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First Corinthians 8--Knowledge and Love

Apr 27, 2017

Some things are universally acknowledged as truth. Other things are universally acknowledged as false. But many things fall into a disputed realm of disagreement, where one man’s conscience differs from that of another. Paul always defers to the law where it reveals the mind of God, but not all things in the law are clearly specified, and not all interpret the law in the same manner.

The fact is, no man’s knowledge is complete, and no man has all revelation and understanding of the law. As long as men are mortal, knowledge will be incomplete. Those who are humble enough to know their limitations will more easily be motivated by love toward others who suffer under the same limitations.

In 1 Corinthians 8-10 Paul devotes three chapters to the conscience, showing how one’s perceived knowledge of the truth should be tempered by love. The lessons of love in these chapters are as follows:

Chapter 8. Indulgence in food sacrifices to idols may hurt the weak, so liberty should be regulated by love.

Chapter 9. Indulgence may hinder Christian ministry and testimony, so one should accommodate others and be all things to all men.

Chapter 10. Indulgence may put the soul in danger, so one should take heed, lest he falls.

In each case, one’s conscience, which functions according to its knowledge (or perceived knowledge), ought to be regulated by love, which transcends knowledge. If the church had understood these principles and had developed genuine love, the Church Councils throughout history would have had an entirely different flavor.

Unfortunately, the purpose of Church Councils was designed to settle questions of doctrine and conscience that went far beyond the “essentials” of faith in Christ, His death, resurrection, and ascension. Once a particular doctrinal dispute was “settled” by a carnal vote of the attending bishops, the right of conscience to disagree was removed, and love was set aside in favor of forced unity. Those who dared to differ were called “heretics.” Church officials did not seem to understand that 1 Corinthians 8:2 applied to them as much as to others.

Two Kinds of Knowledge

In the eighth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul prefaces his teaching with a statement about knowledge and love. 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 says,

1 Now concerning things sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes arrogant, but love [agape] edifies. 2 If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; 3 but if anyone loves [agapao] God, he is known by Him.

Here the apostle was speaking of soulish knowledge, not spiritual revelation. The revelation known by one’s spirit is perfect, and it is complete insofar as it has full access to “the Father of spirits” (Hebrews 12:9). The problem is that our soul has a limited capacity to know or even to accept the revelation of truth that is inherent in the spirit. Yet in its pride, the soul demands submission from the spirit, thus subjecting spiritual truth to soulish knowledge.

Because the soul is dominant in the lives of most people, we must remain humble enough to acknowledge the possibility that we might entertain erroneous understanding. In other words, we may easily confuse knowledge with truth. For this reason, Paul presents a proper way to apply truth by the principle of love.

What we perceive as truth may, in fact, be only soulish knowledge, but love is of God and is therefore spiritual. Even so, there is carnal love (eros), soulish love (phileo), and spiritual love (agape). Eros (or physical attraction) is not even mentioned in the New Testament, for the apostles did not consider eros (in itself) to have any love-value at all. Phileo love is good, but it is soulish. Only agape love is spiritual, and it is therefore the highest goal of any believer.

We all have knowledge—some more than others—but “knowledge makes arrogant.” Knowledge, then, should be contrasted with truth, which retains humility. “Knowledge is power,” men say as they enslave others through the power of intellect; but Jesus said, “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

Those who fail to understand the difference between knowledge and truth tend to reject spiritual truth along with soulish knowledge. They think that truth is part of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and so they refuse to study the word of God. They think that studying the word makes a person arrogant, when, in fact, arrogance comes through soulish learning apart from the revelation of the Holy Spirit.

Soulish knowledge is indeed the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; but truth is the fruit of the tree of life. We may recognize each by the measure of arrogance or humility in a person’s life. When differences of opinion evoke anger and accusations of “heresy” and “false doctrine,” it is likely that someone has been indulging, perhaps inadvertently, in the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Paul’s word picture shows us two ways to grow. Arrogance is from the Greek word physioo, which means “to blow up, cause to swell up, to puff up, make proud.” It is also where we get the word physical. This is a physical or carnal way of being built up. It contrasts with love, which “edifies,” or builds us up spiritually.

In 1 Corinthians 8:2, Paul shows that knowledge can be either soulish or spiritual. When he says, “if anyone supposes that he knows anything,” he is speaking negatively of soulish knowledge that is presumed (incorrectly) to be spiritual. It is arrogant presumption, rather than true knowledge. Yet the second part of Paul’s sentence shows the potential of spiritual knowledge: “… he has not yet known as he ought to know.”

What ought he to know? His knowledge should be known through the man’s spirit, passed to the soul by the Holy Spirit. When the soul accepts and knows what the spirit knows, then the knowledge that the soul possesses is genuine truth. But transfers of truth are gradual. We must eat daily manna over a period of time to grow spiritually. Scripture shows that men were not allowed to gather even a two-day supply of manna, except on the day before the Sabbath. Neither can any child speed up his growth by eating a year’s worth of food in one day.

For this reason, Paul says, we must not presume that we know all that we need to know. Revelation is a daily process and a way of life, because truth is endless.

The Supremacy of Love

Love is greater than knowledge. In fact, as we will see later in 1 Corinthians 13, love is greater than faith and hope. Love is the essence of God’s nature. We read in 1 John 4:7, 8,

7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born [gennao, “begotten”] of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Though faith and hope are essential in our lives, Scripture never says that “God is Faith” or that “God is Hope.” Faith and hope come from God, but God is love. All that God does is the result of love. Anything men may attribute to God is true only if it is a manifestation of love. Many gods are tyrants, but not the true God. Many gods seek to be served, but the true God came in the form of Jesus Christ as a servant, even to the extent of being willing to die to save His creation.

Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 8:3 is most intriguing:

3 but if anyone loves [agapao] God, he is known by Him.

First, Paul was implying that love is the prime evidence of one’s connection with God. But instead of saying, “if anyone loves God, He knows God,” Paul tells us the reverse: “he is known by Him.” Paul mentioned this reverse relationship again in Galatians 4:9, saying,

9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God

Hence, it is not that we know God, but that He knows us! Our knowledge of Him is important, but even more important is His knowledge of us. To know has many connotations, including the concept of recognition. God recognizes us according to the love that He sees in us, for love is His offspring. If we are devoid of love, there is nothing in us that is of enduring value to God, nor is there anything in us that He recognizes.

When we are begotten of God by the Holy Spirit, that spiritual son within us is God’s love-child. He is begotten by love, and therefore, his nature is love. The old man—that is, the soulish man that was begotten by the flesh—was begotten by eros, and perhaps by phileo, but not by agape. For this reason, the soulish man has a nature that is different from the spiritual man.

It is the nature of love that God knows, or recognizes in His sons.


This is part 34 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones