Background on Corinthian religion:
The Corinthians in their society had many different idols or gods they worshipped. The temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was atop the Acrocorinth which I spoke about in my message on sexual immorality. Of fame also in Corinth was Poseidon ruler of the sea which makes sense because of the shipping culture in Corinth and that it was a Mecca for trade and sea vessels going in and out of the region. Poseidon was also the maker of earthquakes which were common in that region.
There were numerous other temples for Apollo, Hermes, Venus-Fortuna, Isis, and a monument (the pantheon) to ‘all the other gods’.
The worship of idols was a prominent part of civic and social life. Sacrificing animals and offering up food often occurred at weddings, funerals, banquets, and public festivals so in other words, idolatry was an integral part of this culture.
The Apostle Paul speaks into this culture asking the Corinth church via letter to flee from idolatry.
Verses 1 through 5- I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Paul is mentioning the Exodus account here, how Israel crossed the Red Sea after being freed from the Pharoah and were led by God by means of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Israelites, as God’s people, were all together and having a spiritual experience while following God together. The Israelites were baptized into Moses per Paul and here, Paul is setting up a connection between these early Christians in the Corinth church and ancient Israelites. They were all following and trusting the same God. Moses was a prophet who taught the ancient Israelites about faith in God. Christ was God in human flesh that revealed God the Father to Jews and Gentiles alike.
The reference to the rock is where Moses struck a rock and water came out as the Israelites were wandering in the desert. This happened in Exodus 17:6 and Numbers 20:11. So the physical nourishing at the Israelites found was not just physical but spiritual as Paul says Christ was there with them just as He was with the Corinth believers.
Paul mentions they were overthrown in the wilderness. The Israelites had idols with them. Idols that they had made and were carrying with them even as God was providing manna from heaven and water from the rock. Of course, a famous episode of idolatry occurred with the shaping of the golden calf while Moses was meeting with God on the mountain receiving the 10 commandments.
Verses 6 through 8- Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil 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 rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty three thousand fell in a single day.
Paul brings up the wanderings of Israel in the desert and their worship of idolaters as an instructive warning to the Corinth church. The charge is to not engage in idolatry even when idols were all around the Corinth culture and embedded in their way of life.
The quoted phrase in this verse, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play’ is explained by Simon Kistemaker in his commentary, ‘This quotation Paul has taken verbatim from the Septuagint translation of Exodus 32:6. The passage gives us a vignette: a feast was often followed by games of one kind or other. Such commonly accepted practices were normally above criticism. But in pagan rites, people ate and drank to honor an idol who represented a god. The dances that followed the meal often degenerated into debauchery. Hence the Greek verb paizein, which I have translated ‘to play’ can have a negative connotation and mean ‘to sin sexually’.
It makes sense that this leads into Paul’s next instruction which is to avoid practicing sexual immorality (yet another command against sexual immorality to the Corinth church). I won’t dig into this too much as we have already had messages on sexual immorality, marriage and singleness preached in the past couple of months.
Then Paul references 23,000 which fell in one day because of this sin. Paul is referencing an account in Numbers 25:9 which actually mentions that 24,000 died. This is a slight textual variant (discrepancy) but the point is not an exact number. This is a ballpark of how many people died because of Israel’s sin against God.
Verses 9 through 11- We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 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.
Another reference to the history of Israel in Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites were overconfident after defeating the King of Arad. They were impatient, blasphemed God, turned nasty on Moses, and desired water and food. Poisonous snakes came into their camp as a sign of the judgment of God.
There are references to the ‘destroyer’ in Exodus 12:23; 2 Samuel 24:16; and 1 Chronicles 21:15. Probably in reference to an angel bringing God’s judgment.
These episodes that Paul is recounting serve as examples and warnings. His ‘end of the ages’ reference probably means that believers in God have entered the final point of history.
Verses 12 through 13- Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he falls. 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.
The instruction to take heed less we fall is important because Paul has just shown how the people of God fell numerous times throughout their history. Therefore, any of us can fall into temptation and sin. None of us is invincible. Paul gives hope that God will never tempt us beyond what we can handle and will provide a way of escape. The two sins mentioned in context here are idolatry and sexual immorality but it is a fair reading of the text to recognize this as referring to any sin struggle a believer may go through. God is faithful and empowers us to conquer the temptations that come our way.
Verse 14 and 15- Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.
Paul is instructing the Corinth Christians to flee from idolatry. This is similar to the passage I preached on before in 1 Corinthians 6:18 where Paul charges to ‘flee immorality’. Same word is used here and applied to idolatry.
The apostle says he speaks to sensible people but this can also be translated ‘wise’. Paul had once ridiculed the Corinthians wisdom in chapter 4:10 but here he encourages the wise. These wise are the people who work to fulfill the will of the Lord. In contrast, the foolish rely on their own thought and insight. Paul asks the wise to judge and be discerning regarding what he says about idolatry.
Why do people need to be wise and discerning? Because there is tension within the task of fleeing idolatry. In chapter 8, Paul had shown his anti-legalism stance with the food sacrificed to idols issue. Arguing that idols do not exist and there is only one God, Paul says it is OK to eat food sacrificed to idols so long as someone is not a weaker brother or sister and tempted to sin.
So Paul is anti-legalism but he also here announces a tension: flee from idolatry! How do these go together? We will explore that a little bit more this morning.
Verse 16 and 17- The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation 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.
By bringing up communion or the Eucharist (meaning ‘I give thanks’), Paul is rhetorically beginning to contrast what it means to have communion with Christ and to have a participation in His body. Jesus famously instituted the bread and the cup in the upper room, with his disciples, before His crucifixion. He declared, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’ He also broke the bread for His body. (Luke 22:19-20). The new covenant was instituted.
This sacred expression of what it means to be in Christ and to share with the rest of the Body of Christ (believers in Jesus) is tainted and polluted by idolatry and by Christians chasing after phony idols for spiritual satisfaction rather than keeping Christ at the core of their being.
Remember, a big question we have to engage is: why we’re Corinthian idols a big deal? What did they get out of their allegiance to idols? As we already talked about, in virtually all areas of their civic life idols were involved and this was to attempt and connect them to a larger spiritual reality by currying favor with the gods.
Paul has addressed these idols as fake and counterfeits. People should seek to be connected to Jesus to find their meaning in life and have an authentic spiritual connection. Food sacrificed to idols will get you nothing except maybe a satisfied stomach. Joining with other believers in communion and that is remembering Christ’s broken body and poured out blood connects a community of believers to the true God who loves them.
Verse 18 and 19- Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the alter? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?
The Corinthians and we are asked to consider Israel’s sin of idolatry with the golden calf. They are being asked to see the vast difference between festivities in the dining room of a pagan temple versus participating in the Lord’s Supper with other believers.
Priests and Levites of Israel who serve at the alter as well as people who partake believe that sacrifices made to the true God would involve having fellowship with him while eating with other believers.
Paul again dismiss idols as fake gods and essentially worthless for attaining a solid spirituality and for all important community.
Verse 20, 21, and 22- 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. 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. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Paul is powerfully stating here that not only is the worship of idols vain and empty but he also sees a demonic presence behind the idols. This is other example where Scripture is drawing a very sharp line. To the Corinthians, Paul is saying that they cannot be going to festivals and other social engagements where the whole purpose is to sacrifice to an idol and also be involved in coming to communion with the saints. We cannot partake at the table of the Lord while entertaining demonic lies.
Paul rhetorically asks do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? The Decalogue introduces the idea of God being a jealous God (Exodus 20:5 and Deut 5:9). The first two commandments are about having no other gods and not making graven images or idols. Obviously, we are not stronger than God and need to rely on Him as we seek His truth regarding idols in our culture.
Before we get into why this is such an important issue in our culture, we should define idolatry. Idolatry is simply what we worship. Where do our strongest affections lie and how does this impact our connection to the true God? What do we spend a good time thinking about and what do we spend a lot of money on may be indicators of what forms our idolatry takes. What do we run to during hard times for comfort or to try and forget the hard times?
Tim Keller writes in his book ‘Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that matters’ this: ‘When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshipping. When such a thing is threatened, your anger is absolute. Your anger is actually the way the idol keeps you in its service, in its chains. Therefore if you find that, despite all the efforts to forgive, your anger and bitterness cannot subside, you may need to look deeper and ask, ‘What am I defending? What is so important that I cannot live without?’ It may be that, until some inordinate desire is identified and confronted, you will not be able to master your anger.’
What are some of the idols of our culture? In the Corinth culture, they had many gods and big events of life (weddings, funerals, banquets, etc) were all centered around service to an idol. People made idols and bowed down to them. In our society, I’m sure we do have people that bow down to graven images around but people’s struggles with idolatry are more complicated for us and maybe not always as cut and dry as to whether you are going to a feast done in the name and service of Poseidon.
I was thinking about how an instruction such as fleeing from idolatry would apply to us, Americans in the 21st century. What are these things we worship? What captures a great deal of our time? Lots of those things may be good things so how do we know when a good thing has become a bad thing or a distracting thing?
I have brought up this saying before in another message, I think. People around us here in the Pacific Northwest like to say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’ There is a tremendous hunger for spirituality in our society and perhaps a seeking of general spiritual experience but there is also so much brokenness, fracturing, anger and division in our culture. Could it be that the brokenness and emptiness is the result of pursing a counterfeit spirituality or idols at the expense of pursuing a genuine and transformative encounter with Christ?
I ran across an article in the ‘New Yorker’ which had a very interesting quote from the current defense secretary, General Mattis. I’ll quote the section of the article that contains his quote: ‘When I asked what worried him most in his new position, I expected him to say ISIS or Russia or the defense budget. Instead, he said, ‘The lack of political unity in America. The lack of a fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments.’
I was surprised by this that the defense secretary rather than being concerned with other country’s missile launching capacity or nuclear arsenal or a radicalized religious death cult slaughtering people in the Middle East. Instead, one of the things he is concerned about is people being spiritually alienated and personally alienated from organized religion which would be a spiritual commitment to God but also a community.
Our culture pursues idols that we have fashioned and we chase after them seeking a spiritual fulfillment. Things may seem promising at first. We may feel spiritually satisfied but eventually we may wind up like the Israelites that Paul describes…spiritually desolate after wandering in the desert with our own religious inventions. All the while, the true God is trying to get our attention.
Thesis: Fleeing from idolatry in our lives will give us the opportunity to find an ultimate meaning in Jesus.
We struggle to flee idolatry because sometimes in our culture it is hard to recognize when an idol has grabbed ahold of our soul. As I brought up before, I would assume all of us are not in the habit of physically making idols and then worshipping them. That means that our idols can be much more subtle. Indeed, idols can be good things that we elevate in our lives to unhealthy places. The Christian cliche that I have heard before is that an idol is a good thing that becomes a god thing. We can’t stop at bumper sticker sloganeering though. We have to break down this struggle we have with idolatry. How does this look in our culture?
People often say that we idolize ourselves. A lot of us, including me, have our own social media pages and we act as our own public relations firms choosing to show the rest of the digital world whatever we would like to show. Now, I’ll give my disclaimer: Not anything wrong with being on social media and having fun with it. However, it is probably not deep enough to say that we all may struggle out here in the west with self idolatry. Indeed, if that is true, how do we go about idolizing ourselves?
David Fairchild, who is a pastor here in Seattle, tweeted out the other day: ‘You can often find your idols by tracing your schedule & bank statement. Money & time is how we worship most naturally.’ This seems to be the starting place for thinking about and rooting idols out of our life. Our society is very time-oriented and also very materialistic. From the time we are young, we are bombarded with advertisements that we will not be complete in life until we have a certain product. We are told we will not be accepted or noticed unless we look a certain way. We will not be considered intelligent or successful unless we become rich and make more money than most other people.
‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ is not the best of movies but it contains a very interesting scene between Josh Brolin who plays a wealthy Wall Street tycoon and an up and coming protege played by Shia Lebeof. Lebeouf while recognizing the Brolin’s characters vast wealth asks him what his number is to get out of the game. How much would Brolin’s character need to make in order to retire, feel satisfied that he had been incredibly successful? Is that number $100 million, $500 million or a billion dollars? Brolin looks at Lebeouf and says, ‘The number is more.’
Being in a materialistic culture, the messages that we need more and more are constantly speaking out to us. In our minds, we struggle with contentment because we buy into this illusion that we constantly need more. This idol grips our soul.
Speaking of social media, I asked some of you on Facebook for idols in American culture and I wanted to read a few of these that you wrote:
Tony Mangefeste said, ‘Pizza.’ I think I heard that the elders are drawing up excommunication papers for that one. Well, in all seriousness, food can be an idol.
Chelsea August said ‘youth as in a culture obsessed with being young.’ Yes, and people long for a fountain of youth for this reason. Our society often discards people who aren’t young anymore so some of us get caught up in spending crazy amounts of time or maybe money on surgery even to try and look young.
Tanis Trapp said, ‘Comfort/ Security…which looks like the pursuit of amassing and spending money, pursuit of healthy/attractive/ everlasting bodies, avoidance of any conflict or pain or self-denial, self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, porn, prescription drugs, etc. We want to feel good and happy all the time.’
Ceci Mangefeste said, ‘Knowledge.’
I think we all have a good grasp on idols that our culture worships. It is one thing for me to think about our culture and say, ‘Yeah, here is where we have things totally wrong and all these people are lost and doing spirituality wrong’ but it is quite another to realize that since I grew up in this culture and this society, many if not all of these idols constantly vie for my attention and my heart. Most of these things are good but they can rise to the level of a consuming distraction. Of things that dethrone Christ in our lives and put something else on the throne.
I don’t like getting older and going bald. I do like my beard though but that may be another idol.
I not only want to feel good and happy all the time, I think I’m entitled to it. And the worst comes from self-righteous. When I think of, in my own head, all I have done for God I can suddenly feel like God owes me things for my sacrifices. I deserve a predictable and easy life. But the thing is, life is vastly unpredictable and I have no idea what is around the corner.
Knowledge. I’m obsessed with knowing things. I want to know most things in the world. I listen to podcasts, audio books and read. I ride the train to work and read on the train. I want to know how to respond in any situation and on any topic. But you know what, maybe it’s perfectly OK to say sometimes, ‘I don’t know’ and not be afraid of it.
Furthermore, rather than filling my head with information, maybe I need to be quieter more. As a matter of fact, for all of us especially myself. We lead these busy, schedule filled up lives and one of the biggest signs that we have an idol problem is we can’t get quiet time for ourselves for even 10-15 minutes a day. We’re going back to the basics here: Bible study and prayer and meditating on God or His Word. This spiritual discipline is crucial for rooting out idols in our hearts. Plus it is healthy for your brain. Science interchanges prayer and meditation all the time in studies and the studies conclude that the discipline is good for your brain. This involves being quiet and focusing your mind on prayer or a verse or an attribute of God. We should do this without our smart phones anywhere near us.
Speaking of phones, another idol. Smart phones are great and revolutionary but how much of your life do they take up? How distracted do we get looking at our phones? How much life do we miss because we are looking down at our phones rather than talking with each other or being aware in our surroundings or we are looking down at our phones as our kids grow up. Again, phones are a good thing, I like Facebook and Twitter and all of that but maybe we need to add a discipline for ourselves (whatever that is) to limit our usage per day.
The entire purpose of rooting out idols in our lives, whatever they may be, is to make sure we are worshipping and pursuing something that has lasting significance. Our culture is broken. There are all kinds of spiritual pursuits and passions out there that are counterfeits. Something that looks enticing, that looks like it can give our lives more meaning or bring us joy often ends in staggering disappointment.
We don’t like talking about death in our culture but you know what, it is an enemy and it is coming for all of us. The reason why we should contemplate this more than we do is because thinking about death provides perspective that is vital. What matters after we are gone? What happens to your material possessions? Some of mine may go to Naomi and Reuben and they may sell them in a garage sale or those possessions may end up in a landfill somewhere. All these things that I can amass over my life dropped right into a garbage dump. My smart phone will be there. The cars I drove reduced to scrap metal. The house I live in, bulldozed down to make whatever new housing they have in the future. The reason why we think about death in this way is to gain perspective on what matters.
Why be consumed with all this stuff with death stalking us steadily when we can be fully connected to the guy who beat death? We as Christians should know this with every fiber of our being. Jesus is our Creator. Jesus rose from the grave. We believe this. We sing about this. We read about this. Yet, we still keep getting wrapped up in this idolatry. I need more stuff. I need more money. I demand comfort. I demand ease. And these things may never come.
The antidote of taking us out of our culture’s vapid and shallow spirituality is the gospel of Jesus. Not only as a revolutionary perspective beyond the materialism or the marginalization of people that we deem do not have much to offer us, but also as an empowering force that calls us to be citizens of a different kingdom. Let’s flee from these idols and latch on to Christ.