Paul’s letter to his divided, immoral, and prideful brothers in the church found in 1 Corinthians exposes them as an impure people who fail to grasp the holiness of God. These Christians, although called to be set apart from their culture, end up committing a kind of sexual immortality “not tolerated even among the pagans” (1 Corinthians 5:1).
The church in Corinth should shock us. In one sense, it shows the shocking behavior of a people called to be holy. On the other hand, it should shock us to see just how similar we might be to these Corinthians. The root of their problem, and what might be the root of ours, is a misplaced knowledge of God that creates divisions rather than the edifying love, humility, and holiness it ought to.
Focusing in on 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 displays how true knowledge is based on God knowing us in a way that eliminates pride and motivates us to build others up in the same love that was shown by God’s sovereign-grace.
1 Corinthians 1:8-3
“Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).
We must understand a few things before we can get to the significance of this text:
- Idol worship in Corinth: The pagan culture surrounding the Corinthian church would offer meat to idols thought to cleanse it from demons. In doing so, they thought “it would be clean and inhabited by their god rather than by demons. It was an act of worship to their idol” (Francis Chan). This sacrificial act was done so pervasively in their culture it was hard to avoid the issue.
- Christians know idols are nothing: Now being Christians, some Corinthians fully know that idols are nothing. However, some weaker believers still feel as if eating this meat would be a return to the idols they used to worship. Therefore, their conscious would be harmed.
- This knowledge is causing stumbling: While idols are truly nothing, the destruction of weaker believers because of a defiled conscious is something. However, other prideful believers care more about boasting in their knowledge that idols are nothing rather than building up a brother for whom Christ died.
Although some Corinthians are “puffed up” with their so-called “knowledge,” it is imaginary; they “do not yet know as they ought.” They took what they learned and wielded it in whatever way they wished without considering how it might affect those who haven’t fully grasped the same truth. These people are the clanging cymbals that might as well be speaking in tongues because they are not utilizing God’s gift of knowledge in love (1 Corinthians 13:1).
Their knowledge, which could have been used to humbly lead others in the same truth, was instead a ground for boasting that pridefully crushed the weaker believers. In William Barclay’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, he writes, “There is always a certain danger in knowledge. It tends to make a man arrogant and feel superior and look down unsympathetically on the man who is not as far advanced as himself. Knowledge which does that is not true knowledge.”
The prideful believers displayed their ignorance by boasting of an imaginary knowledge that led them to be puffed up rather than building others up in love.
The Corinthians’ actions should make us think. How often do we use what we know as a ground for boasting or making fun of others we view as misguided? Are we truly turning our theology into doxology as we ought? Are we meditating on truths such that they change our hearts and our actions? Or, are we not much better than the Corinthians: boasting of what we know while giving not so much as a momentary thought or glance to the believers we are failing to build up in love?
We need to be conscious of this tendency to turn theological knowledge into pride. In Knowing God, J.I. Packer refers to this same text in 1 Corinthians 8 to warn us:
“the fact we must face is this: If we pursue knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us. It will make us proud and conceited. The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interest in it and grasp of it; and we shall look down on those whose theological ideas seem to us crude and inadequate and dismiss them as very poor specimens…. doctrinal study really can become a danger to spiritual life, and we today, no less than the Corinthians of old, need to be on our guard here” (Packer 21-22).
As his book title and purpose proves, Packer is not suggesting we shouldn’t aim to know God better, but he is warning us to always point our knowledge back to its purpose: to turn our knowledge about God into meditation before God, which leads to prayer and praise to God (Packer 23). Every little piece of knowledge about God should lead to a more prayerful and praising Christian rather than the prideful Corinthians Paul is pointing out. Knowing as we ought leads to a certain orientation towards God and people that is far different from what the Corinthians display.
After Paul focuses in on their culture, pride, and imaginary knowledge, he zooms out on something much bigger than themselves. He brings a final reproving truth that should put each boastful Corinthian in their rightful place: “if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” There is vast importance here on the word “known” in reference to our relation before God. There are two things to note here: one is that “is known” is in the Greek perfect tense and another is that it means far more than God knowing our name or that we exist.
Firstly, the Greek perfect tense involves a completed action and its finished results. It is used less frequently and more deliberately. We have been known by God, and His having known us precedes and enables our love for Him. In other words, you could never love God unless He knew you.
Secondly, being “known” in this sense is far different from God knowing our name or that we would exist. As Paul explains to the Galatians, their faith does not only mean they had “known God,” but that the only reason they know Him is because they were first “known by God” (Galatians 4:9). Therefore, “They know him by faith because he first singled them out by grace,” Packer says, “The word know, when used of God in this way, is a sovereign-grace word, pointing to God’s initiative in loving, choosing, redeeming, calling, and preserving” (41). This is the same kind of knowing that God had for His special people Israel: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2). God’s “knowing” of Israel referred to His choosing of Israel. He elected them to be the vessel through which He would display His glory.
A Humbling Truth
It was nothing in Israel that merited God’s choosing of them, but His past tense and continuing knowing of them reflects a sovereign-grace wholly given by God’s initiative for His exaltation. Paul is telling the Corinthians the same Scriptural truth: ‘you claim to have knowledge, you claim to love God, but meanwhile, you are boasting about this knowledge and faith as if it was your own. In the process, you are destroying fellow believers for whom Christ died. Do you not realize who is the giver not only of this knowledge but of your salvation?’
He humbles the Corinthians with the truth that the freedoms and knowledge they now boast in were wholly undeserved. The same is true for all of us who claim to know and love God: He knew you, He chose you, He lavished an undeserved sovereign-grace upon you before you even entered this earth. Who are we to boast in the knowledge only God can give? Who are we to use theological truths to pridefully exalt ourselves above other believers?
Being known by God means He is the author of your salvation, leading to a humble praise and true knowledge of God that works itself out in the serving and loving of others for their edification in Christ. Pray that we might be guarded against the temptation to use what we learn about God to push ourselves further away from the humility and awe we should have before Him.