Flee From Idolatry, It Doesn’t Make Sense (part 1)

1 Corinthians  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Stand for the reading of our passage this morning.
1 Corinthians 10:14–22 ESV
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 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. 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?


Nearly 2 ½ months ago we set aside our study in Corinthians to look at the Five Solas of the Reformation and then celebrate the Incarnation. We now make our way back to this insightful and convicting letter from Paul. To catch us back up to the context in which we find our particular statement this morning, let me outline for you the immediate preceding context of 1 Corinthians 10.
Divine guidance, protection, and presence. (1) The cloud led them. (2) The cloud protected them. (3) The cloud was the presence of God.
Elite identification. Paul tells us that the people of Israel were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor 10:2). They were associated with and identified with Moses and also committed to Moses as their leader. The baptism into Moses is set up as a type for what would come later, that being baptism into Christ. In the same way that Moses was Israel’s deliverer and the people followed him, Christ is the believer’s deliverer and we are to follow him.
Spiritual Nourishment. (1) Manna was provided. (2) The rock supplied water. (3) The rock was Christ.
Israel was delivered from bondage to Egypt and shortly after was baptized into Moses and in the cloud and in the sea. This baptism was followed by the imagery of communion with Christ in the bread (manna) and the water (from the rock). The imagery of these two elements (baptism and communion) remained with them through their wilderness wanderings until they reached the promised land.
This order of events is magnificently similar to the experience of the New Testament believer. We are delivered from bondage to sin, baptized into the body of Christ (and physically baptized), experience communion with Christ in the Lord’ Supper. And these two elements (our baptism in Christ, and communion with Christ) are present with us until we reach our promised land – heaven.
Prompted by these amazing realities, Paul pauses for a moment and with the heart of a shepherd urges these beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor 10:14).

What are we to do? Flee.

What does it mean to flee? The concepts we find in a lexicon are “escape, shun, vanish, quickly disappear.”[1] Fleeing requires aggressively moving in the opposite direction. Too often we treat sin (our specific areas of temptation) with little more than a passing wave of the hand. We kick the dirt and shake our fist but don’t actually move any further away from our sin. We wish it was gone from our lives, but do little to distance ourselves from it. Don’t try to find a comfortable spot close to the action. Get out of there.
Dramatic. Fleeing is going to cost you. Consider what fleeing may have meant for the Corinthian believer. Relationships likely were sacrificed or hindered. Typical activities within their normal peer groups may have been sacrificed. Really awkward moments may have been the order when with family and friends. Their choice to flee could have resulted in real challenges, embarrassment, awkwardness, and relational hardships. In the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is talking with his disciples about the temptation to sin. He shares some rather dramatic advice.
Matthew 18:8–9 ESV
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
Jesus point is not to be taken literally, but instead is to be understood to teach that when we are confronted with a temptation to sin, we are to take drastic measures in fighting against it. Fighting sin, fighting idolatry, is not something we do passively or flippantly. It is going to demand a cost, but a cost that will be well worth the reward.
In the context of dramatic, consider Paul’s advice in chapter eight to the stronger believer. If we come to realize that a weaker brother might stumble into sin against his own conscience, Paul concludes in 1 Corinthians 8:13, “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” This could be dramatic, a willingness to give up a right for the spiritual health of a brother.
Ongoing Action. This command to flee is a present imperative and communicates ongoing action. There is never a point where you will cease fleeing. Too often in our Christian lives, we come to the point where we’ve addressed an issue or beat a problem, so we begin to slack off. We may think, “I’m safe now. I’ve overcome.” This command doesn’t really allow for that kind of thinking. There is never a moment where we make concession with our idolatrous lusts, those things our sinful hearts treasure.
Balanced. I hesitate to make this point, but the overall context of 1 Corinthians seems to demand it. While fleeing is to be active and dramatic, the rest of the chapter indicates that this dramatic and active battle against idolatry must be balanced with normal life. In this same chapter (vs. 23-30), after having told them to flee idolatry, he tells them to buy “whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience;” and two verses later he says, “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.”
In this passage Paul gives two principles, that we’ll later discuss in more depth, that must be considered when balancing our dramatic and active fleeing from idolatry. (1) Consider other people. Immediately after telling the recipients to just eat whatever is set in front of them, he tells them to not eat it if the person mentions that the food has been offered in sacrifice. We are to avoid eating it for their conscience. We are to be considerate to them. (2) Whatever we do, eat or not, do all for the glory of God.

What are we to flee from? Idolatry.

What is idolatry? Let me offer a simple definition for idolatry and then we’ll work to a deeper understanding. Stuart Scott offers a helpful definition in his book The Exemplary Husband. “An idol is anything that we consistently make equal to or more important than God in our attention, desire, devotion, and choices.”[2] This definition would indicate that idols extend well beyond the sort that are made with hands and physically reside in a “holy place.” Idolatry is much more than offering incense to or bowing before an object of some kind. Idolatry is any passion, idea, philosophy, habit, hobby, etc. that has become the source of primary concern or loyalty, specifically equal to or above a trust and loyalty to Christ.[3]
Idolatry in light of synonymous biblical terms. The additional terms throughout Scripture offer us a more robust understanding of idolatry. The Old Testament refers to concepts such as craving, lusts, and idolatry of the heart. The New Testament adds to lusts and idolatry, terms such as enticing desires, slaves to various passions, and entanglement.[4]
Idolatry in Ezekiel 8:5-18. Both the Old and New Testaments tie idolatry to the heart. The clearest passage to do so is found in Ezekiel, chapters 8-14. Consider with me the setting of Ezekiel 8 which leads to God’s statement about idolatry of the heart in Ezekiel 14. In chapter 8, the elders of Judah are sitting with Ezekiel and desire to receive counsel from God through him. While they are sitting with him, an angelic being lifts him “between earth and heaven” (Ezekiel 8:3) and takes him to the temple in Jerusalem. Before we look further into this, let me add that I don’t think that Ezekiel was taken physically to Jerusalem and saw the things that are described. I believe he saw a vision of what was either going on literally or more likely symbolically.
Ezekiel is taken to Jerusalem in the vision. Imagine with me for a minute that I am Ezekiel. God turns to me and says, "Ezekiel, look toward the north." So I looked toward the north and I saw to the north of the altar gate an idol at the entrance. I was disgusted with the sight. God informed me that I would see much greater abominations (Ezekiel 8:5-6).
He took me to the entrance of the court and I saw a hole in the wall. God told me to dig through the wall, so I did. I dug until I found an entrance and I entered into the court and saw carved on the walls forms of every creeping thing and beasts alongside of the idols of Israel. In front of those idols were the seventy elders of Israel worshipping them in the dark, assuming that God could not see them. God once again told me that there would be much greater abominations (Ezekiel 8:7-13).
God led me to the entrance of the gate of the LORD'S house and I saw women weeping to the Babylonian God, Tammuz. "Ezekiel, do you see what they are doing, you will see much more than this." (Ezekiel 8:14-15).
God directed me once again to the inner court of the LORD'S house. I looked and saw between the porch and the altar twenty five men with their backs to the temple and their faces toward the east. They were prostrating themselves toward the sun. They were worshipping the sun while present in the temple of the LORD (Ezekiel 8:16).
"Do you see this Ezekiel? Do you see how the people of Israel provoke me to anger? I want you to understand something, Ezekiel. I will have no pity for them. I will not spare any of them. Even when they cry to me with a loud voice, I will not listen to them." (Ezekiel 8:17-18).
As we come to chapter 14, we once again see Ezekiel sitting with the elders of Judah. Whether or not they have been with him the entire time or not is not necessarily relevant. Either way, they are with him desiring counsel from Him (Ezekiel 14:1). What had the LORD promised? "I will not listen to them. Ezekiel, tell them to repent of their idol worship.” What had been displayed in the vision was symbolic of these leaders hearts.
Ezekiel 14:3–7 (ESV) “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and set the stumbling block of their iniquity before their faces. Should I indeed let myself be consulted by them? 4 Therefore speak to them and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any one of the house of Israel who takes his idols into his heart and sets the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to the prophet, I the Lord will answer him as he comes with the multitude of his idols, 5 that I may lay hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, who are all estranged from me through their idols. 6 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 7 For any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel, who separates himself from me, taking his idols into his heart and putting the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and yet comes to a prophet to consult me through him, I the Lord will answer him myself.
What might be your idol? What might be your idolatrous lust, sinful passions, your enticing desires? What desires consume you for your own benefit? What is so important that you are willing to sin to get it? What is so important to you that you are willing to sin to keep from losing it? Where do you place your security, meaning, happiness, joy, or comfort?
POWLISON. What are you seeking? What are you loving? What are you fearing? What are you trusting? Where are you taking refuge? What voices are you listening to? Where are you setting your hopes? The answers to these questions describe characteristics of the whole person, who always orients toward either God or something else. . . . People are always reaching out to worship something, anything—either God or the mini-gods.[5]

Consider some of the following yellow flags pointing to a potential idolatrous lust.

I need . . .
I have the right too . . .
I must have . . .
Consider words such as the following:[6]
Acceptance by others
Good health
Love of money
Pain free life
Physical appearance
Self sufficient
In a general sense all of these things are fine desires to have, but can become idols when we demand them and then treat others with rejection and hostility when they keep them from us or threaten to take them away from us.
Taking something that is beautiful and good and twisting it into something perverted is something humanity does very well. This is how Paul describes humanity in Romans, they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom 1:21-23).
Be cautious of over examination. I have seen too many well-meaning believers (myself included) consume their thoughts with self-assessment and introspection, motivated by a desire to find their particular idol. It is healthy and helpful to examine ourselves periodically, but if it is all we do we will quickly become self-centered. If you are genuinely struggling with trying to weed out the idols in your heart, you can always narrow them down to the list given to us in 1 John. John narrows all that is in the world down to three things, “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:15-17). We set up our desires and ourselves up over what God wants for us. Each time we do, we are involved with idolatry.
JONATHAN EDWARDS. If man does not give his highest respect to the God that made him, there will be something else that has the possession of it. Men will either worship the true God, or some idol. It is impossible it should be otherwise; something will have the heart of man. And that which a man gives his heart to may be called his god.[7]

Encouraging Endnote

Paul refers to the people in the church as dearly beloved immediately before telling them to flee from idolatry. The fact that he tells them to flee from it implies that it was present within their lives and was a struggle. What conclusion can we draw? Dearly beloved believers can and most likely are struggling with some form of idolatry in their lives. This is not meant to be justification in anyway or intended to lighten the conviction of idolatry in your life, but it ought to reassure you that a believers position in Christ is not lost due to the presence of idolatrous sin in their life. The appropriate response to idolatry is not to wallow in shame and self-penance, but instead repentance and fleeing. Let me remind us once again of the solution offered in Ezekiel 14:6, “Repent and turn away from your idols, and turn away your faces from all your abominations.”
[1] Friberg. φεύγω fut. mid. φεύξομαι; 2aor. ἔφυγον; (1) absolutely flee, take to flight (MT 8.33); (2) with the accusative escape something (HE 11.34); (3) with the accusative in a moral sense flee from, avoid, shun (1C 6.18); (4) vanish, quickly disappear (RV 16.20)
[2] Stuart Scott, The Exemplary Husband: A Biblical Perspective (Bemidji, MN: Focus Pub., 2002), 91.
[3] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 232–233.
[4] James 1:14–15 (ESV) each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. 1 John 2:15–17 (ESV) Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. Hebrews 12:1 (ESV) Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight [entanglement], and sin which clings so closely . . . Titus 3:3 (ESV) For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures . . .
[5] David Powlison, “Revisiting Idols of the Heart and Vanity Fair,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 27, no. 3 (2013): 41–42.
[6] Brad Bigney, “Identifying Personal Idols,” (Grace Fellowship Church, n.d.). Accessed January 27, 2017. https://bradbigney.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/identifying-idols-trifold.pdf.
[7] Elliot Ritzema and Elizabeth Vince, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Puritans, Pastorum Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013). This resource as well quotes RICHARD BAXTER, a very insightful statement. “Whatever creature is loved ultimately for itself, and not for a higher end, even for God, his service, his honor, his relation to it, or his excellency appearing in it, is sinfully loved. For it is made our god when it is loved ultimately for itself.”
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