RPM, Volume 13, Number 48, November 27 to December 3, 2011

1 Corinthians 10:14-22

A Sermon

By Rev. Scott Lindsay

Turn with me, if you will, to the 10th Chapter of Corinthians. We'll be picking up our study there this morning, beginning with the 14th verse of that chapter and continuing through to the 22nd verse. We are in that portion of Paul's letter where he is responding to questions they have asked him. And the particular questions that Paul is addressing at this stage have to do with the reality that Corinth was a city filled with pagan temples - temples which many of the Corinthian Christians had frequented all their lives and which a number of them - we don't know how many - but a number of them were still going to these temples for meals or to take part in the various festivals held there, or perhaps even for business reasons. This they did, even though they had converted to Christianity.

Their attendance at the pagan temples for meals and festivals was upsetting some of their brothers and sisters, whose consciences were troubled over this issue. And that fact alone, as Paul argued in chapter 8, verses 1-13 — that fact alone should have been enough to dissuade these temple-going Corinthians from claiming what they felt was their perfect right and freedom. It should have been enough to persuade them to give their attendance at temple feasts and functions, for the sake of the Body of Christ, for the sake of all their brothers and sisters who were being encouraged to imitate them in this behavior - even though their consciences were not clear. That situation by itself should have been enough to make them stop.

But it wasn't.

So, in the verses before us this morning, Paul establishes a second - and more serious - reason why being involved in the activities taking place in these pagan temples was just out of bounds. And it was bigger than just the issue of some troubled consciences.

Now, in making his point here, Paul is going to pick up on two things - two points of justification that the temple-going Corinthians were apparently leaning on in their continued resistance to Paul's instructions. One position they held was that "idols are nothing" - and so, they reasoned, there was nothing to be feared by going into temples devoted to these idols.

A second position they apparently held - as we've already seen - was that their participation in the sacraments - especially the Lord's Supper - somehow "safeguarded" them or "inoculated" them - so to speak - from any possible danger. Last week we began looking at this particular view of the Corinthians and this week we will look at it a little more deeply. In the passage before us now, Paul will take on this strange view held by some of the Corinthian believers. In doing so, he will show that the true significance of the Lord's Supper, far from enabling them to attend pagan temples ought to be the very thing that causes them to flee such activities. That's where we're going. Before we do, let's pray together:

Great Father in heaven, you have created us for fellowship with you and to be your faithful devoted bride. Help us in our time together this morning to hear you speaking through your word and through this reading of your word. And as you are the God who brings things into being by the power of your Word - please bring into being now the legitimate understanding and appropriate response that these truths call for. And as you do, please do so in a way that leaves us, in the end, more aware of our sin and more aware of your goodness, more inclined to pursue you with holiness and yet less and less inclined to think that our holiness achieves our righteousness, more aware of how easily our hearts are lured to other loves and less inclined to place our affections and hopes on any other than Christ. In His name we ask it, Amen.

(Read 1 Corinthians 10:14-22) The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, it is not a participation in the body of Christ?

Now, you need to know that this passage has a long exegetical history - meaning that a lot of bible scholars have looked at it over the years - especially those who were trying to develop a theology of the Lord's Supper. No small amount of ink has been spilled trying to determine just what Paul is and is NOT saying - or implying - by these words.

I am not one of those scholars and so will not enter into that debate here, partially in the interest of time and partially because, frankly, I don't think Paul wrote what he did here for the purpose of developing a full-blown theology of the Lord's Supper, right? It's not as if one of the Corinthians sent Paul a letter and said, "Hey, Paul, can you give us a comprehensive theology of the Lord's Supper?" That is not the question they have asked, and it is not the question Paul is responding to here. To be sure, what Paul says here is true and so has a bearing upon our understanding of the Lord's Supper, but that understanding is incomplete, and is still peripheral to the main purpose of the text.

With that caveat in mind then, I do want to quickly focus on what I believe is the main thing that Paul emphasizes here, and it first appears in what I just read to you. In vs 16, when Paul talks about a "participation in the blood of Christ" and a "participation in the body of Christ" - when Paul talks about those things, the word he uses for "participation" is koinonia. Now, if you've hung around the church for any length of time you will recognize that language because it is the Greek word that the Bible regularly uses when it is talking about fellowship. And it is significant, I think, that Paul chose to use that word, and not some other word to say what he says here.

Because, in fact, there is another word that Paul could have used. That word is metekw - a word that is usually translated "partake". But Paul didn't use that word. He does, interestingly enough, use that word in vs17 when he talks about eating the bread of the Supper. But he doesn't use that word here. He used koinonia - indicating by that choice that the aspect of the Lord's Supper that he wants to emphasize is not so much how the drinking of the cup and the taking of the bread are a partaking of the blood and body of the Lord, but rather he is emphasizing how they are a participation - a fellowship with the Lord. In other words, it is the aspect of our solidarity with Christ, our relationship to him, our oneness with him - those are the sorts of things that Paul has in view here, and will be the backbone of his argument in just a moment.

To be sure, there is more going on in the Lord's Supper than mere expressions of our fellowship with Christ. And the NT does talk about these other things in other places, but that is not what is being emphasized here. The emphasis here is on our fellowship with Christ and, along with that or perhaps - as a result of that - our concurrent fellowship with one another. Because we are united to the Lord Jesus Christ - we are united to one another in Christ. Notice the unifying language of Paul, "....the cup of blessing that WE bless...." and "....the bread that WE break...." Do you see that? The Lord's Supper is both an expression of our oneness in Christ and, as I think verse 17 suggests, even an agent of that unity - something which promotes and nourishes our oneness in the Lord Jesus.

Now, that the main emphasis here is on fellowship and oneness and all that is underscored by what Paul says in verse 17. Indeed, if our solidarity in Christ were not Paul's main point, then verse 17 would not fit very well and would seem like something of a digression. But as it is, it fits perfectly with what he is emphasizing. The many members of Christ's body - the Church - share a common loaf of bread when they observe the Supper. And, in so doing, they illustrate their oneness and, at the same time, as I've already said, they actually strengthen their fellowship with one another in the Lord.

That is one of the real, tangible, benefits of the Lord's Supper. It's not merely the fact that we "do it at the same time in the same place" but it really, actually brings us together. It strengthens and nourishes our fellowship and solidarity with one another - because of our common connection in Christ. This reality, too, is Part of Paul's argument in the end.

So, again, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the strong fellowship they have with Christ and with each other through the Supper. And then, after calling their attention to that, Paul then draws their attention to another reality with which he expects they will not disagree or quarrel. "Consider the people of Israel", he says, "are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?"

With these words Paul shifts to a second image to build his case. He turns from their contemporary experience with the Supper - i.e., from looking at one "meal" in the NT to looking back at another situation which involved a meal - the sacrifices that were brought by the people in the OT and the subsequent offering and eating of portions of those sacrifices by the priests who served in the temple. Paul's point here is not a huge one, but it builds on what he has already said.

In the OT, the whole system of worship, while having several different components - was all of one piece, it was all cut from the same cloth. The role of the people of God was to bring their offerings - sheep, grain, etc., to the temple. The role of the priests was to take those, consecrate them, sacrifice them in the way God prescribed, and they would then partake of portions of the sacrifice. Together, both priests and people, benefitted from what took place on the altar - which was the removal of guilt and the forgiveness of sin and the establishment of peace and fellowship with the Lord. But the whole thing - from the bringing of the offering to the point at which some of it was eaten after it was sacrificed - the whole thing was part of the worship of the Lord that took place in the temple. And it was this final portion - the setting apart and partaking of some portion of the sacrifice that Paul most likely has in view here.

As Gordon Fee points out, "the probable reason for this second example is that it is more closely analogous to the pagan meals which also involved sacrifice, followed by a meal [emphasis mine] in which the sacrificial food was eaten." In short, Paul's point seems to be that the eating of the sacrifice was not just an addendum to worship, it was not just subsequent activity un-related to the worship - it was part of it.

Now, at this point, Paul pauses for a moment. He is aware of the fact that the Corinthians can see where he is going with all this. They can see where this argument is heading. They can see that he is now going to make a connection to their eating food in the pagan temples and that this is not just something extra that happens but is actually part of the worship of that temple. They can see that Paul is going to make the point that in taking part in that meal, and in that worship, they show their solidarity and even oneness with the god in whose name the sacrifices was being made.

So, Paul knows that they know where he is going. And he anticipates an objection on their part. "But Paul" he can hear them saying, "Don't you agree with us that idols are nothing, and that therefore no "real" worship is taking place?" Paul anticipates this objection, and so takes it up in verse 19. "What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?", asks Paul.

And the answer he gives is a firm, "NO". But then he goes on. "I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons." Now, as a scholar named Hays points out, in saying these things, Paul is actually quoting from the Old Testament, or at the very least, alluding to a passage in Deuteronomy 32:16-17, in the Song of Moses, which reads,

They stirred him [God] to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known...
The interesting thing about this quotation is that the Deuteronomy passage is not talking about what the pagans had done in making sacrifices to their idols, it is referring to the actions of the Israelites who had strayed into sin and into the worship of foreign idols. The Song of Moses describes these events in the history of Israel and says that their worship of idols was, in fact, demon worship. This is Paul's point with the Corinthians then. Yes, it is true, there are no real idols. There is no Apollo or Aphrodite out there. They don't really exist. And so the sacrifices that are made to "them" are not really to "them" because they're not real. But these sacrifices are not, however, empty sacrifices. They are not sacrifices to nothing but are, in fact, sacrifices to demons since demons inhabit and make use of the pagan religious systems for their own purposes to enslave and draw away people. Sure idols aren't real. But demons are. This is the significance of what Paul says in verse 20, "....what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God..." It doesn't matter what the name of the pagan idol is - the point is that these people are attributing power and authority and worship to something that is NOT GOD, something that is OTHER THAN THE TRUE GOD. All such things are idolatry, and as such are the realm of the demonic.

And so Paul writes, "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 table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?"

Paul is saying that the fellowship with the Lord Jesus in the Supper is a real fellowship a real communion with both the Lord, and the Lord's people. Likewise, the fellowship in the idol temple is a real fellowship with the demonic, and with those that are under the dominion of that realm. It is not harmless. It not "no big deal". It is, in fact, a really big deal.

And one of the clearest indicators of how effective this seemingly harmless activity was, is seen in the fact that so many of the Corinthians were so determined not to give it up. What is that but an expression of enslavement and bondage?

This seemingly innocent and harmless activity had really taken quite a hold of a number of the Corinthians. It was leading them away and, in the end, if it was not resisted, would end in destruction. That is what Paul means when he says, "You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons." He doesn't mean that you can't physically, actually, do it. Clearly they could. What Paul means is that you cannot get away with it. You cannot do it unscathed, un-harmed, without consequence. You can no more do these things and remain unaffected than you can stick your hand into a fire and expect not to be burned.

One preacher, summarizing these verses, puts it this way, "What 1st Corinthians 19 is about is the way the Corinthians had overestimated the power of the Lord's Supper as sacramental food, and had underestimated the purpose of the Lord's Supper as spiritual fellowship with Christ. And both their over-estimation of its power to immunize, and the underestimation of its purpose to nourish fellowship with Christ - both of these made them vulnerable to sin. And not only to sin, but to entanglement with demons."

And that vulnerability, that danger - the danger of idolatry and thus the danger of entanglement with the demonic, are very real for God's people in our own day. The Corinthians were not the last people to naively think that they were not involved in the worship of idols. They were not the last Christians to become entangled in their world and culture. They were not the last believers to tell themselves that idols are not real, that demons are not real, and thus these things that some seem to be so concerned about are "harmless" and "normal" and the sensible thing to do. They were not the last people to freely involve themselves in things and then become quite defensive and resistant at the suggestion by other Christians that they are making a big mistake by doing so.

Idolatry is alive and well, friends. The activity of demons in and through such idolatry is all around us. Paul's opening words in this passage, "Flee from idolatry" are words for today. And, again, you may not think of yourself as an idolater. You may not actually frequent pagan temples and partake of sacrificial meals, or feasts and festivals. This may seem like an extremely remote and foreign concept to you. But it isn't. There are all sorts of public, social, culturally accepted practices and situations and attitudes and perspectives that are candidates for these things.

So the first step for us, if we are to follow Paul's injunction to "flee idolatry" is to realize that this is not, for us, an empty command, any more than it was for the Corinthians. The first step is to recognize and acknowledge that for each one of us there is, in fact, something to flee, perhaps many things to flee. We have to actually name and identify those things that have a hold on our hearts, those tables at which we frequently sit, those things that serve, functionally, as substitutes for the Lord Jesus Christ - things upon which we place our ultimate hope, security and which generate our deepest passions - both positively and negatively.

There are all sorts of ways that one might go about doing this sort of thing - identifying what has a hold on us - and none of them are that difficult. Perhaps one of the easiest ways is to ask yourself some questions. Questions like these, posed by one commentator:

1) What is my greatest nightmare? What do I worry about most?
2) What, if I failed to achieve it, or else failed to hang on to it, would cause me to feel that I did not even want to live?
3) What is it that really keeps me going?
4) What do I rely on or comfort myself with when things become hard or difficult? Where is the first place I run?
5) What do I think most easily about? What does my mind go to when I am free? What pre-occupies me?
6) What prayer, if left unanswered the way I wanted it answered, would make me seriously think about turning away from God?
7) What makes me feel the most self-worth? What am I the proudest of?
8) What do I really want and expect out of life? What do I think would really make me happy?
If you spend some time thinking about those questions and what your answers would be, for most people, you will find that lurking in and around, and perhaps underneath the answers to these sorts of questions are some common themes. Some of the same things will pop up over and over again. And whatever those things are, it is a safe bet that associated with them is some form of idolatry, some form of ultimate worth is being attributed to them. Somewhere in the answers to these kinds of questions you will find that there are things that are rivals for the ultimate hope and faith and affection of your heart. Rivals to the Lord Jesus Christ. False gods and hopes and dreams that you are counting on, even more than Christ himself, to fulfill you, to make you whole, to make you complete, to stop the pain. Somewhere in the midst of all that are some Christ-substitutes that you have become entangled in, and at whose feet you worship on a daily basis. Part of responding to Paul's injunction to flee idolatry is admitting that, for you, this is not some moot point but is, in fact, at the heart of who you are as a person.

Another part of responding to this, beyond naming and identifying what your idols are is then resisting them, starving them to death. The value of knowing what they are is that you can more readily recognize the times and places and situations in your life that nourish and encourage the attachment to this thing that has such a hold on you. You can identify where it's air supply is and look for ways to cut off that supply, to starve it to death.

For me, one of my idols is that of approval. For me, it is too often not enough that Christ has approved of me. I have to have the approval of everyone else on the planet. And I will work for it, angle for it, encourage it, make all sorts of sacrifices for this thing which has such a hold on me. And when it comes, I am on top of the world, and when it is not there, life is not worth living. And it is a miserable idol. It is a thankless idol. And no matter how often it happens, it is never enough. There is no hope there, there is no satisfaction there, there is no peace there. There is no rest there.

And sometimes, I see this in myself, and I resist. Sometimes I see it and I refrain from making the comment that will generate some sort of affirmation from others. Sometimes, because I have been able to name it, I can see it coming and how it's so much a part of me that I seem to work on it almost unconsciously. Sometimes I can see it now and so I resist and choose and go another way. And all of that is part of what it means, for me, to flee idolatry.

But in the end, it is not enough. Because try as I might, I still fail miserably. I simply do not have the ability or resources or strength within myself, and by myself, to stop the worship. I cannot deliver myself, I cannot save myself from this. And what I am slowly, clumsily, learning is that, at the end of the day, the only way to extinguish desire is with desire. The only way to defeat false worship is with true worship. The only thing that will replace my affection and devotion to these other things is an affection and devotion to a greater thing - to the greatest thing.

And the strange mystery of sanctification is that it is in the midst of our failure and sin, and recognizing what poor lovers we are, what great idolaters we are - it is in the midst of our recognition of how hopeless we are, and how incapable we are of ultimately doing anything about it - it is in the midst of these things that the Gospel of grace is so powerful.

It is in the midst of these things that we see our Savior, who will not let us go because, in fact, we are not stronger than God - to answer Paul's question. It is as we know again and again the mercy and help that is freely ours in the Lord Jesus that he becomes more and more beautiful, more and more wonderful, more and more awesome, and to be loved and to be feared, and to be worshiped. And that growing recognition of the wonder and beauty and goodness of the Lord becomes the engine that drives our pursuit OF him, and which enables our flight FROM so many idols that threaten to capture our hearts, with a dimmer light, and a lesser beauty, that cannot offer any hope, or respite or peace.

Flee FROM idolatry brothers and sisters. Flee TO Christ.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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