Doug Van Meter - 19 November 2023
Run, Christian, Run! (1 Corinthians 10:14–22)
In the movie Forrest Gump there are several scenes in which Forrest needs to run for his life. As bullies threaten to assault him, his childhood friend Jenny shouts to him, in her Alabama accent, “Run, Forrest, run!” I kept hearing those words this week as I dug into this passage, for this is precisely what the Corinthians’ friend and apostle was shouting to them as they faced the temptation to idolatry. The apostle Paul lovingly exhorts, “Run, Christian, run!” Actually, he has been saying this since 9:24.
Paul likened the Christian life to running in a race, seeking the victor’s prize. Referring to himself, and, by extension, applying his words to the Corinthian church, Paul speaks of focused diligence towards legitimately crossing the finish line, securing the prize of eternal life. He talks about bringing his body under subjection; that is, disciplining himself and doing whatever is necessary to persevere to the salvific end. He runs as though his life depends upon it. Because it does. Likewise, the Corinthian church must run for their spiritual life amid a surrounding culture of idolatry and its collateral sins. This is Paul’s theme throughout chapter 10, as is made clear in the passage before us. May God give us grace to heed this loving and wise imperative, “Run, Christian, run!”
We will look at this under the following three headings:
- The Inspiration of Command (v. 14)
- The Illustration of Communion (vv. 15–20)
- The Impossibility of Compromise (vv. 21–22)
The Inspiration of Command
Paul begins, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (v. 14).
In his excellent book, Pure in Heart, Garrett Kell writes, “If you don’t want to fall off sin’s cliff, don’t walk along temptation’s edge.” That is wise and helpful counsel. It is counsel that Paul gives to the Corinthians and that God, by inspired extension, gives to us. If we properly contemplate this command, we will find ourselves appropriately inspired to obey it. We must obey it, for, when it comes to idolatry, all of us are in extreme imminent danger.
Paul has just said that, in this world, temptation to self-indulgence, sexual immorality, and senseless idolatry is inescapable. But he also said that the Christian is able to escape from giving in to these temptations. God provides for his beloved a way of escape from sin. The Christian does not have to sin. So, while not presuming on God’s grace, we are nonetheless provided God’s gracious promise of escape from the sin to which we are tempted. What is this way of escape? What is the means of our “exodus” from temptation’s sin? How do we obediently persevere (“endure”) in the face of inescapable temptations to idolatry? We flee.
The way of escape, which God has provided for us, is his imperative to flee. With this command, Paul aims to inspire the Corinthians to run for their spiritual lives.
We have come across this imperative before, in 6:18. The word simply means to flee. It means to run. It’s not complicated. When tempted to idolatry, run for your spiritual life. Get away from it. God’s inspired provision is sufficient to inspire us and to motivate us to run away from and stay away from idolatry. This is a means of bringing our bodies under subjection as we run the race of fidelity to Jesus Christ (9:27).
Before applying this to our own idolatry, let’s first understand how the original audience would have understood it.
Paul uses a rare word in 1 Corinthians to express his affection for the Corinthian church. He calls them “beloved.” It is the word God the Father used of his Son (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). It speaks of great affection.
Paul was no politician. He was not seeking to butter up his readers; he was deeply concerned for the spiritual welfare a church he had planted. Paul has said some difficult things to this congregation, but he did so out of love. Further, having spoken of the dangers of apostasy, Paul perhaps used this word to reaffirm his confidence that they were the real deal (see Hebrews 6:9 for a parallel example).
Regardless, Paul expresses his pastoral heart, desiring that the church take full advantage of God’s gracious provision for their “exodus” from the kind of folly that characterised Israel of old—even after their exodus!
Paul is exhorting them to flee any association with idolatry, whether idolatrous, sacrificial feasts, or meat offered in such. This has been the theme introduced in chapter 8. Paul is bringing all he has said to this conclusion: “Run away from meat that has been offered to idols. Flee the temples where the idolatrous feasts are being observed. Flee anything that is tinged with idolatry.” And his target audience are those who are “in the know.”
Those presumably “in the know,” in fact, did not know as much as they thought they did (8:1–3). In their intellectual pride, they criticised the “weak” to stop being so squeamish about eating meat offered to an idol. They should not be so prudish about going to a temple and participating in a feast being held there. Paul has been patiently, because pastorally, helping the church’s unity in this matter.
He has exhorted that love prevail, including dying to one’s rights when it comes to exercising Christian liberty in order to protect a fellow Christian from stumbling back into idolatry. In chapter 9, he warns that, if cruciform love is missing from our lives, we may find ourselves disqualified, identified as a fraud at the finish line of our life. But, very wisely, Paul has been moving towards this point where he exhorts those “in the know” of the great danger of both complacency and its twin, compromise, leading to the sin of idolatry (10:12–13). Therefore, just like the “weak,” those “in the know” must flee. Since idolatry is not going anywhere, those tempted must utilise God’s way of escape. Realising their imminent and potentially destructive danger, they are to utilise God’s window of opportunity to escape any and all temptations to idolatry. The same is true for you and me. This passage, and this imperative, applies to us.
For many of us, this seems an irrelevant command, and yet the imperative to run away from idolatry remains.
Martin Luther said that an idol is “whatever your heart clings to and relies on, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.” In other words, whatever your means of satisfaction, whatever you are pursuing because it provides you with security and identity, is your idol. It may be career, marriage, children, a relationship, sex, education, ministry, health, recreation, retirement, or any number of things.
Whatever in your life rivals ultimate loyalty and love to God is an idol from which you must flee. You must run. You must view your idol something of imminent danger for which you only have a narrow window for escape. Therefore, “Run, Christian, run!” Be inspired by this inspired command to flee as fast as you can. Morris helpfully explains the import of this command: “The present imperative gives the thought of the habitual practice. There is to be no leisurely contemplation of sin, thinking that one can go so far, and is safe from going further.”
Fight or Flight?
Perhaps you are familiar with what is called the “fight or flight” response to danger. Sometimes, when danger is present, we must stand our ground and fight. Ephesians 6:10–17 indicates this righteous response. When false gospels are paraded, or ungodly compromises with the world are put before us, we are called upon to “stand our ground” and fight for the truth (see Galatians). However, having just informed us of the danger of falling to those who stand, Paul gives this inspired command to inspire us to fight by flight.
The seductive nature of idolatry is too strong for us to think we can allow exposure without falling prey to its pull (e.g. covetousness; substance addiction; pornography; any other pursuit in which we believe we will find our satisfaction).
But, practically, how can we flee?
Perhaps you need to make your smart phone a dumb phone to remove certain temptations. Ask for help and submit to accountability of a brother or sister in Christ. Choose godly friends, including cutting off some relationships. Quit your hobby—and perhaps even your job. Fear God and keep fearing him. Fear sin as well. Stop rationalising your compromises.
This inspired and inspiring command is a response that every Christian can do. Fleeing is not the prerogative only of the most gifted Christian, or the most intelligent, or the most theologically grounded, or those who have been converted the longest. No. God’s ordained way of escape from temptation to the sin of idolatry is the same for everyone: Flee!.
When we flee temptation to idolatry, we are, in effect, fleeing every category of sin. At the root of all sin is idolatry. Therefore, we need to heed Paul’s (God’s!) imperative: “Flee idolatry!” We must not allow any compromise with temptation to idolatry. Paul makes this clear in what follows.
The Illustration of Communion
In vv. 15–20, Paul illustrates his point by way of the Communion meal:
I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 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.
(1 Corinthians 10:15–20)
In this passage, Paul provides what seems, at first blush, to be a confused addition of material that has nothing to do with idolatrous worship and everything to do with true and acceptable and expected worship as he describes both the Lord’s Supper and old covenant sacrifices. But, as we will see, there is a principled reason for him doing so. In essence, he highlights that in worship, of whatever kind, the twin realities of participation and identification are front and centre. That is, when we engage in acts of worship, we are entering into communion with that which we worship, and that which we worship shapes our identity. You become what you worship.
The Corinthian believers needed to know this in order to avoid participating with demons. In fact, “this is the point toward which Paul has been moving throughout chapter 10. The Corinthians cannot participate in idolatry and then think that they will receive eternal life on the last day (6:16–18; 10:7,8)” (ESV Study Bible). In other words, Paul uses the illustration of the Lord’s Supper (“Communion”) to make clear that compromising with idolatrous worship is not innocent (v. 20). It is because the Corinthian Christians were on the verge of participating in demonic activity that Paul issued the inspired and inspiriting command, “Flee from idolatry!” “Run, Christian! Run away from the demonic!”
Schreiner summarises nicely: “Everything in the argument from chapter 8 on has been building on this admonition. Eating in the temples of idols is nothing less than idolatry, and the Corinthians should be able to see this for themselves.” Paul makes this clear in what follows.
Paul appeals in v. 15 to their wisdom (1:5; 6:1–5). He asks them to think along with him (how often our failures are simply because we do not think biblically!) about what takes place in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. From these principles he will make a relevant point.
He states the principle in vv. 16–18 by means of contrast between the new (vv. 16–17) and old (v. 18) covenant altars.
The New Covenant Altar
In chapter 11, Paul will provide instruction and admonition concerning the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. Here, he introduces the theme of the Lord’s Table to illustrate not only the essential value of this ordinance but to make the point that participation in a religious ritual is a serious matter. Local churches, and church leaders, should take seriously the responsibility to fence the Lord’s Table. Church members should likewise take this responsibility seriously. Let me explain by explaining what Paul explains.
“The cup of blessing that we bless” is probably the third cup of wine in the traditional Passover Feast, which Jesus then used in instituting his Supper (Matthew 26:26–29).
By the use of rhetorical questions, it is clear that Paul expects the Corinthians to understand and agree that, in partaking of the elements of the wine and the bread, a church member is entering into fellowship (partnership) with Jesus Christ in his saving benefits to them. When a person partakes of the Lord’s Supper, he or she is identifying with the Lord to whom he or she has been joined by the new birth. That believer is declaring both loyalty to and love for him. But, as v. 17, also makes clear, in participating in this feast, the believer identifies with others who are also participating in it. There is therefore a mutual partnership and identification with fellow worshippers of the Lord Jesus Christ. When partaking of the Lord’s Supper, the participant is making a declaration of solidarity both to and with the one to whom the Supper points, as well as a declaration of solidarity with all those doing so (“we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”). That is, a religious statement is being made. It is not merely a matter of consuming the elements.
It is for this reason that it is a serious thing for Christians to reject the Table. When your attitude to Communion is “take it or leave it”, you are saying that you can take or leave Christ and his church. If you are tempted to such individualistic idolatry, go back to v. 14 and flee such damning foolishness.
But equally, it is a serious sin to pretend as though you are in partnership or fellowship when you are not (1 Corinthians 11:26). When you partake of the Lord’s Supper while rejecting the Saviour’s justifying and hence sanctifying work, you are guilty of treating the Lord’s Supper as an idol. You should flee from this by running in repentance to the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
To summarise, the Lord’s Supper highlights the principles of participation and identification.
The Old Covenant Altar
Paul refers to another example of this principle, this time appealing to “the people of Israel” under the old covenant (“Israel after the flesh” in the KJV). When they offered a sacrifice on the old covenant table (altar), part of the sacrifice was consumed by priests and people (Leviticus 6:17–18; 7:32–35). Ciampa and Rosner observe:
By “participating in the altar” Paul evidently means that those eating the meal from the food taken from the altar are counted as those who offered the worship through the sacrifice that was offered there…. The implication for eating food offered to idols is clear…. Such makes one a willing participant of the offering from which it was taken.
In other words, this was not merely a sacrifice for show. It was, rather, an entering into fellowship with God and with others. There was both a horizontal and a vertical dimension to this. Something was being experienced and declared. We can summarise that there is nothing insignificant about religious rituals.
Having illustrated the principles of religious participation and identification—namely that “the fellowship is not merely with the men and women gathered around the table, but with the deity as well” (Ciampa and Rosner)—Paul now applies this to the situation at hand in vv. 19–20.
Lest the church accuse Paul of confusion, if not of doctrinal duplicity, he makes clear that what he is arguing is not a contradiction of how he commenced this entire section (8:1–6). There, he made clear that, yes, idols and so-called gods are illusory. They do not exist. They are merely stones, wood, or ideas running in people’s minds. To offer a sacrifice to an imaginary god is meaningless. Nothing supernatural takes place in the offering itself. Hence, technically, it is no big deal to offer meat to idols (v. 19). However, Paul now provides a caveat.
In v. 20, he points out that, though the idol is nothing, and though the offering is nothing, it is not like nothing evil is taking place. Indeed, something profoundly evil is taking place. By participating in idolatry, we worship demons!
Those participating may be (and most likely are) unaware of the demonic nature of these religious expressions. They think they are offering their food to a handcrafted Ganesh when, in fact, they are offering to demons. As the worshipper bows down to offer food to Artemis, demons are doubled over in mocking laughter, knowing the idolators are offering worship to them and, most importantly, not to Yahweh.
Leon Morris helpfully summarises that Paul
will not dispute the contention of the Corinthians that an idol is not a god at all. But he will not agree that therefore idols can safely be treated as nothing more than so many blocks of wood and stone. The “devils” [demons] make use of men’s readiness to worship idols. Thus, when men sacrifice to idols, it cannot be said that they are engaging in some neutral activity that has no meaning…. To share food is to establish fellowship. Thus they are entering into “fellowship” with “devils.” Paul does not wish this to happen to his Corinthian friends.
Idol worship, in any form, is an expression of worship. It is therefore false worship, regardless of how sincere or ignorant the worshipper is. This is true when it comes to rituals and feasts referencing ancestor worship. It is true of African traditional religions. It is true of Diwali festivities and religious activities. It is true of non-Christian cults. It is true of liberal Christianity and secularism. It is true of the occult. It may well be true of mindless forms of Christianity. This is extremely serious.
Further, this applies to all forms of idolatry. When we begin to serve a god of our own creation (material, mental, or otherwise) we open ourselves to devilish manipulation.
In Lewis’s classic Screwtape Letters, he makes the observation that there are two approaches of the devil that are particularly sinister for the Christian: one, when the Christian becomes obsessed with the realm of demons; and, two, when Christians give no attention to demonic reality. Denial is as dangerous—if not more so—than obsession.
David Prior cautions, “Paul clearly believes in the reality of an unseen spirit world, that idolatry is not just meaningless but positively evil. It is evil because it robs the true God of the glory due to him, and because such actions bring people not simply into contact with lower spiritual powers but actually into subjection to them.”
Therefore, brother/sister, beware what you are messing with. Beware the idol of sex and the satanic enslavement to pornography. Beware the idol of comfort and the satanic enslavement to materialism. Beware the idol of education and the satanic enslavement to academic obsession affecting behaviour (e.g. anxiety). Parents, protect your children from this idol. Beware the idol of self and the satanic enslavement to self-deification (Genesis 3:5). The bottom line is simply this: Irreverent views of God in Christ lead to unworthy, sinful living.
The Impossibility of Compromise
Finally, in vv. 21–22, Paul addresses the impossibility of compromise: “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. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
Someone has described this section as revealing the contradiction of compromise. That is, compromise offers itself to the Christian but, in fact, it is impossible to serve both the Lord and the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Christian cannot have one foot in the temple of the Lord and the other in the temple of demons. Neither can the non-Christian. It is one or the other.
The Problem of Compromise
Paul’s repeated use of the word “cannot” reveals the impossibility of being a Christian and an idol worshipper at the same time. It is impossible for a Christian to remain loyal to Jesus Christ while also spending time at the local idol’s temple, participating in its demonically inspired rituals. You cannot be a member of the ZCC and a member of Jesus Christ at the same time. You cannot love Jesus Christ, trusting him for forgiveness of your sins, and trusting your good works at the same time. You cannot be loyal to Jesus Christ and be loyal to your political party at the same time. You cannot trust in Christ alone for your justification and in your baptism and church membership at the same time. You cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper, entering afresh into the benefits of his death, burial, and resurrection, and live like a pagan at the same time. You cannot trust in Jesus Christ alone and find your ultimate security in money at the same time. This is Paul’s point. We need to get it!
Of course, it is not impossible to compromise on one’s convictions and, sadly, this happens all the time. But Paul’s point is that, when a person compromises, attempting to have one foot in the world and one in the church (actually, attempting to have one foot in the temple of the church and the other in the temple of a false god), there is no middle ground. As Jesus warned, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and—” (Matthew 6:24). Such compromise “is a logical impossibility…. How can we possibly live to the glory of God if we allow the slightest foothold to the devil, in any part of our lives?” (Jackman).
Just as the Corinthian believers were daily confronted with the choice of trusting the Lord Jesus Christ, taking up their cross and following him, and the choice of laying down their cross and accommodating the paganism around them, so are we. As Jackman cautions, “Idolatry is such an all-devouring monster that there can be no compromise solutions.”
Therefore, stop with the folly of thinking you can straddle both spheres. You cannot. Choose you this day whom you will serve (see Joshua 24:14–15; 1 Kings 18:21).
The Provocation of Compromise
Paul concludes this section with a sobering warning and reminder: “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
Deuteronomy 32 is the backdrop to vv. 21–22, where Moses recounts how old covenant Israel fooled around with idols in the wilderness and how their demonic worship provoked holy God to wrath (see Deuteronomy 32:15–18). This account casts a long shadow over 1 Corinthians 10. Just as old covenant Israel “put Christ to the test” (vv. 4, 9), so the Corinthians face the same risk. “According to Deuteronomy 32, one of the purposes of the coming judgement will be to impress on the nation their lack of strength and the Lord’s great power” (Ciampa and Rosner). Likewise, if the Corinthians try to compromise—regardless of the motive—they too will incur the wrath of God. They will find out just how impotent they are, and how potent God is. We too need to beware. We need to flee our sin while fleeing to the Saviour.
God’s jealousy is his “righteous concern to protect the truth that he is the Creator of the universe and that he alone, not ‘gods’ of human invention, deserves human praise.” (ESV Study Bible). God’s jealousy is also that of a lover who is committed to the welfare of his bride. When the bride is threatened by compromise, he will do what is necessary to rescue her, including painful chastening (11:29–32). Flee to your Groom!
Brothers and sisters, for these reasons, we must run for our life when confronted with the temptation to idolatrous compromise and when tempted to compromising idolatry. The Lord has provided a way of escape. It is by looking to Jesus, taking up our cross as he did, and then running for our life. And as we do, we will have no need to fear being disqualified (9:24) for we will cross the finish line, finding ourselves safely home. Therefore, “Run, Christian, run!”