Sermon by Rev C Bouwman on held on Sunday Morning 3 September 2000.
Text: 1 Corinthians 10:14 "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry."
"THE HOLY SPIRIT COMMANDS THE SAINTS OF GOD TO FLEE FROM IDOLATRY."
I Corinthians 8-9:19-23; 10:12-33
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise" Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
By the grace of the Lord, we are scheduled to celebrate the supper of our Lord in two weeksí time. That fact sets before us occasion today to consider what the Lordís supper is all about. What does Christ impress upon us when He tells us to sit at His table? And given what the table is, are any of those whom Christ invites allowed to decline His invitation?
In seeking answers to such like questions I set myself to studying Paulís words to the Corinthians as we read them in I Cor 10. In the process of studying the passage, it became evident to me that Paulís reference to the Lordís supper is not the point of the chapter. So I cannot in this sermon on I Cor 10 speak only of the Lordís supper. Paulís point in the passage is the instruction of our text, the need to "flee from idolatry". Paul supports this instruction by referring to something the Corinthians know is obviously true about the Lordís supper, by referring too to something the Corinthians consider self-evident about Israelís sacrifices in the Old Testament and the Gentiles sacrifices in Corinth. So, as we seek to pick up today the apostleís instruction about the Lordís supper, I need to speak to you about fleeing from idolatry; itís only by listening to this command that we can follow the apostleís instruction in our chapter about the sacrament.
"Flee from idolatry." Paulís reasons for giving this command are plain and simple. Though idols are not real gods, behind them is Satan Ė and he is very real. Paul insists that joining in feasts to the idols implies unity with the Satan behind those idols. Just as eating the bread of the Lordís supper implies unity with ChristÖ. And you cannot be united to Christ and to Satan at the same time.
Of course, our present society does not have the physical idols that Corinth had, nor the temples to the gods that abounded in Corinth. Yet that doesnít mean there is no idolatry in our society. Why (do you think) are Halls of Fame to sportsí heroes called "shrines"? And why is it that people speak about "gods of sport" Ė and the reference is to the top players? Why are the crowds coming to watch a game called "worshipers"? Why is carrying the Olympic Torch touted as being such a privilege? And going to the Olympics later this month such a big thing? Surely it is because sport has become an idolatry in our society?
One hears the same choice of language with regards to music. That religious language is used to describe rock stars (theyíre called "idols") and their fans (theyíre called "worshipers") and the stadium (thatís the "sanctuary") all goes to show that the culture of contemporary music involves idolatry. Paulís instruction to "flee idolatry" is, then, certainly not irrelevant for modern people Ė ourselves included.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
THE HOLY SPIRIT COMMANDS THE SAINTS OF GOD TO FLEE FROM IDOLATRY.
- What Paul means with Ďidolatryí.
- Why one should flee from idolatry.
- How should we then live in this world.
What Paul means with Ďidolatryí
Paulís reference to Ďidolatryí in our text does not arise from nowhere. Instead, in our text the apostle is drawing the conclusion of what heís written in the previous paragraphs of his letter. To understand his instruction, we need to follow his line of thought leading up to our text.
The apostle had received a letter from the Corinthians in which they asked him a number of questions. He wrote a letter in reply; the letter known to us as I Corinthians. I read in chapter 7:1 these words: "Now concerning the things of which you wrote to meÖ," and there follows Paulís answer to their question about marriage. Chapter 8 picks up a second question the Corinthians asked. Thatís why chapter 8 begins with these words: "now concerning things offered to idolsÖ." Whereas the first question, about marriage, took Paul but one chapter to answer, this second question required three chapters. What we have in our text is the conclusion, is the punch line of Paulís answer to the Corinthiansí question about "things offered to idols."
What was the problem in Corinth in relation to idols? The Christians of Corinth had largely grown up as heathens, pagans who worshiped the idols. This idol worship had included participating in idol-meals, ie, sacrificing food to idols (be it garden produce, fruits, cakes, fish, milk products, etc), and then eating that food yourself (together with your family or your guests or your work-mates, as the case may be). By eating the garden produce, the meat, the fish, etc. which theyíd sacrificed to the idols, the pagans of the time expressed their unity with their god; they expressed their devotion to this idol, their dependence on their god.
Those Gentiles of Corinth who had come to faith in Jesus Christ knew well that there was only one God and the idols they used to serve were actually nothing. Nevertheless we can understand that not every new Christian could straight away get out of their minds the doctrines impressed on them from childhood; some of these young Christians, though they knew better in their heads, yet in their hearts continued to associate eating sacrificed food with idolatry. Meanwhile, others in the congregation were farther in their thinking; they insisted that since these idols were nothing the food offered to idols was no different from any other food, and one could eat whatever one wished. Whether an open dispute had broken out in the congregation or not is unsure, but itís clear that there were conflicting thoughts in the congregation on the point. Hence their question to Paul.
In his reply, the apostle makes clear that one needs more than an awareness that the Lord alone is God. For the simple fact of the matter is that not every Christian has the maturity of faith that comes with knowing that the Lord alone is God and the idols are therefore nothing. That is why Paul says in 8:1: "Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies." The conviction that oneís got it right inflates that person like a pair of bellows, but it doesnít help the second brother who doesnít see things the same way. Knowledge needs to be accompanied by love, love for God. The solution to the problem about whether or not one can eat food offered to idols is then simply that one needs love, the love that builds the other up, a love that has its origin in love for God and therefore a genuine concern for the neighbor.
Paul brings this argument to bear on the question of eating food offered to idols. He admits in vs 4 that "an idol" is "nothing", and that "there is no other God but one." But, he continues in vs 7, not everyone is so mature in faith as to be above any fears he used to have about the idols with whom he was raised. The person who had it hammered into him from childhood that the spirits of your diseased ancestors keep spying on you, and hurting you when you do wrong, does not Ėwhen he comes to faith in Jesus Christ- does not overnight shake off those pagan patterns of thought. He may fight against that pattern of thought, but if this young Christian is now invited by his pagan parents to a family functionÖ, and expected to eat food offered to the spirit of his diseased grandfatherÖ - we can understand, brothers and sisters, I think, the conflict of conscience that arises in this young brother. He knows the spirit of his diseased grandfather is not a real god, but his parentsí instruction from childhood still makes him wary of ancestor spiritsÖ. Should he eat that food offered to his ancestor? Heíll want to steer clear of it, not even to associate with that eatingÖ, lest the fight against his childhood fears returnÖ. Or should he give in to encouragements from other celebrants Ėbe they Christians or pagans- who remind him that he believes the idols arenít real gods anyway? Paulís answer: "if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble" (8:13). You see, Paul does not give a rule to the effect that Yes, you must encourage (by word or example) the brother to eat food sacrificed to his diseased ancestor (since the idols donít exist anyway). Nor does Paul give a rule to the effect that No, you must tell the brother (through word and deed) to steer miles clear of such food. Rather, says Paul, you must take into account the brotherís strength and weaknesses. In other words, you need to be driven by love for him; what can he handle?
Paul draws out that pattern of self-denial-for-the-benefit-of-the-other in chapter 9. Paul writes that he didnít take along a wife on his mission travels. Why not? He writes that he didnít insist that the congregations of young Christians pay him some sort of support. Why not? Why instead did he support himself by his trade in tent making? Simple: Paul denied himself certain privileges because he wanted to place no obstacles on the path of another personís service to God. That is self-denial for the sake of the brother. So, 9:20,
"to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win the Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law so that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without lawÖ, that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some."
Anything, if possible become all things to all people, if that will prevent placing obstacles before others in their service to the Christ. If eating food sacrifices to idols will hinder a weak brotherís growth in the Lord, Paul will become weak like that weak brother in order to help that weak brother Ė and that means concretely that heíll abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols.
Having said that, Paul moves on in chap 10 to remind the Corinthians not to be too cocky. Apparently some of the saints of Corinth felt that they were so strong in the Lordís service that theyíd never stumble or fallÖ, and thatís why they felt free to eat foods sacrificed to idols; they were above giving an honor to these idols. With reference to how Israel in the Old Testament stumbled and fell into the sin of idolatry, the apostle tells the Corinthians not to be brazen about themselves. Vs 12: "therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall." That is: Israelís example should show the Corinthians (and us!) that no one is above falling into sin. So, steer clear of the idols, steer clear of the idol feasts. You may think youíre so strong, you may think youíre not like the weak brother whoís afraid heíll come under the grip of his heathen upbringing again if he eats meat sacrificed to the spirit of his diseased grandfather, but Ėsays Paul- youíre not above it. Take to heart the example of Israel and learn!
That, brothers and sisters, leads to the words of our text itself: "therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." What the idolatry is from which the Corinthians were to flee? Straight-out service of other gods? No, beloved, Paulís point is more specific. Those saints of Corinth knew the idols were not true gods, and they werenít about to fall down before them in worship either. But the idolatry all around the saints of Corinth meant that from time to time these Christians were invited to feasts dedicated to these gods Ė be it birthday parties or family anniversaries or weddings, or possibly work-related functions. And here was the big question: how should they act in the face of such invitations? Should they consider themselves strong, above the temptation of falling as Israel did? True, "God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able." In fact, "with the temptation [God] will also make the way of escape" (vs 13). But whatís the way of escape God provides? This, that you carry out the responsibilities God has laid on you, and that means specifically that you "flee" from the temptation, "flee from idolatry"!
See there, brothers and sisters, Paulís answer to the question of the Corinthians "concerning things offered to idols." His answer is: "flee from idolatry." And really, we find it somewhat of a surprising answer. For Paul is categorical; "flee from idolatry." We feel itís a bit too categoricalÖ. Surely, we feel, I may join in a feast to idols and eat food sacrificed to idols if Iím convinced that the idols arenít real anyway, if Iím sure Iím strong enough not to fall under the bondage of these idols of my youthÖ. If Iím weak, OK, I should steer away from the idol feasts, but if Iím strongÖ. And if my participating is going to cause another to stumble, OK, then I should think again tooÖ. But in principle, if God gives me strength to know that the idols arenít real anyway, and I cause no weaker person to stumbleÖ, surely I can accept that invitationÖ. Then we see the lesson for ourselves as this: as long I realize that sportsí figures arenít gods and I donít give them any adoration, Iím free to attend the games. Unless, of course, my attendance makes a weaker brother stumble, for then I should refrain out of love for the weaker brotherÖ.
But No, brothers and sisters, Paul is categorical. The Corinthians want advice "concerning things offered to idols." And Paulís advice is absolute: "flee from idolatry." We want to know why Paul tells the saints of Corinth to flee from all idolatry altogether. This leads us to our second point:
Why one should flee from idolatry
What, congregation, is so evil about idolatry? So youíre sincere in the service of your God and Savior, and you know that the idols you were brought up with are empty, not real. Now your family members Ėtheyíre still pagan- invite you to Dadís and Momís anniversary celebration and you know that at the feast youíll have to eat foods the family has sacrificed to the spirit of your diseased grandfather. What should you do? Accept the invitation? Paul in chap 10:15ff asks attention for a matter self-evident to the people of Corinth. The question is this: when the family eats food sacrificed to the spirit of an idol, what are they saying by eating it? And when they see you eating that food, what do they think youíre saying by eating it?
Here the apostle Paul brings in two examples to press home his point. The first example is the Lordís supper (vss 16f), and the second is the sacrifices Israel ate in the tabernacle of the Old Testament (vs 18).
The first example is the most elaborate. Says Paul:
"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread."
Paul speaks here about "communion of the blood of Christ" and "communion of the body of Christ." The "blood of Christ" and the "body of Christ" are obvious references to Christ-in-His-Self-emptying-on-the-cross, Christ in His work as sacrifice for sin. So the Lordís supper speaks about the deeds of redemption accomplished on the cross. Yet the Christ did not just die on the cross long ago, and then cease to exist; rather, the Christ who sacrificed Himself long ago arose from the dead and is today the Savior of the world. Indeed, this Christ instructs sinners to sit at table with Him and He gives them "the blood of Christ" to drink and "the body of Christ" to eat. Thatís to say: the risen Christ uses bread and wine as the means by which He binds particular sinners to Himself, for they eat His bread, His body.
That, of course, is what makes the Lordís supper so rich for us. This meal is much more than a meal-of-remembrance, an opportunity to recall what Jesus Christ did for us so long ago. When we, the Lord willing, receive in two weeks time the bread as symbol of the "body of Christ" and the wine as symbol of the "blood of Christ", we receive nothing less than the assurance from Jesus Christ Himself that He makes us one with Him, that He binds us to Himself, that the blood He shed on the cross was blood shed for us, and that the body broken on the cross was broken for us. The Lordís supper celebration spells out the inseparable unity that God in Christ has placed between Himself and us.
Itís in that light that the command to attend the table gets its depth, its wealth. In chap 11, Paul quotes the words Jesus spoke when He instituted the supper of the Lord. Vs 24: Jesus said of the bread, "Take, eat," and He said of the cup (vs 25), "This do." These are imperatives, these are commands Ė"take", "eat", "do"- and we well to realize that the Lordís commands are not to disobeyed; disobedience is rebellion, insubordination against the King. When He invites, I must attend; when He wants to spell out the unity He has placed between Himself and us, I have no option but to obey and to have that unity impressed upon me. By disobeying I break the unity Christ obtained for me on the cross! And God does not take that lightly; this is sin from which I need to repent.
The unity expressed at the Lordís table, though, is not only the unity between the guest and the host, between the person at the table and Christ. "We, though many," says Paul in vs 17, "are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread." Paulís point is not that together we who sit at the table form one bread, one loaf; rather Paul says that "we all partake of that one bread." And that one bread is, of course, "the body of Christ", ie, Christís body crucified for sinners on Calvary. In other words, those who sit at the table all have a bond to the one Christ who laid down His life for them; theyíre all redeemed from bondage to sin by one Savior. Itís that union with Christ which each participant at the table has which in turn forms an inseparable bond between these participants. Itís a bond not based on emotion, nor on friendship, nor on being agreed on how we do things; it a bond based on Christís work on the cross, a bond which He imposes on each person He invites to His table and therefore a bond He imposes between each person He calls to His table. We realize well that where people have no union with Christ, they canít have true communion with each other. But the flip side is true too, congregation. Where people donít want communion with each other, one cannot really speak of a true communion with Christ either.
Thatís the one reason Paul gives for his command to "flee from idolatry." And if the argument drawn from the Lordís supper isnít convincing, the apostle mentions a second; he asks attention for the sacrifices of the Old Testament Ė vs 18. His argument is the same; "those who eat of the sacrifices [of the Old Testament are] partakers of the altar." That is, thereís a unity between the altar and the eater, between the God who receives the sacrifice from the altar and the Israelite who brings the sacrifice. By eating the sacrifice he offered to God on the altar in the tabernacle, the Israelite was confessing that Godís redemption was for him, that God was not angry with him, that there was a bond, unity, between himself and God.
Why Paul mentions these two examples Ė about the eater at the Lordís table and the eater of the Old Testament? Recall: he wants to demonstrate to the Corinthian believers why they need to make it their business to flee from idolatry. Should the Corinthian saints join in celebrations to the idols because, hey, those idols donít exist anyway? And the Christians are strong enough not to come under the influence of their heathen upbringing? Paul grants that one may be strong enough to resist being swept along by heathen thinking (though he warns against being too cocky Ė the first part of chap 10). But one needs to flee from idolatry Ėwhy?- because everyone understands that eating implies unity. To eat at the table of the Lord is to spell out the unity Christ established between the Christian and the Christ, to spell out the unity too that Christ established between the one Christian and the other; thatís common knowledge. To eat the sacrifice of the Old Testament was also to point up the unity that God placed between the sinner and Himself; thatís common knowledge. And itís the same in the worship of the idols. When you eat food offered to idols, when you participate in the idol feast, you are saying Ėand certainly are seen to be saying- that there is a bond of some sort between you and that idol. You may say itís not the case, there is no bond since idols donít even exist, are not real. But, says Paul, vs 20, behind the idols are the demons, and itís through idols that the demons gather praise for the devil. Thatís a reality the Corinthians need to bear in mind, lest they end up having "fellowship with demons" (vs 20). Why, then, the instruction to "flee from idolatry"? Because, vs 21,
"You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lordís table and of the table of demons."
To participate is to state that there is unity between yourself and the idol Ė and therefore actually between yourself and the demons behind the idols. "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." Flee not just because you may be ensnared again in the heathen teachings of your youth, but flee because any participation in idol worship involves you in a statement, a statement to the effect that there is a bond between you and that idol. And thatís a message a child of God does not want to give.
That leaves us yet our last point:
How should we then live in this world
Here, we understand, is concrete instruction for us when it comes to the gods of our world. What message do we give when we place ourselves in the same crowd as worshipers of sport and sport heroes? Or when we can talk sport as much as those of town going to Sydney this month? What message do we give when we place ourselves in the same crowd as those who go wild in response to a godless rock concert? We may say: those sports figures, those musicians are only people, and weíre there only for entertainment. Maybe so. But the fact of the matter is that youíre seen to join the mindset of the crowd. Besides, here itís true too that demons are so very active, gathering praise not for God but for the evil oneÖ. And Ėvs 22- we dare not "provoke the Lord to jealousy," surelyÖ.
But the concrete reality, for the Corinthians and for us, is that the worship of the gods had spill over effects into all of life. The Christian mothers of Corinth, like the Christian mothers of today, went shopping. And in the markets they bumped into all kinds of evidences of the daysí idolatry. For the mothers of Corinth it meant that much of the meat in the marketplace came from the temple butchers; more animals were offered to the gods than the worshiper could eat, and the leftovers were sold to the public. For the mothers of today it means that with a packet of weetbix you can receive a card with the face and particulars of a known sports figure. What should the mother do Ė leave the meat, leave the weetbix on the shelf? Says Paul in vs 25:
"Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscienceí sake; for Ďthe earth is the Lordís, and all its fullness.í"
In other words: ignore where the meat comes from, for all belongs to God. And donít let a card in a box stop you from buying the weetbix.
But what if somebody specifically says that the meat you have in your trolley comes from the temple butchers? What if the children want the weetbix for the sake of the card? Then the matter is different, for then you may well be placing an obstacle on this other personís path, an obstacle that hinders him from acknowledging that the Lord alone is God. For then your buying it could be interpreted as you saying that thereís a unity between you and the idol, interpreted as you saying that you want the weetbix for the sake of the sports figure on the card inside the box. And that doesnít help the other person in acknowledging that the Lord alone is God. It all boils down to the instruction of vs 31:
"Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God."
That is: whether youíre deciding to eat or not to eat, whether you buy meat or weetbix, whether youíre at a family function where sacrifices are made to a diseased ancestor or at a footy game, do all to the glory of God. And some things, at some places, simply do not give glory to God.
"Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." Amen.
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