Fifteenth in a series
1 Corinthians 10:14-22
The text for today reads:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
This appears to be a benign, irrelevant passage of Scripture, filled with confusing doubletalk on topics remote to contemporary interests.
After all, who of us is bowing down before idols?
Some of us have been privileged to travel the world and see people who bow down before idols. How quaint they are and how picturesque are their objects of worship. They photograph beautifully on the pages of National Geographic Magazine. We take their pictures, giving only fleeting thought to their eternal state. When I return home and flash the big Buddha on the screen, I have completed the whole process without the slightest inclination toward idol worship. I have never once been tempted to bow down before a clay, wood or bronze image. And I doubt that you have either.
After all, who of us spends a lot of time worrying about the nature of the Lord’s Supper – the bread and the wine? We know what they represent. We sense the fulfillment of our celebration when we participate as we did this last Ash Wednesday, as we will Maundy Thursday and as we will the Sunday after Easter. Why get so uptight, as has the apostle Paul?
After all, who of us is even slightly tempted to go into pagan temples and eat meat being offered up to idols? We have a hard time finding such a temple with meat offerings. And hasn’t Paul already contradicted himself by saying it doesn’t really make any difference whether you eat meat offered up or not?
After all, what is all this talk about demons? Who of us believes in them? We are a scientifically sophisticated congregation attuned to the latest developments in medicine and psychology. We know more than they did back then. Some of those so-called demon possessed persons of the first century probably suffered from illnesses such as epilepsy or psychotic pathologies.
And, after all, what’s this talk about God being jealous? The God I believe in isn’t that kind of a petty tyrant. If so, He is lower than us well-balanced human adults, who have moved beyond our infantile self-centeredness to a healthy awareness of others. Who wants to worship a God to whom the attribute of jealousy is attached?
Wait! Before we move on, let’s take a look to see what is really being said. This passage is far from being locked into obtuse, limited first-century understandings of human religious practices and divine attributes. This is one of the most important themes of all Scripture simply illustrated by these ancient realities, which, when updated to our contemporary circumstances, are as relevant today as they were then!
The central thrust of this passage is: You and I better make our decision about Jesus Christ and then stick with it. There is no room for playing both sides of the street spiritually.
Let’s look at this passage from four slightly different angles.
First: A context is provided.
The apostle Paul has just finished warning about religious ceremonialism.
The mechanical aspects of religion, as significant as they are when filled with personal meaning, are totally empty if they are viewed as arbitrary, mechanical rituals. When Jesus urged His followers to pray, He warned them that they should not pray as the heathen do in vain repetitions. Instead, we are to talk to God in highly personal terms, saying, “Our Father.”
I can show you Buddhist temples where the prayer wheels roll. I can take you into mosques where the prayer beads are nervously handled. I can take you into cathedrals where the rosaries, with crucifix dangling, are fingered to the accompanying “Hail Mary’s.” I can take you into evangelical Protestant churches where pastoral prayers drone on, as individual congregations dose off into some of the most blessed slumber of the entire week.
To simply be identified with a religious community and to jump through religious hoops does not guarantee spirituality!
That’s why Paul illustrates, as he does earlier in this chapter, how many of the Israelites, as blessed as they were in that time of the Exodus with the supernatural guidance – the cloud by day and pillar of fire by night, the supernatural deliverance of the parting of the Dead Sea, the supernatural leadership of the gifted Moses, the supernatural food of the manna and quail, the supernatural drink of the water from the rock and, even more significantly, the very supernatural presence of Jesus Christ – with all this going for them, “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5).
Many of them desired evil. Many of them practiced idolatry. Many of them were sexually immoral. Many of them tested God, refusing to believe His Word. Many of them grumbled and complained. And they all faced the painful consequences for their disobedience. Could you have asked for a more privileged set of circumstances? We look back at them and see how privileged they were. These were God’s people. His special blessing was upon them. The reality of His presence was with them, but they are a classic illustration that simply being exposed to the means of God’s grace does not guarantee that one lives in the reality of God’s grace empowered by His Holy Spirit.
Paul moves from the thirteenth to fourteenth century B.C. of that wilderness journey to A.D. first-century Corinth. He reminds the believers there that, as privileged as they are to participate in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, these very symbols of being washed by the blood of Jesus Christ, partaking His very body and blood, broken and shed for their salvation, is no guarantee of spiritual relationship with the Lord. These can be mechanical religious rituals. One can jump through the hoops without allowing oneself to be gripped by the power of God unto salvation and without growing in daily spiritual relationship with Him.
It’s at this point that the context becomes of ultimate contemporary significance. The Holy Spirit of God is present here right now in this sanctuary this morning. Jesus Christ is here in the presence of His Holy Spirit observing the lives of each one of us. Each of us has been given the privilege to hear the Gospel. Some of us have responded to it, receiving Jesus Christ as our Savior. Some of us have heard it and said, “Well, someday, maybe later on. When I’m finished doing the things I want to do in life, I’ll accept Him, in time to slide home safe into heaven.”
In the meantime, it’s possible both for believers and nonbelievers to go through a religious ritual that props up one artificially, simulating the kind of spirituality that really isn’t there. The Bible refers to it as practicing “. . . a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.”
The manifestation of this among some of the Corinthian Christians was that they would both celebrate the Lord’s Supper as professing believers within the Christian community and then, when it was convenient or expedient or perhaps a blend of both, would go into the pagan temples and participate in the pagan feasts, eating meat that was in the process of being offered to idols. These were sophisticated, eclectic people, not dissimilar to us, myself at times included. We think we can have it both ways – a little bit of God and Jesus Christ and a little bit of the world. We live in a spiritual schizophrenia, handling the supernatural potential that breathes life and meaning into the sacraments, only to hold on to the sacraments void of the spiritual depth of meaning because we want to juggle at the same time all that is so fascinating and interesting in the idol worship so popular in our culture.
This is the context.
Second: A question is raised.
Stated simply, the question is: Have you made a decision for Jesus Christ?
This decision allows for no double-mindedness. You and I will be tempted to double-mindedness. That’s the nature of our humanity. You will always wrestle with the world, the flesh and the devil. We need to live in a constant awareness of our vulnerability. That’s why the apostle Paul warns that that one of us who thinks he stands ought to take heed lest he fall. Paul transparently shares with us the reality of temptation and its two-fold aspects. First, we will be exposed daily to that aspect of temptation that is satanically induced seduction toward evil. And secondly, each of us will be exposed daily to the divinely-oriented temptation that is a testing of our faith and faithfulness to the Lord. That’s why we are given those tremendous promises, which we looked at last week, which assure us that, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
You are not alone in your spiritual struggle. God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength. He has provided a way of escape. The way out is the way through!
Let me be very clear. You have to make a decision. You are called to make a decision as to whether or not you are going to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior. I know there are persons in this sanctuary today who are struggling with this decision. You may be one of them. You have never repented of sin and accepted Jesus Christ into your life. You are pulled in two different directions. You are at the fork in the road.
And I know that there are also some of us in this room today who have received Jesus Christ as Savior, but we are pulled, as were the first-century Corinthian Christians, into this life of spiritual schizophrenia. We are tempted to live both within the community of faith, eating of the bread and drinking of the cup, and then after spending that hour or two or three or four a week at St. Andrew’s and in other distinctly Christian environments, compartmentalize that and move off into our other life, bowing before lesser gods.
Paul puts it so bluntly, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Corinthians 10:21-22).
We are blessed to have a few members of the Wheaton College Gospel Choir with us this weekend at our three services. How they have already enriched our lives.
I remember what it was like when I was at Wheaton Academy and traveled weekends on a Wheaton College Gospel Team. Some of us were just jumping through the right religious hoops. We were doing what was expected of us, coming out of the homes and churches that were ours. I can remember my own anguish of soul, as in my private moments I didn’t question whether or not there was a God, but I certainly questioned whether His name was Jesus Christ and whether or not He was alive today, working through the person and ministry of His Holy Spirit. My very education process, even in a Christian college, was raising questions for which there were no easy answers. The circle of doubt was expanding within the circle of faith and came very close to exploding that circle of faith. It never really did for me, but it did for some of my classmates, some of whom were cocksure that they had all the answers. Then the doubts increased to the point that they finally came to that crossroads in which they chose to go not God’s way but another way. And some of them today, decades later, have repudiated the very faith that they once, with at least words, professed.
What held me steady during those years of healthy questioning was my constant prayer, “Dear God, if there is a God, if your name is Jesus Christ, if this Bible is your Word and is dependable, I am willing to put my trust in you. But right now, I’m not so certain. I claim your affirmation of that man who came to you, Jesus Christ, and said, ‘Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.’ Thank you for your very affirmation of him in which you commended his faith as one who took these matters seriously enough to talk to you about them.” What I thank God for was that that very willingness to give all I knew and didn’t know of myself to all I knew and didn’t know of God in Jesus Christ was affirmed by the Lord. That decision was made on a cold winter night as I paced back and forth on the frozen Northern Illinois practice football field. Yes, as a five-year-old, I had given my life to Jesus Christ as Savior. I had all the normal ups and downs that a kid has, identifying myself as a follower of Jesus. But now, I had to mean business. Was I going to allow Jesus Christ to be the Lord of my life, not just in word but in reality? Was He going to be allowed to be the Lord of my intellectual life, my sexual life, my vocational life? Or was I going to hold on to certain areas of which I was determined to be my own god?
I urge you to choose. My calling is not to lubricate a comfortable accommodation between Jesus Christ and Satan, Christianity and culture. I am called, as is every minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to call myself and you to a decision, a decision for Jesus Christ. This call is addressed to one who has never received Jesus. And it is just as significantly addressed to the one who is numbered among the saints but finds oneself straddling the fence.
It is the call of Joshua who stood before the children of those Israelites who survived the wilderness experience but were trying to straddle a fence spiritually: “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
It’s the same call of Elijah hundreds of years later on Mount Carmel when the prophets of Baal are lined up on one side and he, the prophet of God, stands on the other. He addresses the people of Israel, “Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people did not answer him a word” (1 Kings 18:21).
It is the same word that the apostle Peter declared on the day of Pentecost to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem when, after having declared the Gospel, he demanded a verdict. He urged the people, “. . . Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
All roads are not going in the same direction. The spirit of inclusiveness, which we sense in our society today, wants to baptize any person, who seems to be of general gracious disposition, into the Kingdom of God. As appealing as that is, it doesn’t even make logical sense. Paul is saying he speaks to sensible men and women and asks them to judge for themselves what he says. Is it not the bread which we break and the cup which we pour participation in the body and blood of Jesus Christ? It’s at the point of the sacrament between all of our diversity that we become one body. Whether one eats food offered to idols is not the issue. The issue is whether or not we become synchronistic, blending the worship of God with demonic idol worship.
Our lives are to be lives of worship 24/7. Jesus Christ is Guest of Honor, who is to be the focus of our worship. The guests of worship in pagan worship are the gods of this world, the gods of human creation. When you and I stop long enough to think about it, you and I could give multiple illustrations of what happens to persons who flirt as close to the world as they possibly can and still try to hold on to the fringe benefits of the Christian faith. At the very worst, they are never numbered among the saints of God. At the very best, they are carnal Christians, torn apart by the fact that they know there’s something better. But they want both. I urge you and me today to acknowledge that schizoid tendency within us to drive the stake of commitment. We need to once and for all answer the question, “Have you decided for Jesus Christ?” Make yours an emphatic “yes,” no matter what the cost!
Third: A warning is given.
The warning reads, “Flee from the worship of idols.” The King James Version and the New International Version translate this, “Flee from idolatry.”
Once before, Paul has spoken this emphatically. We saw it in 1 Corinthians 6:18 when he writes, “Flee from sexual immorality” (NIV).
You and I are engaged in spiritual warfare. Ephesians 6 gives us the weaponry for this battle. In most of our struggles, we are called to stand up and fight with courage, knowing that He who is within us is stronger and will enable us to prevail. I find it fascinating to note that, in two particular areas, we are to flee the scene of the battle. One is in the area of sexual temptation, and the other is in the area of temptation to idolatry.
The Old Testament character Joseph models what it is to flee temptation as he ran from the presence of Potiphar’s wife and her seduction to sexual immorality. Time and time again, the Book of Proverbs warns against playing with sexual fire. I wish I could bring you into the confidentiality of the pastor’s study to listen for just a few moments to those conversations of heartbreak, broken dreams, fractured relationships, brought about by the failure to heed this warning. Everyone of us is vulnerable!
But we are also called to flee idol worship. Paul is quick to acknowledge that eating food offered to idols is not a problem. He’s already told the believers at Corinth that, if you buy that meat at the temple market or if you’re served it socially at someone’s home, fine. It’s just meat. He has also said that the idols themselves, made of wood, clay, stone or metal, have no power in and of themselves. They are false, phony, human creations. But to engage in an environment of worship, going into the temple and eating of that meat, in the pagan worship environment is tremendously seductive. You can get caught up in a lifestyle that will self-destruct.
You say, “I’ve never dreamed in being involved in a pagan feast or bowing down to an idol?” You simply don’t understand what idolatry is. Idolatry involves taking something that is created and putting it in the place of the Creator. The apostle Paul grapples with this is Romans 1, describing our human tendency to exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25).
Idolatry is creature worship. It comes in various forms.
Materialism can be idolatry.
This is plenty prevalent in our society, isn’t it? Think how much time and money we spend on clothes, houses, cars and investments.
Thank God for all of these. However, when any one begins to preoccupy you and become the focus of your attention, it becomes an idol.
Success can be idolatry.
People driven to be successful and to always win aren’t necessarily materialists. It’s the competition they love. Winning is the name of the game.
Donald Trump becomes the personification of it in our day. We in the church can stumble into this form of idolatry before our budgets, program, staff and celebrity in the community. After all, being the biggest and the best is what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Over-attention to self can be idolatry.
When life becomes “all about me,” I have become my own god. My pleasure, my physical appearance, my entertainment, my retirement, my sports become all-important.
Relationships can be idolatry.
How sad it is to see a person driven by romance. We are looking for the perfect partner. That quest becomes the process of worship, replacing the quest after right relationship with God. We find our spouse, and we put that person on a pedestal. And then along comes a child, and we worship him or her. Grandchildren take the place of God in our life. All of these wonderful, good, seen subordinate to our relationship with God.
Or the worm can turn as we become disappointed or even bored with these legitimate relationships. Sex before marriage can be our preoccupation or sex outside of marriage our compulsion. It’s a relationship for which we yearn when we forget that old adage of St. Augustine, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee, O God.”
Religion can be idolatry.
Jesus struggled with the Pharisees whose idol was religious rules. That’s what they worshiped. Hurting people would be left by the side of the road, as they went to their next religious meeting. People didn’t matter. It was the religious externals that counted.
The Bible often uses sexual immorality to illustrate idolatry. The prophet Jeremiah describes the people of Israel going to the high places to worship idols. He uses graphic sexual imagery to describe their idolatry. “. . . On every high hill and under every green tree you sprawled and played the whore” (Jeremiah 2:20). He refers to their tendency to go “whoring after foreign gods.” He uses the imagery of camels and donkeys in heat to describe the intensity with which we pursue that which is creature instead of finding the “peace of God which passes all human understanding” through our worship of the Creator whose name is Jesus Christ and who is present in the power of His Holy Spirit.
I would never consider bowing down before a big Buddha and worshiping that man-made object. I can say that with such finality. However, I must ask myself if I’m really being honest with myself. If I had lived in an environment in which the majority of my friends were bowing down before the big Buddha, I have to believe that I would be under tremendous temptation to join them. The peer pressure alone makes its impact. After all, I would have to do business in that community. My family’s economic and social well-being would be based on it. There very well could be the “Buddhist Yellow Pages.” I’d certainly want to be listed as someone acceptable with whom to do business. There are not only the pragmatics of the situation that would have impacted me. I could find myself giving my soul over to the big Buddha in the belief that man-made objects stand as a representation of something much more powerful, a spiritual presence behind it.
Let me ask you, what is your idol? Is there any creature that takes the place of God? Is it a family member? A husband, a wife, a child? Is it the power by which we seek to control and dominate? Is it money? We all need it, don’t we? Do we let it become an end in itself? If I have to choose between money and my family, which choice would I make? Is it sports or other forms of recreation that become my reason for living? Television can become an idol, as I organize my life around the TV schedule and derive my values and perceptions of reality from the tube. Is my nation my idol? “I’m an American and proud of it.” Even my denomination and all it stands for can become my idol. “I am a Presbyterian.” Or I am a “spiritual renewalist” in a denomination struggling with potential apostasy. In the process, I worship myself and the goals I have to reform the Presbyterian Church.
Or am I a disciple of Jesus Christ, yearning to get to know Him better, to love and serve Him faithfully? Am I prepared to put Him front and center and let all these other real and important entities in my life cluster underneath my worship and love of the Savior?
Do you see why we are called to flee idol worship? Do you see why the decision for Jesus Christ is so important? Do you see why we need to make a clear distinction between the Creator and the creature? Do you hear the warning? Are you prepared to think and pray about it?
Fouth: A serious reminder is expressed.
Remember that behind everything or everyone that could be a potential idol – good, bad or neutral – is not a vacuum but a demonic power.
Satan is alive and well. He is not all-powerful, but he is extremely powerful. Peter wrote, “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
The pagan worship at Corinth was not innocent. Behind the idols, themselves without power, was the demonic. That is why Paul says, “I do not want you to be partners with demons.” That is why he says you and I cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. That is why he says that God is jealous, because He is in a gargantuan struggle with Satan. The victory is already God’s, but God knows Satan is winning many a skirmish. God wants to protect you and me from that which looks so innocent, so acceptable, so fun. God knows that the wages of sin is death. It is not because he wants to crush us. He knows the inevitable consequences. A loaded revolver in and of itself is innocent. In the right hands, it can protect society. In the hands of a playful child, it has devastating potential.
We have become so sophisticated in twenty-first-century America that we neglect to take seriously the biblical teaching about the demonic. Some of you daily read your horoscope. Some of you take seriously characteristics that you are told are yours because you were born in a certain month under a certain Zodiac sign. Some of you have tried to communicate with departed persons. Some are even caught up in automatic handwriting and messages from the other world. I’ve had friends who have become obsessed with such activities. The demonic is real.
Never forget those words of the apostle Paul who wrote, “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:24-25).
Refuse to allow your Christianity to be an hour or two or three a week, as you go through life limping between two opinions. Either God is God or Baal is God. Choose this day whom you will serve! Emphatically declare, “I will choose the Lord!”
This is the moment of decision for you if you have never received Jesus Christ as Savior.
This is the moment of decision for you if you have been straddling the fence with one foot on God’s side and the other on the world’s side.
I beg you to take advantage of this moment to make your decision for Jesus Christ!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.