Text: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. 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.
Observe Israel after the flesh: 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?
Last week we talked about the doctrine of communion and how it relates to the worship of Jesus and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This week we return to that topic, but we will now look at the Lord’s Supper as it is contrasted against the worship of idols and the participation in their sacrifices. You see, the Apostle Paul lays down an antithesis. You can either commune with Christ, by partaking of His meal and worship, or you can commune with demons, by partaking of their meals and worship. You cannot do both.
The argument here is rather straightforward. The first point is that religious meals— consecrated food in the context of worship— create a bond of unity and communion between all those eating and their deity. This was the subject of our sermon last week, and we’ll only briefly go over it again this week. The second point is an answer to an objection. Paul’s critics have said, “Idols are nothing.” Paul answers that this is true. Idols do not exist. But there’s more to the story that this. Even though the idol doesn’t exist, other religions are actually demonic, and demons are present at their worship. Thus, the third point, Christians cannot participate in the worship services of other religions and this means that they cannot eat idol-food.
The big idea is quite simple: You cannot commune with Jesus and with demons. You have to pick. Thus, Christians must stay away from demonic religious festivals.
To understand the first point, we need to understand “communion.” In the Greek the word is koinonia. It means a sort of sharing or partnership between multiple people where they are identified with one another in a real way. In the verses we just read, the term koinonia appears four times, twice in vs. 16, once in vs. 18, and then once in vs. 20.
This is important because it shows how Paul is setting the Lord’s Supper as both a parallel and a contrast to rival religious feasts. Listen to the verses:
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?
Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers [communicants] of the altar?
…the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship [communion]with demons.
The Lord’s Supper is paralleled with OT Judaism and pagan feasts. It “works” in a similar way. All three involved a presence of the people with their God/god. There is a “real presence,” as we might say. Though, we should notice what sort of real presence it is. The presence is in the activity, the eating. When the people eat together at these meals, they eat with and in the presence of the deity. And so it matters which deity it is!
We also learn from this that the worship or the liturgy forms the people. It brings them together and puts them into contact with a spiritual power that will change them. Are we expecting this from worship here, today? What is our worship is forming?
Demons are Present at False Worship
For the second point, Paul has to answer an objection. Why should he or anyone else be worried about spiritual powers at the idol festivals? After all, idols aren’t real. They are nothing. Right?
Paul interacts with this argument in vs. 19, “What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything?” No, actually, Paul does not believe that an idol is anything. He already stated, in chapter 8, that “an idol is nothing” (1 Cor. 8:4). He doesn’t believe that they exist. Zeus is not real. Apollo is not real. Serapis is not real. The same is true, by the way, for Oden, Thor, Krishna, the Great Spirit in the Sky, and all of the other “gods” out there. They are not real. They do not exist. They are nothing.
But that’s not quite all. Paul says that the idols are nothing, but “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Cor. 10:20). Did you catch that? Even though the idols are fake, and the false gods don’t exist, there is still a spiritual danger at the pagan religious ceremonies. Demons are present there. Demons have taken the opportunity to cast spiritual influence over the worshipers, and the sacrifices are being made to demons.
Now this might strike us as a bit harsh. Are we really saying that all other religions are demonic? Well, actually yes. That is what we are saying. There is only one true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6). And all of the various rival gods are imposters, being fronts for demons.
Moses teaches this in Deut. 32:
They provoked Him to jealousy with foreign gods;
With abominations they provoked Him to anger.
They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
To gods they did not know,
To new gods, new arrivals
That your fathers did not fear.
Of the Rock who begot you, you are unmindful,
And have forgotten the God who fathered you. (Deut. 32:16-18)
Psalm 106 repeats same message:
They served their idols,
Which became a snare to them.
They even sacrificed their sons
And their daughters to demons (Ps. 106:36-37)
Both of these Old Testament passages are talking about what Israel did in the Wilderness, after coming out of Egypt. They worshipped idols and sacrificed to demons. But when exactly did that happen? Did the Israelites think they were worshiping demons?
No. Israel worshiped the gods of the nations around them. They worshipped a golden calf. They worshiped Baal. They worshiped Ashtoreth. But the Bible says that they were actually worshipping demons.
This does not mean that we have to be jerks towards members of other religions. We do not have to deny that they have any truth. All world religions have parts of the truth. That’s what makes them so powerful. But they grasp one part of the truth and turn it and exaggerate it, neglecting other parts. They detract glory from the true God and attempt to give it to false gods, to created things. And when this happens, demons move in to take that glory for themselves.
We also do not need to be prideful. We do not need to demean members of other religions simply as a form of prejudice or competition– just because they are “not like us.” However, if we truly love them and care for their souls, we should tell them the truth. Their gods do not exist, and they are in great danger. They are in the service of demons, and they need to be delivered. The loving thing to do is to lovingly and fearfully speak the truth and point all men to the true God.
Paul’s third point follows directly from this second one, and it is his major application. There can be no mixing of religions. “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” (1 Cor. 10:20-21). This means that there can be no sharing in rival worship or liturgies. Christians should not go to pagan temples. They should not attend idol worship ceremonies. And they should not eat the meat sacrificed to idols.
Notice Paul’s language. You “cannot drink of the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” It isn’t possible, and so there must be a clear and absolute antithesis between the worship of the true and living God and the worship of any competitors. When the kingdom of Christ shows up, as we heard in Matthew 12, the demons are driven away. One kingdom drives out the other. So if Christians then willingly return to fellowship with demons, what they are actually doing is choosing to walk away from the kingdom of Jesus Christ. This is why the divide must be stark. Choose your king. Proclaim your loyalty.
For Paul, in the 1st century, this meant something pretty basic. The Christians in the ancient world should not enter idol temples, they should not attend idol ceremonies, and they should not participate in the religious festivals dedicated to idols. This would even carry over to food that had been knowingly-sacrificed to idols. The food, in itself, wasn’t the problem, and we’ll talk about that next week, but the public association of the food with the idol was the problem. Christians should make a clear divide between themselves and the idol. They should give up the idol-food.
Now, this seems awfully foreign to us today. Little stone or wooden statues inside a temple, with food being offered to them—when will we ever interact with that? But I want you to pause for a minute and ask yourself a question. Why would this have been a temptation for first-century Christians? What made it possible? Why was this a problem?
To really understand this, you have to know that, in the first-century Roman Empire, pagan worship was not actually confined to private gatherings. You didn’t always have to “go inside” a pagan temple to come into contact with an idol or idol-worship. No, sacrifices would be made to various gods and even the emperor himself at routine civic events. At the Coliseum—or even the Olympic Games!—there would be religious ceremonies where incense would be offered up or sacred meat presented. A torch would usually be blazing. There might even be a great big flaming cauldron. In order to avoid “partaking” or “fellowshipping” in these sorts of events, the Christians would have had to have separated themselves from this festivals and rituals.
In addition to social acceptance and prestige, idol-food would also have had an economic connection. In the ancient world meat was much more expensive than it is today. Food sacrificed to idols would have been a simple opportunity to get meat, either at a discounted price or perhaps even free, depending on the occasion. Who would want to pass that up?
In both instances, there would be a natural sort of peer pressure to eat the idol food with everyone else. It would have been naturally pleasing. It would have allowed you to fit in. It would have given you a sort of public standing. To pass it up or abstain would mean that you would have to be a little weird, potentially even insulting to the ordinary citizens. Biblical scholar Wayne Meeks puts it this way, “to go the whole way… to turn from idols to serve the living God… was an act that entailed a profound resocialization, a change of identity and primary allegiance.”
And we have parallel scenarios today.
After all, the Olympics have come back around again. The ancient Olympics were a sporting festival that involved the worship of the Greek and Roman gods. Participants would even swear oaths on the entrails of the sacrificed animals. The modern Olympics are not quite the same thing, and I want to be careful not to overstate the parallel. But, the modern Olympics actually were founded to be a sort of civic religion, and you can easily pick up on this today. There are occasions where they ask the participants to swear oaths, and, as you can imagine, they do not swear on the name of the true God. Other sporting events and civic ceremonies are the same, often praying to multiple gods or some very questionably-defined notion of the American spirit. Can you bring yourself to not go along with this sort of thing, to demur from making oaths on anything other than God and His word, to not place your trust in anything other than God? Or is the social pressure too much? How weird are you willing to be?
Paul concludes with a rhetorical question, “Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?” (1 Cor. 10:22) This should remind you of the 2nd Commandment:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me. (Ex. 20:4-5)
And this is the real reason why mixing the worship of God with the worship of idols is so dangerous. It isn’t only that the demonic powers will have power and influence over you. It is that the true and living God will be provoked to jealousy. His wrath will be incited, and He will pour out His judgment upon those partaking in the idol feasts.
What should we do then? We should “flee from idolatry.” And we should flee to the true God, finding communion with Him through Jesus Christ. We should run to our religious feast and celebration, and we should use our worship and liturgy, to form a true and powerful bond that outshines all others. We should find our fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and we should build our community through His communion. And when we do this, we will not provoke the Lord to jealousy but rather find mercy, for He says, “I show mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Let us pray.