – it will be our eternal home. Why do we keep settling for this world as our own? It is a difficult thing to lay aside sin and the things of this world that entangle us, but by faith, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can be disciplined and put the things of this world in its rightful place. They are distractions and temporary joys.

“…someone running aimlessly….a boxer beating the air.” Intentionality, focus, thoughtful about all things. We need to be Christians with the lights turned on! We cannot mature as followers of the crowds. We must grow to know Christ, and know how he has gifted us to serve in his kingdom. How can you be more effective for the gospel? I am not trying to burden anyone with anything they are unable to carry – but we do share a tendency for slothfulness that we need to beat out of ourselves.

“No, I strike a blow to my body and make it a slave…” Paul’s own body that he lives in is not his master but he will rule over it. Churches used to talk about Christian discipline. The disciplines of prayer, bible reading, going to church, being watchful of the pleasures of this life, even exercise and diet and sleep. These are all good things that drive us to have the mind of Christ. The easy path is to watch TV all night and eat take-away food until we fall asleep on the lounge. But how Christian is that? I would argue that it is giving in to the sinful passions of the flesh. We must not allow ourselves to be slaves to our bodies but we have the Spirit who teaches us to say no to sin and yet to righteousness. We, therefore, can make our bodies slave to us.

Titus 2:11-14 (esp 12) is a good passage on this:

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

“…so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” When taken out of context to the whole bible, this can look awfully like our salvation is hanging from a thin thread and we can miss out if we have not been keen enough or good enough. Can we be disqualified? Paul illustrates the Christian life like it is being in a race. The illustration does not mean that if you lose the race then you do not receive eternal life. The purpose of the illustration is to say that if you are in God’s kingdom, qualified by God himself (Colossians 1:12), then run the race like a champion. We are free in Christ but do not take this freedom for granted. Be Christian. Be a missionary Christian. Paul will not take pride in his ministry as if he somehow is good enough for God – he will live a disciplined life, living for the kingdom.

What did we learn?

Christianity is about choice. We can choose to get in the game, running the course until Jesus returns or takes us home, giving everything to God and serving him with our time and bodies. Or we can do the fun-run of life like everybody else – going with the flow, keeping to ourselves, holding fast to our own likes and culture and basically not participating in the kingdom work of evangelism. We have all been blessed with the gospel and also our bodies, our time, our wisdom, our knowledge, our personalities and each of these can be used for winning people for Christ.

Now what?

Topic A: Being self-aware of your gospel gifts. We are not all Billy Graham or St Paul but God has equipped each of us with gifts that we can use for the spreading of the kingdom. What is your personality type, and current freedoms and skills enabling you to do for the work of the gospel?

Topic B: Being the master of your own self. Time management, health and Christian growth are three things that require discipline to see improvement in. Are there areas in life that you could take more control over? Are there areas of life that you can see you are weak in? We cannot stop death and there are many things out of our control. But what could you take more control over for the sake of the gospel?

Topic C: What cultures do you see need crossing for the gospel. Every culture that is not your own is one that you need to build a bridge between in order to get the gospel across. We don’t want people to first have to be anglo and white before they become Christian. What cultural gaps do you see you can and need to step into in order to speak about Jesus?

Study 13 – 1 Corinthians 9:1-18

Supporting the work of the gospel

Discussion Question

While there is free-to-air television, paid streaming services are thriving in business. What is going on there? Can you think of other examples where you might be inclined to pay more money for something that you could get for a lot cheaper or even free?

Background

In 1 Corinthians 6:12 Paul quoted the Corinthians as saying, “I have the right to do anything.” Since then, Paul has discussed sexual immorality as a sin that must be avoided and marriage as a haven for sexual morality but in no means a human right. Then in Chapter 8 he spoke about the freedom to eat whatever you like as well as the freedom to abstain from food for the sake of a brother or sister. So, although there is freedom, there is also wisdom, responsibility and morality.

Read 1 Corinthians 9:1-18

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”k Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

What did you see?

Structure

  • Paul’s claim to apostleship (1-2)
  • It’s his right to be looked after (3-12a)
  • But he did not exercise his rights (12b)
  • It’s a command of the Lord (13-14)
  • But he will not make full use of his rights (15-18)

Paul’s claim to apostleship (1-2)

“Am I not free?” Free from what? Or free to do what? Paul has been talking about Christian freedom and how we are to not treat it as a right but as a freedom – meaning we are equally free to abstain from whatever it is that we are free to do! So, what is Paul free from or to? It could refer to his freedom in Christ, just as his readers are free in Christ. Or it could refer to his freedom from general work to do gospel ministry. The content of what follows seems to be an argument from Paul on how he should expect better treatment from some just as other apostles are treated with respect and financial assistance. There could be a double meaning here because on the one hand he is free to make wise godly decisions and yet he is not free because others are holding back their generosity toward him. Yet, he will conclude, even if he was given the choice, he would prefer not to be assisted by the Corinthians to do what he is obligated to do. What a confusing way to start Chapter 9. He continues to ask rhetorical questions which imply the answer: YES and yet they imply that perhaps the reader isn’t as clear on the answer as Paul would want them to be. Let’s move on.

“Am I not an apostle?” Answer: yes! But again, the implication is that Paul isn’t so sure that his readers know this like he knows it. Words can have multiple meanings until they are used in context and then their meaning becomes clear(er). ‘Apostle’ simply means ‘sent one.’ Paul is using the word as a unique reference to a select bunch if men personally selected by Jesus and sent by Him to spread the good news. While Paul is no different to any other sinner who trusts Jesus for his salvation, he has a special role in the history of that salvation. But Paul is not like every other Christian because he is an Apostle. He is free like every Christian and he has the duty of an Apostle. The Corinthians are being reminded of this. Here are some bible references to increase your knowledge of Apostleship: Luke 6:13; Acts 1; 2:42-43; 4:33; 9:27; Romans 11:13; 1Cor15:9; 2Cor12:12; Eph 2:20; Eph 4:11; Rev 2:2.

“Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” Paul’s apostleship is not based on human election but by personal invitation of our Lord. Note that Paul is laying out some credentials on a basic agreement of the church: that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is our King. If you do not think Jesus to be Lord, then join a different church. And Jesus had personally met Paul (Saul) and called him to be an apostle – a sent one. Acts 9:27; 2Cor 12:12;Gal 1:1; Galatians 1:11-24; Gal 2:8; and the first verse of almost all of Paul’s letters!

“Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?” Paul’s credentials also include his converts. The church in Corinth exists because of his work there. The irony unfolding in this passage is that Paul is free in Christ and yet compelled to preach the gospel. The church were seemingly mistreating their father in the faith. Even when they praise Cephas and boast in him, they fail to love the apostle they owe their eternal life to. Paul is not just an Apostle – he is their Apostle!

“Even though i may not be an apostle to others…” Paul hints here that some may question his validity as an apostle. Being an apostle was a

“”For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” His work in the Lord has resulted in saved souls. Imagine an Apostle with no disciples? God’s work through us is a seal of the work that we do. Gifts and church office are secured by Christians seeing God at work through those talents or according to the office held. If Paul could not name a single convert, you’d be hard pressed to convince anyone of his credentials – but he has churches from multiple cities as a seal of his work in the Lord.

It’s his right to be looked after (3-12a)

“This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.” It’s unclear whether ‘this’ refers to what he has just said in Verses 1 and 2 to defend his position as an apostle and true worker of God, or if it is what follows after this sentence. It probably doesn’t matter in the end because he is making a two part argument that depends on one another. 1) he is an approved worker in God’s kingdom who the Corinthians, if anybody, ought to recognise (Verses 1-2); 2) doesn’t he have as much right as any of the other apostles?

“Don’t we have the right….?” Verses 3-6 remind us of this issue of what our rights actually mean in Christ – all things are permissible…and an apostle has freedoms too. IF Paul wished to, he should be able to marry a believing woman who can partner with him in mission but it seems that his readers are critical of what he is or isn’t allowed to do. We should recall the earliest chapters where the issue was about which is the best leader – Cephas was listed there too. And we should recall chapter 7’s discussion on the place of marriage and Paul’s decision in Christ to remain unmarried. It appears that some in judgment over Paul were placing restrictions on his freedom – restrictions that only Paul is free to place on himself.

“Who serves as a soldier…plants…tends flock…?” Three examples given to clearly illustrate that a worker is not deprived of some goodness in the work also. The real issue that Paul has with the church is getting sharper as it seems like they were not respecting him nor caring for him in his work.

“For it is written…” Paul abandons human logic and refers to the word of God. These are not exclusively different from one another as the word of God is the wisdom of God – but it appears through the wisdom of this world as foolishness – especially at its core. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 which Paul easily applies as illustrative of a greater principle: don’t be an uncaring master – let the worker have joy in the work.

“…sown spiritual seed…reap a material harvest from you?” Although grace is free, the messenger needs to eat.

“…shouldn’t we have it all the more?” Paul is not simply saying that he is an apostle but he is THEIR apostle. Why, after receiving the gospel of eternal life from Paul, are the Corinthians happy to provide financially to legends who have no direct dealings with them and neglect their own father in the faith?

But he did not exercise his rights (12b)

“…we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” Paul’s priority is to preach Christ crucified. If demanding financial assistance got in the way of the message, he denied his right to ask for it. But the time has come for the church in Corinth to grow up and receive a lesson on generosity, thankfulness and responsibility.

It’s a command of the Lord (13-14)

“Don’t you know…?” Paul takes them again to the word of God to remind them of the principle that has been established long ago by God. Lev 6:16, 26; Dt 18:1.

“In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” Paul has taken the Old Testament command and directly applied it to the New Testament equivalent of the priest. In the Old Testament, the priest received and moderated the sacrifice of atonement for the people – and he taught the law to the people (Lev 10:11; 2 Chron 15:3; Jer 18:18; also Ezek 22:26; Micah 3:11). Now see the description of Paul’s office in Romans 15:16, “[God] gave [Paul] the priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God, so that the Gentiles might become an offering acceptable to God, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” The preaching of the gospel is a priestly duty. 1 Timothy 5:17-18 uses the same Old Testament reference of the ox to declare that people who oversee the affairs of the church are to receive payment for their work. It is a command of the Lord.

But he will not make full use of his rights (15-18)

“I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.” It is odd that Paul who would elsewhere say let anyone who boasts, boast in the Lord and not themselves. Yet he is ‘proud’ (perhaps?) of his service to the Lord that has not required financial help from various places including Corinth. So, if he is not trying to coax money from them, what is his purpose of writing this? He explains in Verses 16-18 that he is concerned only about preaching the gospel and is compelled to by his own conviction that he is preaching the God’s message of salvation and so, he simply wants his readers to observe this approach to his ministry and grow themselves up because of his example. That is, he does not teach them in order for them to cough up the dough – but to inform them of the reality so that they can learn to respect the gospel, see the true worth of what they have received and learn to be more mature in their treatment of others.

“…I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach.” Whether they support his work or not, it won’t matter, because he will keep preaching until he dies. He will not stop and wait to receive support. He will keep preaching and keep watching the work of God active in the lives of people.

“…and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.” Just as the proof of Paul’s ministry is in his converts, there is also evidence of his own salvation and true service because it is the work itself that is his reward.

What did we learn?

The bible provides plenty of information to lead us to Godly, wise decisions and practices without treating them as law. The principle of giving for the work of the gospel is clear from Scripture. Yet, it ought not be demanded of people to give. Let the gospel bring new life and let the word of God convict true converts of how to respond to God. The gospel does not cost money and it ought never be a chore to share it and preach it. Recipients of grace are faced with the wisdom of God on how to treat those who, by the testimony of their own work, are called by God to preach the gospel.

Now what?

Topic A: The call of God to be a preacher. Some say that you need to be called by God to enter the ministry and some say that this is an unbiblical use of the word ‘calling’. The bible definitely uses the concept of being ‘called by God’ when talking about salvation. Every born again Christian has been called by God. The bible also describes bible teachers and preachers as being gifts given by God for the church (Ephesians 4). But Paul doesn’t use the word ‘calling’ to describe an overseer or preacher but rather that their lives and abilities lend themselves to this role and that they prove themselves to be fitted for such a task as they get on with the job of preaching and teaching. Paul, of course, describes himself as being ‘called to be an apostle’ but this is different to the topic of being called to be a preacher.

Topic B: Giving financially to the work of God. After reading this passage, giving financially to the work of preaching the gospel ought to make sense. The hope is that every believer will prayerfully and wisely decide how they are able to contribute – when, where and how. If wish to have a mobile phone then we pay for a phone plan. If we wish to own or rent property then we pay for that too. If we want to eat, we usually give money to someone for that. How do we consider being recipients of good bible teaching and of sharing the gospel in the local area and across the globe?

Topic C: Never being a hindrance to the gospel. Paul would not let an issue like money stand in the way of getting the gospel out. He was compelled to preach and would be damned if he stopped. What ways can the spreading of the gospel be hindered? Are there changes we or you could make to allow the gospel to go further?

Study 12 – 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

The believers conscience

Discussion Question

What’s something that you will happily never eat again for as long as you live?

Background

Since Chapter 1 Verse 10 Paul has been issuing the Corinthian church members with ways that they are thinking like the world and not like people who God has called to be holy. They are a people set apart by God to be used for his glory and yet they have behaved like little children who think they know better than their parents. Topics covered have included wisdom of the world verses wisdom from God, the abuse of Christian freedom and how to consider our commitments in this world, especially marriage.

We now move to the topic of Christian freedom in the context of what we do because of what we believe. You can imagine after reading Chapter 8 that, in Corinth, it would be easy to buy meat from the markets that has been sacrificed to a false god. Or that eating in the very place that the sacrifice was made was part of the city’s norm. That scenario may seem foreign to our own culture where we have no awareness of religious ritual behind the food we buy and eat. It’s not quite the same as some meats being labelled as Halal but it may be tied to restaurants we can enjoy a hearty take-away meal from which are decorated with religious statues. Some in our church may also be able to talk about the meals made in their homes of origin which are linked to idol worship. Because of our long Christianised background, however, we may not feel any issues around this subject and so applying it will be tricky.

As a side note, if the subject of halal food becomes a major talking point, it can be helpful to know a little on the subject – here is what I found on the Islamic Council of Victoria’s website. It seems to me that halal meat is not meat sacrificed to any god but is prepared in a way that is kosher (halal) for Muslims.

Read 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.e

4 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.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 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.

7 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. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 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? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 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.

What did you see?

Structure

  • Be careful that our theology does not trump good relationship (1-3)
  • Check off our points of theology – what do we know? (4-6)
  • But check also our understanding of others – what do they know? (7-8)
  • And so refine your application based on theology AND relationship (9-13)

Be careful that our theology does not trump good relationship (1-3)

“Now about…” Paul appears to be responding to questions asked by the church (see 7:1)

“…food sacrificed to idols…” Our world is very religious. All around us are festivals, traditions and practices performed regularly because of a deep-seated belief system. It may not be organised religion. The church in Corinth were subject to buying meat in the markets that were left over from animal sacrifices. Paul gives the advice later in Chapter 10 Verse 25, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience…”

“We know that “We all possess knowledge.”” Where Paul gets this line from is curious. It could be a line from the letter they wrote to him and he is quoting back to them. It could be that it’s not a quote at all but a line from Paul that shouldn’t be in quotation marks (they don’t appear in the Greek). It could be a mixture of both given that Paul writes in Romans 15:14, “I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.” He exclaimed earlier in the letter of 1 Corinthians that they ought to have someone wise enough to make good decisions over simple matters! And that they have the mind of Christ (2:16). Knowledge is a major theme in the bible which becomes wisdom when applied correctly. The fear of the Lord (knowing his character and supremacy) is the beginning of wisdom (reacting in reverence and respect). Now, everybody in the world possesses knowledge, but the context of what follows in Verses 4-6 implies that this is about knowledge of truth. We have brains and our brains are fed by the knowledge of God through his word.

“But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” We have here what appears to be a battle between two goods: knowledge and love. Knowledge in isolation (with your head stuck in the books or listening to sermons and debates) results in pride because we know things. It gives us confidence to speak in areas that we may not even have much experience in. Remember how arrogant the character played by Matt Damon was in Good Will Hunting? Love, on the other hand, is a word that describes care and empathy. Paul will write the great chapter on love toward the end of this book (Chapter 13) where he describes love as patient, kind and it is not proud or self-seeking. It is not opposed to knowledge though because love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). It was once said that if the church in Corinth could understand and digest 1 Corinthians 13 then all of their issues that Paul tackles in this letter would have been solved. Love builds up. It is other person centred and is for the best of the other person.

“Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” As we read the bible, one tool to use is looking for repetitive words. See how often Paul uses the word know! (Just wait till we get to the next sentence!) What could Paul mean by ‘think you know something but you don’t know’? Could it be that Paul is a little sarcastic here? Are his hearers being accused (again) of boasting in their knowledge as if knowledge is power? Let me rewrite Paul’s words as: If you are proud of your knowledge and like to tell people what is true, have you really grasped what it means to know. Knowledge does not lead to power but to wisdom. The Greek says something to the effect of (in it’s clunky fashion) “If anyone thinks “they know” about anything, they don’t know as it is necessary to know.” It seems that knowledge is not considered a place where you land but an ingredient to living – ie wisdom and relationship. Let’s be surprised by the next sentence shall we?

“But whoever loves God is known by God.” Are you still taking note of how the word ‘know’ is used? Here it is not about what we know but about Whom we are known by! Knowledge, in this verse, is not about facts or theory or doctrine but about relationship. We are known by God if we love God. Now, take this too far and you can become someone who thinks they love God but they don’t even know who he truly is because they have abandoned the truth of the bible and fallen in love with their own idea of God. So, knowledge leads to love. Or knowledge is applied in love. And isn’t being known by God the most important treasure? He sees us. He knows us. He cares.

We can easy turn bible reading and Growth Group into an activity of knowing our bibles when it is important for us to know ourselves, know one another and know and be known by God.

Check off our points of theology – what we know (4-6)

“So then…we know that…” Getting back to the issue they wrote about (food sacrificed to idols) Paul begins to check off the things that we do indeed know.

“An idol is nothing at all in the world…” To someone, an idol is everything or one of the most important things, because it represents or embodies a god or spirit or luck or ancestors or I don’t know. But to those who have come to know the living God, an idol is just a clump of wood, clay or shaped metal. Do you think your pencil sharpener has power over you? Well neither does an idol. That is good Christian doctrine and I love how Isaiah 46 compares a nothing idol to the everything God.

“…and that there is no God but one.” And we have now a doctrine that is unique to the Abrahamic based faiths (of which Islam is one). We believe in one God. Christians believe that God is in three persons – it is a truly Christian belief and one that is very important. Deut 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Israel were informed by revelation that God is one. He is not just the God of Israel but the God of creation and therefore the universe.

“For even if there are so-called gods…” Paul recognises that many believe in this god or that god or those gods. We use the word god to describe those with ultimate power and authority. It can be one being or many. It is an english word to describe an idea. It is not a name but a title. That title can be given by us to anyone or anything, because it is just a word. But the reality is this: is there truly an author of life who is sovereign (king) and to whom we should be thankful AND has this being given us knowledge to know him? Who is right about their religion? Well, who is getting their knowledge from God?

“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live;…” This is what we believe. Our belief is based on eye-witness reports, of profound events reported, and on a consistent word that has been written over thousands of years by an army of authors. The evidence is astounding. But this is what we believe. And notice how the Nicene Creed can be heard in this verse? We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

“…and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” The doctrine of the Trinity is tricky, only because it is unique. But why wouldn’t God be unique? At a glance, Paul seems to be saying that there is only one God and we know Him as Father – plus and in addition to the one God, there is this guy named Jesus who is quite significant to us all and therefore we call him Lord – not God. BUT who else can you describe as ‘through whom all things came and through whom we live’?!! The Father is the eternal God, creator of everything – we come from him and all things are made through Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity is tricky, but it is a simple word to describe pieces of a puzzle that the bible hands to us. Some have said that the Trinity makes God confusing and why would God present himself in a confusing way? But God is God and it is amazing that he is complete in Himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are eternally united and other-person-centred. God is not nor ever lonely.

Now these are the things we know theologically. And praise God that we know so much about him! We don’t live in ignorance and we are not left to guess and wonder who is out there and is he or she or it or they looking after us? Are we even on their mind? This world is confusing and crazy and it makes no sense!!! Until I open up the word of God and am told to “be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10.

But check also our understanding of others (7-8)

“But not everyone possesses this knowledge.” Not everyone has been blessed with this clear understanding of the living God and the comfort of knowing that our God is not in competition with other people’s so called gods. For some, the world of many religions is a confusing place. But let’s read on to see who Paul has in mind…

“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…” Well, this has narrowed the market somewhat. We are thinking about people who have come out of a world/family/tradition of offering meat to idols and it is fixed in their minds as something significant. “Their former lives as pagans, in which they believed in the gods, continue to inform their experience in the present.” (Gordon D. Fee, The Epistle to the Corinthians, 1987, p378) Gordon also says one page later, “The fact is that their former way of life is woven into their consciousness and emotions in such a way that they old associations cannot be thus lightly disregarded. For them to return to the place of their former worship would mean once more to eat as though it were truly being sacrificed to the god.” Paul is specifically addressing the issue of food offered to idols but it may cross over to the greater issue of anything that seems like a ‘stumbling block’ to weaker brothers and sisters. Romans 14 has much more to say on the broader topic than what Paul says here in 1 Corinthians 8.

“…and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled.” What is defiled? Their conscience. The principle here is that if you believe something to be wrong for you then it is wrong. It is not because your conscience is like the law but we have a moral obligation to be obedient to what we know to be right. If, in your heart, something seems wrong for a person of God to do or not do, then we must stop and talk to God about it before proceeding. Anyone could do a word-search in bible to read every verse containing ‘conscience’ and be rewarded for it. 1 Corinthians 4:4 says that a clear conscience does not make you innocent. A guilty conscience, however, is almost the same as sin. It is the internal boromoter of righteousness, which falls short of God’s final judgment but is our real-time boromoter that needs to be listened to none-the-less. A ‘weak’ conscience, then, refers to someone’s own guiding principle being too sensitive and not ready for Christian freedom.

“But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” Christian freedom teaches us that food does not bring us closer to or further away from God. Someone said to me recently that eating well and losing weight is good for the spirit – I think they said that it is spiritually important. This verse disagrees. I think they could have substituted the word ‘spirit’ with ‘self-esteem’ and that makes more sense. But there is no food, even food sacrificed to so-called gods, that will exclude you from the kingdom of God and no food that will bring you closer. This message has two applications 1) it teaches us not to worry about what food we do or do not eat for any spiritual reasons and 2) it teaches us that we are equally free to NOT eat something that we have a clear conscience to eat. If we are no worse off if we DON’T eat the food, but our weaker brother or sister will be better off, then let’s not eat!

So, our doctrine does not teach us to do whatever is lawful but directs us to love our neighbour and love God. In this chapter so far we have heard Paul say love God and be known by Him; know your neighbour and love them.

And so refine your application based on theology AND relationship (9-13)

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” We may very well have rights. But it is not our right to insist on our rights and follow through with them. I think that knowing you are free to do something and proclaim something to be right, but holding your tongue or not participating in your right out of love for somebody else for their benefit, is humility. In living freely, we may lead somebody else into their own type of sin. So, we walk slowly and it is also our freedom to say no to perfectly good things for the sake of other people which is way better.

“…sees you eating in an idol’s temple…” This does sound funny to my ears. Like, why would you even want to do that! You can picture a scene where everyone is welcome to come and feast on some really good food, at a great price, with no prior ceremony to the gods needing to be present at but that you know everything you eat has been sacrificed to an idol earlier that day. So, you’re just going out for dinner but it just happens to also be a place of worship for some. It’s not just that you are attending this feast but that you are one of the many in the church who are ‘dragging’ weaker Christians along with you and telling them that it is totally fine to do this. But Paul says you don’t understand what you are asking the weaker person to do.

“So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.” What kind of destruction is this? Eternal? No, because Christ has died for this person. They are, like all who Paul is writing to, called by God to be holy and the church of God. They are saved by the blood of the lamb and there is therefore no condemnation. But their conscience is being defiled (Verse 7) and their weak conscience has been destroyed. Be careful not to import too much into one word. They are being damaged by the work that you are doing in them. Let’s remember too that we are keeping track of the use of the word ‘know’. And here, what they know is destroying somebody else rather than building them up. The antidote? Love! Love builds up but knowledge puffs up.

“…you sin against Christ.” Being unwise with our knowledge does worse than make us look foolish – it leads to sin. Christ died for them and you can’t even remove yourself from a meal for their sake.

“…I will never eat meat again…”  What’s something that you will happily never “eat” again for as long as you live?

What did we learn?

We see here some simple doctrine yet profound about the God we worship – Father, creator, with Jesus Christ our Lord, and the mediator of all creation! And yet how we apply our doctrine must flow from the love that the doctrine produces. Being a person who loves the word but does not demonstrate love for their brother or sister is a person who has not learned properly.

Now what?

Topic A: The relationship between doctrine and love. It is not enough to say that we read the bible to grow our theology or doctrine. But it is not sufficient to say that if we love then we don’t need theology. The bible feeds our doctrine and our doctrine produces faith and love. If it does not feed the latter then it is useless.

Bible → Doctrine → our way of life, love and faith

While on this topic of modelling the relationship between the bible and doctrine, the following flow is also wrong.

Doctrine/how we think → What the bible says

What the above means is that we do not understand what the bible says by starting with what we already know about God, the world and ourselves. The bible feeds and forms our doctrine and not the other way around. For example, we do not hold firmly to something like, “nobody (sinful man) can see God (holy) and live” and then struggle with any time that the bible describes encounters between God and man. Rather, we consider every word of scripture in its context and see the whole bible as an unfolding story that points us to Jesus – God in the flesh! It may seem obvious to say that the bible feeds doctrine and not the other way around but I am convinced that this is really most people’s approach to reading the bible until they learn to stop and listen to what the bible is saying and being ready to change and grow each time we read it.

Topic B: What things can we happily do without for the sake of another person’s conscience? Applying the text with comparisons is tricky since we need to grasp the lesson fully in order to view how broad the application is. You’d have to find an activity that, to someone else, was associated with false worship. It is not about offending people but about encouraging others to participate in something to their own spiritual hurt. I wonder if allowing people to continue to honour Christ with where they worship or how has some weight as long as it is not a limited practice forced on to all. There is no need to ‘cross yourself’ in church but some have this activity associated with the worship of Christ ingrained into them. To force such a person to stop may fit this area – while careful instruction over time would be a wiser choice.