Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 28, 2024

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Commentary

Anyone who has ever tried to cross a Lego- or toy-strewn room in the dark should have received hazardous duty pay. After all, relatively few pains match the discomfort created by stepping on a small toy. So what are such “stumbling blocks’” worst enemy? Any kind of light that leads to awareness and caution.

Paul packs this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with memorable and vivid images. Among those images around which the Spirit might lead preachers to “build” a message or sermon is that of a “stumbling block [proskomma]*”. In verse 9 the apostle summons his Corinthian readers to “Be careful [Blepete] … that the exercise of your freedom [he exousia hymon] does not become a stumbling block to the weak [tois asthenesin].”

In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul suggests that that exercise of Christian freedom includes choosing whether or not to eat food that someone has already sacrificed to an idol [ton eidolothyton] (1). That may, however, make this passage seem largely irrelevant to the lives of most of Jesus’ 21st century western friends. Yet if, as the New Testament scholar Jeehei Park suggests (, preachers view this text as a message of pastoral care, it can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, reap a rich harvest of insight for Christians.

While the apostle is addressing the controversy over eating meat that people had already sacrificed to idols, he speaks about it in a very specific cultural context. The New Testament scholar Valerie Nicolet notes that verses 4-5 point to the apostle’s awareness of his contemporaries’ perception of the enormous number of pagan gods [theoi] and lords [kyrioi] that surrounded them.

Paul knows that those gods aren’t real outside of people’s minds. He doesn’t believe that they have any real power over Jesus’ friends’ lives. But this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson makes it clear that the apostle is not indifferent to the how young Christians relate to them. He, after all, realizes that it is a big deal to some of his Corinthian contemporaries who have emerged out of the world of gods and idols and entered the kingdom of God.

Paul and many of his fellow Christians “know [oidamen] that an idol [eidolon] is nothing in the world [en kosmou]” (4). He knows, after all, that while people may think gods and lords may exist, there is actually no God but one. The apostle knows that the one true God of heaven and earth alone is the creator who also cares for everything God creates.

Yet Paul also knows that “not everyone [else] knows [gnosis] this” (7). Literally he admits that not everyone possesses the knowledge that there is only one God and that no other gods or lords are real. The apostle knows that while some people know there is only one God, others don’t yet know that.

One of the mysteries of this is that Paul seems to be speaking only of Christians here. Jesus’ 21st century followers may assume that all Christians know that there is only one God. So we wonder how some 1st century Christians didn’t somehow know that.

Paul doesn’t sort all of that out in 1 Corinthians 8. He’s clearly far more concerned with protecting the consciences and, thus, well-being of Jesus’ friends who are still working through the one God vs. a plurality of gods issue. The apostle is giving space to people who remain offended by any Christians’ consumption of food that people have offered to idols.

It is a deeply pastoral approach to something that apparently deeply affected what we might call Corinth’s “young” Christians. Paul knows that there’s only one God. Yet the apostle longs not to have Christians unnecessarily offend and thus threaten the faith of Christians who don’t yet fully realize that.

After all, all people “know [oidamen] that all people possess [echomen] knowledge [gnosin]” (1). But, insists Paul, there is real danger in having that knowledge. After all, “Knowledge puffs up [physioi]” (1). Knowledge can literally inflate people in a way that makes us arrogant and, thus, insensitive to people who don’t share our insight.

But while knowledge may make people proud, love does just the opposite. “Love [agape],” insists Paul in verse 1, “builds up [oikodomei].” Knowledge can easily encourage even Jesus’ friends to put less knowledgeable people in what we think of as their lower place. Love, by contrast, elevates people to the place God has given them, their status as those whom God both creates in God’s image and passionately loves.

Knowledge, to return to one of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s central themes, can easily become a stumbling block for other people. When God’s dearly beloved people act as though what we know is the only standard for our words and actions, we can easily impede others’ faith. When we act as though others’ possession of less insight makes no difference in the way we act toward and speak to them, we easily create a stumbling block for them.

But near the end of 1 Corinthians 8, Paul builds an even stronger case for greater sensitivity to those whom knowledgeable Christians easily offend. When Jesus’ knowledgeable friends cause Christians whose conscience is weaker to violate their conscience, they are “destroyed” [apollytai] by our knowledge. Then our knowledge doesn’t just make us arrogant. It also makes Jesus’ followers destructive.

What’s more, the apostle tells Corinth’s Christians in verse 12, when Christians use our freedom to “sin against [hamartanontes eis] your brothers in this way and wound [typtontes] their weak [asthenousan] conscience [syneidesin], you sin [hamartenete] against Christ.” This raises the stakes in unnecessarily offending our fellow Christians to astronomical levels. To sin against our brother or sister in Christ is to sin against our Lord and Savior.

There is, a result, great pastoral wisdom in what Paul asserts in verse 13: “If what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin [skandilizei], I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall [skandaliso].” The Message paraphrases the apostle as telling the Christians in Corinth, “Never go to these idol-tainted meals if there’s any chance it will trip up one of your brothers or sisters.”

There are a couple of things about verse 13 to which preachers might especially draw hearers’ attention. 21st North American culture talks a great deal more about individuals’ rights than about our responsibilities. That makes Paul’s assertion about our responsibilities to our fellow Christians radically counter-cultural. His call to let love constrain our Christian freedom may even prove a bitter pill to swallow, not just for hearers, but also preachers.

When Paul says, “I will never eat meat again” (13) he literally says, “Never not shall I eat meat to the [end of] the age.” That’s a long time. It signals the incredible lengths to which the apostle is willing to go to avoid putting an unnecessary stumbling block in the path of his adopted brothers and sisters in Christ. To use a juvenile analogy, it’s as if Paul says he’ll never again play with Legos if it means that it will keep his friends in Christ from stepping on or tripping over them in the dark.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In 2015 the United States’ NPR published a piece entitled, “When Should You Introduce Your Child to Evolution?”. That prompted BioLogos’ Chris Stump to reflect on that question from a biblical perspective. She basically explores just when and how much knowledge parents should give their children about evolution.

Stump argues that even more important than the question of teaching Christian children about evolution is the question of whether we’re teaching them that God created everything, loves them and wants them to explore the world. She concludes, “If from a young age, children hear regularly that God created everything, loves them, and encourages our exploration of the world, then just maybe scientific discoveries they learn along the way will be less likely to become stumbling blocks for their faith [italics added] or roadblocks to fully engaging God’s creation.”


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