Today we return to our study of 1 Corinthians, resuming our walk through this epistle at chapter 8. As we have seen, much of 1 Corinthians consists of Paul’s responding to several questions and issues raised by the Corinthian believers in a letter they wrote to the Apostle (see, for example, 7:1). Chapter 8 begins Paul’s discussion of a new concern that the Corinthians raised: “food offered to idols” (v. 1). His teaching on this matter carries through to chapter 11 and involves both the eating of meat at pagan temples and the eating of meat that had been offered to false gods and then sold in the marketplace. Paul begins in chapter 8 with what Christians are to do about eating meat at pagan temples (see v. 10).
In the ancient world, worship at pagan shrines often involved meals. Animals would be sacrificed to the gods and then worshipers would eat some of the meat not burned on the altar in the (supposed) presence of the deities. Similar practices were even part of old covenant worship in Israel, though of course to eat such meals in the presence of the one true God did not constitute idolatry (Lev. 7:11–18).
These pagan meals fulfilled not only a religious purpose but also a social one, forming part of the common culture of the first century. Therefore, Christians were under immense pressure to participate. In some cases, these meals were even required to belong to trade guilds and thus to have opportunities for employment. First Corinthians 8:7–13 indicates that many Corinthian believers took part in these pagan meals, and Paul had to correct this practice.
Apparently, the Corinthians justified their practice by claiming a special knowledge (v. 1), specifically knowledge that the pagan gods have no real existence (vv. 4–6). The Apostle will not disagree with this fact, as we will see, but the Corinthians’ knowledge was at best incomplete. In Corinth, the believers were misapplying this knowledge, thinking that it allowed for false worship. In the process, they were also leading others astray (vv. 10–13). They did not combine their knowledge with love, and the results were spiritual pride and sinning against other Christians. Paul warns about this in verses 1–3 but not by disparaging knowledge as inherently bad. John Calvin comments that Paul did not “understand this to be the natural tendency of learning—to produce arrogance, but simply meant to show what effect knowledge has in an individual, that has not the fear of God, and love of the brethren.”