Escape from Idolatry
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:1–10:22
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 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. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Mickey Mantle was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. It didn’t matter if you were a New York Yankees fan or not, whenever his name was announced and he came to bat you would stop whatever you were doing just to watch him hit. And while his career numbers still rank him among the very best, he could have been so much better.
He had been blessed with extraordinary talent, but throughout his career he abused his body. When alcoholism forced him into retirement at age 36, he joked with reporters, saying, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
By the time he was in his early-60s, he had developed inoperable liver cancer which necessitated a transplant. A month after that surgery, he had recovered sufficiently to address a news conference at the hospital. As tears filled his eyes, he pointed to himself and remarked, “Take a look. This is a role model. Don’t be like me.”
It has been said that no one is ever a total failure...they can always be used as a bad example. Mickey Mantle cited his own life as bad example. In the passage before us, Israel is being used as a negative example by the Apostle Paul. He is motioning in their direction and saying, “Don’t be like them.”
As we enter into 10th chapter of 1 Corinthians today, we once again need to remind ourselves that there were no chapter and verse divisions in the Bible when it was originally written. Those were added centuries later to make reading and referencing easier. I mention that for the purpose of referring back to where we left off last Sunday. You may recall that Paul has said that, even though followers of Christ have been set free from the law of sin and death and granted great privilege by virtue of their relationship with the Savior, such freedom has the potential of leading to bondage if it is not carefully exercised. In fact, he cautioned at the very end of chapter 9, that there is the very real possibility of being “disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). It is with that thought left hanging in the air that he opens chapter 10.
The Israelites had become “disqualified” because they compromised their position as the people of God by pursuing lesser “gods.” While attempting to hold onto the Lord who had delivered them out of bondage with one hand, they embraced “idols” of every sort with the other, until God at last said, “Enough!” Therefore, Paul begins this passage by warning those who made up the church at Corinth, as well as us, to not follow...
The example of Israel (verses 1-13).
Several times in his epistles, the apostle introduces a particularly important topic with the phrase, “I do not want you to be unaware” (cf. Romans 1:13, 1 Corinthians 12:1, 2 Corinthians 1:8, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13). He employs it here as a lead in to the topic of “idolatry,” a common threat to us all and one he will warn us to “flee.”
In these first five verses, Paul reminds his readers of the great privilege that God had granted to Israel by choosing them to be His people. Under Moses’ leadership, the entire nation had been delivered from Egyptian bondage and led onto the road that would lead them to the Promised Land. His emphasis is that the privilege had been extended to them “all.” Notice the five-fold repetition of that word...“all (were) under the cloud (of God’s glory and protection),” “all (had) passed through the sea (when God parted the waters for them),” “all were baptized into Moses (that is, identified with him in his call and mission),” “all ate the same spiritual food (the manna and the quail that the Lord provided),” and “all drank the same spiritual drink (a reference to the Lord’s miraculous provision of water from the rock).”
All of these privileges had belonged to them “all,” but as he is about to demonstrate, privilege does not automatically guarantee success. Soon after their escape from Egypt the Israelites fell captive to idolatry by fashioning and worshiping the golden calf (cf. Exodus 32:1-4). In response, the Lord’s judgment fell upon them, and they quickly learned that the freedom God gives is not to be exercised with impunity. That is because the misuse of privilege will inevitably lead to idolatry.
Lest we forget, not even Moses was permitted to enter the Promised Land because of disobedience (cf. Numbers 20:10-12). Limited by the Lord to only looking into the land from a distance, in that sense this great leader of God’s people was “disqualified” (cf. Deuteronomy 34:1-6). Paul seems to recognize at the end of chapter 9 that a similar fate awaits those who allow their freedom to degenerate into idolatry. To sin against the Law is bad enough, but to sin against grace is far worse.
The privilege the Israelites had been granted was even greater than they realized because, as Paul reveals in verse 4, “the Rock that followed them” was none other than Christ Himself. Although that description conjures up images of Jesus taking on the form of a “rock” and “rolling along” with the people of the way to the Promised Land, that is not the mental picture Paul wanted to convey. Instead he employs a figure of speech to demonstrate that Christ was the Source of their every blessing and provision during their 40-year march.
But in spite of these great privileges that had been granted to this people—privileges unlike any granted to any other people—“with most of them God was not pleased.” The word, “Nevertheless” (“αλλα”) with which verse 5 begins, introduces a strong contrast. “All” had received the blessing, remember, but “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
Having presented his introduction by using Israel as an illustration Paul gets into the heart of his instruction in verses 6 through 13. Referencing the first five verses, he continues, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” From time to time, we hear people saying that they don’t read the Old Testament because it is too hard to understand. Paul is arguing that it needs to be read because there are many “types” (“τυποs”) found in it for which the New Testament provides the “antitype.” In other words, they provide Old Testament illustrations of what are later shown to be New Testament truths. And here the lesson is “that we might not desire (or lust after) evil as they did.”
This thought is emphasized in four stated prohibitions in verses 7 through 10...the first of which is, “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’” The Scripture Paul cites comes from Exodus 32:6 and the context of the golden calf debacle. Because this incident is being cited for our benefit, each of us would do well to identify the “golden calves” that currently exist in our lives. Whatever they are, they are identified here with “idolatry.” So, you and I need to slow the pace for a few moments in order to discuss what that means for us today.
In his Larger Catechism, Martin Luther wrote, “Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God.” In other words, anything that usurps any of God’s rightful place in our lives becomes an idol...or, if you will, a “god.” And a “god” (little “g”) can be anything that we love, trust, and serve above everything else.
Tony Reinke has defined “idolatry” as “the vain attempt to find ultimate meaning in finite things”...that is things that will not last. You and I live in a day of “disposable gods.” Today’s “must haves” are cast aside or traded in for the newest “must have.” The level of idolatry in our lives is revealed by how quickly we dash to obtain them. And then we turn our idols into objects of worship, at least for a few weeks or a few months. And over time we become like—taking on the characteristics—of that which we worship.
Steven Um has given us this helpful paragraph:
Idols are anything more fundamental than God for our happiness, meaning, and identity. They are inordinate desires for even good things such as material possessions, a career, family, marriage, achievement, work, independence, political cause, financial security, human approval, romance. All of these things are good in and of themselves. But what ends up happening for many people is that those created things become ultimate things. And when this takes place, they become functional masters, over-desires, and ultimately idols in man’s heart. Most believe that once their hearts are captured by these things, then finally their lives would be much happier. So idolatry is always the reason people ever do anything wrong. In other words, it is the shaping power that is underneath human impulses, human behavior, and the motivational cause for why there is any desire to do anything.
The second of Paul’s prohibitions is seen in verse 8: “We must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” Here he flashes back to Numbers 25, verses 1 through 9, where the people of God entered into the worship of Baal at Peor. Paul reveals that such worship involved “sexual immorality.” Have you ever noticed the close relationship between idolatry and immorality in the Bible? In response to the idolatry at Peor, the Lord sent a plague among the people. It was a swift and thorough judgment against those who were willing to exchange His glory for another. The causal sexual expressions which have become part and parcel of our culture are nothing short of blasphemous rebellion against a holy God. Eternity can be forfeited for a passing moment of pleasure.
Then in verse 9, Paul gives the third prohibition. This time the incident is taken from Numbers 11, verses 5 and 6, when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness in order to offer healing for those who had rebelled and spoken against the Lord. They had “put Christ to the test,” and many had died when “the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people.” How interesting that Paul mentions the preincarnate Christ as the very One whom the people had offended. Centuries later He would be the One lifted up on a cross for the purpose of bringing healing to those who would look to Him and live cf. John 3:14-15).
The fourth and final prohibition is found in verse 10, where Paul adds, “nor grumble as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.” The specific grumblings and murmurings of Israel against the Lord are difficult to pinpoint, since they occurred so frequently. The mention of “the Destroyer” serves the purpose of recalling Exodus 12:23 and the “destroying angel” sent to carry out divine judgment (cf. also 2 Samuel 24:16, 1 Chronicles 21:15, and 2 Chronicles 32:21). Ultimately, you remember, among “the exodus generation” only Joshua and Caleb escaped this judgment and were able to enter the Promised Land. They were able to do that because the believed the Word God had spoken.
You and I may not consider “testing the Lord” or “grumbling” as being akin to “idolatry,” but the Lord obviously does. The apostle’s warnings should have “hit home” with the Corinthian believers. Paul had been sent to them by God bearing a message with apostolic authority, and yet they questioned him at every turn. Like them, we too must be careful lest we minimize our idolatrous sins and consider them less worthy of judgment.
The import of these warnings is made more emphatic in verse 11, where we read, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” With the eschatological fulfillment of Christ’s work on the cross, God has served notice that we have entered into “the last days.” History is rushing toward its appointed end as its Author has begun wrapping up all things. Scripture is always relevant for the people of God. It never becomes outdated. Even today we must learn from Israel’s negative example, and seek not to leave a negative example for those under our care and those who follow after us.
“Therefore,” as Paul admonishes in verse 12, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Some of the Corinthians—and, for that matter, some of us—seem to think that it is possible to be so unassailable with spiritual security that such warnings as Paul gives in this passage are overstated and unnecessary. Perhaps we all need to take a better look at ourselves...this time with greater honesty and clarity. Scrutinizing our behaviors may suggest that we are not as secure as we suppose.
Verse 13 is often quoted out of context. And while it may indeed stand alone as a promise of God’s provision, to separate it from the foregoing discussion takes away from its force. When Paul writes that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man,” he is assuring us that the temptation to idolatry is an innate part of the human condition. It affects all of us in one way or another. Even our Lord Jesus was said to have been “in every respect...tempted as we are, yet without sin” (cf. Hebrews 4:15). Due to its subtlety and subversive nature, idolatry is the most common of all human temptations. It originated in the Garden of Eden and will continue to lure men and women away from God until Jesus returns. The only thing that ever changes is its form.
But temptation does not have to inevitably lead to sin. The rest of verse 13 assures us that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape that you may be able to endure it.” The good news is that you do not have to yield to idols. As a Christian, it is possible to keep your eyes on the Lord. You have been given the ability to obey. You can say “no” to temptation. For every seductive attraction that seeks to lure you away from the Lord, there is a way out...an “exodus,” if you will. There are times, as you trust Him, when He will remove the temptation. At other times, he will leave it in its place, but give you the strength to “endure” it, without yielding to it. This is God’s promise. Any failure or falling on your part is not because He has not provided for you “the way of escape.”
In these first thirteen verses, Paul has demonstrated Israel’s failure to exercise its privileges as the people of God, including the ability to faithfully refuse the worship of anything but the Lord and Him alone. So, with that background, he now enters into...
The exhortation against idolatry (verses 14-22).
“Therefore” (“διοπερ”) at the beginning of verse 14 might better be translated, “for this very reason.” He is now directing the readers’ to the three-word command that follows: “Flee from idolatry.” “Run from it...as far and as fast as you can!” “Have no part with it at all!”
Paul employed that same verb of command earlier in chapter 6 and verse 18, when he said, “Flee from sexual immorality.” Once again we see the not-so-subtle link between idolatry and immorality. Throughout the dark history of man, sex has often been the “substitute god” of many. As advertisers learned long ago, “sex sells,” and people are gullible consumers.
The apostle’s concern for the Corinthians—even though it was not always reciprocated—is made obvious when he addresses them as “my beloved” (“αγαπητοs”). He appeals to them “as to sensible people.” They considered themselves to be “wise,” you may recall from chapter 1, so here he calls on them to put their “wisdom” to the test and to give an accurate appraisal of the logic that he is about to propose.
In verses 16 through 20, Paul lays out a case intended to demonstrate the reason for worshiping the Lord God exclusively and shunning every form of idolatry. Three pieces of evidence are presented to the Corinthians: first, the Lord’s Supper; second, the Jewish sacrifices; and third, the idolatrous sacrifices of their pagan neighbors. We’ll look at each of these briefly.
In verses 16 and 17, Paul writes with regard to the Christian Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. What he says here is in preview to his lengthier discussion in the next chapter. But within the present context, he wants the reader to understand that—and I quote—“The cup of blessing (or thanksgiving) that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
The key word is “participation,” and we find it throughout Paul’s argument in this last paragraph. It is the Greek word “κοινωνια,” which became the common word used among Christians in the 1st-century to express their “unity” and “close relationship” with one another, as well as with that which bound them together as “one in Christ.” Whenever they gathered to share in the Lord’s Supper—just as we will be doing next Sunday morning—they did so as an act of their mutual and exclusive devotion to Christ and to one another. It was unthinkable that any partaker of the elements would come to the Table having “mixed allegiance,” because to eat of the bread and to drink of the cup was meant to share in the death of Christ. I exhort you to carefully consider that as you prepare to come to next Sunday’s service. Don’t bring your idols to the Table of the Lord with you. In fact, destroy them before you come.
The second line of reasoning, that of the Jewish sacrifices, is mentioned in verse 18. When the Old Testament worshiper presented a “peace offering” in the Tabernacle or later the Temple, he was given a portion of that meat for himself and his family. By eating it, a living portrait was created through which those individuals became “participants in the altar.” By partaking of the meat that had been offered, they were acknowledging the Lord who had accepted it.
Moving on to verses 19 and 20, Paul presents what would have been a clear reminder to the Corinthians that their worship of God must not be commingled with any other object of devotion. It is the example of the idolatrous system of worship from which many—or perhaps all—of these relatively new believers had escaped. Listen to Paul’s earnest plea: “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?” Here he gets us back to the issue first raised in the opening verses of chapter 8. And notice his reply, “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.”
I trust you are able to see the import of this last statement. Whether it is the bowing down to the wooden or stone idols in primitive cultures or the worship of the slick and shiny “idols” of contemporary America—the ultimate reality behind every form of idolatry is “demonic.” That thought is well captured in the Song of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy 32. In verse 17 of that chapter we read these alarming words: “They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known.” I have little doubt that if we could see the grotesque images that are behind the idols we crave, we would flee with fear in an instant.
Whatever it is that has become the object of our greatest affection and that to which we devote ourselves has become our “god.” As one writer has expressed it,
A careful reading of the Old and New Testaments shows that idolatry is nothing like the crude, simplistic picture that springs to mind of an idol sculpture in some distant country. As the main category to describe unbelief, the idea is highly sophisticated, drawing together the complexities of motivation in individual psychology, the social environment, and also the unseen world. Idols are not just on pagan altars, but in well-educated human hearts and minds...The Bible does not allow us to marginalize idolatry to the fringes of life...it is found on center stage.
Idolatry permeates our lives in many forms, and rarely is it explicit. Most of the time we do not know that it is happening, and that it is happening to us. Most of us are not saying, “I want this instead of Christ,” but rather I want this plus Christ.” Consequently, we end up leading a “double life.” The Corinthians seemed to want to find a way to serve Jesus while remaining relevant among peers in public places. You see, idolatry isn’t as much a choice between two “gods,” as it is an attempt to serve a number of “gods” at the same time. Idolatry is, therefore, syncretism. Or to put it another way, idolatry is adultery.
Jesus spoke a word to this in Matthew 6:24, saying, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” The subtlety of idolatry is illustrated in the fact that smart-phone users check their phones every 4.3 minutes of their waking lives. To make that practical, ask yourselves how many times you have checked or been tempted to check your messages since this service began. Do you have that same frequent impulse to “check in” with the Lord? We live in an age of nearly constant distraction, and for many of us our greatest distractions are digital ones. And the more distracted we are, the more displaced our spiritual lives become.
Paul brings this present argument to a close with the forceful conclusion found in verses 21 and 22: “You cannot drink both the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” The answer is a resounding “no!”
We sometimes forget that from early on the Lord referred to Himself as “a jealous God” (cf. Exodus 20:5, 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24, 5:9, 6:15; Joshua 24:19). He will not give His glory to another (cf. Isaiah 42:8 and 48:11). He alone is God, and He alone is worthy to be praised and worshiped. “You shall have no other gods before me” remains His first command. We deny Him that right at the risk of eternal peril.
Just two months following his liver transplant and within a month of his news conference, Mickey Mantle was dead. By his own admission, the life he had lived—though admired by baseball fans—had not been exemplary. He had wasted away his life chasing women, booze, and every imaginable pursuit that was made readily available to a handsome young athlete, who was the darling of many. He had been candid about his regrets, but in his last days he had also found peace by having entrusted himself to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Through the consistent and persistent witness of his faithful friend and former teammate Bobby Richardson, he came to believe the claims of the Gospel, repent of his sin, and speak unashamedly of his newfound faith. Since his death, the Lord has been pleased to use his testimony—not unlike that of the dying thief—to lead others to escape from idolatry and be brought to the cross.
He is able to do that for everyone who is willing to humbly themselves by turning from sin and self—in other words, every form of idolatry—and believing that Jesus’ death on the cross absorbed the wrath of God as full and final payment for their sins. To those who are willing to trust Him in that way, He promises forgiveness and reconciliation with Himself by crediting to their account the righteousness of Christ.
Have you conducted an honest appraisal of your life recently in order to identify your own personal idols? Today’s idols are probably no longer made of wood and stone. Ours are far sleeker, shinier, more expensive...and more addictive. For those who are willing to do a personal inventory in this regard, permit me to prime the pump with several unoriginal thoughts for your contemplation. Some of these will likely be more practical to you than others. But I believe there is something here for us all. Consider...
- When we find greater delight in our hobbies and interests than we do in our walk with Christ, we are already wandering down the path of idolatry.
- When we spend more time absorbing the entertainment of this world than we do with Godly truth, we are toying with idolatry.
- When anything we possess dominates our thoughts and captures our affections more than the treasure of Christ, it has become an idol.
- When social media excites us more than spiritual interests, we are in the process of erecting other gods.
- When we find excessive delight in a relationship with some other person to the neglect of our relationship with Christ, that person has become for us an idol.
- When we find more delight in serving Christ than in seeking Christ, even ministry can become an idol.
- When we find greater confidence in our own strengths and capabilities than in a humble reliance on Christ, we can easily make an idol of even ourselves.
The great evangelist D.L. Moody reminded us a century-and-a-quarter ago that “You don’t have to go to heathen lands today to find false gods. America is full of them.” To that I might add, and Satan continues to mass produce them!
Anything that diminishes your affection for the Lord has already become your idol. I leave you you the words that Ezekiel the prophet spoke to the people of his day, words that remain relevant to us in ours: “Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations” (Ezekiel 14:6).