Dear radio friends,
Please open your Bible to I Corinthians 8. We will look at the first three verses today.
There was grievous trouble in the church of Corinth. Members of the church were showing contempt for each other. Others were cruelly judging one another. Sharp words had been spoken. Feelings had been hurt.
Still others had taken bold actions intended to show exactly how they felt. There was division. It was not over doctrine, although Satan was very quick to use the division to sow evil teaching among them. One of the evil teachings that the apostle Paul will contend with was a denial of the resurrection. But it was not over doctrine – at least, not at first. Really it was over how they viewed the church. They did not see the church as the body of Jesus Christ. They saw it in terms of their own influence, their own power, and their own way. This led to a host of issues. One of the biggest issues that was current in Corinth (the apostle deals with it in chapters 8-10), was an issue over Christian liberty, over eating meat that had been dedicated to heathen idols.
On this issue there were the strong brethren and the weak brethren. The strong brethren saw very clearly that there was no such thing as another god. An idol was nothing. They confessed, “There is but one God.” Meat offered to an idol was simply meat. They understood that what a person ate did not make them spiritually better or worse. Everybody, they said, ought to know that. The idea that you cannot eat meat dedicated to idols was nonsense. It would bring the church back to idolatry. Some of them went so far as to say that they could go to a heathen feast in good conscience and eat the meat offered to idols.
The weak brethren, in a sense, agreed, at least in theory, that the idol was nothing and that meat offered to them was still meat. They knew that. But their conscience, nevertheless, was bothered. For their conscience could not get over the idol. Of these weak brethren there were some who had been emboldened to eat things offered to idols, emboldened by the conduct of their strong brothers. But when they did so, their conscience was wounded. They felt themselves defiled. There were others of the weak who had not changed their practice, but they began to offer uncharitable judgments against those who could eat such meat. In fact, the apostle Paul himself was judged of these men.
Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul deals with this issue in a way that is so characteristic of him. He does not try to settle every question. He does not attempt to set down a detailed regulation for every conceivable question or circumstance. But he holds the problem up and finds a principle. The real trouble in Corinth, in a sense, had nothing to do with things offered to idols. It was not even a disagreement over Christian liberty. The question came down to how they viewed their knowledge – their attitude toward their own knowledge. They did not hold their knowledge in humility and in love, but in pride. They had forgotten that Christian knowledge is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The Christian must have knowledge not just for the sake of knowledge, but knowledge that in the way of humility and love would build up the brother in faith. A true knowledge of God will build up the brother in faith. It is a knowledge controlled by love.
In the verses I pointed out to you at the beginning of our radio program, the apostle Paul was marking a contrast between two types of knowledge and what they produce. He said, There is a knowledge that puffeth up, and there is a knowledge which edifies. Charity (or love) edifies or builds up. There is a play on words. One puffs up, the other builds up. There is a knowledge which blows up like a balloon, inflates with air. There is another that builds up on a foundation with stones and timber, a lasting structure. There is a knowledge which inflates the ego, the pride, and expands one’s thoughts of oneself and lifts one up in his own eyes. There is another knowledge, the knowledge of love, which builds and makes the other person in the church stronger spiritually. The contrast is between, for example, a hot-air balloon that is filled with air and floats away (it puffs up), and a lighthouse built upon a rock in order that it might shine.
Now we must understand that when the apostle speaks of knowledge here he is not speaking about two different systems of belief. The content of the knowledge was alike in both parties in Corinth. He says, “We know that we all have knowledge. We all have the same knowledge.” He is not talking here about heresy. No, he says that the content of their knowledge was orthodox. The knowledge that they had was, first of all, that an idol was nothing. They knew that. There is but one God. The most basic truth of the gospel had come in power. The Corinthians had lived in an idolatrous city. On the street corners there were all kinds of idols – Greek and Roman deities. There were many that be called gods and lords, he says. But they had been given true knowledge. There is but one God. They knew God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and they knew God as creator, the God who was redeemer, and the God who held them in His own hands.
Not only that, but they knew that their spiritual life was not gained by something they ate. They knew that it was a divine work of God. The folly of the heathen had been taken away from them – the folly, namely, that if you eat this or drink that it has special power. No, they understood that spiritual life was not something you eat, it is not something you rub in, it is not something you receive by swaying and chanting. It was a gift of God. They knew that. And they put their faith to knowledge. They did not sit on their faith. They did some thinking about their faith and they came to a conclusion. And their conclusion was that meat offered to idols and sold now in the marketplace was meat. Even though it had been offered to an idol, the meat did not have a hex on it. It was simply a piece of meat. It was part of the creation that God gave to be enjoyed with prayer.
Or, put it this way. They had deduced properly that sin was not in things but that sin was a matter of the heart, how a thing was used and the purpose of using it. Indeed, they said, who does not know that?
But the problem was that, although their knowledge was correct in content, it was not held in true love and humility before God. It was all alone. The apostle, when he says knowledge puffeth up but charity edifieth, is describing there a proud man, a man who thinks he knows it all, a man whose knowledge is not mingled with the love of God for the brother.
Now, we must not misunderstand. The fault is not knowledge. You must not think that there is something defective with knowledge in the Christian life. You must not buy into the idea that knowledge and love are two different things and only love is to be trusted. No, Paul is referring to a knowledge not ruled by love. The Scriptures do not cast a shadow upon Christian knowledge. Hosea says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” The apostle Peter says in his second epistle, chapter 1, Add to your faith virtue and to virtue knowledge; then ye shall not be barren or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. And he concludes the epistle, “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” In fact, one of the words in Scripture to express intimate love, thorough, genuine love is “to know.” “For Adam knew his wife and she conceived and bare a son.”
No, the Scriptures do not give any slight to knowledge. Indeed, love cannot function without knowledge. But the trouble was in how that knowledge was being held in the Corinthians’ mind. The Word of God is telling us that, apart from the rule of love of God, pride will grip that knowledge and use it for self. It becomes a barren knowledge that puffs up. In our pride, we become quite pleased with ourselves. It is a knowledge of the intellect alone. It is a knowledge which becomes theoretical and approaches the truth in terms of academic. It becomes barren. Then the power of the truth is not felt. But it lives in the mind alone, and pride begins to use that knowledge in terms of seeing ourselves in superiority. It is a false knowledge. It exalts itself. It is the knowledge of the Pharisee who secretly despised others. It is a knowledge that puffs up, puts a person’s head up in the air, up in the clouds. He does not see the brother.
The contrast is a true, spiritual knowledge which is controlled by the love of God – a knowledge of love, which will edify or build up. It is the true love of God, controlling knowledge, so that our knowledge is an instrument to build up the fellow member in the body of Christ. The apostle Paul says something very similar in Ephesians 4:15. There he says we are to speak the truth in love, in order that we may grow up into Christ in all things, who is the head of the church. True Christian knowledge is that knowledge which operates and is regulated by a profound awareness of the love of God to me, a hell-bound and undeserving sinner. Therefore, it is a knowledge which seeks the good of my brother. That is true knowledge.
How do you possess the knowledge of the Christian faith, the orthodox, biblical truth that God is God and that spiritual life in Christ is all of grace and that sin is a depravity within us and must be known by the Spirit and repented of? We all have knowledge. How does that knowledge dwell? Is it locked away in the cubicle of your brain? Does it produce an air of spiritual superiority above others? Do you find yourself looking at others and saying, “I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not as other men are”?
Or do you have the knowledge of love abiding in your heart, seen in a desire to build up your brother – a great desire that you might be used in order that you, through your knowledge, are drawn closer in fellowship with God and build up your brother in the faith?
You say, but what is that true knowledge? It is two things, at least. It is, first of all, to realize just a little bit of how little we know, at least compared to what there is to know of God and His ways. The apostle says, “if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.” Those words do not mean that we cannot be certain of the things of our faith. There is that horrible danger of relativism today. It is said in the Christian church that we cannot be sure of anything, really. There are so many ideas and views of the Scriptures and so many differing views, that we really do not know and cannot be sure of anything. Oh, no! The knowledge of the Scriptures and the knowledge of faith is sure. “For I know whom I have believed,” says the apostle, “and I am persuaded….” Luke says that he writes his gospel account (Luke 1:4) in order to convey those things which are most assuredly believed among us. So the Scriptures say, hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love. Christian faith is solid. Christian truth is the rock because those things are revealed in the Scriptures that we may know them, and we are set for their defense.
But the apostle Paul means this. In comparison to all that is to be known of God, and in comparison to the wonder and to the awe which should fill our breast in knowing God – in comparison to that, how little we know. He is going to come back to this in the thirteenth chapter, where he says, We see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now in part, but then face to face.
What rapture, what thrill, what holy wonder, what splendor will it be when we appear before God face to face! Consider that the knowledge that we are given as Christians is a knowledge of God, of the living God! The moment you realize that, you see how impossible it is for one who knows God to be proud of his knowledge. Proud?
In the book of Job, chapter 38, God comes to speak to Job after his three friends, and Job also, have attempted to explain His ways. God speaks to Job in a whirlwind and says, Gird up yourself as a man, for I will demand of thee an answer. Where wast thou when I laid the foundation of the earth. Declare if thou hast understanding. Your friends have debated, says God, the whys and the wherefores of My dealings with man. Your friends have arraigned Me before the bar of man’s justice? The living God? And Job responds, I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear. But now mine eye hath seen Thee and I repent in dust and ashes. The living God.
In the book of Isaiah, chapter 40, the prophet says, “Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord, or being his counselor hath taught him?… To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.” There is no searching of His understanding. The endless, the vast, the pure, the glorious knowledge of God – stand before that. We have now a little stream of light, it is true and it is pure. But it is a little stream because it is all that we can take in now because we are so puny. In the light that God has given to us, we fall upon our knees in wonder and we confess, “I am but a child, a beginner. I am a little child playing in the water – like the water of the sea.” The storm would come up over the beach, and when it recedes, the child would be left in a little pool. The child plays in that water next to the vast ocean. We are but a little child before the everlasting, the glorious, the eternal, the majestic God. How can we be proud when we realize a little of who He is in His majesty?
But true knowledge is also humble. Think of the men in the Bible who have been brought closest to God, who have known God. What happened to them? They were broken. When God stood before Abraham and said, “I am thy shield and exceeding great reward. Walk before Me and be thou perfect,” we read, “Abraham fell on his face.” Isaiah, in chapter 6, when he was given a vision of the throne of God, the angels, and all the glory, responded, “Woe is me, for I am an unclean man! My lips are defiled.” Peter, when at last it was revealed to him that it was the risen Lord who addressed him, cried out, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.” Proud of our knowledge? We can be but humble. Yet that knowledge of God creates in us a desire to know Him more and to be holy and godly.
That, of course, is the reason for the knowledge that God has given to us – to produce humility. Not to make you proud. Not to make you proud before your brother. Not to make you have a clenched jaw when there is controversy in the church and you say, “Oh, I know I am right!” No! If you know anything at all, then you will be humble. And that is good. That is the proper attitude to assume before God. It is the emptying of yourself and the filling of yourself with the adequacy of God. God dwells with the humble. Isaiah 57:15, “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” Can you conceive of human boast before the throne of God? Can you? The Scriptures in Isaiah 2tell us, oh, no. All lofty looks and proud looks are banished from His presence. It is only in that humility that we can build up another in the church. You have to get low. You have to know your place before God. Then you will suffer long.
Your brother may be wrong. He may say things about you that are not true. He may misinterpret your motives. He may think the worst of you. But there is one thing your brother cannot do. He cannot know the truth about you, can he? He does not know just how great a sinner you are. God knows that. And God, in Christ, has loved us and forgiven us and tells us now to wash our brother’s feet.
When there are disputes in the church and differences of opinion in the Christian life, and issues surface in a marriage and there is a clash of wills, there is a knowledge that puffeth up and divides. And there is a knowledge that builds up and makes stronger. It is the knowledge of the truth, all right. But it is a knowledge that profoundly understands how great God is, and how little we are. It is the knowledge of love – for God and the brother.
Do you have that knowledge?
If any man love God, the same is known of him, says the apostle. That is the test. Do you love God? I did not ask if you know God, if you have orthodox views of God. I did not ask if you know about God. That is good! I ask, do you love God? To know God is to love Him. When one is known of God (and that is the reason we love Him – we must first be known of God – God is always first), but those whom God knows, them He also makes to know Him. And to know Him is to love Him. That is what it means to know Him – I love Him. Do you love God?
Now, I know that is of grace. But I ask again, Do you love Him? Yes, I know that we are sinners and our awful pride is at the root of all of our sins. But, do you love God? By the grace of God, do you love Him? “Lovest thou Me?” Peter was grieved because the Lord asked him the third time, “Lovest thou Me?” “Lord, Thou knowest all things! Thou knowest that I love Thee!” “Yes, Lord, because of Thee, I love Thee.” All right. Then you may begin to build up your brother and sister in Christ. Then division and scorn and bitterness are put away in the church of Christ. Then true knowledge is ready to do what it was intended to do.
That knowledge that God has given to us was not intended to blow up our egos and make us inflated windbags. But it was intended to make us builders, ready to get down and sweat and work in building up the brother, in seeking Christ in each other, in placing the other first, in asking the question in the church: “What is for the good of my brother?”
What value such knowledge has. God will be glorified. The church will grow up in Christ. May God preserve us from pride and from a knowledge which puffs. And may God grant us humble hearts before Him and the love of God by which we may edify, build up, one another.
Father in heaven, we thank Thee for Thy word. Wilt Thou now anoint it to our hearts and give us, through charity, through love, to build one another up in Jesus’ name, Amen.