“Love Seeks to Build Up” (I Cor. 8:1-13)
The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany (January 31, 2021)
Today knowledge is everything. Knowledge is power: nuclear bombs, computers, Wall Street insider information. Knowledge is prestige: The more degrees you have behind your name the more you are revered as an expert. Knowledge is influence and affluence: the more highly educated you are the higher paying and authoritative jobs you can obtain. Yes, knowledge often translates into freedom, privileges and even rights!
But this is not necessarily so in the Kingdom of God. For Christians knowledge does not drive behavior nor lead to privilege and blessing. The more you know does not necessarily mean the higher you go! Rather, in God’s Kingdom love is everything! In fact, knowledge without love is destructive. So is the message of St. Paul in our text. He remarks: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Please understand neither I nor Paul are against learning, especially learning the Bible. In fact, Paul himself was a highly educated man, schooled not only in the Scriptures but in the philosophies and sciences of his day. He was also continually urging the pastors that he ordained into the ministry to teach others the tenants and doctrines of the faith until everyone might “attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God…”(Eph 4:13).
We, too, must always remain learners. On the one hand, continuously becoming wise to the ways of the world that we may know how our neighbors think, as well as, not become deceived by the subtleties and schemes of the genius of the wicked. But most importantly it is necessary that we continue with earnest to be students of God’s Word. Especially when it comes to God’s truths, ignorance is not bliss. We would be lost without the knowledge of the truth in Jesus Christ and easily lead astray without proper knowledge of God’s will and ways.
However, what Paul urges against, and in fact, what the Lord Himself rejects, is the use of knowledge to puff oneself up and not build others up. In other words, knowing things, even the things of God, is of no benefit for anyone unless that knowledge is used with love for God and love for others to improve, increase, and even save their lot and life. Knowledge gained simply for one’s own benefit serves only to fill an already sinful human being with more hot air!
Paul’s word here translated “puffed up” referred to the use of bellows to inflate the fire in a furnace. Knowledge can inflate one’s opinion of himself. The more knowledge one accumulates the more enticing it is to become arrogant, to put on the airs of importance. Learning can become almost like an aphrodisiac, enticing one to fall in love with his own mental acumen. The accumulation of knowledge becomes an end in and of itself.
Simply knowing stuff, however, is self-deceiving. Paul notes: “He who thinks he knows does not know as he ought!” There are most definitely, Know it alls, but there is only One who knows it all. Arrogance demonstrates the real ignorance.
How true that is when it comes to knowing about God. The ancient Church Father Chrysostom once wrote: “Where God is concerned, we cannot even say just how wrong our perception of Him is” (A.C.C.S., vol. VII, p. 75). After all, if one truly knows God then he could not be arrogant for he would know that God, Who is love, can not be reached and known through the intellect or reason, but only through God’s revelation of Himself and His love in the God/Man Jesus Christ.
A particular “puffing up” occurred among the more knowledgeable members of the Corinthian congregation with regard to the eating of the flesh of animals that had been offered as sacrifices at one of the many pagan temples.
It wasn’t, necessarily, that Christians went out of their way to eat of the pagan sacrifices nor partook of the pagan ritual meals. Everyone would clearly have recognized that to do so would be sacrilege, true idolatry, and a total offense to the True God. In fact, in his discussion of the Lord’s Supper, Paul quite directly warned the Corinthian Christians: “… what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons”(I Cor. 10:20,21)
However, what confused the issue was that it was common place for eateries or cafes in the city to serve left over portions of animals that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. This was common knowledge. Some of the more astute or knowledgeable members of the church, however, prided themselves on knowing that idols were nonentities. They thought this knowledge gave them privileges, especially when it came to eating of meat that had been sacrificed to idols. They reasoned that since the idols really weren’t anything but made up deities, they were free to eat even from flesh that had been sacrificed to idols. Some even reasoned, they would even be doing the weaker Christians, who had great reservations about eating such meat, a real favor by teaching them that in Christ they were free to receive all things God had created as a gift from Him.
But, as Paul insists, with their knowledge they were only puffing themselves up at the expense of the eternal welfare of other Christians. Oh, yes, their knowledge was leading them to exercise what they knew to be their freedom, but by doing so they were placing a stumbling block, an offense, in the path of their weaker brothers and sisters, whose conscience would not allow them to eat from what was offered to idols. Their action of eating such meat could easily lead others to conclude that it must be acceptable to worship both the idols and Jesus at one and same time. Thus, their knowledge would be imperiling the souls of others!
It is a grave sin to cause someone to act against his/her conscience, especially when that conscience has been shaped by the knowledge of the Truth in Jesus Christ.
We are all susceptible to this same arrogance and sin. We who know that we are saved by grace alone apart from the works of the Law can sometimes use this authority, or freedom, to lead the weak to think the Law is obsolete to the point that they are free to disobey the law without divine condemnation. The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is if leading them to go against their conscience, which has already been shaped by God’s truth, love? Hardly!
Allow me to offer an example. It is clear from Holy Scripture that the drinking of alcohol is not sin. If it were a sin in God’s eyes then Jesus Himself would be a sinner and have gravely contributed to the sinning of others. After all, on one occasion that we know of, Jesus miraculously produced over 120 gallons of wine for wedding guests who had already had plenty to drink.
You and I could abuse such knowledge, however. Let’s say, my brother in Christ has been convinced that drinking alcohol is sin that earns a one-way ticket to hell or he is a recovering alcoholic. However, when he comes over to visit I offer him a beer. My action would be more than insensitive. It would be a sin against him. In fact, because it would wound his conscience, it would be a sin against Christ (v. 12), who died to redeem my brother as well as me. I might even feel that by offering him a beer I’m trying to teach him the valuable lesson that as a Christian it is not alcohol that makes a person unclean, but his sin. Yet, I’m just arrogantly trying to make a point at the expense of the welfare of my brother.
If we really knew God then we would know that knowledge that is beneficial is knowledge that is molded by love, and not just any love , but God’s love.
Another way that our knowledge could be used to bring down a brother instead of build him up is to make our own judgments as to what is his sin before God where God has not clearly declared it as such in His revealed Word. For example, I heard someone the other day criticize anyone who refuses to get a Covid -19 vaccination with the charge that they are disobeying God by not loving their neighbors as themselves. Really, you mean this person in his infinite wisdom knows with divine certainty that there are no God-pleasing reasons for a person to refuse such a man-made concoction? Such a person bears the apostle’s characterization as someone who “does not yet know as he ought to know” (v. 2).
All this is why Paul is quick to point out that the crucial thing about knowledge is not even that we know God but that He knows us. In fact, when God knows us, His love for us becomes the very pin to burst the puffed up bubble of our own arrogance. Once again, I quote Chrysostom, “We do not know God, but he knows us… This is the fruit of love and the death of pride.”
Our greatest comfort is not that we know God but that He knows us. You see, even the devil and his horde know God. As we heard from the demon’s lips in our Gospel reading, the devils even know that Jesus is God’s Son. Likewise, as Satan himself proved by tempting Jesus in the wilderness, he and his wicked followers know what the word of God says and they are not above quoting it. Of course, they will quote and use only those portions that will serve their evil purposes. Such knowledge of God and his word, however, does not save these demons.
It is not our knowledge of God that saves but God’s knowledge of us! What saves is that God knows us as His dear Children. For those God knows He loves. Those He loves He redeems in His love. Those He redeems He sanctifies; that is, he sets apart to live in His grace and life by giving them faith by His Holy Spirit.
God’s love for us climaxed on the cross. There the holy, omnipotent and omniscient, God bent down to the weak in His love to redeem even arrogant people like ourselves. In Jesus Christ, God set aside His glory… His freedom … His authority even over the Law, and humbled Himself by placing Himself under the Law with all its demands and punishments, just to save us, the weak and frail. No greater love is there than that a man lay down His life for his friends! God’s knowledge of us was put into action by His love for us to build us up to be members of His holy household and heirs of eternal life!
You and I as Christians do not owe anything to our knowledge of God but, instead, we owe everything to God’s knowledge of us. His knowing of us has given us new birth as His beloved. We are now by the working of His love in us cut from His cloth. We are not of this world. We are members of the Body of Christ. His love for us is the greatest knowledge we can possess.
His love for us also then, not our knowledge, ought to be the driving principle in our relationships with others. If the Lord Jesus Christ has willingly sacrificed Himself for us, His weakest brothers and sisters, can we not be willing to forego certain luxuries, rights, personal freedoms, out of consideration for our brothers and sisters in the faith? Paul says, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
God’s love moves us to love sacrificially. His love constrains us to set aside our pride, our perceived rights, and to humbly aim at doing what is necessary to build up our brother in Christ. This is being liberal in right and biblical sense.
God continue to bless us in Jesus Christ with His love that we might not be know-it-alls and puffer-uppers of self but might always remain those known by God and builder-uppers of others! Amen.