Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 8

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) Now as touching things offered unto idols.—A new subject is here introduced, and occupies the whole of this chapter. In Corinth and other cities meat was offered for sale which had been used for sacrificial purposes in the heathen temples, having been sold to the dealers by the priests, who received a large share of the sacrifices for themselves, or by the individuals who offered them, and had more remaining of their own share than they could use themselves. Thus, a Christian might unconsciously eat of meat, either at the house of a friend (see 1 Corinthians 10:27) or by purchasing it himself in the public shambles, which had been previously brought in contact by sacrificial usage with an idol. There were some in Corinth who felt no scruple on the subject. An idol was nothing in their opinion. It could neither consecrate nor pollute that which was offered in its temple. Such Christians would, to show how completely and effectively their Christianity had dispelled all their previous heathen superstition, buy meat without caring whence it came, partake of a heathen friend’s hospitality, regardless of what use the meat had been put to, and even join in a repast held in the outer court of a heathen temple (1 Corinthians 8:10), where the meat would almost certainly be what had been saved after the sacrifice. That St. Paul would have done so himself, so far as his own personal feelings alone were concerned, we can scarcely doubt. To him, therefore, those who acted upon his authority appealed upon this subject.

There were others at Corinth, however, who felt some scruples upon the subject. There were heathen converts who had not completely got rid of every vestige of the old superstition, or whose conscience would accuse them of not having wholly given up idolatry if they took any part even in its social aspect: for many social acts, as well as purely religious ceremonies, were in the heathen mind included in acts of worship. And there were Jews, the intensity of whose traditional hatred of idolatry could not allow them to regard as “nothing” that against which Jehovah had uttered His most terrible denunciations, and against which He had preserved their race as a living witness.

To both these sections of the Church the conduct of the more liberal party would prove a serious stumbling-block. The argument used by those who asked St. Paul’s advice was evidently that the Christians have knowledge enough to feel that an idol is nothing, and that, therefore. there can be no harm in partaking of what has been offered to “nothing.” “We know,” says St. Paul, in reply, taking up the words of their own letter, “we know that we all have knowledge: we know that an idol is nothing.” The last clause of 1 Corinthians 8:1 and 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 form a parenthesis; and in 1 Corinthians 8:4 the opening words of 1 Corinthians 8:1 are repeated, and the line of thought which this parenthesis interrupted is again resumed.

Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.—Those who grounded everything on knowledge are reminded parenthetically that knowledge by itself may have a bad effect, and also (1 Corinthians 8:2-3) that there is an element in the consciousness of our knowledge which destroys the truth and purity of that knowledge itself. Knowledge puffs up the man himself. Love builds up the whole Church. The word “edify” has now only a moral significance. Originally it could be applied to moral conduct only figuratively. The substantive “edifice” has retained its original literal meaning. In Spenser “edify” is used in its literal sense; and in Hakluyt’s Travels (1553) the “edification” of the castle of Corfu is mentioned. The use made by St. Paul of this figure is of some importance. The word is used only by St. Paul, and once by St. Luke (Acts 9:31), and the idea which it conveys is not so much the improvement of the individual as the building-up of the whole Christian edifice. We have come to speak of an “edifying discourse” if it helps the individual. St. Paul would have spoken of an “edifying work” if it built up the Church. “We are sometimes too apt to treat Christianity as if it were monolithic” (Howson). (See 1 Corinthians 12:19; 1 Corinthians 14:3; 1 Corinthians 14:5; 1 Corinthians 14:12; 1 Corinthians 14:17; Ephesians 4:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11.) It is worth noting that the word used in the original in Hebrews 3:3-4; Hebrews 9:11, is quite different from the word employed, here and elsewhere, by St. Paul.

Verse 2

(2) If any man think that he knoweth any thing . . . .—There must be a moral as well as a merely intellectual element in knowledge if it is to be true knowledge. Without love to guide us in its use it is not an operative knowledge, and so does not fulfil the true end of knowledge.

It has been suggested (Stanley in loc) that “not yet” has here the force of “not in the infirmities of their mortal state;” but such an interpretation introduces altogether a new element of thought, to which there is no antithetical explanation in what follows.

Verse 3

(3) If any man love God.—This explains the nature of the love which edifies. Love to God, and therefore love to man, builds up the whole Christian communion. The man gets outside the mere selfish thought of his own indulgence in his liberty. There is the under-thought in these words (“the same is known of Him”) of the identity between knowing God and being known of Him. The latter is the source of the former. Like water rising to its own level, the love and the knowledge rise as high as their source.

Verse 4

(4) As concerning therefore the eating of those things.—See 1 Corinthians 8:1. The subject resumed after the parenthesis. We have, perhaps, in this repetition of the words a characteristic of a letter written by another from the author’s dictation, as was the case with this and other epistles.

An idol is nothing in the world.—It is nothing in itself but a piece of wood or metal, and it really represents nothing, for we know that there is “no God but one.” The word “other” was inserted in later MSS., probably from a recollection of the words of the first commandment.

Verse 5

(5) For though there be. . . .—This is an hypothetic argument. “Be” is the emphatic word of the supposition. Even assuming that there do exist those beings which are called “gods” (we have a right to make such a supposition, for Deuteronomy 10:17, Psalms 105:2-3, speaks of “gods and lords” of another kind), the difference between the heathen, “gods many” and the “lords and gods” of whom the Old Testament speaks, is that the former are deities, and the latter only a casual way of speaking of angels and other spiritual subjects and servants of the one God. This is brought out in the following verse.

Verse 6

(6) But to us.—Though this be so, yet for us Christians there exists but one God the Father, from whom alone every created thing has come, and for (not “in”) whom alone we exist; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things are created (John 1:3), and we Christians created spiritually by Him. All creation is of the Father through the Son. All creation is for the Father and likewise for the Son. (See Colossians 1:16.) The words “we by Him” must not be regarded as a repetition of part of the thought of the previous sentence; but as the words “by whom are all things” express the fact of physical creation, so the words, “we by Him,” attribute our spiritual re-creation as Christians to the same source. (See Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:10.) This sixth verse then sweeps away completely any pantheistic conception which might have been thought to be in the previous words. Even granting, for argument sake, that such gods or lords do exist, we have but one God, one Lord.

Verse 7

(7) Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge.—The Apostle had admitted that in theory all have knowledge which should render the eating of things offered to idols a matter beyond question; but there are some who, as a matter of fact, are not fully grown—have not practically attained that knowledge.

Some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol.—Better, some, through their familiarity with the idol, even up to this time eat it as offered to an idol.

The weight of MSS. evidence is in favour of the word “familiarity” instead of the word “conscience,” and joins “even up to this time,” not with “eat,” but with the previous words. Thus the allusion is to heathen converts who, from their previous lifelong belief in the reality of the idol as representing a god, have not been able fully to realise the non-existence of the person thus represented, though they have come to believe that it is not God; and therefore, they regard the meat as offered to some kind of reality, even though it be a demon. (See 1 Corinthians 10:20-21.) The Apostle admits that this is a sign of a weak conscience; and the defilement arises from its being weak.

Verse 8

(8) But meat . . . .—By showing that the eating is a matter of indifference, the Apostle introduces his reason for yielding to the weakness of another. If the weakness involved a matter of our vital relation to God, then to yield would be wrong. But meat will not (future) affect our relationship to God. The concluding words of this verse are inverted in later MSS., as in the English version, and the better order is: “Neither, if we eat not, do we lose anything in our relation to God; nor, if we eat, do we gain anything in our relation to Him.”

Verse 9

(9) But take heed.—On this very account, because the matter is one which is indifferent, because there is no right or wrong in it, you must look elsewhere for your guide as to how you ought to act. In things which are not indifferent, right or wrong is the sole test of action. In things indifferent you must look for some other guide, and you must regulate your conduct by the effect it may have on others. Your liberty, which arises from the bare fact of the indifferent nature of the thing, may become a stumbling-block to others, may be the cause of their taking a false step in the Christian course.

Verse 10

(10) For if any man (i.e., any of the weak brethren) see thee which hast knowledge.—The fact of your being avowedly advanced in the knowledge of the faith will make your example the more dangerous, because more effective.

Sit at meat in the idol’s temple.—Some went so far as to not only eat, but eat in the precincts of the heathen temple. The Apostle being concerned now only with the point of the eating, does not rebuke this practice here, but he does so fully in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22. He probably mentions the fact here as an instance in which there could be no salving of his conscience by the heathen convert thinking that it was not certain whence the meat had come.

Be emboldened.—Better, be built up. The people addressed had probably argued that the force of their example would build up others. Yes, says St. Paul, with irony, it will build him up—to do what, being weak, he cannot do without sin.

Verse 11

(11) And through thy knowledge shall . . .—Better, and by means of thy knowledge the weak one perishesthe brother for whom Christ died. It is not, as in the English version, a question, but it is the expansion and interpretation of the previous statement. There is a great variety of readings in the MSS., but the weight of evidence is in favour of this reading. Christ died for him. The sarcasm passes away in words of solemn and pathetic reproof. You won’t give up your liberty for him. You will indulge yourself, and so prevent Christ’s death being his redemption. A sacrifice of conscience destroys spiritual life.

Verse 12

(12) When ye sin so.—When you sin in this way—and he explains further what the sin is: “Striking a blow upon their weak consciences”—you sin against Christ. You wound a member of that body which is His. (See Matthew 25:40.)

Verse 13

(13) Wherefore.—He states his own solemn determination, arising from the considerations which have just been urged. If a matter of food cause a brother to fall in his Christian course, I will certainly never again eat any kind of flesh, lest I should be the cause of so making him to fall.

It is noticeable that St. Paul in discussing this question makes no reference whatever to the decision of the Council at Jerusalem (see Acts 15:29), that the Christians should abstain from “meats offered to idols, and from things strangled, and from blood.” Probably, the Apostle felt the importance of maintaining his own apostolic authority in a Church where it was questioned by some, and he felt that to base his instruction upon the decision of the Church at Jerusalem might have seemed to imply that he had obtained authority from them, and not directly from the Lord. It was also more in accordance with St. Paul’s usual style of instruction to base the smallest details of conduct upon that highest of all principles—our union as Christians with Christ. An appeal to the letter sent from Jerusalem would have been no step in the ascending argument, which reaches its great climax in the 11th and 12th verses, and which, in 1 Corinthians 8:13, the Apostle enunciates as the guide of his own life.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.