Scripture: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
My family and I miss eating at restaurants! That’s one activity that in the wake of COVID-19 we have seriously curtailed. And so many restaurants and restaurant chains are going under! I know it’s happened here in Toccoa—as so many people stay home or choose drive-through or take-out because they don’t want to sit down in a crowded restaurant with lots of people.
It may not be obvious, but in today’s scripture, Paul is asking some of these Christians in Corinth to do the same thing: to avoid sitting down in restaurants. Not because of threats to their physical health, but threats to their spiritual health… and the spiritual health of others. You see, most restaurants and banquet halls in Corinth were connected to pagan temples. And when the pagan priests would sacrifice bulls or cows or sheep or birds or pigs whatever else—well, believe it or not the gods wouldn’t eat very much… Seriously, the priest would burn up parts of the animal as a sacrifice, serve part of what was left over in the temple dining room—where rich people in Corinth gathered to eat, the same way we go to restaurants. And then the temple would sell the rest of the meat in the marketplace.
Most meat consumed in Corinth had first been offered as a sacrifice to these idols.
So what should Christians do? You’ve got to admit it’s a good question! In Acts 15, one of the rules the early church gave to Gentile converts was to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols. And Paul, probably in an earlier letter that we no longer possess, had passed down this rule to the Corinthians. But… Some of these Corinthians who were “in the know” thought they knew better… and they had a pretty good counterargument: We know that idols aren’t real. All meat comes as a gift from the one true God whom we worship. Therefore, what’s the harm of going into these temples and having a nice meal?
And one harm, Paul says, is that recent Christian converts, whose former lives were characterized by a lifestyle of idolatry, may not appreciate that these idols have no power, and for them, if they partake of these meals, they will be committing idolatry. As Paul says in a similar discussion in Romans, “If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning.”1 Moreover, these weaker Christians might even fall back into their former, idolatrous lifestyle and lose their faith entirely.
And there’s even a danger to these “knowledgeable” Christians, which Paul describes later, in chapter 10: even if these gods aren’t real, demons are; and demonic power is at work through these idols. So all Christians should avoid going into these temple dining rooms for that reason as well. But in today’s scripture, Paul is only talking about the danger to these so-called “weak” Christians.
It’s as if Paul were asking, “Why would you risk doing this grave spiritual harm to your brothers and sisters in Christ… all because you think being a Christian gives you some ‘right’ to do as you please, never mind the harm it does to your brothers and sisters!”
Besides, Paul exposes the pride of these so-called “knowledgeable” Christians. They were “puffed up”—they felt they were morally superior because, after all, unlike their weaker brothers and sisters, they possessed deeper insight into scripture and the things of God; they possessed a more mature faith and thus were able to enjoy more freedom than their theologically deficient brothers and sisters.
And Paul tells them, in verse 3, “Oh, please! You think you’re special because you have this ‘knowledge.’ You know who’s really special? Those people who love God and are known by him—even when they lack your special knowledge and insight.”
What does it mean to be known by God? It’s not the first time Paul has used this expression. A few years earlier, when he wrote his letter to the Galatians, he was talking about the Galatians’ lives before Christ and after Christ. He says in Galatians 4:9, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” It’s almost as if Paul has to stop his train of thought in mid-sentence—not because he’s wrong. Of course we who are Christians do know God. But as Paul says later in this same letter, we now “see through a glass darkly”2: our knowledge of God is very limited on this side of eternity. But the main thing by far is not that we know God but that God knows us—absolutely, completely perfectly. God knows us. Yet he still loves us!
Sometimes, when I think about it, I’m blown away by how much Lisa, my wife, loves me! I’m serious. How is it possible that she knows me so well—that she sees me at my best and my absolute worst, yet most of the time, if you asked her what she thinks of me, she would say—again, most of the time, I’m not lying—she would say, “Brent is pretty terrific!” She would! She would say that sincerely. It’s unbelievable.
And that is the very picture of God’s grace and how he relates to us! This is why Paul, in Ephesians chapter 5, compares Christian marriage to the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church! Christ’s love for us looks at least a little bit like the love between husband and wife, Paul says, except Christ’s love for us is absolutely perfect!
So this gets to the heart of what Paul means in verse 3 when he says that we Christians are “known by God.” Can we even comprehend that kind of love?
I’ve never really known anyone very famous in my life. But a couple of weeks ago, Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton died. Of course we know and love Don Sutton from his many years as a Braves announcer, but back in the ’70s he pitched for the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers—who were as good back then as they are today—and the Braves, well, they were not good… and they played the Dodgers a lot because, for some reason, Atlanta was in the National League West—even though we’re on the east coast. That’s probably why the Braves lost so many games back then… The team was jet-lagged from traveling to and from the West Coast all the time!
But Don Sutton’s death reminded me of one of his teammates, who is literally the only semi-famous person I’ve ever known personally. And his name is Rick Rhoden. And like Sutton, he was a starting pitcher for the Dodgers back in the ’70s. He made the All-Star team twice. He was a famously good hitting pitcher… He even pitched for the Yankees in the ’80s, and if you watch the Tom Hanks movie Big, one of the kids at the beginning of the movie is playing catch and pretending to be Yankees pitcher Rick Rhoden.
Anyway, Rick was the nephew of close family friends, and whenever the Dodgers came to town, he would visit with us. Come to our house. We went to Stone Mountain one time. But I remember walking up to the ticket counter at Fulton County Stadium and my dad would say, “We’ve got reserved tickets… they’re in the name of Dodgers pitcher Rick Rhoden.” That was nice! That felt like we were very important people. You know? “We’re with him… He knows us! And he’s close enough to give us free tickets! And they’re good seats, too, not in the upper deck where we usually sat!”
Most of y’all know what I’m talking about… But imagine this on an even larger scale. Josh and the youth, for example, are having a Super Bowl party next week. Let’s say the Buccaneers win the game. The league hands the team the Lombardi trophy. The first person to be interviewed after the game will undoubtedly be the now seven-time champion quarterback Tom Brady, arguably the greatest quarterback to play the game. I mean, I’ve got a soft spot for Joe Montana, too, but let’s face facts! But suppose the first thing Brady says to the interviewer after the game—while all of our youth are watching it on TV next door—is this: “I just want to give a big shout-out to my close personal friend Josh Villars.”
How do you think Josh would feel? Maybe he would be surprised because Josh doesn’t even know Tom Brady… but suppose he did! Tom Brady knows him… very well! Tom Brady loves him! Can you even imagine?
Janet Kaup told me that she and her daughter, Jovi, are reading Harry Potter. Suppose J.K. Rowling, on the first page of her next book, writes these words: “This book is dedicated to the two most wonderful people I know, Janet and Jovi Kaup, with much love.”
I mean, how many days or weeks would they be walking on Cloud 9 after something like that!
Now… if you have your Bibles, and you should, turn with me to Revelation chapter 4. This is a description of God’s throne in heaven. Listen to these words from verses 8 through 11:
“And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!’”
Then the scene changes to saints in heaven who are worshiping. It says,
“They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.’” 3
This is a picture of God in all his glory. To say the least, he’s the One who created, designed, and gifted famous celebrities like Tom Brady and J.K. Rowling and gave them and us these amazing minds and bodies that can do things like compete for Super Bowl championships and write bestselling books. And suppose you were in heaven while this worship was happening, beholding God in all his incomprehensible glory and power and might, one of these angels or saints asked God, “Do you know April Briant?” What would God say? God would be like, “Know her? Of course! She’s my beloved daughter with whom I am well pleased. I couldn’t love her more than I do. She couldn’t be more valuable to me than she is.”
So, to say the least, no human being on earth can ever be more special, more important, more valuable than that!
And that is the way God feels about all of us who are his children through faith!
If we think about it, we should say, along with David, in astonishment, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
So in verse 3, it’s as if Paul were saying to these “knowledgeable” Christians, “Do you think you’re special because you know something. Let me tell you who’s special… your brothers and sisters in Christ are special… not because they know something but because they are known by Someone! They are known by God! They belong to God! They’re his sons and daughters!”
When I was a baby, I was adopted into the family of Kit and Alton White. I have two older sisters—one was also adopted; one was natural born. Being adopted never seemed like a big deal to me until I was in the fourth grade, and I got into a fistfight with some kids who were teasing me about being adopted. And, yes, I got beat up… but in my defense, I was outnumbered! Anyway, my parents found out about it—and it became this big, embarrassing incident at the school. The principal got involved. And I just wanted people to stop talking about it—to stop talking about me! When I was a kid, I only ever just wanted to blend in, and, to say the least, I did not like all this attention!
But my parents wanted to make sure I was okay with being adopted. So they took me aside and said, “Brent, because you’re adopted, you’re extra special—even more special than if we had had you naturally—because, after all, we chose you. We didn’t have to have you; we chose you.”
I know they meant well, but even as a nine-year-old kid I was skeptical: I didn’t imagine, for example, that my parents went to the hospital, had a nurse rolled out a dozen babies in bassinets, and said to my parents: “Please pick your favorite baby out of this lot. Please pick the best-looking, the most athletic, the most intelligent, the most gifted.” I suspected, even back then, that they just got stuck with whomever the adoption agency sent them. I could be wrong…
Brothers and sisters, through our faith in Christ, we become God’s sons and daughters through adoption. But the Bible says that it’s not because God is “stuck with us.” He wanted us—even you and me—to be his children; he chose us. In other words, it’s not like God said, “I want to save Jennifer Garner and Brad Pitt and Elon Musk and LeBron James—all the beautiful, powerful, successful people—and I guess I’ll have to save Brent While I’m at it.” No! Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…”4 And he also said that he hasn’t lost “a single one of those” that his Father gave him. 5 Our heavenly Father gave us to Jesus.
Even more, look at verse 11: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother [or sister] for whom Christ died.” Notice the emphasis on the individual Christian. It’s as if Paul were saying, “If this brother or this sister were the only person who would ever repent and believe in Jesus, the only person who would ever receive God’s gift of eternal life, the only person who would ever become a child of God and be saved, he or she would be worth Jesus’ dying on a cross.” If you are in Christ, our Lord can look at any one of you and say, “You are worth suffering and dying on the cross for… so that I can have you with me in my family forever!”
That is love. That is how God loves… That is what perfect love looks like… That is how much God loves your brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s God’s standard of love.
“Now,” Paul says, “I need you to consider how far short of that standard you so-called ‘knowledgeable Christians’ are currently falling. God’s Son Jesus gave up his life so save this person, and you’re not willing to give up a steak dinner? What’s wrong with you? Because make no mistake: In verse 11, when Paul says that these “knowledgeable Christians” risk “destroying” their weaker brothers and sisters, the word “destruction” means that they risk falling back into idolatry, abandoning their Christian faith, and going to hell. That’s what’s at stake for Paul here!
You can turn to Romans 9, verse 3. Paul says he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for his fellow Jews who haven’t yet received Christ. In verse 3 he writes, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Do you know what he’s saying? He’s saying that if it were possible—it’s not possible, but if it were—Paul would sacrifice his own salvation, his own eternal life, in order to save his fellow Jews who don’t believe in Jesus. That’s love! I couldn’t honestly say that, because I don’t love like that yet, but Paul can because he does!
So in today’s scripture, Paul feels the same anguish for his brothers and sisters in Christ who risk losing their faith and backsliding into terrible sin and going to hell… all because of the harmful, thoughtless, insensitive actions of their fellow Christians!
I don’t have to tell you that we’ve just come through an ugly election season for the past few months, and thank God we’re mostly on the other side of it. But there will be some other important political controversy to argue about soon enough. There will be some political cause that’s so important that Christians will be willing to throw one another under the bus—and say “to hell with you”—if we don’t get our way! Just wait!
But I’m on Twitter—maybe I shouldn’t be, but I am—and oh my goodness! Over the past few months I’ve seen many high-profile Christians—with large Twitter followings—irrespective of their politics, talking to and about other Christians in such an angry, mean-spirited way, slandering them, gossiping about them, and I want to tell them, “You don’t get to take a vacation from your Christian faith just because you’re on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram! Your anger toward your fellow Christians is sinful! You’re talking about a brother for whom Christ died! You’re talking about a sister for whom Christ died! Even if they’re wrong—or even if you think they’re wrong—you still owe them Christ-like love! Why is being right so much more important than loving your brother or sister?”
So many times in scripture—in Proverbs, especially, and in the Book of James—God warns us about the danger of the tongue, our speech, the things we say… James says, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” 6 And of course this would apply not only to the tongue, but to our fingers on the keyboard and our thumbs on our smartphones.
And yet so many of us Christians contradict God’s Word by what we say online! I know from whence I speak. For ten years I was a very active church blogger, and I know how angry I felt, and I know the hatred I often felt… toward my fellow Christians with whom I disagreed… theologically. The disagreements were important. My attitude stunk. So I had to give it up. I only post sermons on my blog now. I’m proud of most of what I wrote; I still believe it’s true. Otherwise I would delete it. But I’m not proud of the spirit with which I often wrote. So I’m done with it… for my own spiritual health.
Jesus says, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”7
Jesus assumes, in other words, that non-Christians will notice the difference that Jesus makes in our lives by the way we love one another. How are doing at that? I’ve been talking a lot recently about the importance of evangelism, but let’s not forget: Jesus makes clear that one essential part of evangelism is brothers and sisters in Christ loving one another. That helps convince people of the truth of the gospel. Our love for one another should attract people to Jesus!
And it has in the past…
For example, in one early letter from the second century, a writer named Mathetes describes the Christian way of life to a powerful Roman leader named Diognetus, who was a pagan. The writer says these Christians are indistinguishable from us in so many ways: they dress like us, they talk like us, they eat the same food as we do, they pay taxes like us, they obey laws like us… in so many ways their behavior is the same. Except… And here I’m quoting directly from the letter: “They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.” You see, whereas we have a crisis related to abortion in this country, in the Roman world if you had an unwanted baby, especially a baby girl, it was perfectly legal and acceptable to leave that baby at the city’s garbage dump to die of exposure. These Christians didn’t do that. The writer continues: “They have a common table, but not a common bed”—meaning, they share their food with one another, but they don’t sleep around. He writes: “They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all.” 8
They loved one another with Christ-like love… and the unbelieving world took notice!
Dear Lord, make it possible for the people of Toccoa, Georgia, to be amazed at how the Christians at Toccoa First Methodist love one another!
And that love starts not by “trying harder” and giving more… but by receiving more! By believing God’s Word more. Believing that God our Father knows us, and loves us, and that he chose us—even you and me—to be his son or daughter… It starts by believing that God the Son willingly laid down his life for us—because he loved you and me that much and wanted us to be with him forever.
It starts by receiving more of the very best gift that God has to give us. Jesus said, “If you then, who are evil”—and he was talking to his own disciples—“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” We need more of the Holy Spirit! We need more of the Spirit of Jesus living inside of us!
Almighty God, give all of us the grace to believe and receive this good news. Amen.
- Romans 14:23
- 1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV
- Revelation 4:8-11
- John 6:44a ESV
- See John 18:9 NLT
- James 3:5b-6a
- John 13:35
- “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus,” Early Christian Writings, earlychristianwritings.com. Accessed 10 June 2017.