Since it has been 6 weeks since we took a break from our The Struggle is Real series, I’ll remind us that 1st Corinthians is the first of two canonical letters written by the Apostle Paul to the church he founded in the Greek city of Corinth around 48 A.D.

By the time he writes this letter back to the congregation, it is between 53-55 A.D.

Whatever unity had existed in the church during Paul’s ministry there had eroded. Divisions abounded.  

Much of this letter is an attempt to rectify the divisions and restore unity.

If what Paul commends in this passage were to become a living reality in our lives, we would be an unstoppable force for good in our families and community.

Why?

Because we will have learned what sacrificial love looks like.

Let’s pick up with the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 8, verses 1-3.

VERSES 1-3

1 Now about meat sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.  3 But the man who loves God is known by God.

The controversy over meat sacrificed to idols, while still an issue in certain places such as Africa and India, it is not one that we face in our cultural context.[1]

However, the underlying principle Paul is addressing is as relevant today as it was then.

The principle can be expressed as a question:

What does sacrificial love look like? What will it mean for me to become “the man who loves?”

The ancient Greco-Roman world of the first century was full of idols, objects that were believed to represent or be inhabited by spiritual entities.[2]

Although our modern idols are not thought to be inhabited by spiritual entities, there is very much a western pantheon of gods—the things to which we look that we expect to give us life, joy, and meaning.

Idols such as power, beauty, wealth, control, achievement, approval, racial superiority, political ideology, etc.

For the Corinthians, sacrificing animals to idol deities was a religious experience, as common then as Sunday morning Christian worship is today. Even if you weren’t a believer in the false gods, you participated. It was a cultural expectation.[3]

Many of the Christians in the Corinthians church had been converted out of idol worship and had a hard time eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols because of the associations the meat had with their former lives.[4]

The challenge was that almost any meat you could buy for personal consumption had been sacrificed to an idol, as the meat not used in the pagan temple sacrifices was sold to merchants who then would sell the leftover temple meat at the public market.[5]

The consequence is that some believers became meat teetotalers—totally abstaining from meat.[6]

Eventually, factions developed between Christians who ate the meat and those who didn’t. They both wanted to be right more than they wanted to be “the man who loves.”

Granted, Paul considered the believers who thought eating meat to be sinful to have weak consciences whose faith had not yet matured to a point where they could enjoy the fullness of Christian liberty.[7]

This is his goal for every disciple. Growth in faith unto maturity where we live in the fullness of gospel freedom.[8]

But as Paul says in these verses, maturity is not about what or how much we know, but rather is about how well we love.

Paul is not being anti-intellectual. He is just saying that, unless our theological knowledge empowers us to love well, we don’t really know what we think we know.[9]

Furthermore, maturity is a process that takes time.

Therefore, a large part of loving well is being patient as faith grows and matures in another believer.[10]

This is an encouragement for those married to weaker believers and those who have friends with a less mature faith. It also is an encouragement for parents who are playing the long game with our children.

Parenting is not about quick fixes but loving well over the long term. Part of loving like that is having patience with slow growth.

We are all at different places on the journey and have a variety of histories that have influenced our experience of God’s grace.

VERSES 4-6

4 So then, about eating meat sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us[11] there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

According to Paul, a first step toward spiritual maturity is theological: acknowledging the absolute uniqueness of the one true God who has been revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit.[12]

As verse 6 states, this God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. While lesser created beings, whether human or demonic,[13] may seek to rival the one true God, none is able.[14]

In fact, Paul claims in verse 4 that, while there was a vast array of gods in the Roman mystery religions, in themselves, idols are nothing.

The consequence? There is nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to nothing![15] The meat was not defiled or demonic. It was just meat.

But…

VERSES 7-8

7 But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Some Corinthian believers were either not educated properly about Christian freedom or they simply could not mentally or emotionally separate eating meat from past religious associations.[16]

For them, eating meat felt like a volitional act of defiance against God.[17]

Even if eating the meat was not objectively sinful, if someone considered it to be sinful and proceeded to act against their conscience and participate, for them it would be sin. Rather than feeling free, they would feel defiled—even if what they were experiencing was a phantom guilt.

Paul envisions loving the weaker brother so well that we will do everything we can to avoid placing this unnecessary guilt upon their souls, even if it means sacrificing our own freedom.

The weight of this concern is felt in verses 9-12.

VERSES 9-12

9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, [where many community social events took place, like an event center] won’t he be emboldened [pressured] to eat what has been sacrificed to idols?  11 So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed [emotionally and spiritually harmed] by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

Here, Paul has brilliantly navigated between advocating our absolute freedom through our justification in Christ[18] and acknowledging the need to voluntarily restrain the expression of that freedom at times for the sake of a believer whose faith is less fully matured.[19]

I have a friend who can no longer listen to classic 70s rock because it brought up images and memories of immorality that had defined his life in those years.

He knew the music itself was not inherently sinful and that others could listen to it without temptation, guilt, or shame. But he couldn’t.

Here is the point. For me, with knowledge of his struggle, to make him listen to 70s rock music at a dinner party or go on a road trip and play it on the radio would not be loving. I’m free to listen to that music, but in that context with him present, my listening to 70s rock would be selfish and even hateful, causing a brother in Christ to feel defiled when he actually is forgiven and free.

VERSE 13

13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

Whether meat in Corinth, or listening to 70s rock, or the scandal for some of consuming alcohol, there are all kinds of issues to which we could apply this principle.

Craig Blomberg writes, “Sometimes Scripture makes plain whether an issue is fundamentally immoral or amoral. Adultery, for example, is always wrong, but consumption of alcohol is [sinful] only if it leads to drunkenness” or causes a believer of weak conscience to sin against their conscience.[20]

Nevertheless, even though alcohol is amoral in itself, there are some for whom it is a stumbling block, whether due to a weak conscience or a past association or a current struggle with addiction.

What is important to note is that Paul did not lay down a legal mandate about what we could or couldn’t do concerning Christian freedom. He didn’t ban eating meat. Instead, he poses a question for us to consider:  

 “What does it look like to love well?”[21]

Apparently, as verse 13 records, Paul was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate sacrificial love for the sake of a weaker brother.[22]


Johnny Oates did something similar.

Johnny Oates was a major leaguer who played catcher for the  Orioles, the Braves,  the Phillies, the Dodgers, and the Yankees.[23]

In 1995, he landed his dream job, not as a player but as manager, or head coach, of the Texas Rangers.

According to his own testimony, he had lived most of his life with a driving ambition to succeed and be known as a World Series winning manager—even more so than as a player.

But in the spring of ’95, his wife, Gloria, was hospitalized with emotional and physical exhaustion.

It was April. The very week of Opening Day, when Johnny was scheduled to debut on the field as manager for the Rangers.

He was at a crossroads.

In that moment he made the unexpected decision to sacrifice his career by putting his wife ahead of his ambition by asking the organization for a leave of absence in order to care for Gloria and focus on her recovery.[24]

Many would consider that an extraordinary expression of sacrificial love.

But neither Johnny Oates nor Paul would go to such extraordinary lengths as Jesus.

Jesus faces a crossroads, too. And he chose a literal cross.

Philippians 2:6-8 says, “6[Jesus] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself [of rights and ambition], by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

  • Jesus was the King who became a servant.
  • He was the sinless son who became a sinful scourge.
  • The one to be worshipped became the one who was despised.

That is what sacrificial love looks like.

In the gospel, I am the weaker brother for whom Jesus gave up his freedom, unto death.

It is being loved like this that motivates and empowers us to love like this.

It may be that you have never understood this sacrificial love of God until today. Like Johnny Oates, you are standing at a crossroads. But for you, the decision is not whether to love, but whether you are willing to be loved. Whether or not you are willing to be a weak, needy sinner who in Jesus is a fully forgiven and beloved son or daughter.

So, at this crossroad, if you are ready to receive the mercy of God in Jesus and live all of life in view of the cross, then I would love to hear from you in the comments below so that I may send you a free resource that I think will help get you started living your new life in Christ.


[1] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 167.

[2] Michael S. Heiser, “The Logic of Idolatry,” in Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016).

[3] H. Alford, W. Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians (The Daily Study Bible, The Saint Andrew Press, 1954), pp. 79ff. “‘Sacrifice to the gods was an integral part of ancient life. It might be of two kinds, private or public. In private sacrifice the animal was divided into three parts. A token part was burned on the altar …; the priests received their rightful portion …; the worshipper himself received the rest of the meat. With the meat he gave a banquet. Sometimes these feasts were in the house of the hosts; sometimes they were even in the temple of the god to whom the sacrifice had been made.… The problem which confronted the Christian was, “Could he take part in such a feast at all? Could he possibly take upon his lips meat that had been offered to an idol, to a heathen god?” If he could not, then he was going to cut himself off almost entirely from all social occasions.… In public sacrifice …, after the requisite symbolic amount had been burned and after the priests had received their share, the rest of the meat fell to the magistrates and others. What they did not use they sold to the shops and to the markets; and therefore, even when the meat was bought in the shops, it might well have already been offered to some idol and to some heathen god.… ‘What complicated matters still further was this—that age believed strongly and fearfully in demons and evils.… They were always lurking to gain an entry into a man’s body and, if they did get in, they would injure his body and unhinge his mind.… These spirits settled on the food as a man ate and so got inside him. One of the ways to avoid that was to dedicate the meat to some good god.… It therefore followed that a man could hardly eat meat at all which was not in some way connected with a heathen god. Could the Christian eat it?.… To the Christian in Corinth, or any other great city, it was a problem which pervaded all life, and which has to be settled one way or the other.’”

[4] To them, to eat the meat was a form of communing with the idols and caused them to have guilty consciences thinking that what they would be doing was inherently sinful.

[5] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), 1 Co 8:1.

[6] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 160. “Given his explicit reference to eating in the temple in 8:10, in the context of that which is in principle acceptable for believers, it seems clear that he also has in mind those social gatherings in the temple precincts that were not overtly religious in nature.”

[7] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 142. “Let us remind ourselves of the two groups at Corinth: the legalists said ‘Do what the law says’; the libertines retorted, ‘We know better—be free.’ Paul’s essential answer is this: love is what matters, not knowledge of the one (negative and legalistic) kind or of the other (permissive) kind. Paul is not here condemning ‘knowledge’ outright. He is concerned that true agapē-love should control and characterize their gnōsis (knowledge).”

[8] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 141. “We see, then, that the question of ta eidōlothuta had two sides to it: taking part in idol feasts, yes or no? Eating meat bought in the shops but with dubious origins, yes or no? The situation was inevitably aggravated by the strict kosher laws of the Jews, as well as by the many articulate rigorists in the church at Corinth. Further complications would have been introduced by the famous Jerusalem decree, where Gentile converts were urged to abstain from food sacrificed to idols. Although Paul had never (as far as we can judge) used this decree at Corinth, it is likely that members of the Peter-party would have made very forceful capital from it to support their rigorism.”

[9] By the way, when Paul compares knowledge and love in the second part of verse 1, he is not contrasting knowledge and love, as if knowledge is bad and love is good. Paul is not anti-intellectual. He is saying that true knowledge of self (as a sinner) and knowledge of God (as a Savior) is supposed to lead to personal humility and practical love, not theological or spiritual arrogance.

[10] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 141. “There was the anti-rigorist group who would probably have regarded the whole debate as puerile and demeaning: what possible propriety could there be for those set free in Jesus Christ to develop pernickety scruples about food, especially when thereby they virtually cut themselves off from everybody else at Corinth? Not only would they become a laughing-stock, but all effective evangelism would be virtually annihilated. So once again Paul would have found himself embroiled in a battle on two fronts: how can he keep both groups happy and still uphold the truth of the gospel?”

[11] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 165. “The contrast between verses 5 and 6 is not between two subjective perceptions of reality, as the “for us” of verse 6 might suggest, but between one false and one true perception.”

[12] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 149. “For Paul, therefore, the ‘strong’ person is the Christian who allows the dictates of Christ’s Lordship alone to determine his daily behavior.”

[13] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 146. “Behind these ‘copies’ (eidōla) are spiritual forces, called ‘demons’ in the passage above. Paul himself is under no illusions at all that contact with demons is still very much a possibility for fully-fledged members of the Christian community (1 Cor. 10:19-22).”

[14] None are to be classified in the same category. None are God but God alone.

[15] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 145. “What, then, of the many so-called gods and lords in heaven and on earth? The biblical perspective seems consistent and clear. They are eidōla = ‘copies’, i.e. they do not have any reality. Thus the word ‘idol’ is used both for the image made of wood or of stone, and for the deity worshipped in such idolatry. In Isaiah we read, ‘All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit.’14 This is followed by a long list of craftsmen who join hands to make an idol: the ironsmith, the carpenter, the wood-collector, the baker, the chef—all working with the same piece of wood from the forest, and then falling down to worship a dead log.”

[16] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 162. “Some of the Corinthian Christians could not eat idol meat, even in private homes, and almost certainly not in temple dining halls, without recalling the past religious associations that the meat had for them.”

[17] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), 1 Co 8:7. After all, “in the Greco-Roman world eating food sacrificed to idols was sometimes considered a means of communion with the gods.”

[18] David K. Lowery, “1 Corinthians,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 522. “David Lowery says, “If Christ loved this brother so that he was willing to give up His exalted rights and even His life (Phil. 2:6, 8), surely the strong could give up his right to eat meat” in the presence of the weak, or whatever the issue may be.”

[19] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 141–142. “He is advocating freedom of two kinds: absolute freedom in Christ (8:8; 9:19 and 10:29) and the freedom to restrict one’s freedom for the sake of a brother (‘any one brother’) whose conscience is less robust (8:13; 9:12, 15, 19).”

[20] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 164.

[21] David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 144. “We must, therefore, each strive to make our whole behavior constructive by asking ourselves such questions as, ‘Are people brought closer to God? Are Christians strengthened in their faith? Are people glad to have met us?’ When a Christian’s knowledge is radiated and released by love, he is clearly demonstrating that he knows God and that God knows him.”

[22] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), 1 Co 8:13.

[23] Men of Integrity, Vol. 1, no. 2.

[24] As he stood by Gloria, the team stood by him, and in 1996, Oates was named the league’s Manager of the Year.