By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that all of us possess knowledge. This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1 ESV).
In Luke 10, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question: who is my neighbor? (v 29) The punchline in the story comes when Jesus asks the lawyer: who was neighbor to the man who fell among robbers? (v 36) Jesus flips the word, neighbor—so-to-speak—from being object to being subject. Not—who is my neighbor?—but: how do I become a good neighbor?
In 1 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul takes Jesus’ Jedi mind-trick (flipping subject and object) and uses it to reframe the perspective on eating food dedicated to idols.
The early church was dogged with questions about food sacrificed to idols. For example, in the Council of Jerusalem decision, the Council required four things of gentile believers: abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29 ESV). Likewise, in his prophecy pertaining to the city of Pergamum, the Apostle John writes: But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:20 ESV). We are accordingly a bit surprised to hear Paul state: Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do (v 8).
The importance of this conversation about food can be easily dismissed as unimportant, but Paul returns to it over and over in his letters. In his commentary, Richard Hays makes this point by listing 4 topics touched on by the food issue which even today remain hot-button issues:
- Boundaries between church and culture;
- Class divisions in the church;
- Love trumps knowledge; and
- The danger of destruction through idolatry.
What is Paul’s argument? Paul basically says 4 things:
- Idols do not exist (vv 4-6);
- The dedication of food to non-existing idols is meaningless (v 8);
- Knowledge about this subject is helpful (vv 4-7); but
- Knowledge is less important than demonstrating love for fellow believers (vv 7-13).
Later, Paul combines his principles of Christian freedom and Jesus’ Jedi mind-trick: “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor (1 Corinthians 10:23-24 ESV).
Paul’s reiteration of Jesus’ reframing of focus in dealing with neighbors speaks to the heart of the food controversy. If we abandon our rights as Christians in favor of our fellow believers or potential believers, then our priority is to be a good example—even when it hurts. Perhaps, especially when it hurts.
 We might hear another echo of Jesus here: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27 ESV). This is another Jedi mind-trick by Jesus because he again radically reframes the entire discussion by flipping subject and object.
 Richard B. Hays. 2011. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: First Corinthians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. Pages 143-45.
- How was your week? Did anything special happen?
- What questions or thoughts do you have about 1 Corinthians 7?
- What contrast does Paul offer in verse 1? According to Paul, what is an idol? What is knowledge? What is love? Why the contrast?
- What knowledge does Paul view as important? (vv 2-3)
- What is important to know about idols? (vv 4-6) How does the contemporary problem of idolatry differ from the idols that Paul is describing?
- Two groups are impacted by the discussion of idolatry in verses 7 and 8? Who are they? How do their views differ?
- What right is Paul referring to in verse 9?
- What is Paul’s admonition about knowledge about idolatry and the issue of food dedicated to idols? (vv 9-13) How are we to use to the knowledge that we possess?
- What does the New Testament teach about food and idols outside of this chapter? (for examples, see Acts 15:29 and Revelation 2:20).
- Why does Paul spend so much time on this issue? (see reflection)