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The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity — Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost — is October 10, 2021.

Readings for Year B can be found here.

The Gospel reading is as follows (emphases mine):

Mark 10:17-31

10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”

10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,

10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.

10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Commentary comes from Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

This is a long read, so grab a cuppa and a snack.

We pick up where we left off last week.

Jesus is in the last phase of His ministry and is in Peraea.

John MacArthur says:

He’s on the east side of the Jordan River, down in the south. He is in the last days of His ministry in a place called Peraea, the region east of the Jordan, been ministering there. He’s headed for Jerusalem for the final time to die and rise again. Verse 32 of this chapter says they were on the road going to Jerusalem. They first arrive in Jericho and then up the hill to Jerusalem. So it’s at the end of His ministry, the end of this brief ministry in the region called Peraea. We don’t know any more detail than that about the location.

There are two themes in this reading. Verses 17-23 deal with what is considered ‘good’, and verses 24-31 address what is humanly impossible.

I have had problems in the past with verses 17-23, because it seems that Jesus was harsh with this young man.

If you are of the same mind, this is MacArthur‘s explanation for our Lord’s reaction. The young man’s:

idol was property, money, possessions, and self. He was, therefore, a blasphemer of God. He was a breaker of the back half of the Ten Commandments and the front half. Every time he used the name God, it was in a blasphemous way in vain. Every time he went to the synagogue or the temple on a Sabbath day, it was with hypocrisy because his true God was money. He wanted eternal life but only in addition to what he really worshiped. He had another god. In the end, it was himself.

And what the lesson here is that if you want anything more than salvation, if you want anything more than eternal life, if you want anything more than Christ, if you want anything more than God, you lose everything – you lose everything. He went away sorrowful, it says. He went away saddened. He went away grieving because he owned much property. So he exchanged his eternity for time. That’s a sad story – a sad story. He wanted eternal life but he wanted it as an addition, not as a complete substitution for everything else in life.

As Jesus (and the disciples) set out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him, addressing Him as ‘good teacher’ and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life (verse 17).

There is much to look at in that verse, as Matthew and Luke also tell the same story. The man was a young ruler, therefore, a senior layman in a synagogue. That sort of position normally went to an older man by dint of increased religious knowledge and application. The fact that this man achieved so much for his age means that the elders in the synagogue held him in very high esteem. Therefore, so did everyone else.

Matthew Henry’s commentary says that this could have been a potentially hopeful encounter for the young man:

I. Here is a hopeful meeting between Christ and a young man; such he is said to be (Matthew 19:20; Matthew 19:22), and a ruler (Luke 18:18), a person of quality. Some circumstances here are, which we had not in Matthew, which makes his address to Christ very promising.

People in his elevated position would not run, yet he did:

1. He came running to Christ, which was an indication of his humility; he laid aside the gravity and grandeur of a ruler, when he came to Christ: thus too he manifested his earnestness and importunity; he ran as one in haste, and longing to be in conversation with Christ. He had now an opportunity of consulting this great Prophet, in the things that belonged to his peace, and he would not let slip the opportunity.

2. He came to him when he was in the way, in the midst of company: he did not insist upon a private conference with him by night, as Nicodemus did, though like him he was a ruler, but when he shall find him without, will embrace that opportunity of advising with him, and not be ashamed,Song of Solomon 8:1.

3. He kneeled to him, in token of the great value and veneration he had for him, as a teacher come from God, and his earnest desire to be taught by him. He bowed the knee to the Lord Jesus, as one that would not only do obeisance to him now, but would yield obedience to him always; he bowed the knee, as one that meant to bow the soul to him.

4. His address to him was serious and weighty; Good Master, what shall I do, that I may inherit eternal life? Eternal life was an article of his creed, though then denied by the Sadducees, a prevailing party: he asks, What shall he do now that he may be happy for ever. Most men enquire for good to be had in this world (Psalms 4:6), any good; he asks for good to be done in this world, in order to the enjoyment of the greatest good in the other world; not, Who will make us to see good? But, “Who will make us to do good?He enquires for happiness in the way of duty; the summum bonum–chief good which Solomon was in quest of, was that good for the sons of men which they do should do,Ecclesiastes 2:3.

However, Jesus responded, focusing on the word ‘good’, saying that no one is ‘good’ except God alone (verse 18). How did the young ruler know Jesus was good when He was a total stranger to him?

MacArthur explains ‘good’ in Greek:

“Good teacher.” Good teacher. He acknowledges Jesus as not only a legitimate teacher, not a teacher to be rejected, but as a good teacher, agathe didaskale, agathe. That’s the word agathos from which we get the old name Agatha. Agathos means good internally, virtuous. Kalos, the other word for good, means looking good, good in form. This means good to the core, virtuous, beneficent. This is a deep kind of inherent goodness.

MacArthur then goes into the reaction from Jesus, which revolves around the word ‘good’:

Now, as you look at that, you say, “Well, you know, it seems like everything is in the right place here. Where is the problem here?” Amazingly, it comes up where you wouldn’t expect it. The problem shows up in one word. That word is in verse 17, and it’s the word “good.” It’s the word “good.” You know, if there’s any word that the world doesn’t understand, it’s that word. Good. Stop anybody on the street and say, “Are you a good person?” What are they going to say? “Of course, I’m a good person” …

Now remember, he thought he was good and everybody he associated with good and the whole synagogue crowd was good and everybody was good. And so he’s loose with the word. Thinks he’s commending Jesus by using that word for Him. That’s the problem. And if you understand that that word is the problem, then you begin to understand Jesus’ answer. “Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”…

If somebody comes running up to you and says, “What do I do to take possession of eternal life?” You say, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ – believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Well, Jesus didn’t say that. He did not say that because there’s something else that has to be confronted here. Faith, essential. But something else is essential as well and it is repentance – repentance. The gospel hangs over this account but it never enters. You can feel it because you know it, but Jesus never says it. It looms in the shadow of this event. It is never uttered. No word of faith ever appears. No comment about believing is ever stated because the issue here is sin and the law and repentance first.

And our Lord makes that clear in one profound statement. “Why do you call me good?” Why are you throwing that word around? You don’t know me. I am a total stranger. Why are you calling me good? He used the word casually. It was a word he used concerning himself and most of the people in his world …

Now, as a Jewish religious leader, he should have known the Psalms – should have known the Psalms. And if he knew the Psalms, he would know that the Psalms say this: “There is none righteous, no not one.” There is none who is good. There is none who seeks after God. All of that comes from the Psalms but it is also collected by Paul in Romans 3. In Romans 3, verses 10 to 18, Paul collects sayings out of the Psalms, none righteous, no not one, none does good, no one. He borrows from Psalm 14, Psalm 53, Psalm 5, Psalm 140, Psalm 10, Psalm 36 and even throws in a verse from Isaiah 59.

He collects from the Old Testament the testimony that no one is good, no one, because good is not a relative reality, it is an absolute – it is an absolute.

What does it mean? To be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. As God says, “I am holy, I am holy, I am holy, I am holy, without sin, without flaw, without error.” It is perfect righteousness, perfect holiness, absolute goodness. The law is given to reveal that. How perverted had these Jewish people become when they took the law as a means to establish their own goodness when the purpose of the law was to reveal the goodness of God to which they could never attain? You understand the difference?

Jesus recited the six Commandments that concern our relationships with others (verse 19).

Henry looks at the way Jesus recited these Commandments:

He mentions the six commandments of the second table, which prescribe our duty to our neighbour; he inverts the order, putting the seventh commandment before the sixth, to intimate that adultery is a sin no less heinous than murder itself. The fifth commandment is here put last, as that which should especially be remembered and observed, to keep us to all the rest. Instead of the tenth commandment, Thou shalt not covet, our Saviour here puts, Defraud not.

The man replied that he had kept these Commandments since his youth (verse 20).

Henry says that this was the man’s mistake. He thought himself better than he was:

He thought he had [kept the Commandments], and his neighbours thought so too. Note, Ignorance of the extent and spiritual nature of the divine law, makes people think themselves in a better condition than they really are.

MacArthur compares and contrasts this man’s attitude with St Paul’s, starting from when he was still Saul the Pharisee. Post-conversion, Paul came to understand that the law is meant to convict us and lead us to repentance:

The testimony of the apostle Paul would be very much like this young man. I see a lot of parallels. The apostle Paul was doing really well for a while as a legalist, wasn’t he? Circumcised the eighth day, born of the tribe of Benjamin, Philippians 3, he goes through all of that. He says he was a traditionalist. He was zealous for the law. He was blameless before the law. He toed the line. He had all these credits to himself as a legalist. And then something happened to Paul, which he speaks of in Romans 7:7.

He says this: “I wouldn’t have come to know sin except through the law.” Once he began to really understand the law of God, he saw how sinful he was. What is the law of God? The law of God, which defines for us sin and holiness, is simply a revelation of the nature of God. God discloses His nature as holy in His law. God has revealed Himself in His law. And when Paul saw the reality of the nature of God in the law and knew he couldn’t keep the law, he said, “The law killed me,” Romans 7. “It slew me, it resulted in death for me,” he says, verse 10 …

You say, “What’s the purpose of that?” So that you’re slain, so that you’re devastated, so that you’re crushed and broken. Then the law becomes, Galatians 3:24, the tutor that drives you to Christ who alone can save you from your own corruption. The purpose of the law is to kill, to crush, to show how perfectly good God is and how utterly evil man is, therefore to produce guilt and fear and dread and remorse.

Well, the rich young ruler totally missed that. Totally. He had a superficial view of the law, like all legalists do, all phony religionists. His response is consistent with fallen human nature that thinks it’s good, and the religious people think they’re better than everybody else. He is sure that he’s good. He has met the law’s demands. He is good. Since Jesus is a teacher from God, He’s good, too.

Jesus, looking at the man, loved him — only Mark’s version has that part — and told him to sell everything he had, give the proceeds to the poor, thereby gaining treasure in heaven, and then follow Him (verse 21).

MacArthur says the love Jesus had for him was one of sorrow:

Maybe a tear like the tears He shed over Jerusalem, coursed down Jesus’ cheeks, tears of sympathy and compassion. So sad because this man was a blasphemer and didn’t know it. This man was a violator and didn’t know it. This man was the worst.

By telling him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus was homing in on the man’s sin.

The young man was ‘shocked’ by what Jesus asked him to do and went away ‘grieving’ because he had many possessions (verse 22).

MacArthur explains the idolatry involved:

Here comes the exposure. “One thing you lack, just one thing.” You say, “How can you say that? One thing?” “Go sell all you possess, give to the poor, you’ll have treasure in heaven.” It’s what you said you wanted. “Come follow me.” How can it be that simple? “But at these words, he was saddened and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.” Hmm. You know why he is a blasphemer? Because he has another god. Who is his other god? He had much what? Property? He had an idol. He didn’t love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, and mind.

That’s the one thing Jesus asked him to do. Let me just have you do one thing. Get rid of the idol, which is your money and your possessions. You don’t get saved by lowering your bank account, you get saved when you get rid of your idol and you embrace the true God. He’s a blaspheming idolater. And again I’ll say it, every time he opened his mouth, he took the Lord’s name in vain. Every time he showed up on a Sabbath, he violated that Sabbath as a hypocritical, idolatrous blasphemer.

Earthly wealth, temporal satisfaction was his God. In fact, he was his own god. Jesus preached the law to him and he never got to the gospel because you can’t get to the gospel, which is the good news, until someone accepts the bad news, the condemnation of the law. How do you tell a highly respected, revered, honored, religious man who sees his prosperity as the beneficence of a God who is pleased with him, who sees his position in the synagogue as evidence of his true spiritual virtue, how do you tell that man that good is not relative, it is absolute, and there’s only one who is good and that’s God, and he is not?

And then tell him, as a student of the law, that he is a regular violator of the whole law of God from the top to the bottom who worships himself. And that’s the way it is with all people who refuse the gospel, who never get to the gospel. That’s why I say the gospel hangs in the shadows silently here. If the law doesn’t drive you to Christ, it will drive you to hell in your own spiritual pride. He’s a blasphemer who has another god. If he would do one thing, it would be to get rid of the other god and love the Lord with all his heart, soul, and mind.

Jesus, indirectly referring to the man’s idolatry while eyeing the crowd, said how hard it is for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God (verse 23).

MacArthur says:

Looking around, just taking stock of who was there, perhaps making eye contact with certain people He knew that fit into the category of those who were rich. “He then said to His disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. How hard it will be.’”

Then Jesus said, to the disciples’ shock, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God (verse 24) and that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to inherit that kingdom (verse 25).

The rich have everything, and many believe they achieved it by themselves, so why would they want anything to do with the afterlife? Note how many celebrities and captains of industry are unbelievers. They have it all, so they think.

The disciples were shocked because, in the Jewish world at that time, wealth meant divine blessing. Lack of it was believed to be a divine curse.

MacArthur tells us about this traditional belief:

Our Lord said this about a very religious man. “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.” In the context of Israel, these are religious people who are wealthy. And according to their theology, they were wealthy because they were blessed by God. If you were wealthy, you were blessed by God, and if you were poor, you were cursed by God. If you were healthy, you were blessed by God; if you were sick, you were cursed by God.

That was the simplicity of their theology – and a wrong theology to be surebut the idea was that a very, very religious man like this who was very, very wealthy would be easily able to enter into the kingdom of God because he had so much money he could buy all the animal sacrifices, he could buy the spotless lamb where somebody else with less money would have to take a blemished lamb by the sheer money factor, or even lesser than a lamb, maybe even down to a bird.

This man had the money to purchase as many sacrifices as he wanted, maybe in the morning and evening sacrifices, they were capable, the rich were, of making more than the rest. Also, the fact that they continued to be blessed meant that God was pleased with them and it just kept escalating. And so up the ladder of spiritual confidence they would climb – not only in their own eyes but in the eyes of the people around them.

The rabbis said that with alms, one purchases his redemption. That’s what they said. Some of the writings are very interesting. One writing taken from Tobit says this: “It is good to do alms rather than to treasure up gold, for alms deliver from death, and this will purge away every sin.” Okay, that was Judaism. If you want your sins washed away, give money, or Sirach 3 says, “Alms will atone for sin.” Or the Talmud, “Almsgiving is more excellent than all offerings and is equal to the whole law.”

In other words, if you give alms, you have virtually kept the whole law and further will deliver from the condemnation of hell and make one perfectly righteous. Wow. So how do you become perfectly righteous? How are you delivered from the condemnation of the law and of hell? By giving money – by giving money. That was their system. So when Jesus says, “Look, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” this is completely counterintuitive to them. They don’t get that at all. It is a shocking statement, it is a jolt to their system.

Now remember, they had come to faith in Christ – and Peter will make that confession again in verse 28, as we’ll see in a few minutes – but they still had all the stuff of the legalistic system, which they had imbibed for their entire lives. They still saw wealth as a sign of divine blessing and wealth as a means of entering the kingdom of God because you bought your way in with your giving. They assumed a causal relationship between wealth and power and blessing from God.

Now we come to analysing the word ‘camel’. This is where we enter the theme of something being humanly impossible.

MacArthur looks at ancient writings outside the Bible for the answer:

What is this talking about? This is an expression found in writings outside the Bible. It is found in the Talmud, Jewish writings. And the expression there uses an elephant. It is easier for an elephant to go through the eye of a needle. That statement is used in the Talmud to reflect something that can’t happen. This is impossible. Since the elephant was the largest animal in the Middle East, an elephant was used in the Talmud. In this case, the largest animal in Israel – there were no elephants, as far as we know – was a camel, so they used the camel – fit their experience.

What is our Lord saying? It’s impossible, that’s what He’s saying. You cannot put a camel through the eye of a needle. Some have tried to tamper with that saying. Really, some have tampered even with original manuscripts, kamēlos, camel, kamilos, slight difference in the vowel, rope. Maybe some scribe made a mistake, put the wrong letter and it came out camel but it should be rope. That doesn’t help because you can’t put a rope through the eye of a needle, either. But that’s not the point. The point is this is a very common expression that appears even outside the Bible to express something that is impossible – it’s impossible.

The disciples, still astounded, asked who could be saved (verse 26).

Jesus replied that it was impossible for mortals to save themselves, but not for God, because, with God, all things are possible (verse 27).

MacArthur tells us:

That same phrase is used in Luke 1 to refer to the virgin birth. That’s an impossibility, right? This is an impossibility of that same category. As a child cannot be born without an earthly father, so a sinner cannot be reborn without a heavenly work of the Spirit of God.

It’s interesting that those two statements are made in those two contexts. One having to do with the virgin birth of Christ, which is a divine miracle from above, the other having to do with the regeneration of a sinner, which is a divine miracle from above. Only God can do this mighty, mighty work. John 1 opens up, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believed in His name who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” – but of God.

Or John 3, Nicodemus says in his heart, “What do I do to be born again? What do I do to get into the kingdom?” And Jesus says, “You need to be born again, but that which is born of the flesh” – is what? – “is flesh.” You need to be born from above, anōthen, you need to be born of the Spirit, born from above. Only God can work the work of regeneration. It is a divine miracle, and it is possible with God.

Peter said that he and the other disciples left everything to follow Jesus (verse 28).

Jesus replied that anyone who leaves his or her house, family, friends and livelihood (‘fields’) behind for His sake and that of the Good News (verse 29) will receive ‘a hundredfold’ the same comforts — with persecutions in this life and eternal life to come (verse 30).

Mark is the only one to mention persecution in this story.

Henry offers an interpretation, saying that the comforts we receive in following Christ might not be literally the same but will be comparable to what we left behind:

They shall receive a hundred-fold in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters; not in specie, but that which is equivalent. He shall have abundance of comfort while he lives, sufficient to make up for all his losses; his relation to Christ, his communion with the saints, and his title to eternal life, shall be to him brethren, and sisters, and houses, and all. God’s providence gave Job double to what he had had, but suffering Christians shall have a hundred-fold in the comforts of the Spirit sweetening their creature comforts. But observe, It is added here in Mark, with persecutions. Even when they are gainers by Christ, let them still expect to be sufferers for him; and not be out of the reach of persecution, till they come to heaven.

Jesus concluded by saying that many who are first (on earth) will be last (in the life to come) and the last will be first (verse 31).

Henry says that Jesus was telling the disciples to stop squabbling about their status, as there would be further and greater disciples to follow in the future, e.g. St Paul:

because they talked so much, and really more than became them, of leaving all for Christ, he tells them, though they were first called, that there should be disciples called after them, that should be preferred before them; as St. Paul, who was one born out of due time, and yet laboured more abundantly than all the rest of the apostles, 1 Corinthians 15:10. Then the first were last, and the last first.

On the other hand, MacArthur says this is a verse of equality:

“Many who are first will be last and the last first.” That principle – so important. They were always arguing about who’s going to be the greatest – right? – who’s going to be first, and our Lord says this to make a statement that can’t be mistaken, and yet many people mistake the meaning of the statement. What does it mean? It means everybody ends up equal, that’s what it means. If you’re first, you’re last, and you’re last, you’re first, then everybody’s the same.

This is defined for us in Matthew 19, verse 30, through 20, verse 16, when Jesus tells the story about people who worked one hour, three hours, five hours, eight hours, all different amounts of work and they all received the same pay. And Jesus said, “That’s because the last are first and the first are last,” everybody ends up the same.

At the conclusion of his sermon about the young ruler, MacArthur leaves us with these thoughts:

And the question is for you. What will you do? Many of you come near to Christ. You have a conversation with Him here on Sunday mornings. You walk away clinging to your cherished blasphemy, holding onto your own self-worship, your own pride, your own achievement, unwilling to recognize the profound depth and damning power of your own sin. You ignore the law’s condemnation. And instead of letting it be the tutor that drives you to Christ, you let it drive you into hell.

You just want to say to this young man, “Don’t you understand that the goodness you can’t achieve will be given to you as a gift? The righteousness you cannot attain will be given to you as a gift through the sacrifice of Christ? He was made sin for you, that you might become the righteousness of God in Him?”

This is Paul, isn’t it? That the thing that he pursued was garbage when he found there was an alien righteousness, the very righteousness of God that would be credited to his account. You can’t come into eternal life unless you’re as good as God, and the only way you can be as good as God is to have the goodness of God credited to you. That’s the gospel. Christ takes your punishment, pays for your sin, gives you His perfect goodness.

Beware of the selfish seeker, deluded about his own goodness, her own goodness. Stop the selfish seeker in his tracks with the law and judgment and a biblical definition of what it really means to be good.

May everyone reading this have a blessed Sunday.

Bible kevinroosecomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur (as cited below).

1 Corinthians 10:14-22

14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 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? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel:[a] are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 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. 21 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. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s perspective on congregations paying their church ministers, which he said is obligatory for the spiritual guidance they provide.

1 Corinthians 10 is about idolatry.

Some of what Paul says here appears to contradict what he wrote in Romans about stronger and weaker Christians. Stronger Christians should make sure they do not offend weaker Christians, particularly in matters of food and drink, lest the stronger drive the weaker away from the Church. That would be an act deeply displeasing to God, because those people would be driven away from the salvation that Christ brings us.

Today’s reading contradicts that as Paul says that no Christian should be eating meat sacrificed to idols, stronger believers included.

Therefore, it is useful to add context and a bit of background to the situation the Corinthians were in. Theirs was a highly idolatrous society and the Christians in Corinth thought they could dip in and out of it and still be faithful to Christ. Not so, says Paul.

John MacArthur explains Paul’s reasoning (emphases mine below):

the Corinthian society was totally overwrought with demons, manifesting themselves behind these different idols; and idolatry was a part of everything, I mean everything. There couldn’t be any kind of public occasion or anything else that wasn’t connected with idols. That was their entire society just multiple gods; and everything they did practically within the social framework of the Corinthian society had idols in it.

And so the mature Christians, the Corinthian Christians, you know, who were the smug confident ones who had been around a while, they were saying this: “Hey, look. We’re in the society; we’re mature; we’ve been well-taught, apostle Paul’s taught us; we’ve studied under him for 18 months. We know our way around. Look, we’ve got to be a part of our society. We can go to the festivals, the social occasions, the ceremonies, and we can attend the celebrations of our society. We can get involved in all of those things; and we really don’t have to fear, because we’re so confident, we’re so mature that that stuff just doesn’t really bother us. And if we have to eat idol meat, meat offered to idols, that’s really no problem; we’re able to resist the temptation. And even if there is an orgy there, why, we’ll just sit in the corner and discuss theology. We’re not going to really get involved, and we’ll be strong enough to handle it.” And so everywhere these mature, smug, confident Corinthians went, they were exposing themselves to the whole gamut of idolatry that was around them and trying to stay separated. But could they?

“Look at Israel,” – Paul says – “look at them, hardly out of Egypt. And out in the desert there weren’t even any idols around; but the first opportunity they had, the first time their leader was gone, they reverted back to Egyptian idolatry.” And here were the Corinthians not like Israel in the wilderness, but living in the middle of idolatry. And if the Corinthians continually expose themselves to idolatry, they were constantly being a part of it. Believe me, it would creep right in.

Is Paul not overstating his case by talking about ‘demons’ in this context? No.

MacArthur says that there are several references to demons and idolatry in the Old Testament:

When you go out and do what the rest of the world does, when you participate in the rest of the world’s activities, you are communing with demons. That’s Paul’s whole point here. It’s demonic. Because Satan is the prince of this world, and because he rules in this world by the use of his demons, his demons move around and impersonate all the religious systems of the world. His demons fill and maintain all of the evil systems of this world. No matter what you get into, you’re communing with them, and you can’t avoid it. It’s a serious thing.

In Psalm 96:5, the Greek translation of that verse is this: “All the gods of the heathen are demons” – that’s the Septuagint, the Greek – “All the gods of the nations” – or – “All the God’s of the heathen are demons.” If they worship a false god, a demon will impersonate it. Deuteronomy 32:17 and Psalm 106:37 say the same thing, “They sacrifice to demons.” So, they’re fellowshipping with demons.

So, here you have a Christian. He’s over here, and he’s communing with the Lord, and he’s got the cup and the bread. Then he turns around and goes to an idol feast. And as soon as he enters that idol feast and participates, he becomes a communer with demons. A communer with demons.

This can be extended to other worldly things and activities, too. MacArthur has a bit in one of his sermons about sexual temptation in this context:

You say, “Well, I’m a Christian, I can handle it. I can go here and do that, and go here and do that.” You know, young people, it’s amazing. Young people always thing they’re in control of everything. “Well, you know, I can go out and park and, you know, I can handle it. I’m a Christian. We just get so far, and then we just start quoting Bible verses, you know. Yeah, we got a little program worked out, you know.” Yeah, sure. Or, listen, “It’s no problem for me. I can handle the girls in the office, no problem. I can have lunch with them and dinner with them; it doesn’t bother me a bit.” Mm-hmm, famous last words.

“Oh, yeah,” pastor says. “Oh, counseling women, no problem at all. No, none at all.” I just heard of a pastor who lost his pulpit because there were multiple dozens of women who had had sexual relations with him in counseling, I mean multiple dozens, folks. You can handle it? You better not push your freedom too far. Many Christians today have been rendered useless because they couldn’t handle sex. They’re out of the race to win people to Christ – shelved.

MacArthur discusses our society today, comparing it with that of the Corinthians:

Look at the morality of our day. The morality of the church has changed dramatically, and the reason it’s changed so dramatically is because we have been slowly brainwashed. Like fifty years ago, the morality of Christianity was much tighter, much more rigid, much more confined to the Scripture. And now, little by little, the morality of even “Christianity” begins to dissipate; and the reason is because we’re in a society that is destroying all morality, that is wiping out all morality, and consequently we find ourselves buying the bag. Just subliminally it approaches our minds, and before we know it we’ve got a watered down morality. And some of the things we would do, some of the places we would go wouldn’t even have been conceived of by Christians fifty years ago. The reason is we have slowly been brainwashed by the media.

Paul is, in a sense, saying to the Corinthians, “You can’t set yourself up as somebody who thinks he stands without potentially falling; and especially you’ll never be able to just waltz around your whole with idolatry and not have it affect you. You’re going to come up with a syncretism. You’re going to come up with a wedding between idolatry and true worship.”

Now verse 7, “Neither be idolaters, as were some of them,” notes that not all Israel worshipped at the golden calf; some of them did. It was an individual thing. Again, in dealing with Israel in the wilderness, remember everything that occurred was an individual thing. And so in Corinth the same thing was true.

Look at chapter 5, verse 11. Some Corinthian Christians were idolatrous. They had already made this wedding of Christianity to idol worship. Verse 11: “I’ve written unto you not to company if any man that is called a brother.” Now he’s talking about Christians. “Anybody called a brother” – or at least called himself a Christian – “be a fornicator,” – sexually evil – “a covetous, or an” – what? – “idolater, don’t have anything to do with him.” But apparently within the congregation of the Corinthian believers, there were some worshipping idols. You see, by fooling around with that, they couldn’t keep separated.

It slowly creeps in. It insidiously comes in. You can’t continue to expose yourself to that and not have it affect your theology and find a place there. The line gets blurred, folks. It just gets blurred he said. And idolatry suddenly creeps in when freedom is abused by getting too close to the contact.

Those are the reasons why Paul says to flee from idolatry (verse 14).

He leaves it to the Corinthians to judge for themselves the truth of that statement (verse 15).

Then he discusses Holy Communion. He asks whether taking the bread and the cup are not participation in the body and the blood of Christ (verse 16). Furthermore, do we not commune with each other when we participate in that holy sacrament together (verse 17)?

Paul is saying that Holy Communion is a solemn occasion, one that cannot be defiled with participation in idolatry later on in the day.

MacArthur explains the significance of Holy Communion:

One of the words, eucharisteō, from which you get the Eucharist, means to give thanks. It is to thank God for that cup. And so, the cup of blessing, that is the one the Lord blessed and set apart, is the one that we bless and thank God for.

Now, what is it? What is this cup? Verse 16 again, “Is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?” Now, when you drink the cup at the Lord’s Table – listen to this – you are communing with the blood of Christ. Now, we have to understand something, because this is very, very misunderstood. What does this mean? What does it mean to commune? It’s more than a symbol.

We say, “Well, this is a symbol of his blood.”

Well, listen to this. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the symbol of the blood of Christ? Is that what it says? No. It’s more than the symbol. It is the communion; it is the, if you will, in the Greek, participation, or it is the sharing. It’s an actual involvement that’s taking place when we take that cup. There is a spiritual reality going on there, far more than just a symbol.

For example, if you see a picture of somebody you love who has died, it isn’t just a picture. As soon as you look at the picture, the whole of that person is actualized in your mind. Right? All of a sudden, everything about that person is alive to you. I look at pictures of people that have gone on, and I have instant memories. My mind is flooded with reality. They are actualized. And communion is the same thing.

To partake of the elements actualizes Christ’s death; it makes it vivid; it makes it real; it intensifies my sensitivities to the reality of Christ dying for me. You see? It isn’t just a symbol; it is a symbol that is activated by the Spirit of God to make Christ’s death a living reality to me. That’s the idea of communion

Now, let’s go a step further, verse 16, “The bread” – or literally the loaf, to correspond more with cup – “The loaf which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”

Now, our Lord said of the bread, that last night, “This is My body, given for you.” Now body – now, I want to say something, too, that may be new to you – “body” in Hebrew thought refers to the totality of earthy life, earthiness, humanness. For example, the word for earth is adamah. The word for man is adam. It’s a form of adamah, because man was taken from the dirt. He is earthy. “And God took the dirt and formed a body.” Adam from adamah.

And that is the point that connects man to the ground, to the earth, to earthiness. We are human, and that is the significance of the body. When a Hebrew thought of the body, he thought of earthiness; he thought of man’s connection to the ground, to his humanness.

Now, note; when we commune with the bread, it is the body of Christ. This is not primarily a reference to the cross. Stick with me on it. It is not primarily a reference to the cross. By the bread we remember and commune with our Lord’s incarnation, His human life, his humanness. We remember that which makes Him a sympathetic High Priest, as well as a bleeding, dying Savior.

The communion, then, relates us to the living Christ who came and suffered and thought it not something to hold onto, to be equal with God, but found Himself in the fashion of a man, humbled Himself, and so forth. And He did it in order that He might become a sympathetic High Priest in all points, tempted like as – what? – we are. The bread reminds us of His life. The bread reminds us of His body, reminds us of His humanness.

God gave Himself to us as a human being in order that He might suffer what we suffer, in order that He might hurt where we hurt, in order that He might be tempted where we’re tempted, in order that He might succor us, in order that He might be our faithful, sympathetic, and Great High Priest

There is an actual communion that occurs. Let me show you what I mean. There is confusion about that, and there are different views of how that works. The word koinōnia there, communion in verse 16, is the word to participate. The verb means to share, or to partake of, or to participate, or to be a partner in. The noun koinōnia means participation, partnership, fellowship, communion.

As a Christian, we literally participate in Christ. First Corinthians 1:9 says we participate with the Son; 2 Corinthians 13, we participate with the Spirit; Philippians 2:1, we participate in the ministry; 2 Corinthians 8:4, we participate in the Gospel; Philippians 3, we participate in suffering. We are fellowshipping all the time with Christ, sharing Him, His Spirit, His ministry, His Gospel, His sufferings. And when we come to the Table, we participate in His death. We are sharing the benefits of His death. That’s what it means. We are sharing in the meaning of His death, the purpose of it, the point of it.

So, it’s more than just remembering; it’s sharing, fellowshipping, participating, partaking, communing. It’s like that picture I mentioned. We come to that, and you look at the cup, and you look at the bread, and they aren’t just a cup and bread. They aren’t even just symbols. All of a sudden, Christ is alive. All of a sudden, you are sensitized. And the reality of Christ is actualized in your mind, and you see His cross, and you see your union with Him, and you see His body, and you see it given in your behalf. And you see the fact that He lived, and He suffered, and He’s a sympathetic high priest. All of that is actualized

Everybody who comes to the Lord’s Table … not only enters into communion with Christ, but He enters into communion with everybody else who’s also at the Lord’s Table. Do you see what he’s saying? We all come to that one bread; we all partake of that one bread, so we all constitute one body. Communion then means we are actually communing with Christ and actually communing with everybody else who’s there.

Paul reminds the Corinthians of the way the Israelites worshipped together with regard to their sacrifices (verse 18).

MacArthur says:

Israel was involved in sacrificing. They were involved with each other, and they were involved with God. So, what is he saying then? Participation in religious ri[te]s has deep, spiritual meaning. It implies a real union between the worshippers and the one being worshipped. That’s what he’s saying. So, you can’t do this with idols without having that reality take place.

Israel brought sacrifices, a portion of which were consumed by the priests, a portion of which were burned on the altar. The rest were divided between the priest and the worshipping Jew. And there was a communion between the Jew, the priest, and God as they partook of the altar. Now, that’s Paul’s point. Worship is identification, communion with whoever’s being worshipped.

So, if you’re going to be like Israel, in verse 18, communion with the altar for the Jews meant fellowship with God and everybody else at the altar. Communion with Christ at the Lord’s Supper, for the Christian, means fellowship with Christ and everybody else at His Table.

Paul asks the question some of the Corinthians were asking: was an idol nothing at all (verse 19)? If not, then what was the problem?

Matthew Henry explains:

By following the principle on which they would argue it to be lawful, namely, that an idol was nothing. Many of them were nothing at all, none of them had any divinity in them. What was sacrificed to idols was nothing, no way changed from what it was before, but was every whit as fit for food, considered in itself. They indeed seem to argue that, because an idol was nothing, what was offered was no sacrifice, but common and ordinary food, of which they might therefore eat with as little scruple. Now the apostle allows that the food was not changed as to its nature, was as fit to be eaten as common food, where it was set before any who knew not of its having been offered to an idol.

However, Paul answers their question by saying that pagans were making sacrifices to false gods — demons — and not to God (verse 20). Therefore, Paul told the Corinthians they could not participate with demons.

Henry sums the verse up as follows:

Doing it is a token of your having fellowship with the demons to whom they are offered. I would not have you be in communion with devils.

Paul tells the Corinthians that they cannot worship at the Lord’s Table and worship demons (verse 21). The two are completely incompatible.

Paul ends by asking the Corinthians if they wish to provoke God to jealousy and if they think they are stronger than He (verse 22). God will not put up with rivals. And if we fall into His wrath, we will be the losers in that contest.

The Bible has numerous references to God’s ‘jealousy’. MacArthur lists them:

Do you want to make the Lord jealous? And in Deuteronomy 32:21 he said, “They have stirred me to jealousy with what is a no-god. They have provoked me with their idols.” If you want to stir God to jealousy, then you better be stronger than He is or you won’t be able to handle Him, because He deals very strongly with idolatry. All you got to do is read the Bible about that. You just read Deuteronomy 7, Deuteronomy 16, Deuteronomy 17, Jeremiah 25, Jeremiah 44; just read Revelation chapter 14, chapter 21, chapter 22. There are inferences in all of those places about the vengeance of God against idols and idol worshippers. The only way you’ll ever want to provoke God to jealousy is if you’re stronger than He is. It’s offensive to the Lord. He judges idol worshippers, and you won’t escape; no one ever has. It’s a dangerous place to be.

Paul concludes his thoughts on idolatry by telling the Corinthians to focus on doing everything for God’s glory. More on that next week.

Next time — 1 Corinthians 10:23-33

Most of us would say that we keep the first Commandment: thou shalt have no other gods before Me.  Nevertheless, others may be a bit unsure.

The Revd Martin Downes at Against Heresies provided a helpful quote from Martin Luther on idolatry.  It is resonant even today and worth reading in full.  Here are a few excerpts (emphases mine):

That upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god …

If you have a heart that can expect of Him nothing but what is good, especially in want and distress, and that, moreover, renounces and forsakes everything that is not God, then you have the only true God.

If, on the contrary, it cleaves to anything else, of which it expects more good and help than of God, and does not take refuge in Him, but in adversity flees from Him, then you have an idol, another god.

Luther asks us to ‘examine our hearts’ accordingly.  Not a bad exercise.  Many good people get caught up in placing their confidence in the temporal: position at work or in the community, money, politics, social issues, food, botox, prescription drugs to tranquilise the mind, alcohol.  Most of us have fallen prey to one of these over the years.  Some of us are probably in thrall to one or two of them right now.

As a Lenten exercise, let’s do an examination of conscience asking ourselves when, where and how often we rely on earthly crutches to the point of idolatry.  Can we do without another drink?  Can we get through a stressful meeting without reaching for yet another muffin?  How often do we use retail therapy as a palliative?  Is the energy-saving lightbulb buying us salvation?  Do the social justice issues we espouse make us feel more worthy than they should?

Then let us pray for guidance and strength in avoiding these temptations.  A little of what we fancy is good — too much, though, and we become captives.

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