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What does it mean that knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1)?

knowledge puffs up

In 1 Corinthians 8:1–13, the apostle Paul responds to a question from the Corinthians regarding meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols. He begins, “Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

In first-century Greek culture, pagans participating in ritualistic idol worship offered meat from animals to be burned in temple sacrifices. Only a portion of the meat was used, and the leftovers were typically sold in the market. The Jerusalem Council had banned Christians from eating such foods (Acts 15:29). However, controversy arose in the church based on each believer’s understanding of Christian liberty. Many knew the meat could not be contaminated purely because it had been used in a pagan ritual. The temple idols were false gods and had no power to taint the meat. These Christians felt freedom of conscience to eat the meat, which was likely available to purchase at a reduced market price.

When Paul writes, “We all possess knowledge” and “An idol is nothing at all in the world,” he appears to be quoting lines from an earlier letter written by the Corinthian leaders (see 1 Corinthians 8:1, 4). These leaders were seeking Paul’s counsel to quell the division. Some of the believers in the church—likely those who had been delivered from pagan idolatry—were offended by brothers and sisters in Christ who were eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul tackles a similar issue in Romans 14 and 15. The freedom of strong believers regarding dietary laws and holy days was offending the weaker Christians.

Paul starts his counsel to the Corinthians with this statement: “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” “Puffs up” is an English rendering of the Greek verb physioō, meaning “to make proud, to cause to become conceited, as if to inflate something with air.” The New Living Translation renders this statement, “While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church.”

Earlier, Paul commented on the superior knowledge of the Corinthians: “God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge” (1 Corinthians 1:5, NLT). It appears the Corinthians may have grown a little too proud of their intellectual prowess. Paul indicates that knowledge itself was not the answer to the division over food sacrificed to idols. The Corinthians could apply all the sophisticated learning they had acquired to the situation, but that would not help. They needed love.

Warren Wiersbe writes, “Knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or a tool to build with, depending on how it is used. If it ‘puffs up’ then it cannot ‘build up [edify]’” (The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1, Victor Books, 1996, p. 595). If our knowledge is not tempered with love, we are simply bloated, puffed-up know-it-alls. Later, Paul expounds on the idea: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. . . . If I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge . . . but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1–3, NLT).

Knowledge must be counterbalanced with love to be powerful and effectual (Ephesians 4:15; Philippians 1:9–11). The strong believers, those with the freedom to eat meat, failed to apply their knowledge in love (1 Corinthians 16:14; Colossians 3:14). Instead of strengthening the weak saints and building up the church, the strong Christians were only inflating their egos and creating discord.

Christian freedom must always be accompanied by love and concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We do well to remember that knowledge puffs up, whereas love builds up. A genuinely mature believer will lay down his intellectual pride and lovingly humble himself (Romans 14:1). Rather than humiliate or beat down someone weak in faith with logical arguments, we will come alongside to help our brother or sister walk in freedom (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We may even need to sacrifice our Christian freedoms to help prevent a weaker brother from stumbling and falling (1 Corinthians 8:9–12; Romans 15:1–3; 1 Corinthians 10:24; Philippians 2:4).

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What does it mean that knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1)?
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This page last updated: February 27, 2024