1 Corinthians 8:1-6

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 8:1-6

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.


Chapter 8 begins an important discussion for the Church at the time of the writing of the epistle. What to do about food that was offered to idols? This is not a contemporary issue, but the discussion in Chapter 8 will illustrate principles that apply to contemporary issues. We’ll start, by looking at verse 1 in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary, which explains the context from the time in a lot of detail:

(1) Now as touching things offered unto idols.—A new subject is here introduced, and occupies the whole of this chapter. In Corinth and other cities meat was offered for sale which had been used for sacrificial purposes in the heathen temples, having been sold to the dealers by the priests, who received a large share of the sacrifices for themselves, or by the individuals who offered them, and had more remaining of their own share than they could use themselves. Thus, a Christian might unconsciously eat of meat, either at the house of a friend (see 1 Corinthians 10:27) or by purchasing it himself in the public shambles, which had been previously brought in contact by sacrificial usage with an idol. There were some in Corinth who felt no scruple on the subject. An idol was nothing in their opinion. It could neither consecrate nor pollute that which was offered in its temple. Such Christians would, to show how completely and effectively their Christianity had dispelled all their previous heathen superstition, buy meat without caring whence it came, partake of a heathen friend’s hospitality, regardless of what use the meat had been put to, and even join in a repast held in the outer court of a heathen temple (1 Corinthians 8:10), where the meat would almost certainly be what had been saved after the sacrifice. That St. Paul would have done so himself, so far as his own personal feelings alone were concerned, we can scarcely doubt. To him, therefore, those who acted upon his authority appealed upon this subject.

There were others at Corinth, however, who felt some scruples upon the subject. There were heathen converts who had not completely got rid of every vestige of the old superstition, or whose conscience would accuse them of not having wholly given up idolatry if they took any part even in its social aspect: for many social acts, as well as purely religious ceremonies, were in the heathen mind included in acts of worship. And there were Jews, the intensity of whose traditional hatred of idolatry could not allow them to regard as “nothing” that against which Jehovah had uttered His most terrible denunciations, and against which He had preserved their race as a living witness.

To both these sections of the Church the conduct of the more liberal party would prove a serious stumbling-block. The argument used by those who asked St. Paul’s advice was evidently that the Christians have knowledge enough to feel that an idol is nothing, and that, therefore. there can be no harm in partaking of what has been offered to “nothing.” “We know,” says St. Paul, in reply, taking up the words of their own letter, “we know that we all have knowledge: we know that an idol is nothing.” The last clause of 1 Corinthians 8:1 and 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 form a parenthesis; and in 1 Corinthians 8:4 the opening words of 1 Corinthians 8:1 are repeated, and the line of thought which this parenthesis interrupted is again resumed.

Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.—Those who grounded everything on knowledge are reminded parenthetically that knowledge by itself may have a bad effect, and also (1 Corinthians 8:2-3) that there is an element in the consciousness of our knowledge which destroys the truth and purity of that knowledge itself. Knowledge puffs up the man himself. Love builds up the whole Church. The word “edify” has now only a moral significance. Originally it could be applied to moral conduct only figuratively. The substantive “edifice” has retained its original literal meaning. In Spenser “edify” is used in its literal sense; and in Hakluyt’s Travels (1553) the “edification” of the castle of Corfu is mentioned. The use made by St. Paul of this figure is of some importance. The word is used only by St. Paul, and once by St. Luke (Acts 9:31), and the idea which it conveys is not so much the improvement of the individual as the building-up of the whole Christian edifice. We have come to speak of an “edifying discourse” if it helps the individual. St. Paul would have spoken of an “edifying work” if it built up the Church. “We are sometimes too apt to treat Christianity as if it were monolithic” (Howson). (See 1 Corinthians 12:191 Corinthians 14:31 Corinthians 14:51 Corinthians 14:121 Corinthians 14:17Ephesians 4:12-161 Thessalonians 5:11.) It is worth noting that the word used in the original in Hebrews 3:3-4Hebrews 9:11, is quite different from the word employed, here and elsewhere, by St. Paul.

The dispute within the Church comes down to a conflict between the head knowledge of freedom, and the ways in which acting that head knowledge might not be perceived as loving Conitinuing on with Ellicott in verse 2:

(2) If any man think that he knoweth any thing . . . .—There must be a moral as well as a merely intellectual element in knowledge if it is to be true knowledge. Without love to guide us in its use it is not an operative knowledge, and so does not fulfil the true end of knowledge.

It has been suggested (Stanley in loc) that “not yet” has here the force of “not in the infirmities of their mortal state;” but such an interpretation introduces altogether a new element of thought, to which there is no antithetical explanation in what follows.

(3) If any man love God.—This explains the nature of the love which edifies. Love to God, and therefore love to man, builds up the whole Christian communion. The man gets outside the mere selfish thought of his own indulgence in his liberty. There is the under-thought in these words (“the same is known of Him”) of the identity between knowing God and being known of Him. The latter is the source of the former. Like water rising to its own level, the love and the knowledge rise as high as their source.

Knowledge must be guided by love, or else it is deficient. Knowledge without love is pride, which can then in turn lead to abuse. Continuing next with The Pulpit Commentaries and its note on verse 4:

1 Corinthians 8:4

We know that an idol is nothing in the world. After his brief but pregnant digression on the nature of true knowledge, he returns to these questions, and probably once more quotes their own words. They had given this reason for open and public indifference with respect to meat offered to idols. With respect to idols, three views were possible to Christians: either

(1) that they were “demons”—the spirits of deified dead men; or

(2) that they were evil spirits—a favorite view among the Jews (via 1 Corinthians 10:20Deuteronomy 32:172 Chronicles 11:15Psalms 106:37Revelation 9:20); or

(3) that they were merely. That there is none other God but one. This belief is the signature of Judaism, according to their daily and oft repeated shema (Deuteronomy 6:4, etc.).

idol = εἴδωλον eídōlon, i’-do-lon; from G1491; an image (i.e. for worship); by implication, a heathen god, or (plural) the worship of such:—idol.

no real existence = οὐδείς oudeís, oo-dice’; from G3761 and G1520; not even one (man, woman or thing), i.e. none, nobody, nothing:—any (man), aught, man, neither any (thing), never (man), no (man), none (+ of these things), not (any, at all, -thing), nought.

We know from context, in the rest of the New Testament, that Paul certainly believes in demons and evil spirits. However, the Bible often comments that idols of wood or stone cannot do anything. Ex:

For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.Jeremiah 10:3-5

Paul seems to be referring to the physical object itself, when he discusses idols, rather than a spiritual being. It is important to point out here, as well, that Paul takes idolatry very seriously. Referring to an idol as nothing does not make light of idol worship. Think back to 1 Corinthians 6:

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Continuing on to verse 5 in The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 8:5

For though there be that are called gods. The verse is a limitation of the phrase which perhaps he had quoted from their letter. There are, indeed, demons, and there are created things, like the host of heaven and the powers of nature, which are called gods and pass for gods. Gods many, and lords many. Perhaps a passing allusion to the use of elohim, gods, for men in great positions, and to the habitual deification of Roman emperors even in their lifetime. The title “Augustus,” which they all had borne, was to Jewish ears “the name of blasphemy” (Revelation 13:1), implying that they were to be objects of reverence. Indeed, the worship of the Caesars was, in that strange epoch of mingled atheism and superstition, almost the only sincere cult that was left.

Here Paul acknowledges that there are entities which are worshipped, but he points out that despite this there is only one God worthy of worship.

The use of gods, in this context, can sometimes be difficult for a modern monotheist. We tend to think of “god” as having specific traits: Omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc. Historically, though, “gods” were often perceived by pagans as limited. The Greek gods, for example, were limited, imperfect, and often suffered tricks and defeats at the hands of other gods. We might think of “gods” in the general sense as encompassing the one true God but also encompassing angels or evil spirits. We can finish with The Pulpit Commentaries note on verse 6:

1 Corinthians 8:6

But to us. The “but” means “nevertheless.” We Christians only regard these “gods,” “lords,” and “idols” as nonexistent, except so far as they correspond to created and material things. The Father. Not only by creation and preservation, but much more by redemption and adoption, and as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 8:15Galatians 3:26). Of whom are all things. All things, even including the gods of the heathen, “visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all firings were created by him and for him,… and by him all things consist” (Colossians 1:16Colossians 1:17). And we in him; rather, into or for him. He is the End and Goal as well as the Author of our existence. One Lord. The only real “Lord,” though the Roman emperors often took the title, and one of them—Domitian—insisted on the use of the expression, “Dominus Deusque noster” (“Our Lord and God”), as applied to himself (Suetonius. ‘Domit.,’ 13). By whom are all things. “By whom,” as the Agent of creation and redemption (John 1:3John 1:10Hebrews 1:2). And we by him. “By him,”as the Mediator and the Giver of life (Romans 11:36, “Of him, and to him, and through him are all things”).

There other other spiritual entities, but there is only one God, and the other spiritual entities are nothing next to Him. Conveniently, for the sake of clarity, this verse lets us know that Paul’s perception of what an idol is – demon, evil spirit, or inanimate object – does not really matter with respect to the advice that he will provide in the rest of the chapter.

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