“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.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
You’ve perhaps heard the phrase, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” The idea is that when we get just a little knowledge, the temptation is to think we have more than we actually do. When we try to act on that knowledge, if we are not willing to listen to those who have even more, we can quickly find ourselves in a tight spot.
Starting in chapter 8 here and running through chapter 10, Paul shifts gears in the letter to explore unity in the church through the issue of whether or not it is morally appropriate for followers of Jesus to eat meat that came from an animal used as a sacrifice to one of the various Roman gods or goddesses. In a day when most everyone was poor and couldn’t afford meat at all, one of the ways to obtain it was for a rich person as a display of both his wealth and his piety to hold a big festival of sorts in which a large number of animals were sacrificed to a local deity. A small portion would be burned up in the offering while the rest was butchered and sold inexpensively at the temple market. The Jews had something similar in the thanksgiving or freewill offering outlined in Leviticus. But, given the Jews’ rather radical opposition to even the slightest whiff of idolatry, eating meat that came from one of these pagan sacrifices was a major no-no.
The church, though, is a nexus where cultural customs like these intersect as people from different backgrounds come to Christ and try to worship together. This doesn’t always go smoothly.
Jesus followers from a Greek background who had grown up eating this meat were generally fine with eating it now that they were following Jesus instead of the Roman gods and goddesses. They understood, they knew, that these other gods were not gods at all. They were nothing but natural things that had been idealized into human-like deities which were represented by physical things like statues. The animals that had been sacrificed to them were sacrificed to nothing and so eating their meat was no different than eating any other meat. Meat was meat, and if you could get it cheaply this way, all the better.
The Jews, on the other hand, knew that idolatry was gravely wrong and that by eating this meat you were at the very least flirting with all kinds of detestable practices. It was better to not eat meat at all than it was to risk walking down this road.
Getting back on track, what you had here was the intersection of two different bits of knowledge. Both were very much likely to lead to pride in those who knew them. The pride came in different forms (“at least I’m not being unfaithful to the Lord in what I’m eating,” and “how could someone be so foolish as to think there was actually something meaningful to these empty sacrifices; don’t they know God is the Lord and there is no other?”), but it was equally problematic in whoever happened to be holding it.
This knowledge was serving to puff up the folks who were holding it. Paul’s point here is not to discourage learning as much as possible or knowing things, but rather to offer the caution that knowledge cannot be seen as an end in and of itself. Much like Solomon realized in his reflections on life in Ecclesiastes, pursuing something for its own sake will always lead to trouble. Knowledge only does us any good when it leads us to the source of all knowledge to be in a relationship with Him.
There are a lot of people out there who are incredibly intelligent, but who aren’t very smart. They know a ton of things, but their knowledge isn’t serving to benefit them in any truly meaningful way. The real treasure of this life when it comes to knowledge is not how much we know, but by whom we are known. When our knowledge brings us to the throne of God to be known by Him, then we are on the right track. When it leads us to not only know who God is, but to commit ourselves to a love relationship with Him, then we are heading in the right direction. Then we know the thing which is most important to know.