Exposition of 1 Corinthians 8:1–6 Knowledge and love

1 Corinthians 8:1–6

1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.

4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Our opening verse contains both the problem Paul is addressing and the beginning of its solution. While idolatry provides the context of the argument between Paul and the Corinthian believers, the real conflict is between two different kinds of knowledge. The form of knowledge that Paul opposes is the one that leads to spiritual pride and an excessive focus on individual rights exercised without regard for others in the church. The form of knowledge that Paul advocates is the one that leads to love for others, building them up and putting their interests ahead of one’s own. This fact will not become fully obvious until the conclusion of chapter 8.

Be clear on the fact that Paul is not pitting love against knowledge. Nor is he saying that love is good and knowledge is bad. Instead, godly knowledge is the kind that results in love for others while worldly knowledge leads to selfish assertion of rights no matter how it affects others.

Before we get into verses 1–3 in detail, take a look at the following translation by Anthony Thiselton:

1 Now on the subject of meat associated with offerings to pagan deities: we are fully aware that “All of us possess ‘knowledge.’” This “knowledge” inflates; love, on the other hand, builds. 2 If anyone thinks that he or she has achieved [some piece of] this “knowledge,” they have not yet come to know as they ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves [God], he or she has experienced true “knowing” [is known by him].[1] (strikethrough added).

The translation just given is not the same as that of the NIV because the NIV follows a different line of NT Greek manuscripts than Thiselton follows. This is one of those rare instances in which the manuscript evidence can lead in two different directions (neither of which significantly alters any Christian theology believed by the historic church). Gordon Fee also agrees with Thiselton that the words in brackets (“[. . .]”) above are not part of Paul’s original letter.[2] These words do not appear in the oldest available manuscript (p46) and were likely added by someone who mistook what Paul was driving at.

You may be asking “What difference does this make?” Good question! In this context, Paul is not talking about love for God or even being loved by God; he is talking about the need of the Corinthians to learn to love others; accordingly, the oldest manuscript (p46) does not mention God in this verse. Fee says, “True gnosis [knowledge] consists not in the accumulation of so much data, nor even in the correctness of one’s theology, but in the fact that one has learned to live in love toward all.”[3] True knowledge is crucial to Christian faith, but it will always direct us toward love for others. We too must gain knowledge — true knowledge.

Returning to the question about the Corinthians’ association with idol worship (1 Cor. 8:4), Paul again quotes two Corinthian slogans: “An idol is nothing at all in the world” (verse 4) and “There is no God but one” (verse 4). By using these slogans, the Corinthians hope to live something close to the lives they led before trusting Christ. These sayings are intended to allow them to do as they like in relation to eating in idol temples, eating food associated with idols or participating in civic ceremonies somehow affected by idolatry. You might say that they are examples of Corinthian “knowledge” used to authorize individual liberties. Besides, living like they did before is good for business and advancement! But Paul has already warned them not to get sucked into the great game of this world, because “this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31).

Paul will not fully correct their understanding until 1 Cor. 8:9–13. For the moment he starts where the Corinthians are and deals with the more general subject of idols, and their place in the minds of people who follow Christ; later he will introduce love for others.

In this context, Paul assumes for the sake of argument that idols exist and represent “so-called gods” (1 Cor. 6:5), and he goes on to speak of “many ‘gods’ and ‘many lords.’” Fee explains that the “gods” designate the traditional deities (e.g., Poseidon, Aphrodite, and others) while “lords” was the normal designation for the deities of the mystery cults that had come to Greece from the Orient.[4]

Paul begins his shift away from idols and toward his theme of love with the words “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father” (1 Cor. 8:6a). In fact, Paul puts “one God, the Father” and “one Lord, Jesus Christ” in direct contrast with the “many gods and many lords” of the surrounding society.

In speaking of the one unique God, Paul describes our relationship to Father with the phrase “for whom we live” (1 Cor. 6:6) and our relationship to the Son with the phrase “through whom we live.” Our unique God is one, yet relates to us as Father and Son. The argument began with idols and has progressed — at this intermediate stage — to our relationship to Christ. Thiselton says, “Christ-likeness and the shape of the cross mark all that a Christian believers are and do.”[5] That being the case, Paul will soon take the next step in his argument by showing how those related to Christ in this way must live.

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 612–613, following p46, Siniaticus and Clement of Alexandria. p46 is the oldest known Greek manuscript of 1 Corinthians, from about A.D. 200.

[2] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 364–369.

[3] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 368.

[4] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 373.

[5] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 638.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!