Many people today think that it doesn’t really matter which religion someone chooses. It’s a lifestyle choice, a bit like choosing your diet or your car. It’s part of your culture. Either way, there’s no better or worse to religion. It’s just another way in which we’re different.
Certainly, the Bible tells us to love and respect every person. We don’t just care for those who share our beliefs. We’re one human family, made in the image of God. But that’s not the same as saying that there’s no better or worse, that religion doesn’t matter.
That only works if none of it is real. If the god you worship is just something you’ve made up to help you through life, choose whatever works for you. But if gods actually exist, actually have power, actually make a difference, then you cannot say it doesn’t matter which god you choose. It matters greatly. Success or failure, life or death, heaven or hell could all depend on it.
So we need to know which gods are real, which ones are not, which ones will bless us and which ones will hurt us.
Modern sceptics say that no gods are real.
Many modern Christians say that only the Christian God is real.
Today’s Bible reading says that all gods are real, provided we qualify what we mean. All gods are real, but not all are good. Therefore who we worship is of the utmost importance.
Recap – 1 Corinthians
In order to hear any part of the Bible speak today, we first have to hear what it said to its original hearers.
In this case, 1 Corinthians is a letter from the apostle Paul to the church in ancient Corinth, dated about 55 AD. Paul is replying to a letter they had written him. Chapters 8 to 10 concern a question they’d asked him: Can we Christians eat meat that has first been offered in sacrifice to an idol.
Let me recap the background of this question. Ancient Corinth was full of temples to the various Greek gods. Animals were sacrificed in these temples. Some was eaten in dining rooms attached to the temple, a way for worshippers to share in the sacrifice. Other meat ended up in the market where you could buy to eat at home.
Most of these chapters have been about eating this meat actually within the grounds of the temple. At the very end of this chapter, Paul touches briefly on two other scenarios. Can we buy market meat that started out in a temple? And can we eat in the home of someone who is not a Christian, given we may be served idol meat?
I don’t propose to spend time on those two scenarios. In brief, Paul tells them to live all of life with two priorities: Do whatever brings most glory to God. Don’t do anything that will harm someone else.
But most of this chapter is finishing off the discussion about eating meat in the pagan temples. The Corinthians knew that there is only one God. Paul agrees. Poseidon, Hera and Zeus do not exist. So they conclude: Surely they’re free to eat whatever meat they want.
Paul answers their question in two stages. Firstly, he says, let’s suppose that it’s OK to eat this meat, in and of itself. You still shouldn’t do it. Some Christians don’t get that those Greek gods don’t exist. They are real to them. And if you eat in the Greek temples, they will be encouraged to join you. For them, that would be a disaster.
That’s the first half of his answer. We’re now in chapter 10. It’s time to ask the question: Is it OK to eat this meat, in and of itself? If nobody was watching you. If nobody else would be led astray by you doing it. … Can you eat it?
And his answer is a very clear “no”.
The heart of this chapter comes in verse 14. “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.” That’s the message of 1 Corinthians chapter 10: “Flee from idolatry”. Idolatry is the worship of any god other than the one true God. Other than the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Worship of any other god is something we are to flee from. That’s to say: leg it, peg it, take flight, make tracks, run like lightening, as fast as you can, as far away as you can.
The question is “why?”. If the Greek gods don’t exist, why do they need to get as far away as they can? Get clear on that, we’ll be able to hear what this is saying to us in our own day.
So: Why flee from idolatry? Two reasons. One in the verses before the key verse 14, and one in the verses that follow.
Flee so you don’t miss heaven
First, in the verses before: Flee, so you don’t miss heaven. Flee, so you don’t miss heaven.
Paul tells a story from Israel’s history. The Christians in Corinth weren’t Jews, but our Christian story does not start with Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, the fulfilment of centuries of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. So the Jews of old are our ancestors. Their story is our story.
And he tells the story of how the Israelites left Egypt, where they were slaves. 1447 BC, or thereabouts. God took them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. He led them through the desert on their way to the promised land, miraculously providing food and drink in that barren place.
But then things went wrong. Verse 5: “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them.” That is an understatement. The book of Numbers tells us that 600,000 of them left Egypt. 603,550 to be exact. How many of those entered the promised land? Answer: … Two. The other 603,548 died in the desert. It was their children who got to enter the land, 40 years later.
So what went wrong? Paul tells us of 4 sins that they committed to displease God. Idolatry, verse 7. Sexual immorality, verse 8. Testing Christ, verse 9. Grumbling, verse 10.
You can make the case that those are not separate sins. They’re all linked with the idea of eating food offered to a foreign god. It’s clearest in the first one, idolatry, in verse 7. Moses goes up the mountain to receive the 10 commandments. The people wonder why Moses is gone so long. So they melt their gold jewellery to make a golden calf, and they worship that. Paul doesn’t focus on the calf, or the worship, but on the meal that followed. They “sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”
The reason why 603,548 Israelites died in the desert was because they worshipped other gods, and ate their food. Even though those gods don’t really exist. God was not pleased with them.
Now remember that their story is our story. Verse 11: These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.
We’re in the same position they were. They passed through the red sea, just as we were baptised. God fed and watered them, just as Christians are sustained by bread and wine to remember Jesus’ death. And they were on the way to the promised land, just as we are on our way to heaven.
But they never got there. Just as we … , well you get the point.
You can be baptised, receive Communion regularly, become a Christian, join a church and still not make it to heaven.
One thing many people don’t understand is that getting to heaven is a gift. You don’t have to be good to get there. In fact, you can do the most awful things and still get there. Jesus died so that bad people go to heaven.
But it is a gift that you can refuse. You can throw it back in God’s face. And that’s where worshipping other gods is so dangerous. It’s not that you become too bad for heaven. Jesus’ death can deal with the worst things any of us can do. But if we choose to worship different gods, we’re rejecting God’s love and kindness. And God won’t force us to accept him. He lets us walk away from him. He lets us walk away from heaven.
Why flee from idolatry? Flee, so you don’t miss heaven.
Flee so you don’t worship demons
Second, in verses 15-22: Flee, so you don’t worship demons. Flee, so you don’t worship demons.
Paul talks about two sacrificial meals that the Corinthian Christians would be familiar with.
First, he talks about the Lord’s Supper, the simple meal of bread and wine by which Jesus asks us to remember him. Then he talks about the sacrifices that took place in the temple in Jerusalem.
In both cases, there was a meal following the sacrifice. In the case of Jesus’ death, it was a one-off sacrifice that never needs repeating. Every week, as Christians break bread and share a cup of wine, they’re having the meal that follows Jesus’ sacrifice once for all. In the temple, the sacrifices took place each day, and each one was followed by a meal.
Paul’s point was that in each case, the people who ate the meal took part in the sacrifice. They were at a meal at which God himself was the host. They expressed the fact that they were beneficiaries of the sacrifice by eating and drinking.
If that’s how it worked at the Lord’s Supper, Communion. If that’s how it worked at the Jewish sacrifices in Jerusalem. Presumably that’s also how it worked at the pagan temples of ancient Greece. If you eat the meal after the sacrifice, you’re benefitting from the offering, fellowshipping with the god.
But what god? “Are you now saying, Paul, that those Greek gods do exist after all?”
No, he says. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no spiritual reality behind them. Verse 19: “Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.”
There’s only one God, but there are other spiritual, supernatural beings. The devil is real. So are the demons, his minions. Their mission is to hurt, harm and cause as much damage as possible. And often they hide in plain sight, pretending to be something quite harmless.
A bottle of deadly nerve agent, made to look like an innocent bottle of perfume.
The 10 year siege on the ancient city of Troy came to an end after the Greek armies pretended to retreat back to the sea. They left behind a giant wooden horse, and tricked the Trojans to take it into their city as a victory trophy. Hidden inside were 30 or 40 crack troops, who were able to let the rest of the army into the city. Something so harmless as a wooden horse. Something so sinister lurking inside.
Behind the non-existent gods of Hermes and Aphrodite lurk something that is real, demons.
So, says Paul, if you eat that sacrificial meal, you’re fellowshipping with something, and you’re benefitting from something. It cannot be the fake gods that you see. It must be the demons that lurk behind them.
Reason 2 why you flee from idolatry: So you don’t worship demons.
For the Corinthians, here was the second half of Paul’s answer. “Can we eat the meat in pagan temples?” Answer: “No. Even if it was alright, in and of itself, you might cause a fellow Christian to trip up. But it’s not alright in and of itself. If you eat that food, you’re deliberately being disloyal to the God who’s rescued you. Throw his kindness back like that, and you might miss heaven. And you’re actually getting involved in the worship of demons, eating their food, sharing in their meals. So: No!”
Now we’re heard what this said to them, we can put ourselves in their shoes. It’s not hard to find what it’s saying to us.
It means that we Christians must not worship other gods as well.
Put like that, you might be wondering who could possibly do this. But it’s easier than you might think.
In some circles, there’s a move for interfaith relations to move towards multifaith worship. But if we take this chapter seriously, we cannot have services in church at which there are also prayers to Allah. 18 months ago, Gloucester Cathedral hosted the Islamic call to prayer. About the same time, the cathedral in Edinburgh included a reading from the Koran. That reading included these words that explicitly deny that Jesus is the Son of God: “It befitteth not the Majesty of Allah that He should take unto Himself a son.”
Some churches have been hosting meals in the church building for their Islamic neighbours to make the end of their month of fasting. Again, we want hospitality. But not worship. And those meals are a re-echoing of parts of Mohammed’s life. Shared religious meals, where’s the harm in that? Well Paul’s just told us.
Maybe you’re a school teacher, and you take a trip to a Gurdwara. Or you go on such a trip as a pupil. Again, nothing wrong with education. Nothing wrong with respect. Just make sure that you don’t also join in their worship.
You go on holiday to Thailand. Enjoy looking at the beautiful temples. Show great respect as you do. But don’t burn any incense.
There are other religious practices in England that may not be the part of any established religion. And many Christians think they’re harmless fun at best, harmlessly annoying at worst.
This chapter warns us to have nothing to do with the New Age movement. With Druidism. And with Spiritualism. Where’s the harm in trying to contact the dead, foretell the future, a palm reading, or some tarot cards? There are regular events like this advertised at a pub in Otford.
Some people tell you to avoid such practices because they don’t work – they’re a fraud. Doubtless, much of it is fraudulent. The Bible explicitly forbids all such attempts to contact the dead or to read the future. Why? Because it can work. There is something in it. And it isn’t God. Behind a bit of harmless fun in the backroom of a pub, demons are at work. Lurking behind what appears to be harmless.
Flee from idolatry. It’s a message that we modern Christians need just as much as the Christians in ancient Corinth.
If that’s the message of this chapter for the Christian, it’s exactly the same for anyone today who’s not yet a Christian. It’s tempting to see all religions as neutral. Just a choice you have to make. Or not.
But they’re not. There’s only one God, and that’s the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are other so-called gods, but they’re actually not nothing at all.
If you’re still trying to work out which basket to put your eggs in, this chapter would urge you: Flee from idolatry. Come instead to the Lord Jesus Christ. Come and share in the benefits of his sacrifice of himself. He died once for all, so that we can have a certain place in heaven at the end of our lives. He invites us all to follow him, to know this wonderful security. But to do that, he calls us to leave behind all the alternatives. To flee from them. To come to him.
God is good.
The Corinthians were all about living out their rights. If they had a right to eat in a pagan temple, nobody was going to stop them.
The more we’re gripped by the fact that God is good, the more we’ll do better than that.
We’ll be able to flee from idolatry. We’ll be able to love the Lord our God, and serve only him.
We’ll be able to love our neighbours as ourselves, rather than just doing what we fancy.