Text: 1 Cor. 8:4-13, 10:19-22
Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.
However, there is not in everyone that knowledge…
Where have all the idols gone?
Idolatry is a problem all over in the Bible. Idolatry is the constant pitfall of Israel in the Old Testament. It shows up in a big way at the Golden Calf incident, and then it keeps reappearing all throughout the Wilderness time. Solomon falls back into idolatry and the rest of the kings of Israel do too, bringing ruin about the nation. And it doesn’t go away in the New Testament either. The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 warns against idolatry. Paul gives an extended critique of idols at Mars Hill in Athens. The opening chapter of Romans condemns idolatry. John ends his first epistle with a warning against idols. And we also see an extended discussion of the dangers of idols here in 1 Corinthians.
This problem of idolatry is very easy to understand in the ancient world. You have carved statues that people worship. But it’s a little less obvious today. Where are our idols? We don’t often see literal images that people bow down to. Sometimes, in response to this challenge, Christians will speak of “idols of the heart.” That expression tends to mean anything to which we give inappropriate affection and priority. Your work could become an idol, or your desire to be liked—because you have placed them in a position of utmost importance and make other issues in your life take a backseat to them. Using the word “idol” this way isn’t wrong, but it is something of a step away from the primary meaning. Our hearts do constantly manufacture idols, and we do need to always examine our hearts, but that is actually a little different than the concrete idolatry that the Bible usually talks about, especially in connection with visual representation and public worship. As we will see in our text this morning, idolatry was a specific dangerous, different from other sins, which the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians to carefully avoid.
Answer Two Questions At Once
Last week we talked about 1 Corinthians 8, and I made the argument that Christian liberty is good but must be used in love for the building up of our neighbors. This is definitely one of Paul’s major teachings, and it is the overall framework by which he approaches the problem at Corinth. But there’s a catch here. Paul isn’t only talking about Christian liberty in this section. Paul is actually talking about two things, Christian liberty and idolatry, but they are intertwined throughout. This was probably because the Corinthians had intertwined the issues themselves, and commentators think that some of these verses in chapter 8 are probably quotes from the Corinthians’ earlier letter to which Paul is responding. But it makes things confusing for us today, and we need to look at each one of the problems specifically.
“Things indifferent” is the name we give to those issues which mature Christians can choose to either do or not do and should have no fear of being judged based upon their choice. These include what kinds of food to eat, as well as certain clothing choices or social practices. Anything which has not been forbidden by the Scriptures is potentially open to the Christian, and those parts of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament which have been fulfilled in Christ are also no longer off-limits. Christian liberty is the freedom to possibly do those things but also to perhaps not do them, depending on how their use will affect others. Paul wants us to use our freedom to “build up” our neighbors.
But idolatry exists on another level entirely, and the Christian is not freed to engage in idolatrous practices. This is not only for the sake of the weaker brother, either. Paul does not want any Christians participating in idolatrous worship services, and Paul does believe that idolatry poses an objective danger to everyone. It is a violation of the 2nd Commandment, and it is one of the most serious sins throughout the history of Israel. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). If you think you have reached the point in your Christian walk to where idolatry is no big deal, then you need to check yourself.
Idol Food and εἰδωλοθύτοσ
To better understand the difference between things which do appropriately fall under Christian liberty and idolatry, we need to see the difference between “food” and “idolfood.” The big problem in 1 Cor. 8, and later also 1 Cor. 10, is not simply food. The problem isn’t even about the old Jewish food laws. Paul isn’t warning them about their use of pork or shrimp. No, the problem here is actually very specific. It is food that has been sacrificed to idols.
In the Greek, there is a single compound word which is used. It appears in verses 1, 4, 7, and 10. The word is εἰδωλοθύτοσ, and it means the food that has been sacrificed to idols. But since it’s just one big word, we could come up with a pretty good equivalent by calling it “idolfood.” I think this is important for us to see, because this same idolfood shows up in other places in the New Testament, and those other places it is universally condemned and forbidden. Two examples will do. Acts 15 is where we see the Jerusalem Council. That Council debates whether or not Gentiles need to be circumcised, but it also gives out four rules for all Gentile Christians to be sure to observe. Acts 15:29 says, “we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” Where it says “things polluted by idols,” the Greek uses that single compound word εἰδωλοθύτοσ or “idolfood.” Thus, the problem that Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians is actually something that was specifically forbidden by the Jerusalem Council. We also see εἰδωλοθύτοσ in Revelation 2:20. To the church in Thyatira we read, “Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.” Again, that last word is εἰδωλοθύτοσ or idolfood. The sins of Jezebel are sexual immorality and eating idolfood.
So we can see that “idolfood” is actually much more than a thing indifferent. It’s a big danger. You’ll remember that last week I said 1 Cor. 8-10 is one sustained argument. When we get to 1 Cor. 10, we see that idolatry is the main worry. Paul’s whole point in retelling the Exodus story is to remind us of the danger of idolatry:
Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them… Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall… Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. (1 Cor. 10:6-7, 11-12, 14)
And what is the idolatry that Paul believes the Corinthians are in danger of falling into? It’s the eating of idolfood. That’s why Paul goes on to warn against eating the food from the altar of the idols. Listen to what else he says in chapter 10:
Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He? (1 Cor. 10:18-22)
You see, eating the idolfood is so dangerous that Paul says it is a “fellowship” or “communion” with demons. Eating the idolfood is morally equivalent to idolatry because it requires you to fellowship with demons. Paul says that this sin will provoke the Lord to jealousy, and if we do it, we will fall, just like Israel fell in the wilderness.
So as we said, Paul really has two arguments going on at the same time. The eating of food, in general, falls under Christian liberty, and you should make your decisions based upon how it will affect the people around you. Eating idolfood, however, is always bad, and Paul says that we must not do it.
There’s one more layer to this. Not all food sacrificed to idols is always “idolfood.” This is confusing because of the language, but we will see Paul try to separate it in 1 Cor. 10. Food is idolfood if it involves idolatry on the part of one of the people using it, and that will all depend upon its public associations—do we know that it has been sacrificed to idols, or do other people know and are they telling us about it?—and Paul will get into the ins and outs of that problem later. If the food was once idolfood but isn’t currently being used that way, then it loses its immediate danger and becomes a matter of Christian liberty like other items. But if it is considered to be idolfood, then it is forbidden. Stay away from it. It’s a really big deal, and you cannot use Christian liberty to justify it.
What is Today’s Idolfood?
So this brings us back to our original question. If idolatry is such a big deal in the Bible, where are our idols today? What is the “idolfood” that we need to be on guard against?
This is actually a very tricky question. On the most obvious level, the “idolfood” is the same as it ever was—anything consecrated to a rival deity or used in the worship of a false god. Thus, situations involving world religions like Hinduism, Shintoism, or various forms of pagan worship would be a prime example. Christians are not to intermingle with those things and should not try to “accommodate” such worship.
But as we move past that, it gets much less clear. Jesus has conquered all the old gods, and so it’s hard to imagine them still being around. But, as Paul says, the false gods were never “real” any way. Instead, the powers behind them were demons, and demons, of some form, are still with us, and thus there should be some analogous situations today. How can we identify these?
Our first point is that Paul is talking about public idolatry. It’s true that anything can be an “idol of the heart,” and we do need to watch out for what we give inordinate authority or influence over our lives, but the problem of idolfood in Corinth is more specific than that. It is a sort of ceremonial activity associated with some sort of false god or false savior. You may not believe in the idol, as Paul doesn’t, but if someone else does, then you can’t eat the idolfood around them. It’s explicitly not a problem of private idolatry. If it were only you and the food, then it wouldn’t be the same problem. The sin of eating idolfood is always public.
Since that is the case, the danger here is primarily a liturgical one. This doesn’t mean that it is limited to “official worship services.” Any ritual or ceremonial events that attempt to give us spiritual teaching or call on us to pledge loyalty and service to them would qualify. As Christians, we need to make it clear that our worship is only given to God, the true God. Idolatry is always a sort of polytheism, as well, giving divine attributes or characteristics to created things, and so we need to keep a clear distinction between the Creator and the creature. This should be made clear in our devotional practices.
This means that any sort of worship service which combines different religions would be a forbidden. As Christians, we should not attend interfaith services, and we should also not attend so-called Christian churches which begin incorporating aspects of other religions. This applies to institutions like the National Cathedral in Washington DC. That church was originally an Episcopalian church, but it now routinely combines elements of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions. This also applies to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some of the more fringe Protestant groups which have incorporated exotic and erroneous practices into their worship. We should consider this carefully in the case of weddings and funerals. While it isn’t a sin to attend non-Christian weddings and funerals, you should not attend them if they are actually worship services which would involve idolatry.
Idolatrous practices can also happen in places that are not necessarily churches or temples. Some of the most significant public idolatry of the last 100 years was found in politics, particular nation worship. This is very easy to see with Nazi Germany, as well as the various Communist Countries like the Soviet Union and The People’s Republic of China deified their political leaders and made party-loyalty a matter of life or death. America has managed to resist becoming quite so extreme as those countries, but our own political pageantry can sometimes get too close for comfort. You often hear politicians and political commentators speak of the United States as if we are some sort of savior. Political rallies will often burst forth in extreme emotion and enthusiasm, and something like a religious spirit can take over. There are many government officials and employees who speak of our country as if it were a sort of god, putting all of their hope and trust in it. We need to guard ourselves against this sort of idolatry.
Certain political symbols and rituals need to be looked at critically, as well. The Pledge of Allegiance has a very questionable history, being originally created by a Christian-socialist who held utopian views of politics. The point was to create a sort of absolute loyalty to the country. The fact that a “Christian Flag” was created at about this same time and that it was modeled on the American Flag only makes the situation worse. When those pledges are said together in the same assembly, the message is that they are of equal authority, and that our loyalty to our country and to our God is one and the same. We should have a general loyalty and an appreciation for the good things that our country gives us, but as Christians, we must reserve our absolute loyalty to God alone.
We also see idolatry in humanistic philosophies and self-help, self-improvement trends, and technological movements. Oprah, Joel Osteen, and even Steve Jobs have all blended a sort of mystical-spiritual element to what would otherwise be purely human ideas—how to feel better, how to be successful, or how to have efficient technology. But they push further, suggesting that they are giving you some sort of cosmic or religious benefit, and you can see the religious effects in their followers. The alternative health movement regularly mixes with New Age ideologies, and there is always a need to be on guard against an idolatrous religion.
So, we need to maintain a clear distinction between our religious worship and all other kinds of activities. There’s nothing wrong with having excitement and even “team spirit” around big ideas, but we need to strife to make it clear that they are still only human, and that all creatures must in turn worship the true and living God.
To bring this to a conclusion, I want to walk back just a bit and say that perhaps there is something to that old “idols of the heart” thing, after all. But for this topic, it still needs to be public. Any public activity that would send an intelligible message to others that your faith was not in God but in some other person, place, or thing, could run the risk of “idolfood.” Any failure to be at peace with God’s sovereignty and goodness, so much so that you ran for refuge to something else, could be a sort of public idolatry. So let us fight the allure of idolfood by running to the true God and taking comfort in His refuge.
And if liturgical idolatry is so danger, so much so that it is communing with demons, then how much more powerful and important is the true worship of the living God. Just as we fight idols by running to God, let us fight idol-worship by worshiping God in Christ, and let us make sure to prioritize public worship and our belief in its power. When the church of Jesus worships aright, all of the demons fall.
Let us pray.