Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13 Christian Freedom

As we heard the reading earlier, you might have wondered what it all has to do with us. All the talk of meat sacrificed to idols and divisions in the church. Yet as we’ll see, the Scriptures are God’s word for us and to us today.

If you remember before Christmas, although it seems a long time ago now, we were working our way through 1 Corinthians. When we came to the start of chapter 7, we found that Paul had begun to answer some specific questions from the church in Corinth. The first one he dealt with was marriage and singleness. Now, he turns his attention to the next problem; that of meat sacrificed to idols.

The problem was a common one in Corinth. You see, if someone was going to have a feast, they would often have it in a pagan temple. Some of the meat would be sacrificed to the idol of the temple, some would go to the priest, and the rest would be used for the meal. One question was whether Christians could take part in these meals – could they enter pagan temples and eat meat which had been offered or dedicated to an idol, a false god?

But even more widespread than that – if the priest in the temple was being given a third of every steak or every animal that was being sacrificed, they would have far more than they could ever eat. The remainder, then, was sold in the market – so that if the Christian went into the equivalent of Tesco or Asda, or the local butchers’ shop in Corinth, the meat had probably already been sacrificed to an idol. Could they then buy that meat? What to do!

As if that wasn’t enough, the Corinthians were very divisive people. Remember the diagnosis in chapter 1 – where they selected their favourite leader and ignored the rest? Again, when it came to the matter of the meat, there were divisions – between the strong and the weak. It appears that this particular question came from the strong Christians, who knew that they could eat whatever they wanted, as they enjoyed their freedom in Christ. They are asking what should be done about the weaker Christians who didn’t know as much as them.

As we look at the passage, we’ll see firstly the problem of their knowledge; then the truth of their knowledge; and finally how to build up other Christians.

The strong Christians were the Christians who had their doctrine all sorted. Soundly orthodox, they had a good knowledge. They were the type of people we would like to have as members at St Elizabeth’s. They knew a lot, and were theologically strong. They knew that they could freely eat the meat, and even go into the pagan temples, because idols don’t really exist – they’re just blocks of stone or wood. Surely Paul would side with them, and tell the weaker Christians to wise up, and learn more so that they would get with the programme.

But as Paul begins to answer the question, he rebukes those who claim to have so much knowledge. Do you notice the quotation marks in verse 1? The Corinthians claimed that ‘all of us possess knowledge’ – which enabled them to do what they wanted. But Paul points out the danger of their position: ‘knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.’

Paul is saying that these Corinthians with their knowledge are like a balloon. Inflated, puffed up, full of pride. If I can use an expression, they’re full of themselves. That’s the danger of knowledge. The holder looks down on those who don’t know as much. So what’s the answer? What’s the contrast? Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Rather than puffing up like a balloon, Paul wants these Christians to love one another, which builds one another up. A balloon wouldn’t hold your weight, but a brick wall would.

Besides, Paul goes on, going on about knowledge is pointless, because there is so much more that we don’t know; no matter how much we do know. Rather, the important thing is to love God – because then you are known by God. You would expect Paul to say that if you love God, then you know God – but no, he turns it around – the important thing is to be known by God.

Having laid out the foundation, and given the warning about the danger of knowledge, Paul goes on to affirm the truth of such knowledge. Again, he’s quoting here from the Corinthians’ letter, that ‘an idol has no real existence’ and that ‘there is no God but one’. Absolute truth, affirmed by the unity of God, the one God, God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In verse 5, the titles god and lord were used to describe the idols. The idol-worshippers would call their idols god and lord. But Paul subverts that and uses the title for the one true God, the Father, and the one true Lord, Jesus Christ.

So what do you expect Paul to do now? If you’re one of the Corinthian strong Christians, you expect Paul to tell the weak ones to wise up, and learn these basic truths. Idols don’t exist, and there’s only one God, so therefore you can eat anywhere, and anything. This is what you expect, but it’s not what Paul says.

Look at verse 7. Paul lays out how the strong believer should deal with the weak believer. These weak believers have been converted out of the culture of idols, and therefore still act as if they truly exist. To eat this meat in a temple, for them, troubles their conscience, because they don’t think they should be doing it. Yet because others do it, then they also do it – despite the inner turmoil.

In the end, the weak Christian isn’t acting out of faith, having prayerfully resolved their own course of action. Instead, they’re acting based on the opinions of others (which is really just man-made rules or a new form of legalism), and against their own conscience.

You might be asking, what does this look like today? How does this relate to life in Dundonald? There may well be cultural ties that some of us bring when we were converted that can cause our consciences to twinge.

Think of two people – Joy and Stan. Joy has been a Christian for a long time, and has lots of knowledge. She knows that the Bible condemns drunkenness, but that there’s no harm in going into a pub, and having one drink. She might even have some opportunities for evangelism while she’s in there. But Stan had struggled with drink for a while, before being converted. For him, drinking is a destructive thing, and he doesn’t want anything to do with it. But he sees Joy go into the pub, so thinks that if Joy can go in, then it must be ok, and so he goes in too, and has a drink, even though his conscience is screaming no. Can you see how this small example relates? Joy has her knowledge, but Stan wasn’t acting out of faith – he was torn on the inside, and may end up more damaged and confused as a result of seeing Joy do something that is fine for her.

This could be seen in any number of areas. It might be that someone reads horoscopes, or went to palm readers or fortune tellers.

Do you see the amazing verdict that Paul has on the actions of the strong Christian towards the weak? In using their rights and doing as they please, they destroy the weaker Christian. Their actions cause destruction in the person’s conscience. Rather than building each other up, the person with knowledge who lacks love is like a wrecking ball swinging to destroy.

How serious this is! Not only is it destroying their brother – one of the family, a close tie; but it destroys the brother for whom Christ died. Jesus valued this person so very much that he died for them, and yet the strong Christian devalues them and destroys them by their unthinking actions.

But not only that – to destroy a brother is to sin against your brother – and a sin against our brother is a sin against Christ. Think of Paul on the road to Damascus. He had been persecuting Christians, arresting them and was even breathing threats and murder against them. Then he encounters Jesus – who says: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ A sin against a Christian is a sin against the Lord himself. To sin against a part of the body of Christ is to sin against Christ himself.

While idol sacrifices and meat may not be an issue in St Elizabeth’s today, do you see the principle at stake here? God’s word completely blows any individualism in the church out of the water. It’s not just about you and God; it’s about you, God and those around you. Seeing how your actions affect other believers – are you building up or are you tearing down?

How can you know if you’re building up or tearing down if you don’t know those around you? In order to support each other, and build each other up, then we have to spend time with folk, getting to know them, and getting to know where we need that support.

Knowledge is good – together we seek to learn more about God through his word Sunday by Sunday. But much more important is our love for one another – acting out of love; avoiding sinning against our brothers by causing their consciences to scream. In the last verse, we see how committed Paul was to this deep fellowship of love.

‘If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.’ Paul would become a vegetarian if it would help his weaker brother.

As we think about God’s word today, what can we do in response? Maybe you need to think about where you are on the journey. Are you strong and look down on others? Perhaps you can develop your love for those around you and encourage them. Maybe you think yourself weak, and you have terrible struggles. Speak to another Christian, Tim or myself, and find encouragement.

You see, it could be that on some matters, you’re strong but on other issues, you’re still weak. While you look for love and grace to grow in your weaknesses, don’t look down on those who struggle in your strong areas. We’re in this together, and need to build each other up.

And as we grow together, and discover the struggles of others, we may well have to re-evaluate things that we do which hurt or wound those around us. Let’s pray for God’s grace in this.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 11th January 2009.


  1. Very helpful sermon.Thank you.

  2. Great explanation. answered a question I've been wondering about for a long time.

  3. very useful sermon for laity and the pastors too.

  4. The message has taught us what Christian freedom is.