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David Guzik :: Study Guide for 1 Corinthians 10

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Idolatry Then and Now

A. Israel’s bad example.

1. (1Cr 10:1-5) Israel in the Exodus: blessed with many spiritual experiences, yet they were disqualified.

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

a. Moreover, brethren: 1 Corinthians 10 carries on the subject introduced in 1 Corinthians 8, and continued in chapter 9: what should the Corinthian Christians think and do in regard to meat which has been sacrificed to idols?

i. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul established two principles. First, an idol really is nothing, and it was fine for Corinthian Christians who understood this to act according to this knowledge, in regard to themselves. Second, for Christians love is more important than knowledge. So even though I may “know” eating meat sacrificed to an idol is all right for myself, if it causes my brother to stumble, I won’t do it, because it isn’t the loving thing to do.

ii. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul showed how important it is for Christians to give up their “rights.” Just as Paul gave up his “right” to be supported by his own preaching of the gospel, so some of the Corinthian Christians must sometimes give up their “right” to eat meat sacrificed to idols, based on the principle of love towards a weaker brother. In the end of chapter 9, Paul showed how a Christian must be willing to give up some things – even “good” things – for the sake of winning the race God has set before us, otherwise we will become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:27) in the competition of the Christian life.

b. I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers: Paul wrote about the need to finish what God has set before us, and how dangerous it is to refuse to give up something that gets in the way of finishing. Now, he will use Israel’s experience in the Exodus from Egypt to illustrate this principle.

c. Think of all the blessings Israel had in the Exodus from Egypt!

i. Our fathers passed through the cloud: The cloud of Shekinah glory overshadowed Israel throughout their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. During the day, the cloud sheltered them from the brutal desert sun, and during the night, it burned as a pillar of fire. It was a constant, ready reminder of God’s glory and presence (Exodus 13:21-22).

ii. All passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses: All Israel came through the Red Sea and saw God’s incredible power in holding up the walls of the sea so they could cross over on dry ground. Then they saw God send the water back to drown the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:21-31). This was not only an amazing demonstration of God’s love and power, but also a picture of baptism – by “passing through water,” all of Israel was identified with Moses, even as by “passing through water,” a Christian is identified with Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-4).

iii. All ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink: All of Israel was sustained by God’s miraculous provision of food and drink during their time in the wilderness (Exodus 16:35 and 17:6). This was a remarkable display of God’s love and power for Israel, and a pre-figuring of the spiritual food and drink we receive at the Lord’s table (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

iv. Israel even had ancient versions of the two Christian sacraments we receive to this day: baptism and communion. The word sacrament was used for the oath of allegiance that the soldiers of the Roman legion took to their emperor. The early Christians considered communion and baptism to be an “oath of allegiance” unto Jesus Christ.

v. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ: Israel even had the presence of Jesus Christ with them in the wilderness! Here, in identifying the Rock that followed them, Paul builds on a rabbinical tradition that said Israel was supplied with water by the same rock all through the wilderness, a rock that followed them. Some Bible scholars today debate as to if the rock followed Israel, or if the water followed Israel (as in a stream). The point is the same: Jesus Christ was present with Israel in the wilderness, providing for their needs miraculously. What blessing, what privilege!

d. But with most of them God was not well pleased: Despite all these blessings and spiritual privileges, the Israelites in the wilderness did not please God. In light of all those blessings, gratitude should have made them more pleasing to God, but they were not.

i. Most of them: This is a hard-hitting understatement. Only two men from the adult generation that left Egypt came into the Promised Land (Joshua and Caleb). Most indeed!

e. For their bodies were scattered in the wilderness: The displeasure of God with the Israelites was evident because they never entered into the Promised Land, but died in the wilderness instead. For all their blessings and spiritual experiences, they never entered into what God really had for them.

f. Paul’s point hits hard: the Corinthian Christians were probably taking all sorts of liberties (like feasting in pagan temples, stumbling their brothers), thinking that they were “safe” because of past blessings and spiritual experiences (especially baptism and communion). So Paul warns them to beware, because just as Israel was blessed and had spiritual experiences, they still perished – and so some of the Corinthian Christians might also!

i. “It seems as if the Corinthians had supposed that their being made partakers of the ordinances of the Gospel, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, would secure their salvation, notwithstanding, they might be found partaking of idolatrous feasts; as long, at least, as they considered an idol to be nothing in the world.” (Clarke)

2. (1Cr 10:6-10) Avoiding Israel’s bad example.

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. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer.

a. Now these things became our examples: We can, and should, learn from Israel’s failure in the wilderness. How did Israel fail?

b. They failed in that they could not say “no” to their desires, and so we must not lust after evil things as they also lusted. The Corinthian Christians who insisted on eating meat sacrificed to idols, even though they led other Christians into sin, just couldn’t say “no.” They said, “the meat is so good” or “it is such a bargain” but they could not say “no” out of love for God and love for a brother.

c. And do not become idolaters as were some of them: Israel failed to keep their focus on God, and they started giving themselves to idolatry (as in Exodus 32:1-6 and Numbers 25:1-3). Some of the Corinthian Christians not only got too close in their association with idols; they also made an idol out of their own “knowledge” and their own “rights.”

d. Nor let us commit sexual immorality as some of them did: Israel, in their idolatry, surrendered to the temptation of sexual immorality. Rose up to play (quoted from Exodus 32:6) is a tasteful way to refer to gross immorality among the people of Israel. We know the Corinthian Christians were having trouble with sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 6:18-20), and the context here suggests it is connected with their selfish desire to please themselves, expressed in insisting on the “right” to eat meat sacrificed to idols.

i. “The verb translated play suggests sex-play in Hebrew... and therefore we are probably to understand drunken orgies.” (Cole, in his commentary on Exodus)

ii. And in one day twenty-three thousand fell: This number presents some difficulty. The quotation from Exodus 32:6 sets the context there, and in Exodus 32:28 tells us about three thousand men of the people fell that day. Perhaps there were more that died which the Scriptures do not record, or there were 20,000 women who died in the aftermath of the golden-calf incident, or some think Paul has jumped ahead to another time when Israel’s sexual immorality during the Exodus brought God’s judgment upon them (Numbers 25:9). In the Numbers passage, we are told that 24,000 died from the judgment of God, but perhaps it was 23,000 who died in one day.

iii. “What a wonderful book is the Bible, written at intervals during a period of fifteen hundred years, when such apparitions of inaccuracy as this must be seized upon to impeach its infallibility!” (Hodge)

e. Nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain: Numbers 21:4-9 describes the incident where, in response to the complaining of the people, God sent fiery serpents among the people. Again, their complaining hearts show them to be self-focused and more concerned with their own desires than God’s glory – the same issues causing trouble with the Corinthian Christians, who will not yield their right to eat meat sacrificed to idols for the sake of another brother.

f. Because of the warning in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5, it seems the Corinthian Christians believed they were “safe” from the danger of being destroyed (as the Israelites were destroyed) because of past spiritual experiences or accomplishments. But Paul’s warning stands: “If it happened to Israel, it can happen to you. Be on guard.”

i. The Corinthian Christians seem to have regarded this issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols and thereby stumbling their brother as a “small” issue. Paul wants them and us to know that it reflects a selfish, self-focused heart, which is the kind of heart God destroyed among the Israelites in the wilderness. It may have been a relatively small symptom, but it was a symptom of a great and dangerous disease.

3. (1Cr 10:11-13) Summary of the lesson from Israel’s history: standing strong against temptation.

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. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.

a. All these things happened to them as examples: Since we are those upon whom the ends of the ages have come, we can and should take warning from the bad example of Israel. We have a greater responsibility, because we can learn from Israel’s mistakes.

b. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall: For the Corinthian Christians to resist the temptation to be selfish and self-focused, they must first understand they are vulnerable. The one who thinks he stands will not stay on guard against temptation, so he may easily fall.

i. Temptation works like rocks in a harbor; when the tide is low, everybody sees the danger and avoids it. But Satan’s strategy in temptation is to raise the tide, and to cover over the dangers of temptation. Then he likes to crash you upon the covered rocks.

ii. “The highest saint under heaven can stand no longer than he depends upon God and continues in the obedience of faith. He that ceases to do so will fall into sin, and get a darkened understanding and a hardened heart.” (Clarke)

c. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man: We often want to excuse our particular tempting circumstances as “very unique” and a “special exception,” but God reminds us that our temptation is not unique. Many other men and women of God have faced the same or similar temptation, and have found the strength in God to overcome the temptation.

i. Others before you have found strength in the Lord to overcome your same temptation – and worse. So, you can be victorious – in the strength of Jesus, not in your own strength. We fight temptation with Jesus’ power, like the girl who explained what she did when Satan came with temptation at the door of her heart: “I send Jesus to answer the door. When Satan sees Jesus, he says, ‘OOPS, sorry, I must have the wrong house.'”

d. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able: God has promised to supervise all temptation that comes at us through the world, the flesh or the devil. He promises to limit it according to our capability to endure it – according to our capability as we rely on Him, not our capability as we rely only on ourselves.

i. Satan would destroy us in a minute if God would let him, even as he wanted to destroy Job (Job 1:6-12) and Peter (Luke 22:31), but God will not let him. Like a mom who keeps her child from the candy aisle in a store, knowing the child couldn’t handle that temptation, God keeps us from things we can’t handle. But what we can and can’t handle changes over the years.

e. With the temptation will also make the way of escape: God has promised to not only limit our temptation, but also to provide a way of escape in tempting times. He will never force us to use the way of escape, but he will make the way of escape available. It’s up to us to take God’s way of escape.

i. The way of escape isn’t the same as mere “relief” from the pressure temptation, which some people find by giving in to the temptation! There is often a wrong way to relieve a temptation, and we will often face the same temptations over and over again until we show Satan and our flesh we are able to bear it.

ii. Barclay says the word for a way of escape is really a mountain pass, with the idea of an army being surrounded by the enemy, and then suddenly seeing an escape route to safety. Like a mountain pass, the way of escape isn’t necessarily an easy way.

f. The way of escape does not lead us to a place where we escape all temptation (that is heaven alone). The way of escape leads us to the place where we may be able to bear it.

i. We are reminded that to be tempted is not sin, but to entertain temptation or surrender to temptation is sin. When we bear temptation, Satan often condemns us for being tempted, but that is condemnation from Satan the Christian does not need to accept.

ii. At a market, a little boy standing by some candy looked like he was going to put some in his pocket and walk out the door. A clerk watched the boy for a long time, and finally spoke to him. “Looks like you’re trying to take some candy,” the clerk said. The boy replied, “You’re wrong, mister. I’m trying not to.” For the time being, he was able to bear it.

B. Back to the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols: what about eating in the restaurant of a pagan temple?

1. (1Cr 10:14) The principle stated: flee from idolatry.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

a. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry: In the original language, there is an article before idolatry, literally saying the idolatry. Paul is specifically referring to the idolatry at the pagan temples.

b. Though the Corinthian Christians may have the liberty to buy meat at the pagan temple butcher shop and prepare it in their own homes, they should flee from idolatry in regards to the restaurant of the pagan temple. Using the example of Israel, and their lapse into idolatry, Paul tells the Corinthian Christians not to participate in the dinners served at the pagan temple.

2. (1Cr 10:15-22) The reason why: what goes on at the pagan temple is not as innocent as it may seem.

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?

a. I speak as to wise men: Since the Corinthian Christians tended to pride themselves on their “wisdom,” Paul challenges them – if they are truly wise – to carefully consider what he says here.

b. The cup of blessing... Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? Paul’s point may seem obscure to us, but it was plain to someone in that ancient culture. Just as the Christian practice of communion speaks of unity and fellowship with Jesus, so these pagan banquets, given in the honor of idols, spoke of unity with demons who took advantage of misdirected worship. To eat at a pagan temple banquet was to have fellowship at the altar of idols.

i. The word partakers is the same word (koinonia) for communion in 1 Corinthians 10:16 and fellowship in 1 Corinthians 10:20.

ii. In the thinking of that part of the ancient world, to eat at the same table with someone indicated friendship and fellowship with that person. Since you ate of one bread, that made you one body, because you both shared of the same food at the same table. So to eat at the table of a pagan temple restaurant was not as innocent as it seemed.

iii. The cup of blessing was the last cup presented in the Passover ceremony; this was the cup that Jesus blessed at the Last Supper, and the one interpreted as “the new covenant in my blood.” When early Christians took communion, they were aware of its connection to Passover and with the Last Supper of Jesus with His disciples.

c. What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything?... they sacrifice to demons: Paul has already acknowledged an idol is nothing in the world (1 Corinthians 8:4). Does he now say that idols are actually demons? No. But he does say demonic spirits take advantage of idol worship to deceive and enslave people. Without knowing it, idol worshippers are glorifying demons in their sacrifice.

d. When Paul speaks of the Lord’s table, he uses the term to contrast with “tables” used for pagan idol meals. An ancient invitation to such a meal reads “Chairemon invites you to a meal at the table of the lord Serapis in the temple of Serapis, tomorrow the fifteenth from nine o’clock onwards.” If it means something to eat at the Lord’s table, then it means something to eat at the table of demons.

i. Roman Catholics have used this passage to support the idea of the Mass as a sacrifice for sins. But it is reading far too much in the text to say that the Christian meal (communion) must be a sacrifice (as it is claimed to be in the Mass) because it is compared to the meal connected with pagan sacrifices and Jewish sacrifices. The emphasis and the similarity regard the meal, not the sacrifice.

e. There may be two Corinthian ideas Paul wants to answer:

i. The Corinthian Christians thought, “Since an idol is not real, it doesn’t matter what we eat, and it doesn’t matter where we eat it.” Paul answers by agreeing that an idol is in itself nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4), but now explains that demons take advantage of man’s ignorant and self-serving worship.

ii. The Corinthian Christians thought, “As long as we participate in the Lord’s Table, we are safe in Him.” Paul answers that they disgrace the Lord’s table when they fellowship with idols.

f. The unwitting fellowship of some of the Corinthian Christians with demons, by participating in the dinners at the pagan temples, will provoke the Lord to jealousy. He has a right over all our worship, and has a right to be offended if we give our fellowship to demons.

i. It doesn’t matter that the Corinthian Christians didn’t intend to worship demons at these heathen feasts in pagan temples. If a man puts his hand into the fire, it doesn’t matter if he intends to burn himself or not, he is burned just the same.

ii. If a man dates a woman, and they get serious about their relationship, what will happen if he takes up the same kind of relationship with another woman? What will the first woman think? The man cannot simply say, “Well, I still give attention to you!”

g. Are we stronger than He? The Corinthian Christians claimed the right to eat at pagan temples because they were such strong Christians, but are they stronger than God is?

C. Back to the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols: what about eating the same meat somewhere else?

1. (1Cr 10:23-24) A principle to build on: don’t just avoid what is harmful, but pursue what is good.

All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being.

a. All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful: The Corinthian Christians focused on their own “rights” and “knowledge,” only asked one question: “What’s the harm to me?” Instead of only asking that question, they needed to also ask, “What good can this be for me?

i. Just because something is permitted does not mean it is beneficial. The Corinthians did not seek the helpful things, or the things that would edify. Essentially, instead of wanting to go forward with Jesus as much as they could, they wanted to know how much they could get away with and still be Christians. That’s the wrong approach!

b. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being: As the Corinthian Christians asked the question “What’s the harm to me,” they did not consider how their actions harmed others.

i. Just because something is fine for me does not mean I should do it. My own “rights” or what I know to be permitted for myself are not the standards by which I judge my behavior. I must consider what is the loving thing to do towards my brothers and sisters in Jesus.

2. (1Cr 10:25-30) Practical guidelines.

Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience? But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks?

a. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market: How can Paul say this in light of what he said in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 (the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons... I do not want you to have fellowship with demons... you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons)? Simply because the meat itself isn’t “infected by demons,” and can thus be eaten. Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 10:15-22 have to do with the atmosphere of fellowship with demons at the pagan temple, which is to be avoided, not the food itself.

i. The sacrifices lost their religious character when sold in the meat market, so it was permitted to eat meat that may have been sacrificed to an idol at a private table.

b. Asking no questions: At the butcher shop, some of the meat was sacrificed to idols, and some of it was not. Paul says, “If you aren’t going to partake of the atmosphere of the pagan temple, the meat itself doesn’t matter. Don’t even ask, and it won’t even bother you.”

i. This is directed towards those Corinthian Christians who had consciousness of the idol... and their conscience, being weak, is defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7). Paul says, “Don’t even ask!”

ii. What if one of the brothers with a weak conscience objects saying, “Wait a minute! That meat was sacrificed to an idol”? Paul responds by quoting, The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness (Psalm 24:1). The cow belonged to the Lord when it was on the hoof, and it belongs to the Lord now that it is on the barbecue! The food wasn’t the issue, the idol worshipping atmosphere was the issue.

iii. This quotation from Psalm 24:1 was used as a Jewish blessing at mealtimes. Paul says it applies to this food, also.

c. If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner... eat what is set before you: If an unbeliever invites you to dinner, don’t get into a debate about the meat with them. Don’t ask, and it won’t bother you.

i. Notice that Paul does not prohibit socializing with non-Christians, he only prohibits the meal of fellowship at the pagan temples.

d. But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it: Here, Paul has in mind the setting where a Christian is warned about the food by his unbelieving host, or a Christian host with a sensitive conscience. In that case, it is clear the person thinks it is wrong for Christians to partake of meat sacrificed to idols, so don’t eat it – for the sake of conscience, not your own, but that of the other.

e. But if I partake with thanks – that is, if I can eat with a clear conscience, and offending no one else’s conscience – why am I evil spoken of? Since the food itself is not the problem, no one should judge another Christian who can eat meat sacrificed to idols, as long as they don’t violate their own conscience or someone else’s.

i. It may seem that Paul is being inconsistent, but he is being very consistent according to one principle: liberty within the limits of love.

3. (1Cr 10:31-33) Concluding principle: Do all to the glory of God.

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.

a. Do all to the glory of God: The purpose of our lives isn’t to see how much we can get away with and still be Christians; rather, it is to glorify God. If the Corinthian Christian would have kept this principle in mind from the beginning in this issue, how much easier it would have made everything!

b. Give no offense: An offense is an occasion to stumble, leading someone else into sin. Paul says none of our behavior should encourage another to sin.

i. Paul is not talking about offending the legalism of others, something he was not shy about doing (Galatians 5:11-12).

c. Paul’s desire regarding men was that they may be saved. More often than we think, low conduct in Christian living is connected to little regard for the lost. Paul’s concern was not seeking [his] own profit, but that all may be saved.

©2013 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission
[A previous revision of this page can be found here]

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