In Corinth during the time of the Apostle Paul there was a problem about eating certain foods. The issue was not so much about kosher verses non-kosher eating but rather about the eating of food that had previously been used as a sacrifice in one of the many temples of the day. Now this may sound strange to us, but it was a commonplace occurrence back then. See, the temples and their sacrifices were simply part of the commerce of the marketplace. Perhaps you sacrificed a small lamb in the ritual of the Temple of Apollo. Then the temple priests would sell it off to the butcher who would put it up for sale at the corner market. So, if you were going over to your friend’s house for barbeque one evening chances are probably rather good some of the food you are going to eat had been sacrificed to an idol of some sort. This led to a real challenge to the Christians in Corinth and even had the danger of splitting their church.
There were those in the church who knew an idol is not a real thing. That is, they knew Apollo was not a real god. He may be called a god and worshipped as a god but there is only one true God. Our heavenly Father is the only God to be worshipped. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the only God to be concerned with. So, if you were to eat food sacrificed to Apollo and sold in the store it does not mean you are worshipping him as a god or that somehow the meat was tainted and sinful because, in the end, there is no other God. So, they know, and they are right in their knowledge, you can go and enjoy your neighbors’ barbeque and not worry about it. Yet, at the same time there are those in the church who have recently come out of idolatry and it is hard for them to shake the connection of the food and the false worship. They are scandalized when they see people eating this food. It is too difficult for them to process.
So, the problem as Paul addresses it, is that those with the right knowledge are getting puffed-up about their actions. They know there is no such thing as an idol, so they just eat and drink and be merry. This boldness on their part causes some of the more skeptical and hesitant individuals to try and join them. Here is where it gets tragic. Some of them begin to eat food sacrificed to idols and their conscience is then consumed with guilt. They feel horrible. They have sinned against their own conscience and now see themselves outside of the blessings of the true God. In this way, the actions of the ones possessing the right knowledge have not enlightened or uplifted their brothers in the faith but has, in fact, harmed them. The focus is not on what is the right or wrong teaching, the focus is on the actions taken. Did you try and serve your brother out of love or did you become a stumbling block to them?
This ought to cause us to take a good look at ourselves. I mean, what if our actions are causing someone else to stumble? What if our actions are causing someone else to feel they are somehow cut off from the gifts of our Lord? That would be horrible. Nobody wants to do that. We want to build up the Body of Christ, to encourage it, not tear it apart.
Now, notice what Paul is not saying. He is not saying the church is not going to be offensive or that people are not going to get their feelings hurt or be uncomfortable from time to time. He is also not saying our knowledge of what is good, right, and salutary is worthless in the life of the congregation. No, what he is saying is when our knowledge leads others to a place where they believe they are outside of the grace of God, it is time to check our knowledge and default instead to love. Knowledge, he says, puffs-up, but love builds-up.
See, the life of the Christian, especially in these latter days, is a bold and dangerous thing to the rest of our world. We live here and now in the assurance that victory is already ours, that the end has already come in Christ. As a result, this life is one of great joy and freedom. In that freedom, we can live in a sort of reckless way toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can seek their betterment, their uplifting, their encouragement as we move through the ebb and flow of daily life. We can, in fact, choose to show love over and again. We can amend our actions, change our plans, and give of ourselves and our resources, for the strengthening and building up of one another.
So, why is this so difficult? Why is it so easy to do just the opposite? I think at the root of the problem is the always present doubt which plagues our lives. We live with this nagging suspicion that perhaps we need to take care of ourselves first. Perhaps we need to make our own stand, build ourselves up before we can be of much use to anyone else. We doubt God will continue to call, enlighten, and strengthen us as He has promised, so we take matters into our own hands. We end up figuring we need to use our freedom to make our point or even to bend our brother’s actions to fit our own desires. We highlight our own individual rights and soon forget to care and love for one another. As we get consumed with what we have the right to do, we begin to view any encroachment upon it as an enemy that needs to be done away with. Which means that we begin to see brothers and sisters in Christ as the opposition. Instead of banding together and making a stand in the face of a world of opposition, we cut and tear at one another.
When we focus on ourselves, when we make our own little kingdoms based on our knowledge or rights or piety, why then we forget who our brothers and sisters in Christ really are. I love how Paul puts it in in his letter to the Corinthians. He says, “By your knowledge, the weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (1 Corinthians 8:11). These people who sit around you, they are not just some random faces, they are not only your neighbor or your friend or your family member. These are those for whom Christ died. He bore the cross for them. He loved them enough to give it all for them, to suffer the forsakenness of His Father in Heaven for their salvation. That is who they are. That is who you are sitting next to.
So, treat them like it! Treat them like ones for whom Christ died, because that is who they are. Love is a powerful and life changing thing. Love builds us up, it unites us, it strengthens us, and it causes us to stand tall and bold in defiance to a world that would cheer our downfall. Love is the key to the life of the Christian. It launches into service and care and compassion for one another. Paul says anyone who loves God is known by God and it is this love which flows out into the lives of one another.
The direction here is important. It is not our love that makes us known by God. It is not our love that redeems us. No, the love is the fruit of being known by God. It is the reality of being called by the Gospel. What you are called to do is live out your faith. Just as Christ died for your brother and sister in Christ, so Christ has died for you. He died for your sins. He rose for your salvation. He abides with you now. Your salvation is secure in Him. So, now you are free, truly free. Free even to eat meat sacrificed to idols. But above all you are free to love, free to be bold and reckless, to open the floodgates and love one another.