Lesson 28: "We Know That an Idol is Nothing" (I Corinthians 8:4)
I Corinthians 8:1-13
This is Lesson#28. Welcome again! The Corinthians asked about three questions concerning marriage. Paul dealt with the marriage questions in what we call I Corinthians chapter 7. Then in chapter 8, Paul answered another question submitted by the Corinthian brethren; however, this question was on another subject: food offered to idols. Please grasp quickly, no one at Corinth urged or even suggested the worshipping of idols. The question involves eating meats consecrated or sacrificed to idols. Not worshipping idols! The word "touching" in verse 1 seems to be a bad choice of words in the KJV. The thought is the same as at the beginning of chapter 7, "Now concerning" meat offered to idols in this case. The question did not involve a literal "touching." The question involved eating, as we shall see. Let's read the entire chapter, first. Then, we'll come back and try to add a little perspective before we analyze. Are you ready? Let's read! We'll start at I Corinthians 8:1.
"Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth. And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of him. And concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one. For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) but to us 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. Howbeit 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; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 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. But take head lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idols' temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend."
All right, before we go back to verse 1, let's talk about idols. What is an idol? Well, that's so elementary that I fear I may insult your intelligence by such a question. Yet, the literal practice of idolatry is almost completely foreign to us. You would agree, no doubt, that worshipping of idols was just pure ignorance stewed in superstitions and topped-off with plain stupidity. However, when we come to understand that, we seem to immediately breath within ourselves a sense of superiority that causes us to disdain, look down upon and abominate those steeped in idol worship. Why is that? How do you explain that superiority complex that seems to immediately grip us? What's the difference? Well, there can be no question that such homemade apathy is generated and constructed from a substance that Paul describes in that big word "knowledge" at the end of his first sentence and the first word in sentence number two. Once one understands there is a living God [capital "G"] that created heaven and earth and us, then idolatry logically becomes foolishness. And yet, idolatry at the time of Paul had been practiced for thousands of years. Passibly far more human beings have worshipped pagan gods [with a little “g”] than have ever worshipped the God of Heaven. How pathetic is such a thought! Yet, it’s true. Such a wretched thought helps us to see that Christianity and the one true God cannot be fathomed by the intellect of a mere man. That clearly demonstrates to me that the human family received this by nothing less than revelation. Consequently, in that light, we become rationally obligated to purge ourselves of that perceived superiority bit generated in us (we have already admitted ) by that stuff Paul put his finger on in ;his very first verse called “knowledge.” And Paul put is so simply: "Knowledge puffeth up." So true! Just a small dose seems to destroy any compassion we might have had for the poor idolater steeped in such ignorance. What's the difference in us? He or she lacks only that one little dose of that same little capsule called "knowledge" we were somehow fortunate enough to acquire through grace. Yet, it's so easy to get tangled and stuck-up in our knowledge and never think once in bilateral terms. Reread Paul's second verse here in chapter eight. "If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know." Then in verse 3, Paul explains that any such knowledge must be tempered with love; else that very knowledge skews our perspective. "Knowledge puffeth up!"
In the Mosaic law the first commandment was: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Then the second commandment continued: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them..." (Ex. 20:3-5). Yet, as repulsive as it may sound to us, the Israelites could hardly stay away from idolatry. Even Solomon, the wisest mere man that ever lived, found his down fall in permitting and even encouraging idolatrous worship. However, it was prophesied in the Old Testament that such would be done away in the Christian age. Do you remember Zechariah 13:2 that said the Lord would cut off the unclean spirits, the prophets and the idols? He said, "I will cut off the names of the idols out of the land?" Do you know anyone today that literally bows down to images and worships pagan gods? Do you know the names of those gods? Only from history! Now, did Jesus or the apostles ever give any commands on that subject? Well, do you remember the so-called conference on circumcision in Acts 15, where Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles at Jerusalem? Do you remember the little letter the apostles at Jerusalem sent to Antioch? Possibly the oldest document in the New Testament, we have said. What did they write? In Acts 15:28-29, they said, "it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; [what necessary things] that ye abstain from meats offered to idols." Then three more necessary things followed. But, why abstain from meats offered to idols? Well, Paul explained why in I Corinthians 8, where we just read.
Let's get back to the streets of Corinth. Try to bring all you know about that city and the church at Corinth to bear upon this situation in light of Nero and the national scene that we have discussed. One of the greatest attractions in Corinth was a pagan temple rebuilt by one of the greatest of the Caesars, the temple of Venus. Idol's temples, (as mentioned in verse 10) a place where one could go and find food already prepared and the meats consecrated to which ever pagan god you chose, were apparently like saloons today; they were on every corner. Beyond that, much of these meats made their way into regular channels of the meat marketing industry apparently. The Jewish people, trying to follow the Mosaic law, had their own butchers, and the meat had to be stamped "kosher" as a means of marketing control. Now, let's pretend! As a child, did you ever say, "let's play like"? So, let's play like: YOU are a young convert to Christianity in Corinth. You grew up in a pagan home. As long as you can remember your food and particularly the meats were consecrated to idol gods, and you were told all the mythological stories about the pagan gods (with a little "g"). You were innocent and very conscientious as a young person, and guided by that false information (or knowledge) in your formative years, you developed a tender conscience in such matters. Then by God’s grace you learned about the God of Heaven, the one true God. You obeyed the gospel or the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ and that made you a member of the Corinthian church. It was a great shock at first to learn your ancestors were all wrong. Most of them, after your conversion, look at you as a dumb-dumb and a traitor. So, add to your knowledge shock of the one true God just plain rejection by some in your family. You believe in Jesus. You want obey Jesus and serve the living God.
You love to tell the old, old story and encourage others to obey and be saved, though your knowledge was yet small. Maybe, some day, you will be the salvation of the rest of your family. You attend every worship service, take the Lord's supper, pray and sing enthusiastically and give of your means as Paul and Apollos taught you to do. You listened attentively to every lesson presented by the prophets and teachers at Corinth. Now, we're still pretending! Are you in there? Today after worship you are invited to Brother Justus' home for a Sunday dinner. Brother Justus owned the church building, you remember. Or possibly you are invited by Brother Crispus, or Brother Gaius, or Brother Aquila and Sister Priscilla, or by Stephanas, or Fortunatus, or Achaicus, or Chloe, or Quartus, or Erastus the city treasurer, or possibly by some other of the brothers and sisters in Christ included in that statement of Luke in Acts 18:8, "MANY of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized." Now, pretend we're eating dinner (are you still pretending?) and the host or hostess passed a beautiful pot roast, and while you're taking out a nice helping he said: we got a good deal on this meat over at the temple of Zeus. He continued to comment about those dumb people that worship idols saying: "I wouldn't care if it was consecrated to Nero, myself. But, I like their prices." About that time, you get a little queasy in the stomach and think to yourself mentally: if I eat this I am really worshipping Zeus. Suddenly, you can't do it! It's not the meat; it looks good, but it's just the thought. You think, I want to obey Jesus. Then the thought comes: if I were to go back and worship Zeus again, I would be lost forever. Lord help me to be strong! And your appetite is gone. The brother that invited you for dinner notices you are a little white and you are not eating. You are honest enough to confide in this strong brother your feelings and you even tell him how dedicated you used to be to Zeus. Instead of being sympathetic, he begins to lambaste you with statements about your weak faith and your inferior understanding of the Christian religion and your lack of dedication. Are you still pretending? Then, brother so-and-so begins to make public statements about you and your faith, your knowledge, and how weak you are. How would you feel? Is it possible your faith could be destroyed? Might you begin to feel inferior as a Christian?
Your Christian brother invited you to dinner; he wanted to help you. And, you must admit, his knowledge of idols was correct. Idols are nothing! Paul said in verse 4, "we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and there is none other God but one." So, what he said to this young Christian convert was actually correct, information wise. Now put an eye on verse 7, (imagine you can hear Paul's voice,) "Howbeit 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; and their conscience being weak is defiled." Can you understand that? Take away that superior knowledge that puffeth up for a moment and come down and put your feet on the solid ground as an humble disciple of the Lord Jesus. Paul has a point! We can use knowledge, legitimate knowledge, to beat down a weak brother, offend him and strip him of his faith, at least in an expressive way. Brethren, that should not be! Then, what's the solution? Should I refuse knowledge and pray for ignorance? Of course not! The problem was not with knowledge. The problem, Paul said in verse 3, had to do with that four-letter word, spelled L-O-V-E. It was a contextual problem. Our understanding, out of context, is not true understanding. You see, we can flounder on knowledge at the expense of love and compassion for our brother. Love for God and compassion for our brothers and sisters in Christ is our whole duty and the way we obey Jesus. He said, "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matt. 25:40)
Down in verse 9, Paul gave this warning: "Take head lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak." Jesus told the apostles (back in Mark 10:42-45) "Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." You see, the Christian religion is a taught religion. We must hear it! Faith cometh by hearing, Romans 10:17, but our faith must remain in Jesus, not our ability to quote scripture or our superior knowledge. Thus, our knowledge must be used to help us serve the Lord Jesus better, not to tear down the faith of a weak brother. The principle involved here goes back to the very first thing Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, called the beatitudes (Matthew 5). Do you remember? This would be a good time to review the beatitudes...please do! Our tape time is short; so, let's try to close out I Corinthians 8. Look at Paul's question in verse 11, "through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?" And even Paul admitted we have certain liberties in Jesus (verse 9), yes. However, at times Christians may have to relinquish some basic rights in order to put Jesus first. There can be no greater example than the example Jesus gave on the cross at Golgotha. That's Paul's point at the end of verse 11. America in the last 30 or 40 years has put so much emphasis upon civil rights that we have lost brotherly love and consigned the golden rule to rubbish. We shall pay for that mistake in more taxes and in incalculable human suffering. That kind of thinking has even infiltrated some congregations. Many will be lost. What if today you ate in a beer joint where liquor is served. The food may be just as good, or even better. You may have drunk nothing or done nothing in there that was un-Christian. Yet, what could your example do to a young Christian? Even though we don't have idols on every corner as the Corinthians did, we have the same basic problems. It's called human nature. We may live in a different place, with a different civil government and a different environment, but human nature is the same. Paul's principle in I Corinthians 8 is just as fresh as that day in Ephesus when Paul wrote and sent this letter across the Aegean Sea where Paul's sun sank each evening to the west. A great lesson! Let's learn it! Have a good day!