1 Corinthians 10:1-22
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? 
The Apostle Paul packs so much scripture, theology, imagery, allegory, and analogy into his letter to the Corinthians that it is easy to concentrate on the particulars and forget that the section we are in is nothing more than a giant food fight. The Carnivores for Christ were angry over Paul’s previous letter telling them to stop going to T-bone steak night at the Apollo temple. They accused Paul of being inconsistent because sometimes he ate meat, and sometimes he joined with the Victorious Vegetarians in refraining from meat. So, as we saw last week, Paul explained that his mission was to immerse himself into the subcultures of the city to understand each person’s hopes, fears, longings, and questions, that he might more effectively lead people into sharing his salvation in Christ.
Even though we have noted that Paul devotes almost four chapters to this giant food fight, our text this morning shows us the heart sin underneath the food fight: idolatry. In this passage, Paul outlines the history of humanity as a history of idolatry. He defines idolatry in Romans 1:25 as that which we worship and serve other than God. We were created to worship and serve God and neighbor. But Adam’s sin fractured both of those relationships and created in all of us a driving need to replace our vertical relationship in favor of horizontal relationships with people or things. Idols are anything more fundamental than God to which we look for our happiness, meaning, and identity. They can be inordinate desires for even good things such as material possessions, a career, family, marriage, achievement, work, independence, political causes, financial security, human approval, romance.
All of these things are good in and of themselves. But our sin nature takes these created things and turns them into ultimate things, falsely believing them to be the key to ultimate contentment and joy. When we buy off on the lie that created things are ultimate things, then we have created functional saviors that will never deliver what they promise. Most people believe that once their hearts have captured these things, then finally their lives will be much happier. Idolatry is the reason human beings ever do anything wrong. It is the shaping power underneath every natural human impulse and behavior. It is the natural motivational cause for why there is any desire to do anything.
The Apostle John summed up heart idolatry with a triad: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (the lust for approval and possessions). When John wrote of lust, he didn’t simply mean sexual lust. When the Bible uses that word, it actually means an over-desire or inordinate desire for something. “Destructive thoughts, ideas, and actions are not merely horizontal; they are connected vertically to a relationship that all humans have either with an uber desire erected in their hearts, or with God. It is at the same time operating horizontally and vertically; therefore, [our behavior] will reveal what the human heart is trusting and worshiping at that particular time.” Three things stand out in our passage: remembering idolatry, experiencing idolatry, and escaping idolatry.
BRIEF HISTORY OF IDOLATRY (1-10, 18-22)
In verses 1-10 and 18-22, Paul briefly recounts the history of the Israelites to show the Corinthians their own history. In both cases, these are only two examples of a common human experience: idolatry. Both histories speak of people delivered by God (vv. 1-2). The Israelites were delivered from Egypt, the Corinthians from sin and death. Both peoples we’re sustained by God (vv. 3-4). The Israelites were sustained by spiritual and literal food and drink. The Corinthians were sustained by spiritual food and drink in the Lord’s Supper and by the fact of their baptism. Both histories tell other people who, despite their deliverance and sustenance, were drawn to worship functional saviors that were not God.
The text speaks primarily about God’s judgment and correction in the lives of his people. Scripture condemns idolatry in the entire world, but particularly condemns it in the lives of God’s people. This text does not deal with instruction aimed at the whole world, but those inside the gospel community. One of the things that skeptics and pre-believers find so off putting about Christianity is hypocrisy, people not living up to their own standards. Scripture soundly rejects and condemns hypocrisy. Both Israel and the congregation of Corinth claimed to trust God alone but participated in the worship of other non-gods. In verse 5, Paul shows that despite God’s provisions and providence, Israel responded in ways that angered God.
Verses 7-10 give several examples. In verse 7, Paul refers to Israel worshiping the golden calf at the same time Moses was receiving the law of God. He writes, “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.” Paul quotes from Exodus 32:6. What the Israelites do seems rather ordinary to the surrounding cultures. They collect and melt down all their gold because they wanted a visible representation of God. The thundering volcano right in front of them just wasn’t doing it for them. They wanted a tame and more controllable image. So, they held an orgy with their new idol. The word “play” is a biblical euphemism for sex.
Their actions themselves were not their only sins. Their actions evidenced a twisted desire for a “little g” god other than the one who had rescued them from Egypt. They wanted a god who would do their bidding in their way. The word “idolatry” comes from two Latin words, one meaning image or icon, and the other meaning to serve. The word describes “image worship.” The impulse to worship is healthy. Humans were created to worship. The problem is that idolatrous worship fixates us on an icon instead of the one true God. Even as God was dictating the first commandment to Moses, the Israelites were already breaking it!
God knows what we only occasionally glimpse: that idolatry is a dead end. Idols always demand we sacrifice to them, and they never deliver what they promise despite whatever or whoever we sacrifice. God acts against it by calling us to repent. We see that in Paul’s second example in verse 8, where Israel began to worship Baal Peor. “8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” Paul refers to Numbers 25, when Israelites intermarried with pagans. The deepest desires of the heart always show up in our most ordinary aspects of life, such as marriage, sex, and food – as Numbers 25 shows:
While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. 2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.
By following their own felt needs, the Israelites ended up joining themselves with another (false) god. And from their point of view, this was all perfectly ordinary. People of different religions marry all the time and accept one another’s gods. But the one true God demanded undivided allegiance from his redeemed people. The result of their idolatry was a plague that killed 24,000 before the people repented and God relented.
Paul’s third example comes in verses 9-10, “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.” In Numbers 21:4-9, the Israelites rejected God’s provision and providence, complaining about their manna, quail, and water diet. God reminded them who was in charge by sending snakes into their camp. But he also gave them a means of escape. They had stopped trusting him, so he sent a trial into their lives to show them that trust into him was their only means of escape.
Like the Israelites, the Corinthian idolatry dealt with ordinary stuff (eating food sacrificed to idols in Pagan temples). In their culture, Pagan temples functioned as central, communal gathering places. Temple courtyards had long large tables for regular feasting. There was nothing out of the ordinary in showing up for a brief sacrificial ceremony and then joining friends, family, and neighbors for a nice meal afterwards. Sure, there were some devoted believers who truly worshipped Apollo. The priests did their thing and the mostly-indifferent crowd showed up for food, drinks, and visiting. It was as ordinary as Friday night football in Texas.
In his previous letter, Paul told them to stop going to the temple orgies. The Carnivores for Christ pushed back in the church’s letter to Paul. They argued that their Christian spirituality and knowledge made them invulnerable to non-existent idols, so they were free to chow down on Apollo temple T-bones. Paul gives several reasons for commanding them to stop this practice. First, our desires and affections are shaped by the way we live our everyday lives. Our ordinary lives are shaped by our personal liturgy, our order of worship. Our desires are shaped by the habit-forming practices we do daily. That is not a neutral fact. Paul says that our actions shape us. The Corinthians acceptance of and participation in the temple orgies made them susceptible and less-than-suspicious about the dangerous effects of idolatry.
Second, Paul writes there are spiritual realities at work that man simply cannot fully comprehend. It’s true that the idols in the temple had no substance, but there is a spiritual, idolatrous, shaping force that stands behind them. Paul says it is contradictory to simultaneously participate in the system of the old-world (demonic) order and the new creational world order of the gospel. “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?”
Paul’s answer is full of feasting imagery. Note Israel’s golden calf feast and orgy. Contrast Israel’s feasting in their Exodus 24 feast before God with their Exodus 32 feast with the golden calf. The feast is a participation in the sacrificial altar. We can either participate in the cup of the Lord or the cup of demons. The Corinthians underappreciated the danger of participating in idol worship and overappreciated the value of their sacraments (baptism, the Lord supper) as magical talismans that would prevent them from diabolical harm. How were they to flee idolatry? Fleeing idolatry is running to Jesus at his table. Adam feasted upon the tree of judgment in Eden. Jesus hung upon the tree of judgment at Calvary. His tree of judgment became our tree of life, setting us free from slavery to sin and death. John the revelator pictures the world as either feasting with the Whore of Babylon or feasting with the lamb at his great marriage supper (Rev. 17; 19).
What do these histories of feasting and fellowshipping have to do with us?
EXPERIENCING IDOLATRY (11-12)
Paul writes in verses 11-12, “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.”
As we saw earlier, idolatry happens on the level of our desire. In verse 6, Paul wrote that the Israelites examples of idolatry took place so that “we might not desire evil as they did.” Paul is trying to give us a larger framework for understanding how we can make wise choices in all the little decisions that are part of the mundane things in our lives. Idolatry happens in ordinary life. It’s tempting for us to misread this text by not seeing ourselves in it. We can think that idols are merely images of fables and fairy tales that had nothing to do with us. Or we can ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and reveal to us all of our functional saviors over which we need to repent.
If we read both the old and new covenant carefully, we come to understand that idolatry is nothing like the crude, simplistic picture that springs to mind of some sculpture in a distant country. It’s the main biblical category used to describe unbelief. As such, idolatry is highly sophisticated. It draws together the complexities of motivation in individual psychology, the social environment, and also the unseen realm. Idols exist in the most well-educated of human hearts and minds. Idolatry does not exist on the fringes of life, it is found center stage.
Idolatry happens beneath the level of action. It happens on the level of appetite and desire. It shows itself in the subtle twists of ordinary desires in activities like eating, drinking, playing, marrying, and sex. The activities and desires are not always ends in and of themselves, but are means to another end (personal fulfillment, comfort, security, power, control, etc.). These are the underlying heart sins reflected by our actions. Whenever we take a created thing and use it to fulfill a felt need or desire that only the creator can ultimately fulfill, we are serving idols. When we use any ordinary thing to fulfill our deep desires, we are engaging in idolatry. Idolatry ultimately spoils life because we do not have the ability to genuinely enjoy things for what they really are.
Idolatry is in the air we breathe, and it’s rarely obvious. Most of us don’t know it’s happening most of the time. None of us good church people would ever be caught saying, “I want this instead of Christ.” At best, we might admit “I want this plus Christ.” To get to our heart idols, we have to step back and consider how our desires shape our life. What things drive us to act the way we do? What desires lie behind the way we relate to our spouse, our children, our neighbors? What do we daydream about? What do we fantasize about? What do we long for? Toward what is our affection pulling us? Answering those questions will help us peel back the onion layers of idolatry in our own hearts and show us upon what we’re really feasting.
What are WE feasting on? When you tell yourself “If I just had _____, then I would be happy,” you are partying with demons. Feasting is a covenant ratification ceremony. You are either ratifying the Covenant of Works which you have already broken so it cannot save you. Or you are feasting and renewing your commitment to the Covenant of Grace that says to you, “Jesus paid it all!” Jesus drank the sour wine of the cup of the wrath of God. He drank it to the dregs so that you could drink “the cup of blessing that we bless” (v.16).
Tragically, idolatry always leads to living a double life. The Corinthians deepest desire was to find a way to serve Christ and still remain acceptable in the public square. They wanted the benefits of the new created order while still participating in the old, created order. They didn’t want to do anything that would stand out and earn them horizontal disapproval. So, they enslaved themselves to two different versions of identity. They were leading double lives. Idolatry is not really a choice between two gods. It is the attempt to serve multiple gods at the same time. Idolatry is syncretism – the adoption of multiple gods. Or, put another way, idolatry is adultery.
Idolatry is insidious, ordinary, mundane, subtle, and almost normal. We have many functional saviors besides God. We are constantly giving ourselves over to our desires. But Paul says what is normal to us is actually drinking a sacramental cup with the demonic realm. As a result, we find ourselves living double lives. We lack purity of heart and intention. We are double-minded with divided hearts that only partially seek our meaning in our vertical relationship with God in Christ Jesus. Or text shows us that we can be people whose lives are somewhat shaped by the gospel, who participate in Christ when we symbolically eat his body and drink his blood at the Lord’s supper and participate in the liturgy and life of the church. Yet when we are bound to idols, we are still worshipping other gods. At any given time when we are seeking ultimate meaning from more functional saviors, we are cheating on God. Paul warns us to be watchful or we will fall. So how do we escape the grasp of the idols we have created?
Fortunately, we have a God who meets us in the ordinary. In Christ, God entered into the fullness of ordinary life. The true God, unlike our invented idols, actually understands our desires because he experienced in for himself. He wrestled with everything humans wrestle with, and yet was without sin. He never gave himself over to any kind of idle. It is because of Christ Jesus that God continues to meet us in the ordinary. We participate in Christ when we participate in the ordinary means of grace: the word preached, prayed, sung, and portrayed in the Lord’s Supper and baptism. “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.”
It’s no mistake that God makes the sacraments ordinary, physical signs and seals. He feeds us. The true God meets us at the level of desire. He understands our weaknesses and our need for rescue. “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.” God has provided the way of escape. Just as he brought discipline upon Israel and provided a way out through repentance, he does so for us. The one true God overcomes our adultery with his fidelity. We are faithless, but he is faithful. Our trust can never be in our own faithfulness to Christ, but always and only in his faithfulness to us. We drink from the rock that is Christ (v.4).
Every day, God extends himself to his people in the gospel message. He never changes the terms. He still gives himself to us in the Lord Supper. And he will never call a halt to his self-offering. Our means of escape is the Holy Spirit convicting us of our idolatry in granting us repentance – the Christian two-step: trust and repentance. The gospel is a once-for-all declaration of grace that is free, free, free, free! Jesus meets us in our ordinary life. He meets us on the level of our desire, and he shows us his faithfulness even when we are adulterous. Flee idolatry and cling to Christ who clings to us.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 10:1–22.
 Um, 179-180. Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Nu 25:1–3.
 Um, 183.