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)
I don’t know if there is a more appropriate passage for us to turn to at this point in the book than 1 Corinthians 8:1–3. It is a passage directed toward those whose have their facts right but hearts wrong. Here Paul addresses the intelligent but unloving.
It has been wonderful and challenging for me to study this passage. Meditating on 1 Corinthians 8:1–3 caused me to realize how many statements I make each day that are not motivated by love. It has caused me to pray that God would remind me to love each person I encounter and to seek to build up each individual with my words.
Do I Genuinely Love?
Years ago, a friend of mine asked me how I prepared to preach. I told him how I pictured God in the room and that I would tell him that I wanted to please him alone. I then asked my friend how he would prepare. He told me how he would look at the crowd and pray, “God, you know how I love these people. Give me the right words to bring them closer to you.”
He then explained that there are other times that he would have to pray, “Father, I don’t love these people like I should. Give me a greater love for them.” It is sad that I had been preaching for years, I realized then, without thinking about really loving the people to whom I preached.
Now I keep a list of questions in the front of my Bible. It is a checklist that I try to run through each time before I speak. I am “prone to wander,” as the old hymn says. My motives for preaching can be very unholy at times. These seven questions can be good checks on my sinful heart. The first two questions are especially relevant to the theme of this chapter:
1) Am I concerned with what others will think of my message or what God will think?
2) Do I genuinely love these people?
When my heart is right, preaching becomes a wonderful experience rather than a burdensome one.
For those interested, the full list of seven questions I rehearse before speaking is as follows: (1) Am I worried about what people think of my message or what God thinks? (Teach with fear.) (2) Do I genuinely love these people? (Teach with love.) (3) Am I accurately presenting this passage? (Teach with accuracy.) (4) Am I depending on the Holy Spirit’s power or my own cleverness? (Teach with power.) (5) Have I applied this message to my own life? (Teach with integrity.) (6) Will this message draw attention to me or to God? (Teach with humility.) (7) Do the people really need this message? (Teach with urgency.)
Worried About Whose Presence?
The first time I spoke at my college alma mater, I was an absolute wreck. The president of our college, John MacArthur, was sitting in the front row. Every time I told a joke, I would look out of the corner of my eye to see if he was laughing. Whenever I made a point, I would check to see if I had his approval. It was not a good experience.
What made it worse was, when I was done, my wife asked me, “What was that all about? You definitely were not yourself up there.”
My response was, “But John MacArthur was in the front row.”
To which Lisa replied, “Let me get this straight. You were preaching Psalm 139, speaking about the presence of God. Yet you were worried about the presence of John MacArthur?”
Foolishly defending myself, I began to explain to my wife all of Dr. MacArthur’s accomplishments. I hoped at least to help her see why I would be afraid. Her response was, “And all of his righteous deeds are as filthy rags.” Ouch.
Written in Love
I have come a long way since those days, but I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t given any thought to the fact that I was going to be preaching to some of my heroes when I delivered the original version of this chapter at the 2010 Desiring God National Conference in Minneapolis.
Yet, by the grace of God, I think I was able to look beyond all of that and think more about loving them. I asked God to help me use whatever giftedness I have for their benefit and edification. He gave me love for them. And now I ask him for that love for you, the reader. This chapter is written in love. I have been praying for you, that you would love God and others more as a result of this study of 1 Corinthians 8.
What Matters in Eternity
Think about this: those of us who are in Christ will be together one hundred years from now. I’ve tried to write this chapter in light of that — thinking that I will see your face one hundred years from now. And two hundred years from now. With that perspective, I ask, “What can I write to you in this chapter that will matter in eternity?” Oh, God, help me love these readers.
This passage in 1 Corinthians 8:1–3 is so fitting for this book because it addresses people that technically have the right theology but are wrong because of their lack of love. As I’ve studied this passage, the Lord has taught me so much. But the main thing he did was give me love for you. I hope, as you read this chapter, that you see me as your brother in Christ now and into eternity and see that God wants us to have love for one another.
Meat Offered to Idols
The issue in 1 Corinthians 8 that Paul addresses is meat offered to idols. The Corinthians had come out of pagan backgrounds. They once had worshiped idols. They had believed that meat was inhabited by demons, so they would offer the meat before their idol. The idea was that the idol would cleanse the meat of the demons, so when they consumed the meat, it would be clean and inhabited by their god rather than by demons. It was an act of worship to their idol. They had grown up doing it this way — and some of them were still affected by this way of thinking.
But some of the Corinthian believers who were more knowledgeable were saying, “Idols aren’t real. Now that we’re Christians, we know that idols are a farce. Just eat the meat. It’s not a big deal.” But the weaker Christians who had spent their whole lives thinking another way, having not yet reached a certain Christian maturity in thinking, were sensing in their consciences, I can’t eat that meat. It’s been offered to an idol. That’s like worshiping an idol, and I can’t eat it. Meanwhile the more knowledgeable Christians were saying, “Just eat it. There’s no such thing as an idol.” So listening to this informed but unloving counsel, the consciences of the less knowledgeable were being wounded.
So Paul addresses the problem. “Yes, you’re right; the idols are not really gods. But that’s not the point. The point is that in using your knowledge, you weren’t thinking about your brother. He didn’t yet feel right in his conscience about taking the meat, and yet you unlovingly pushed him toward it because of your knowledge. You wounded his conscience. Why would you do that?” Why in the world would you do that to your brother?
Look what Paul says in verse 13: “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Paul loves his brothers and sisters in Christ so much that if he knew that their seeing him eat meat would cause them to stumble, then he simply will stop eating meat. He’ll go vegan. Eating meat is not that big of a deal compared to loving his brother. He loves his brother more than his freedom to eat meat. So, these more knowledgeable Christians are right that it is okay to eat meat, but their problem is that they are not thinking for their less knowledgeable brothers.
“The unloving use of knowledge against a fellow Christian amounts to sin against Jesus himself!”
In verse 11, Paul says, “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.” With your knowledge, you are hurting your brother for whom Christ died. Wow. And if that’s not enough, he says in verse 12, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” Such unloving use of knowledge against a fellow Christian amounts to sin against Jesus himself!
Paul grants that, technically, the stronger, more knowledgeable brothers are right, at least about the meat offered to idols. But their hearts are wrong. “Yes, yes, idols are not real. But look what you did! You got your brother whose conscience wouldn’t allow him to eat that meat to eat it anyway.” The stronger ate of it themselves and said to their weaker brothers, “Come on, just eat. It’s not that big of a deal.” Yet Paul says that if he could hurt a brother that way, then he would be eager to never eat meat again. Because he loved them so much. “That’s my brother for whom Christ died. I love him.”
Paul’s Admirable Love
I admire this so much about Paul. We all admire his theology and his understanding of God. But what I admire equally about Paul, perhaps even more, is his love for people. Don’t you see it in his writings? He has a passion for people — whoever he’s around.
Maybe his most shocking statement about love for others is Romans 9:1–3, which surprises me every time I read it. There he says:
I’m speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
I have studied these verses over and over again, because my initial response was to think, That’s impossible! I think I love people, but I can’t imagine making a statement like Paul’s. “I . . . wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.” That must be hyperbole, I think. It’s one thing to love people, but the thought of being willing to be cut off from Christ for their sake? Have you loved like that before?
I don’t know if I could do that for anyone. And since Paul expects that people like me will think he is exaggerating, he starts the passage with, “I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit.” He is not exaggerating. He hurts that badly. He means these words. He has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart.
Does that describe you? Do you have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in your heart for those who don’t know Jesus?
When we look at Paul’s life and see how he went from place to place trying to win people to Jesus by telling them the good news, and we see all the persecutions he was willing to endure, then his life really does make sense of this passage. Look at his life, and it becomes clear that he believed this. If Rick Warren is right in chapter 1 that we only really believe those doctrines that we actually live out, then we see in Paul’s life that he really did have great sorrow and unceasing anguish for the lost. He had such love, it seems, that he really could wish that he were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his unbelieving friends and family.
Thinking About People
Many of you reading this chapter, no doubt, are very good thinkers. The thinking part of this book is exciting for you. You love it, and you cheer it on because you think very hard, hopefully through the Scriptures. My challenge to you in this chapter is this: How hard do you think about people? How hard do you think about loving your fellow Christians? And how hard do you think about the lost?
The Intrigue of Christian Love
Thabiti Anyabwile says in chapter 4 that if we truly care for Muslims, then we will reach out to them with the love of Christ. I sat next to a Muslim one time on a plane on my way to Africa. Eventually I asked him about his beliefs, and then he asked me about mine. When I told him how Jesus changed my life, he said, “I hope you’re not one of those radicals.”
He said he used to wait tables and have Christians preach at him. I didn’t respond directly at first. But I was praying. You can think about two things at once. While I was listening to him, I also was praying, God, help me on this one. What in the world do I say? How do I love this man? I had shared my testimony, but he obviously was so turned off by Christians that I didn’t know where to go next.
A few minutes later as we were talking about other things, he asked, “Why are you going to Africa?”
“I went there a few years ago,” I said, “and I saw these kids who had nothing. I saw them digging through trash heaps looking for water, for food, for anything. There’s no education. They’re just dwindling away.” I told him that it broke my heart to see such poverty and that when I had returned home, I started selling what I could and getting my friends to do the same. Then our church started giving more and more, and we began building schools for them and teaching them how to farm. “I’m going back to see some of that. I’m so excited.”
He just looked at me. His eyes got big, and he said, “That is amazing to me.” And here’s what was so fascinating. He then said, “I prayed that I would meet someone like you. I’ve never understood the charity of some Christians — why they would sacrifice their own stuff for someone that they might not even know. Tell me more about this.”
Suddenly he was interested.
I said, “We see in Scripture that we’re to become more and more like Jesus, who had it all but didn’t consider equality with God something to be grasped, so he emptied himself. As his followers, we’re to do the same. He laid down his life for us, and we should lay down our lives for others. That’s why we do what we do.”
What changed everything for this man was hearing that we loved. Something intrigued him about these Christians that he was otherwise disgusted with, these “radical” Christians — and that something was our love.
Weeping for the Lost
When is the last time you wept for the lost?
When I became a Christian in high school, I started looking differently at all my friends who didn’t know Jesus. It consumed me — that grief, that sorrow, that unceasing anguish that Paul talks about. It was in me. I would cut class to tell people about Jesus. This is bigger.
I remember getting in my high school yearbook as a junior and thinking, “I may never again see these seniors that are graduating in a couple of weeks.” I got on the phone and started calling everyone I knew. I said, “This is going to be the weirdest phone call you’ve ever received. We only barely know each other, and we may never hear from each other again, but I want to tell you about something that changed my life.”
I started a Bible study on campus, thinking I was going to reach my whole school. These are my friends. I love these guys. I want them saved.
Feeling Unceasing Anguish
I remember waiting tables at a restaurant. You get so close to the other waiters and waitresses. It’s like a little clique. You get together and complain about your customers or the managers. It’s quite the bond.
The other waiters would go out together to get drunk and take me along to drive them home. I remember sharing Jesus with them. And I remember one day having so much fun with them at Six Flags and coming home and weeping and begging God: “God, you can’t let these people go to hell. I love them, Lord. I love them. Do something, please. I know I can’t do anything for them ultimately. But you say that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective, and so I want all the sin out of my life. I want to be as righteous as I can. I want you to hear me and save these people.” I’ve felt some of this unceasing anguish.
Anguish at My Grandmother’s Death
I will never forget the death of my grandmother. It was the most painful moment in my life. She had come to the United States from Hong Kong and had raised me for part of my life. I loved her, and she didn’t believe in Jesus. She had a stroke, and the doctors waited for me to get there before turning off the machine. She was brain dead, they said, and there we were — just me, my brother, and my grandmother — in the hospital room.
I got down by the bed and screamed in her ear in Chinese, trying to explain the gospel. I cried out, “God, I know you can’t just save her apart from faith in your Son. You can’t just let her into heaven without Jesus. They say she’s brain dead, but you can change that. Can you just get her to hear my voice? That’s all I’m asking. Just let me share some of the things I never got to share.”
“When is the last time you wept for the lost?”
I was crying like a baby, grabbing her hand, saying, “Grandma, please believe. You know you were wrong. I’m telling you Jesus is the way to heaven. You must have him.” As I shared I was hoping that maybe she would open an eye or give me some sort of sign. Maybe she would squeeze my hand and show me that she heard the message.
But there was nothing.
I saw the EKG monitor bottoming out. I thought I was going to go nuts. It was the one time in my life that I wanted to take the Bible and just toss it — because since I believe this Book, I knew my grandmother was going to suffer beginning right then. It’s been twenty years since, and has she been suffering that whole time? Are you kidding me? I want to erase these things. I don’t want to think hard about the truth of the wrath of God. I don’t want to think hard about people like that.
But this kind of thinking, with its accompanying pain, motivates us. And it motivated Paul. He had unceasing anguish over the lost, and he had to do something about it.
How Much Do You Love?
As my grandmother was dying, my brother was in the room, and at the time he was not walking with Jesus. I looked at my brother and said, “Listen, Paul. I don’t ever want to see you like this. I don’t ever want to see you in a hospital room and wonder where you’re going. You have to change your life. Give your life to Jesus. Not just praying a little prayer. I mean, follow him — seriously follow him. You need to turn.”
My brother said that he had thought he believed, until he saw me talking to Grandma that day. That’s when he realized that he didn’t: “I don’t believe like you believe.” So he looked at me and said, “Okay, okay. I’ll change, I’ll change.” At the time, I thought he was just saying it, but sure enough, a few weeks later he would say, “Francis, literally everything has changed. I’ve changed. I’m going to marry the girl I’m with. No more drinking, no partying, no nothing. I’m even driving the speed limit.” (Wow, I thought, you didn’t have to go that far!)
A couple of years later he said, “Francis, I think God is calling me to be a pastor. I want to go to seminary.” Now he is a pastor working with the homeless in San Francisco. It is everything I prayed for — my big brother to whom I was scared to talk about Jesus is walking with Jesus! But at that moment, when Grandma was dying, I wasn’t intimidated. Only one thing was on my mind: my unceasing anguish for my brother.
That unceasing anguish motivates us to talk. And it is love that produces such anguish. So I ask the question, How much do you love?
Loving Until We Started Learning
I remember the time the elders at our church began confessing how we once loved people more. We once hurt more for the poor. We once loved the lost more. And then we started learning.
Years before, someone had told me that my theology wasn’t quite right and that I should step out of the church environment and learn some things first. I started learning, doing Bible study after Bible study, and realizing how much I didn’t know. So I thought I should go to Bible college. One class at a time, I was getting further and further away from unbelievers.
At Bible college, I realized how I really didn’t know much, and so I went to seminary. There I realized even more that I didn’t know much! I kept going down this trail where I thought, “I have to know more, I have to know more.” That eagerness to learn can be good. But the problem comes when we leave this world of lost people to a greater and greater degree. We become increasingly secluded. We might think hard about the Scriptures, but we are no longer thinking about people — at least about lost people, if not about our fellow believers as well.
Yet somehow the apostles were able to do both. They grew in their knowledge of God, and they grew in their love for people. Their unceasing anguish never stopped. They kept pursuing knowledge and people, thinking about the Scriptures and thinking about the lost.
Is that true of you? As you are learning, are you still loving? As you acquire more knowledge, are you still burdened like you once were? Does it break your heart right now that you have brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who will never have a book like this and benefit from teaching like this? Maybe they are just trying to find water right now so that they can survive. What does that do to you?
There are mothers who don’t have a clue about the stuff we casually debate in our classrooms but know they have kids that need to be fed today somehow. What does it do for you to think about the abducted little girls in Thailand who are being raped repeatedly as you read these pages? Does it do anything? Is there love?
Knowledge in the Service of Love
I love what Al Mohler says in chapter 2 about caring for the younger generation, and the way they think, and how we need to think hard so we can help them change their mind-set. I am worried about this generation and their eternal destiny. If they keep thinking with that type of worldview, then they are not headed to eternity with God. Does that break your heart? Does that motivate you?
Why do you learn? Do you learn because you love? Because you love so much and you think I want to help somehow? Do you think, “I love these people and want to help them somehow, and the only way is if I can understand this stuff”?
Others Seeing God in Our Love
First John 4:12 says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Here the apostle John is talking about the love that we Christians should have for one another. When you look at your Christian brothers and sisters, do you honestly love them? Do you say, “That’s my brother — if he were ever in trouble, I would be right there with him”?
Is that the type of love you have for those around you? God means that we embody this kind of love. When John writes, “No one has ever seen God,” do you get it? Here’s what he’s saying: if we could love each other the way God loves us, then someone who doesn’t even know God, someone who’s never seen his beauty spiritually, may be able to see the love of God in our love for each other.
Just as Jesus embodied God in the incarnation as God in the flesh, so there is a sense in which this is passed on to us. In our love for others, we now incarnate God’s love, so to speak, because others see the love of God in us in a way they would not otherwise. As people come into our gatherings, do they see so much love that they actually get a glimpse of God? Or do they only see a lot of knowledge on display?
Knowledge with an Attitude
In 1 Corinthians 8:1, after Paul turns our attention to the topic of “food offered to idols,” he says that “we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’” “All of us possess knowledge” is a quotation. It’s a phrase that the Corinthians were using to talk about what they assumed everyone knew. Now, Paul is not against us possessing knowledge. He is not saying, “Don’t think,” or even, “Don’t think hard.” But he is talking about the attitude behind the knowledge.
Do you learn because you love people?
I was playing on the playground as an eight-year-old when I first heard the phrase, “No, duh!” I said something, then this girl looked at me and said, “No, duh!” I remember thinking, “What does that mean?” Behind it was an attitude. “Come on. Everyone knows it.” And that’s the attitude here of these Corinthians with so much knowledge.
They are saying, “You know what? We all know. We all possess this knowledge.” It had an attitude: “Come on. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as idols.” Paul says that this kind of knowledge puffs up. It’s all about you. It’s cold and stale and all about you having the knowledge. He explains in verses 4–6:
Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
In other words, Paul says, “An idol doesn’t have any real existence. We know that. You’re right.” But then in verse 7 he says, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.”
He says some of the Corinthian believers have this knowledge, but not all of them do. Some aren’t ready yet for the application of such knowledge. And the “stronger,” more knowledgeable believers need to be mindful of where their “weaker” brothers are and not have this attitude toward them: “Well, we all know that.” This type of knowledge puffs up. But love builds up.
Knowledge: Essential but Not Sufficient
Knowledge is essential, but it’s not sufficient. It takes knowledge about this passage for me to write this chapter. We do need knowledge. That is at the heart of this book. We need to think. We must know the truth. Knowledge is essential.
But knowledge alone is not sufficient for the Christian life. It’s not enough just to have knowledge. That’s why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” It doesn’t matter if I have all knowledge. Knowledge is important, yes. It’s essential. We need it. Think hard. But it’s not enough. Paul says even if he had all knowledge but didn’t love, he would amount to nothing. In other words, you can be brilliant and worthless.
It would be like a great basketball player who never misses a shot but keeps shooting into the opponent’s basket. He may say, “I was five for five today from the three-point line,” but his teammates would respond, “But you’re killing our team! You’re shooting at the wrong basket!” He answers confidently, “But I did not miss.”
That is the kind of attitude that Paul is confronting here. You might be brilliant, but you’re killing our team. You’re not building up the brothers; you’re making them feel dumb and wounding their conscience. You’re not stirring them up to love and good deeds. You just keep making them feel inadequate. By your knowledge, this weaker brother is being destroyed!
Your brilliance is worthless if you’re not building up your brother — and even worse if you’re destroying him with your knowledge. So when you look at people, do you love them? Do you think, Let me use my knowledge to build this person up?
What Christians Say to Each Other
So often when I read statements on blogs (or tweets) — comments that brothers will write to those who are supposed to be fellow brothers — I think, “Where is the love?” It burdens me. I can’t believe some of the things Christians say to each other in person — and maybe especially online (when you don’t have to look them in the face). How is what you’re saying supposed to build that brother — or anyone else who hears it or reads it? Our knowledge should be pressed into the service of love. It should serve to build each other up. That’s what love does. It builds up. It looks to help others, not hurt them.
Thinking About Others
First Corinthians 13:2 makes me think about one of my heroes, Joni Eareckson Tada. She has been a quadriplegic for over forty years now. She started an amazing ministry that gets wheelchairs all around the world. The last time I was speaking with her, it became clear to me that she was hurting. There’s so much pain. I didn’t realize that, as a quadriplegic, she could feel so much pain. As we were talking, she grimaced and called to her assistant, and she said to me, “I’m sorry, Francis. I have to go. I’m just in so much pain right now.”
Then recently she found out that she has cancer. So many of us have been hurting for her. She started her chemo treatments, and they were wiping her out. Then we found out she had pneumonia. It made me think, “Wow, here’s the sweetest woman on the earth with forty years as a quadriplegic in this insurmountable pain. And then she has cancer, and then she’s in chemo, and then she’s struck with pneumonia. And while she has pneumonia she types me a letter encouraging me to stay strong!” Francis, I love you as a brother. You stay strong in the faith. I believe in what you’re doing.
How can she be thinking about anyone else? When I have the flu, I’m only thinking of me. Love produces this kind of constant thinking about others. Which is essentially what humility is.
Love and Humility
Humility is not self-degradation. Putting yourself down is all about self. Humility is about thinking of others — considering others more important than yourself. Like Joni. In the midst of her pain and sickness, she thought, I should encourage Francis. I wonder how he’s doing.
When I read her note, I cried, “O God, make me like this!” I want to be thinking constantly, How can I build people up? I want to think how I can encourage others to keep fighting for the King and his kingdom. How I can keep others focused on eternity? When my brother and sister are discouraged, how can I build them up? That’s what love does. It builds people up.
“Knowledge is essential but not sufficient. You can be brilliant and worthless.”
In fact, Paul explains to the Corinthians who were using their gifts — gifts of knowledge, gifts of tongues, and more — to puff themselves up, that in doing so, they were thinking only about themselves and building themselves up. He explains to them in 1 Corinthians 12:7, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Why did God gift you the way that he did? It’s not for you alone. It’s for all of us. In love and humility, we should be thinking constantly, How can I build up the people around me?
Paul writes, “‘Knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), and immediately after he adds, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (verse 2). These Christians, who were seemingly so knowledgeable, didn’t really know as they should have known.
In God’s eyes, they were technically right on this issue, but they were only imagining themselves to be such knowledgeable, brilliant people. In God’s eyes, it was not real knowledge. They were delusional. Because if they really knew, they would know that knowledge is meant to be used in the service of love. That’s true knowledge in God’s eyes. Such a person really gets it, is one who really knows.
It is such a danger to puff yourself up and imagine that you’re a brilliant person. It’s like the school bully who imagines himself as the hero because he is the strongest. He can beat anyone up. But everyone else knows that he’s not a hero but a jerk. If he were a real hero, he would defend the weak. He would be lifting them up, using his strength to care for them and protect them, not to bully them.
In the same way, with biblical and theological “knowledge” come the intellectual bullies who seem to know so much and imagine themselves to be so knowledgeable. But Paul is saying that they may be only imagining that they are knowledgeable, because if they really knew, they would use their knowledge not to weaken others but to strengthen them. Not to tear people down but to build them up. That’s what love does.
Known by God
Paul says in verse 3, “But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” The point here is the power of love. Note that Paul doesn’t say that if you know a bunch of information about God, then you are known by God. It has to do with love rather than with knowledge. In verse 3, if you love God, Paul says, then you are known by him. It’s not about information. But when love is attached to knowledge, then it actually creates something — a relationship.
When you love God — when you don’t only know all these facts about him, you don’t merely understand some truths about him, but you actually love him — that’s what signals this relationship with him. It’s about the relationship.
Likewise in Galatians 4:9 Paul says, “Now that you have come to know God” — and here he breaks his train of thought — “or rather to be known by God . . . ” I love that: not merely knowing but being “known by God.” That’s a huge difference. I had spent so much of my life thinking about my knowing God that I was blown away the first time I read this verse. “Known by God” — what a beautiful thought! I am known by God. He knows me.
It would be one thing for me to tell you I know someone world-famous, but it is quite another when that famous person mentions my name and thanks me at his next internationally televised press conference. It’s not merely that I know him. He knows me. It makes all the difference in the world.
And wonder of all wonders, Paul says that we are “known by God.” Why did Paul switch from knowing God to being known by him? He says in essence, “You know God — actually, here’s a better way to say it: You’re known by him!” God knows me. This is so personally significant.
Think about this: right now in heaven, on the throne of the universe, sits the most valuable and glorious Being possible. He is sovereign. He is in control of everything — including the last breath you took. Your breathing, and everything else going on in the universe, is fully in his hands. The angels are covering themselves and calling out, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” He dwells in inapproachable light.
Yet if somehow you could go before God right now, physically, and ask him, “God Almighty, do you know me?” how amazing is it that he would look down right now on me writing this chapter, and on you reading it, and say, “I know you, and I love you. You are my child. I love you. I know you.”
The Creator and Sustainer of everything, the all-powerful one, knows you personally, and right now in heaven, because of his beloved Son, he sees you as his beloved child. Despite all the junk that is in our lives, he sent his Son to cover all of it. Now he looks at us and knows us and loves us. And he hears our prayers.
The God Who Hears Our Prayers
So, when I talk to God, I tell him the desires of my heart. I tell him how I want to bring glory to his name — what things I hope for in ministry. And I’ve seen amazing answers to these prayers. It is so incredible that I, little Francis Chan, can talk to God and he answers me! I can say, “God, here’s what I’m thinking . . . ,” and I’ll see supernatural, amazing, unbelievable things happen.
It blows my mind every time, because it reminds me that I’m talking to God! He hears me. He knows me. He listens to me. Whether it’s silly little things or massive things. For hours I could tell you story after story about how God listens and answers — and so many times over such seemingly dumb things. He cares about both the little things and the huge things.
One time I was golfing with some friends. I’m not a great golfer, but I can hit the ball a long way. However, my friends had these big, expensive drivers, so they outdrove me. I felt discouraged and prayed, “God, I want one of those clubs.” I was thinking I might eventually buy one or maybe ask for one for Christmas. But then I thought, No, that’s stupid. It’s just ego and a waste of money. So I thought, No, Lord, I’m not going to waste the money like that.
The next morning I went to speak at a conference at a little church plant, and when I was done speaking, the pastor said, “I hear that when you go to little churches, sometimes they’ll give you an honorarium and you just hand it right back. So we didn’t get you an honorarium. We bought you this driver.” The whole way home in the car, I laughed and said, “Come on, Lord. Even a driver? Such a little thing as a driver?”
There have been so many times that Lisa and I, with tears rolling down our faces in amazement after he has so tangibly blessed us, will say, “Can we ever give to God without him, every single time, blessing us in return and blowing our minds by answering so many, and such seemingly insignificant, prayers?”
Answered Prayer on the Way Home from Seattle
Recently on a plane to Seattle, there was a girl sitting in my row with an empty seat between us. I thought, I should pray for her. I should find out what’s going on in her life. I prayed, “God, give me an opportunity.” But as we talked, it seemed that nothing was happening. There was only small talk, and, honestly, I chickened out.
The Creator and Sustainer of everything, the all-powerful one, personally knows each of his children.
So I arrived in Seattle to speak to a bunch of pastors about courage. That was the topic! I gave the message and got right back in the car, after only being there for a few hours, and went right back to the airport. I got on the plane and went to sit down in my seat — and guess who was sitting right next to me? The girl from earlier that day!
We looked at each other and laughed. So I was able to tell her, “I don’t think this is a coincidence. Let me tell you what the Lord put on my heart this morning but I was scared to do.” God, by his grace, instead of having her sit one seat over, had her in the seat right next to me on the way home. Hopefully she was able to walk away that day seeing that it wasn’t just about sitting next to some preacher but that God was pursuing her.
Answered Prayer in a Cab with a Muslim
I was in a cab with a Muslim one time, and I wanted to share Jesus with him. I asked him, “What do you believe? Help me understand because I’ve heard different things from different Muslims. I want to understand.” And I asked, “Are you going to heaven? Are you sure? Tell me how you know this. Tell me how you know you’re forgiven.” He gave his spiel, and then I laid out what I believed. It went back and forth.
Then I started talking to him about knowing God. I told him, “When I pray, God answers me. It’s the craziest thing. He actually listens and often answers!” I listed off several examples and told him the recent things God had been doing in my life.
“Does God do that for you?” I asked.
He answered, “Oh yeah.”
As I was listening to him, I was thinking, God, that’s not supposed to happen! I really was bothered by it, and we went on to another topic.
But a few minutes later he said, “Hey, you know earlier I said that God listens. I didn’t mean that. Actually he doesn’t.” What a relief! It really was bothering me that he said God listened to him, and I was praying, “No, Lord, I am so confused here because I know I know you. I know you listen to me.” It really confused me that a Muslim man would say that God answers his prayers too.
But then I love the fact that he was so honest and later came back and said, “Well, you know what? Actually he doesn’t answer me like that.” Christian, it is breathtaking that our God loves us, knows us, hears us, and answers our prayers.
Boasting in the Lord
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:31, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Do you know where he gets that? It’s from Jeremiah 9:23–24: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me.’”
You want to brag about something? Brag about the fact that you know God — and even better, that God knows you. Hopefully you’re experiencing him in your everyday life, and you really believe these truths and these promises that we’ve been thinking about in Scripture to the point that when you pray, you don’t doubt that God is listening to you.
This may sound crazy, but he actually listens. He answers our prayers. The silly golf club. The girl on the airplane. The Muslim in the cab. This happens to me all the time. God knows me. He listens to me. Little, seemingly insignificant me — and you.
Don’t boast about how much you know. Don’t boast about your knowledge, your might, or anything else. Boast about being known by God. Right now, the God of the universe knows you. He loves you, and he calls you by name.
Does Your Life Look Like Jesus’s?
To close this chapter, I was trying to think about the most loving thing I could say to you, based on 1 Corinthians 8:1–3, wanting to build you up and to think about you. I love you, and what knowledge I do have, and what giftedness I do have, I want to use it to build you up and give you a sense of encouragement. Christians are charged to encourage one another and stir one another up. So what can I say based on my love for you, and based on the knowledge that if you’re in Christ, I’ll see you one hundred years from now in heaven? Here’s my closing thought.
Some of you have been studying Christ for years. You’ve been studying the life of Christ, the statements of Christ, and doctrines about Christ. You’ve been thinking hard about Christ and his work. You may have amassed great theological knowledge. But does your life look anything like his? Can you say, like Paul was able to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)? Can you say, “Look at the way I’m living, and look at the way that I’m loving, and follow me”?
Anyone can talk. A lot of people have knowledge — with the Internet it’s easier than ever to load up on information. But what about your whole life? Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” Look at their lives. Look at how they lived. Are you ready for others to do that to you? Do you look like Jesus? Do you act like Jesus? Do you love like Jesus?
Walking with Jesus
There was a missionary who spoke at our church years ago who had gone to Papua New Guinea and won a tribe to Jesus. It was a beautiful story. At the end, he mentioned the pivotal influence of his youth pastor, a man named Vaughn, who loved him and told him that his life was to be lived for the glory of God.
Then, the next week, we had another man come and talk about sponsoring kids, and when he was at the end of his presentation, he said, “Under God, I owe this all to the influence of my youth pastor Vaughn.” So I asked and found out that these two guys had been in the same youth group.
The next week one of our church members who works with the Rescue Mission in inner-city Los Angeles spoke to us. No, he didn’t mention Vaughn. But he had been in attendance the previous two weeks, and so I said to him after he was finished, “Wasn’t it weird that those two guys the last two weeks both mentioned how much impact their youth pastor Vaughn had on them?”
He said, “Oh, I know Vaughn.”
“Really? The same Vaughn?”
“Yeah.” And he told me the story.
Vaughn is a pastor in San Diego and takes people into the dumps of Tijuana. “I spent a day with him,” he said. “He ministers there in the dumps where kids are picking out of the garbage and are filthy dirty. As we walked the city, these kids came running up to him. And he would just love on them. He would hug them, and he had gifts for them. He’d have food for them. He’d figure out how to get them showers.” He continued, “I just followed Vaughn around that whole day.”
Then here’s the amazing thing. He said, “Francis, it was eerie. The whole time I was walking with Vaughn I kept thinking, If Jesus was on the earth, I think this is what it would feel like to walk with him. Vaughn so loved everyone he ran into, and he told them about God and the gospel, and people were drawn to his love and his affection.” Then he said, “The day I spent with Vaughn was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to walking with Jesus.”
“Do you love like Jesus?”
What a compliment. The day I spent with Vaughn was the closest I’ve ever experienced to walking with Jesus. It made me think, Would anyone in their right mind say that about me?
Would anyone say that about you?
It made me realize that all this other stuff — like being smart or being a good speaker — is not the goal. Or if people say, “Wow, you know so much Bible,” that’s great, but at the end of the day, would they say, “Wow, it’s weird hanging out with you. I mean, I read about Jesus and then I walk with you and it’s, like, the same thing, the way you love so much till it hurts. You sacrifice and you give up. It’s true humility. You’re giving, giving, giving”?
Wasn’t becoming more like Jesus supposed to be the goal of gaining all this knowledge about him in the first place? That’s what I want. I don’t want to be the best speaker in the world. Or the best writer. Or the most intelligent person on the planet. It simply doesn’t matter. What do you want to be known for? I want to be known for being like Jesus.
A Closing Challenge to Thinkers
Thinkers, let’s not fool ourselves: To “be conformed to the image of [Christ]” is what we were predestined for, right (Romans 8:29)? We’ve been predestined to walk as Jesus walked. It’s great if we have thought hard about Jesus and wrestled with doctrines such as predestination, but my prayer is that this information becomes true knowledge, and that we actually become like him, and that our knowledge doesn’t make us arrogant so that we gloat about it and show off what we know.
My prayer for me, and for you, is that everyone we come in contact with would feel our love for them and be built up. That they would see the fruit of our having said, “How can I lift them up with this knowledge that I have?”
Let’s not fool ourselves and imagine that we know so much. Maybe we don’t know anything at all. Maybe some of us have been using our knowledge to tear our brother down and hurt that brother for whom Christ died. Let’s not be guilty of the Corinthian error.
So I’m asking God even right now as I write these final words that he would give me love for others. Oh, God, let me believe what I’m saying. And I hope that as you finish this chapter, you would think through your words and how you can build others up and think about others as brothers and sisters in Christ — so much so that when unbelievers see it, they will have a glimpse of God.
Help us to dwell on Christ. We want to become like him, Father. Give us love. I pray that my brothers and sisters reading this chapter have been built up and encouraged, believing they can do great things in Christ. I pray that they feel strengthened to love one another.
God, forgive us for the careless statements we make that may have destroyed or weakened our brothers and sisters and hurt them and not motivated them to greater ministry.
I thank you for the men and the women reading this chapter who have used their knowledge to build others up. Cause them to love you more and to become more like you.
God, we really want to become more like Jesus. More and more. Help us to see him not only as a great Savior but as a great role model of love. Make our lives really be conformed to his, and may people see Christ when they see our lives. May they see you when they see us love one another. Use our knowledge. May we think hard about your Word, and may we think hard about people. May we think hard about our brothers and sisters, and may we think hard about those who are lost and headed for an eternity apart from you.
In Jesus’s name we pray.