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A warning against association with idols
A warning example from the history of Israel in the wilderness
1st Corinthians, Chapter 10, verses 1-5
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
Paul began the subject of idol worship in chapter 8, where he warned against eating meat from animals sacrificed to idols without regard for the consciences of weak brethren. Later in this chapter, he addresses the same issue, but before doing so, he warns the Corinthian Christians against associations with idols and idol practices in a city given to idolatry.
In running their race, God’s chosen and highly favored people failed to exercise the self-discipline called for in the closing verses of chapter 9. In fact, “the reckless and listless Corinthians thought they could safely indulge themselves to the very verge of sin,” even to the extent of returning to idol practices. (Note 16: from Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, photolithoprinted, 1965, page 169.) They needed a powerful warning against such betrayal of their Lord. Israel’s history could supply it.
Before he issues the warning, however, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the high privileges God’s people enjoyed in the Old Testament. “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
Every Israelite knew the story of the deliverance of his people from Egypt and their miraculous passage through the Red Sea. Their deliverance and their preservation by the pillar of cloud and the parting of the Red Sea remind Paul of our baptism. The Israelites were saved by water, in the midst of water; we are also saved by the water (with the Word) of Baptism. The passage through the Red Sea bound God’s people to their leader, Moses, whom God had sent to lead them to safety; we are baptized into the name of our leader, Jesus Christ, and are bound to him.
The children of Israel enjoyed other blessings. “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” The spiritual food was manna; the spiritual drink was the water Moses struck from the rock at Kadesh (Numbers 20). The food and the drink are called spiritual because they were supernaturally (miraculously) provided.
A rabbinical legend held that a portion of the rock at Kadesh accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years and continually supplied them with water. Paul corrects that legend; it was Christ who provided both the water and the manna in the wilderness. Jesus saved his people from Egypt and preserved his people in the wilderness.
Now comes the mournful statement: “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.” Only Caleb and Joshua entered the Promised Land; all other Israelites over age 20 perished in the desert because they were faithless and disobedient.
In this catastrophe Paul sees a dire warning for the Corinthians. “One may partake of the full abundance of divine grace and yet be lost.” (Note 17: from R. C. H. Lenski, First Epistle to the Corinthians, Columbus, Ohio: Lutheran Book Concern, 1935, page 395.) The history of Israel should serve as a warning to all Corinthians “who may be tempted to flirt with the idolatrous practices of their neighbors.” (Note 18: from Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, New York, New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1931, page 151.)
1st Corinthians, Chapter 10, verses 6-10
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
It is significant that the Israelites committed the same kinds of sins the Corinthians were guilty of. “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” The element of desire is “the supreme thing in human life. It is always the beginning of defection.” (Note 19, from: G. Campbell Morgan, The Corinthian Letters of Paul, Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1946, page 124.)
“Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.’” “Rose up to play” are the familiar words of the KJV describing the idol celebration of the Israelites as they worshiped the golden calf. The “play” included the lively dances that were the prelude to sex play.
The second warning example is recorded in Numbers chapter 25. Paul cites the shameful orgy in the desert when the men of Israel had sex with the Moabite women, who had invited them to the sacrifices of their gods. “We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.” Numbers 25:9 states that 24,000 died, but Paul may be using round numbers, or he may also be making allowance for those slain by the judges of the people (Numbers 25:5).
Paul calls to mind another delinquency: “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.” In their impatience the Israelites challenged God and Moses and put God’s patience, power, and faithfulness to the test (Numbers 21).
The last example cites the grumbling and complaining of God’s people about Moses’ leadership and God’s dealings with them (Numbers 14 and 16): “And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.” Constant murmuring against God and his representatives is evidence of unbelief and rebellion, which God punishes severely.
1st Corinthians, Chapter 10, verses 11-13
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
God had Moses record the Israelites’ evil courses, so they would serve as warning examples for all those who would come after them. We are to learn from the generations who have preceded us. To ignore or disdain what former ages have to teach us about the wages of sin and the consequences of guilt is conceit and folly. “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” Paul warns. Pride goes before the fall.
If the Corinthians seek to excuse their lapse into the same sins that caused Israel to fall, Paul takes away their excuses: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.” Those were ordinary human temptations that the Corinthians and the Israelites faced; many other Christians have encountered these temptations and have withstood them. Furthermore, God knows our strength and staying power and will not let temptation exceed it. He also supplies encouragement when temptations come, for “he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” The way out of temptation is the ability to bear it, or we can bear the temptation because God has promised “a way out.” “God has arranged . . . that we need not fall.” (Note 20: from G. Campbell Morgan, page 126.)
Avoid idol worship, which makes you partners with demons
1st Corinthians, Chapter 10, verses 14-17
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
The conclusion the Corinthians should draw from Israel’s association with idols is this: “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.” God’s Old Testament people did not flee, and they came to a sad end. Even the fact that they were God’s chosen and privileged people did not save them from judgment and destruction. All sober-minded people must agree with Paul: “I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.”
Paul has presented one reason for this injunction: “Flee from idolatry.” Now he proceeds to another reason: A Christian who takes part in the rites and feasts of idol religions associates himself with Satan’s kingdom; the follower of Christ becomes a partner with devils.
We are somewhat surprised to see Paul using the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to warn the Corinthians against involvement with idol worship. He draws a parallel between the two: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” The “cup of thanksgiving,” or the “cup of blessing” (KJV), was the Passover cup our Lord used when he instituted the Lord’s Supper; he made it the communion cup for which we give thanks, or that is blessed when the Words of Institution and the Lord’s Prayer are used in celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar.
The wine in the cup is a “participation” (“communion,” as the KJV has it) in the blood of Christ. When we drink the wine, we also receive Christ’s blood. Likewise, when we eat the bread, we also receive Christ’s body. As we eat and drink the earthly elements, we also eat and drink the sacramental elements. Paul stresses the close relationship, the sharing of both elements with each other. When we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we enter into the most intimate fellowship with Christ himself through receiving his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
Furthermore, we are also brought into the most intimate fellowship with one another. “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” There is one bread (loaf) in the Lord’s Supper. All who receive that one bread are united with one other because we all share that common bread. This sharing makes us one spiritual body. Of course, the sharing in the cup also makes us one. Fellowship, communion, partnership—that is what Paul is emphasizing in the Sacrament of the Altar.
1st Corinthians, Chapter 10, verses 18-22
Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Now he applies this fellowship to idol worship. Just as there is a participation in the body and blood of Christ when we celebrate Holy Communion, there is a fellowship with the idols when their worshipers eat the sacrifices brought to the altars of the idols.
“Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?” Eating and drinking in worship at the altar unites us with God, and we share in the blessings we receive at God’s altar, especially the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God, just as the people of Israel did in the Old Testament. Similarly, pagans are united with their gods through their worship, though such worshipers can look for no blessings from their gods.
Before he makes his final application, Paul must clear up one thing: Idols do not really exist; they are only creations of man’s imagination (see 1 Corinthians 8:4). But the devils who planted idolatry in man’s mind are real. They are behind idolatry and promote it. These are the beings that idol worshipers actually fellowship with in idol worship.
Hence Paul says, “Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons.”
For the Christians in Corinth, participating in idol sacrifices and idol worship should, therefore, be unthinkable. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.” If Corinthian Christians presume they can participate in both rites, Paul has a solemn word for them: “Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” The Lord our God is jealous of his honor and glory. When he tells us to avoid false worship, he means it. And he will execute judgment on those who disobey.
Do not let the exercise of your liberty wrong your neighbor
1st Corinthians, Chapter 10, verses 23-26
”Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
Participating in the rites and feasts of idol worship was not within the exercise of Christian liberty. Paul made that clear. But now he returns to the subject of Christian liberty that he took up in chapters 8 and 9. He has another principle to establish before he turns to other matters.
He begins by quoting an expression of the Corinthians that he made use of in 6:12: “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.”
There is a difference between 6:12 and 10:23. In chapter 6, Paul qualified “Everything is permissible for me” by adding, “but I will not be mastered by anything.” There he was concerned about the loss of liberty because what we are free to do must not become a habit or an addiction. Here he makes the point that our exercise of Christian liberty must be “constructive”; it must build others up.
When they practice their Christian liberty, Christians do not think only of themselves. They are not so self-centered that they do not think of the needs of others. “For none of us lives to himself alone,” Paul writes in Romans 14:7. He repeats his exhortation even more clearly in Romans 15:2: “Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
Paul first points out that meat from animals sacrificed to idols could be purchased and consumed by Christians because God was providing even this meat for their sustenance. “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.’” “Though there may be some doubt as to what happened to the meat on the way, the divine origin makes it right for the Christian to eat.” (Note 21: from Leon Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), page 149.)
The quotation in verse 26 is from Psalm 24:1 and was a common form of grace before meals in Jewish homes. The Corinthians should not ask “fussy questions”22 about the meat offered for sale in such markets. Paul makes the same point to Timothy: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4,5). There is a difference between eating meat offered to idols when it is available in the market and eating such meat when Christians take part in sacrificial meals offered to idols.
1st Corinthians, Chapter 10, verses 27-30
If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake—the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
Now Paul takes up a practical case. Apparently the weak brother, who is also a guest at the meal, has scruples of conscience about eating meat from animals sacrificed to idols, and he lets you know about it. Paul’s directive is this: “For the sake of your weak brother’s conscience, don’t eat.” Even though your own conscience will not trouble you if you eat the sacrificial meat, you should not eat it because your weak brother will accuse you of sinning if you do eat of it.
Paul does not want the strong Christian to come under judgment of his weak brother, even if the strong Christian has every right to eat such meat. One should not be in a position where he is faulted for eating food over which he has spoken a prayer of thanksgiving. There are times when we must waive our rights rather than to have a legitimate action condemned by a fellow Christian.
1st Corinthians, Chapter 10, verses 31-33 and Chapter 11, verse 1
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
This principle must be followed: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” This includes giving up rights out of consideration for another’s welfare. God is not glorified when we display our freedom by insisting on our rights and are condemned for doing so. Nor is God glorified when we cause anyone to stumble in his faith, no matter how different his understanding and his feelings may be.
Paul has shown the way in chapters 8 and 9. He refrained from exercising his Christian liberty wherever such exercise gave offense. He refrained also so that he might save many souls. But to “please everybody in every way” does not mean that he “compromised any truth or sanctioned any error.” (Note 23, from: Charles Hodge, page 204.) We know Paul’s record on that score. Christ’s example and Paul’s example will guide us in the practice of our Christian liberty. The moral and spiritual welfare of our fellow Christians is more important than the exercise of our Christian liberty.