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All Puffed Up with No Place to Go

ἡ γνῶσις φυσιοῖ, ἡ δὲ ἀγάπη οἰκοδομεῖ.

The above phrase is the first Greek scripture I learned to recite out loud from memory. I was about 21 years old when I began to unlock the mysteries of the New Testament in its original language. Wow, do you hear how snobby that sentence even sounds?

My “intellectual awakening” came fast and furious in college. Almost overnight, I went from a life-long non-reading sports jock who collected basketball trophies to a Bible nerdy collecting old books and reading ancient documents. Yet, once the fires were ignited, I was a man on a learning mission. To echo Paul, I was advancing in my studies beyond many of my own age and was extremely zealous for the biblical truth (cf. Gal. 1:14). And nothing makes you feel more “advanced” than being able to read the Bible in the original language. (I have consistently found academic circles to be equally as competitive as athletic circles, if not more so!)

Feeling the snobbishness rising in my blood, and memorized this one Greek Bible verse. I also printed it out, framed it and hung it above my desk where it remained for the next few years of college and seminary.

ἡ γνῶσις φυσιοῖ, ἡ δὲ ἀγάπη οἰκοδομεῖ.

What does it say? “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1-3). In the fuller context of this verse, Paul is telling a group of people that if their increasing knowledge doesn’t lead to increasing love for others, then they “do not yet know as they ought to know.”  As John Piper puts it, “If you have knowledge that is making you proud, rather than loving, you don’t really know anything.”

This is a profound insight for a man who was himself extremely educated, and trying to bring the Christian message of humble, servant-hearted love to a people who were in danger of loving knowledge rather than knowing love. To this day, I desire to grow more knowledge but I pray I am doing so in order to better love and serve the church under my care. For, again echoing Paul, “If I could speak all the languages of earth [including biblical Greek] and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1).

Skye Jethani discusses this today in his “With God Daily” devotional. You can subscribe here. Enjoy!

I had a professor once tell me, “When you think you know everything they give you a bachelor’s degree. When you realize you don’t know anything they give you a master’s degree. When you realize you don’t know anything and neither does anyone else, you’ve earned a doctorate.” His point was valuable. A little learning can make you arrogant, but the fruit of true learning is humility

The Apostle Paul said something similar to the arrogant, divisive Christians in Corinth. The Corinthians were focused on status and hierarchy, and in the Greek culture where knowledge was highly valued, possessing more knowledge than others was a badge of honor and a sure way to climb the social ladder. But Paul, who was probably more educated than anyone in the Corinthian church, reminded them that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Paul was not saying knowledge itself is a bad thing. Sadly, some Christians have used the Apostle’s words as an excuse for shunning education and learning, or for dismissing the advice of experts. That was not Paul’s intent, as he often used his own knowledge to teach and instruct. Instead, he was warning against the dangers of valuing knowledge that is uncoupled from love.

By itself, knowledge can make us arrogant and sinfully cause us to elevate ourselves above those with less education. Using our knowledge for self-advancement, or to diminish the worth of others, is the opposite of what Paul did with his knowledge. Instead, we are to couple our knowledge with a love that always seeks what is good for others. That means using our knowledge to build up others, and never to pull them down. It also means we ought to be careful not to exalt a leader simply because he or she possesses a brilliant mind. We ought to look for evidence of a wisdom that is deeper than knowledge; a wisdom that manifests itself in a character like Christ’s.

Jeremy Berg is the founding pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Mound, Minnesota, and Professor of Theology at Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy is completing his doctorate in New Testament Context under Dr. Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary in Chicago. He holds a M.A. in Theological Studies from Bethel Seminary (2005) and B.A. from Bethel University (2002). He and his wife, Kjerstin, keep busy chasing around three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

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