We Know That We All Have Knowledge
Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him. (8:1–3)
Things sacrificed to idols is one word in Greek and can be translated simply as “idol sacrifices.” The sacrifices were food offerings, symbolically presented in worship to the god in whose temple they were given. The particular issue was that of eating food that had been offered in those sacrifices.
The Greeks and Romans were polytheistic, worshiping many gods. They had a god, or a group of gods, for every circumstance, every need, and every activity of any consequence. They had a god of war, a goddess of love, a god of travel, a goddess of justice, and on and on. They were also polydemonistic, believing in many evil spirits. They believed the air was filled with evil spirits of all sorts.
Giving food sacrifices, which were usually meat, was of great importance in regard to both of those beliefs. It was believed that the evil spirits were constantly trying to invade human beings and that the easiest way to do that was to attach themselves to food before it was eaten. The only way the spirits could be removed from food was through its being sacrificed to a god. The sacrifice therefore served two purposes; it gained the favor of the god and cleansed the meat from demonic contamination.
Idol offerings were divided into three parts. One part was burned on an altar as the sacrifice proper. The second part was given as payment to the priests who served at the temple, and the remaining part was kept by the offerer. Because of the large number of offerings, the priests were not able to eat all of their portion, and they sold in the marketplace what they did not need. That meat was highly valued because it was cleansed of evil spirits, and was thus the meat served at feasts and to guests.
The eating of meat offered to idols therefore had the same two associations for Christians, especially for those who had grown up in that religious atmosphere. The meat was associated with pagan gods and goddesses, having been part of an offering to them, and it was associated with the superstition that it had once been contaminated by evil spirits.
It was almost impossible for a believer who had any personal contact with Gentiles to avoid facing the question of eating idol sacrifices. Most social occasions, including weddings, involved pagan worship of some sort, and a great many of the festivities were held in temples. Idol food was always served. If a relative was getting married, or a long-time friend was giving a banquet, a Christian either had to make excuses for not attending—which he could not do indefinitely—or he had to eat food that he knew had been part of an idol offering.
Some sensitive Gentile believers refused to buy such meat because it brought back memories of their previous pagan lives or because those who saw them buy it might think they had reverted to paganism. Also many believers, both Gentile and Jewish, were reluctant to eat at the homes of pagan Gentiles—and even of some Christian Gentiles—because they were afraid of being served that meat. Such food could only be doubly unclean according to Jewish dietary law—from which many Jewish Christians found it hard to separate themselves.
On the other hand, some Christians were not bothered. To them, meat was meat. They knew pagan deities did not really exist and that evil spirits did not contaminate food. They were mature, well-grounded in God’s truth, and their consciences were clear in the matter. That group gave Paul the three reasons for freely exercising their liberty.
Paul’s responses to the reasons were directed to that group of more mature believers. But his responses centered on the other group. He told the mature believers not to focus on their liberty but on the spiritual welfare of those who were less mature. He was saying, “Don’t look at your freedom; look at their need. Your own freedom should be limited by your love for fellow believers. If you love them as God calls you to love, you will not use your liberty in any way that will offend, confuse, or weaken their faith.”
The first reason that had been given for exercising freedom is summarized by Paul: we know that we all have knowledge. The statement was true but egotistical. It reflected a feeling of superiority. The believers who made the claim were not suggesting they were omniscient, but that they had more than enough knowledge and understanding of God’s Word to know that pagan gods and idols were not real and that food sacrificed to them was still just food. They knew that eating the food could not contaminate them spiritually, that it had no affect on their Christian lives. They felt totally free to eat whatever they wanted, no matter what others thought.
But they are reminded that knowledge makes arrogant. Those believers were mature in knowledge, but were not mature in love. Love edifies, or builds up others; and that edification they did not have. They were solid in doctrine but weak in love. They were strong in self-love but weak in brotherly love.
Of all the apostles, Paul is least likely to be charged with belittling doctrine, the knowledge of God’s Word. He was the theologian’s theologian. “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction,” he tells the Romans (15:4). He prayed that the Colossian believers might “be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9) and encouraged them to be “renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created [them]” (3:10). In the long list of ways in which his ministry was commended, Paul includes “knowledge” and “the word of truth” (2 Cor. 6:4–10). In that same letter he commends the Corinthians themselves for their “faith and utterance and knowledge” (8:7). Numerous times the apostle tells those to whom he is writing that he did not want them to be ignorant about certain truths (Rom. 1:13; 11:25; 1 Cor. 10:1; 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 4:13).
Knowledge of God’s Word is extremely important. It is impossible to believe or obey what is not known. The Lord told Israel, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest” (Hos. 4:6). Among other things, God is “He who teaches man knowledge” (Ps. 94:10). The Bible places no premium on ignorance.
But knowledge, even of God’s Word, is not enough. It is essential but not sufficient. By itself knowledge makes arrogant. To have love but no knowledge is unfortunate; but to have knowledge and no love is equally tragic.
Among the many spiritual problems of the Corinthian Christians was arrogance, a word Paul uses six times in relation to them. They were proud and self-satisfied. They had knowledge without love. As they are reminded several chapters later, a person who has all sorts of abilities and virtues but has no love is “nothing,” and “love does not brag and is not arrogant” (1 Cor. 13:1–4).
Knowledge that idols were not real and that idol food was not spiritually corrupted was right knowledge and helpful knowledge. But by itself it turned inward those who had it. They saw the truth as it applied to them and nothing else. They were insensitive as to how it might apply to those who did not “have this knowledge” (1 Cor. 8:7). Flaunting the liberty of this knowledge could seriously offend other believers. And as Jesus said, it would be better to be drowned than to offend another child of God (Matt. 18:6–14).
The truly well-rounded Christian thinks and acts in two ways: conceptually and relationally. He has the ability to understand biblical truths and the ability to relate them to people, to himself, and to others. He has knowledge plus love, because love is the medium through which truth is to be communicated. “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Knowledge by itself brings arrogance, not maturity.
Division in the church may be caused by problems of behavior as well as problems of doctrine. When some believers insist on exercising their liberty without regard for the feelings and standards of fellow believers, the church is weakened and frequently divided.
Love edifies, and the knowledgeable believer without the edification of love is not as mature as he is inclined to think. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know. The unloving orthodox are arrogant but not edified. They have right knowledge but not right understanding.
The truly edified person has some idea of what he has yet to learn. Someone has defined knowledge as “the process of passing from the unconscious state of ignorance to the conscious state of ignorance.” Ignorance does not know that it does not know. True knowledge does not know and knows it.
But if anyone loves God, he is known by Him. It is impossible to know God and not love Him. Loving God is the most important evidence of a right relationship to Him. Without love for God, made possible by His love for us (1 John 4:19), we can have no right knowledge of Him, because we will not have a right relation to Him. The only ones who know God and are known by Him are those who have a love relationship with Him (John 14:21). Knowledge is important, immensely important. But, as everything else, without love it is nothing. Loving and being loved by God is everything. Paul here implies that if one is loved by God and loves God, he will also love other believers, whom God loves (1 John 5:1).
Love is the key to behavior. Knowing what is not forbidden is not enough. When we “do not merely look out for [our] own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4), we are on the road to mature, loving Christian behavior.
Love sets the limits of Christian liberty.
1 Paul begins this section with peri de (“now about”), a phrase that most scholars see as part of Paul’s stock response to the letter that the Corinthians have sent to him asking for his advice on certain issues (see Overview, 7:1–40). The word translated “food sacrificed to idols” (eidōlothytos, GK 1628) appears to have been a Greek word coined in Christian circles in the first century precisely because of concern over the issue of how to handle food that had been offered to idols. In a society filled with idols and pagan temples, what should a Christian do?
Paul’s first comment is, “We know that we all possess knowledge.” As with his first peri de in 7:1, so here too he appears to begin with a quotation from the letter written to him. Whatever was happening in Corinth related to the eidōlothyta (see below), at least some in Corinth were justifying their position by claiming a certain knowledge (gnōsis, GK 1194), presumably the knowledge that idols, in fact, were only things of human manufacture and did not represent any true reality (v. 4). Paul grants the fact that believers can champion this knowledge, but such knowledge can easily lead to pride and arrogance—an issue he has already dealt with at several points in this letter (see 1:29, 31; 3:21; 4:6, 18, 19; 5:2, 6).
What is far more important than having knowledge is “love,” especially the issue of whether this love is being exercised in building up one another as believers. The verb for “builds up” (oikodomeō, GK 3868; NIV, “is constructive”) is repeated as Paul begins to summarize this entire discussion in 10:23, and it is an important principle to follow in the exercise of spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, which God has given to edify and build up the church (14:3, 5, 12, 26; cf. 12:7). It is also significant to Paul that “love … is not proud [or “puffed up”]” (13:4; the same word as in 8:1).
8:1 / As the opening words show, Paul is again responding to an issue brought to his attention by the Corinthians. The niv presents Paul’s introduction of the issues and then moves to state the Corinthians’ position after punctuating with a colon. The nrsv goes further in suggesting that Paul is probably quoting the Corinthians’ own position, perhaps from their letter to him, by placing quotation marks around “all of us possess knowledge.” One may speculatively reconstruct the imaginary conversation Paul presents this way:
|Paul:||Now about the food sacrificed to idols:|
|Corinthians:||“We know that we all possess knowledge.”|
|Paul:||Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.|
We have already explored Paul’s response to and critique of the Corinthians’ insistence on and preoccupation with knowledge and wisdom in the commentary on earlier chapters of this letter. At present, Paul’s critique of the Corinthians’ declaration follows in his sharp contrast between knowledge and love. Paul recognized the preferable character of love at 4:21, and in 13:1–14:1 he will elaborate the ultimate importance of love as the hallmark of Christian character and community. For now, he makes a play on the imagery of “increase” by saying that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up in order to expose the difference between that which yields arrogance or pride and that which produces positive, constructive results.
8:1. Paul plainly stated another topic about which the Corinthians had questioned him (the formula now about indicates a response; see also 7:1, 25; 12:1; 16:1, 12): food sacrificed to idols. In the Greek culture of Paul’s day, families often participated in religious sacrifices, offering sacrificial animals in pagan temples. In many rituals only part of the meat was burned. The priest and the family making the sacrifice took the rest. This consecrated meat was taken home and eaten, or sold in the marketplace.
The Jerusalem council had forbidden Christians to eat these foods (Acts 15:29). Yet, controversy still existed in the Corinthian church over whether believers could participate in these meals or eat the consecrated meat sold in the market. This particular chapter deals primarily with meals actually eaten in idols’ temples. Given the famines in Greece at the time, the Corinthians’ interest was probably more than a casual inquiry.
It is likely that Paul first quoted the Corinthians themselves, perhaps from their earlier letter to him. We all possess knowledge, they have said to Paul. Verse 4 indicates the content of their knowledge: they knew idols were nothing and that there is only one God. But not everyone understood these truths. Therefore, Paul warned the knowledgeable ones that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Paul forbade arrogance in his other writings and in this letter and set up edification of the church as a high goal (Rom. 15:2; Eph. 4:29). In effect, the apostle asserted the superiority of love over knowledge because the latter so often leads to sin if not handled carefully.
In making this comment, the apostle did not reject the importance of sound doctrine and knowledge of the things of Christ. He asserted that knowledge is not a good thing in and of itself. Knowledge can result in humility and love, but often it produces unsympathetic arrogance. In a word, knowledge—even of holy things—is not all that Christians must pursue.
8:1 Now concerning the food offered to idols, we know that “we all have knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
- “Now concerning the food offered to idols.” With the first two words of this text (see 7:1, 25; 12:1; 16:1, 12), Paul turns to the next question in the letter he had received from the Corinthians. The expression food offered to idols is a direct reminder of the Jerusalem Council’s instructions to Gentile Christians: to abstain from food that had been sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29; 21:25; Rev. 2:14, 20). By implication, the Gentile Christians were debating whether the injunction was comprehensive or flexible.
We expect that Jewish Christians consumed only kosher food, yet they were free to eat with Gentile Christians (Gal. 2:11–14). And then there was also the brother with a weak conscience (vv. 7–13), who was at a loss to know what to do. In short, the issue of food that had been offered to idols was hotly debated in the Corinthian church. And Paul at this juncture in his epistle devotes much time and effort to the sensitive question of Christian liberty in relation to food that was eaten in a Jewish-Gentile setting (10:14–33).
- “We know that ‘we all have knowledge.’ ” Scholars agree that the last part of this sentence is a quotation taken from the letter which the Corinthians had sent to Paul. Throughout this epistle, Paul repeatedly employs the verb to know in his debate with the Corinthians (see, for example, 1:16; 3:16; 6:2, 3; 8:1, 4). The Christians in Corinth had been boasting about their knowledge. Notice that they do not say: “We have knowledge.” Instead, they assert that all the Christians in the Corinthian community and elsewhere possess knowledge.
Even though Paul fails to explain the term knowledge, we deduce a few facts from the context. The Corinthians believed that idols were nothing and that God is one (v. 4). Thus, they knew that this one God is Father, and that the one Lord is Jesus Christ (v. 6). Paul soberly reminds them that not everyone knows this (v. 7). However, if the Corinthians exalt knowledge, Paul has something to say to them.
- “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In an earlier context in which he commended the readers for having this treasure (1:5), Paul had already spoken about knowledge. But now Paul suggests that knowledge leads to arrogance, which should be absent from a Christian lifestyle (v. 11; 13:2). A Christian must begin with love. He is able to build his spiritual life only on the foundation of love. Knowledge without love puffs up. Love itself is never arrogant (13:4) but is always constructive. By implication, knowledge that is subordinate to love becomes useful.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 329–330). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 262–263). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.