The Idolatry of the Modern Church

Paul writes to the Corinthian church, admonishing the congregation toward unity through maturity. Leading into this pericope, Paul expounded on Christian liberty and responsibility—referring to himself as a voluntary slave to all people and admonishing the local church to relate to those who are of the world for the sake of the Gospel. Further, Paul made contextualization a salvific issue. If we are in Christ, we go to others, identify with them, for the sake of the gospel so that we, ourselves, will not be disqualified from partaking in the gospel. In Chapter 10, Paul explains why contextualization, identifying with the worst of sinners in the world, is such a serious and salvific matter.

1 Corinthians 10:1-14

10.1 Οὐ θέλω γὰρ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν πάντες ὑπὸ τὴν νεφέλην ἦσαν καὶ πάντες διὰ τῆς θαλάσσης διῆλθον,  2 καὶ πάντες εἰς τὸν Μωϋσῆν ἐβαπτίσαντο ἐν τῇ νεφέλῃ καὶ ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ,  3 καὶ πάντες τὸ αὐτὸ πνευματικὸν βρῶμα ἔφαγον  4 καὶ πάντες τὸ αὐτὸ πνευματικὸν ἔπιον πόμα, ἔπινον γὰρ ἐκ πνευματικῆς ἀκολουθούσης πέτρας, ἡ πέτρα δὲ ἦν ὁ Χριστός·  5 ἀλλʼ οὐκ ἐν τοῖς πλείοσιν αὐτῶν ηὐδόκησεν ὁ θεός, κατεστρώθησαν γὰρ ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ.  

6 Ταῦτα δὲ τύποι ἡμῶν ἐγενήθησαν, εἰς τὸ μὴ εἶναι ἡμᾶς ἐπιθυμητὰς κακῶν, καθὼς κἀκεῖνοι ἐπεθύμησαν.  7 μηδὲ εἰδωλολάτραι γίνεσθε, καθώς τινες αὐτῶν· ὥσπερ γέγραπται· Ἐκάθισεν ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πεῖν, καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν.  8 μηδὲ πορνεύωμεν, καθώς τινες αὐτῶν ἐπόρνευσαν, καὶ ἔπεσαν μιᾷ ἡμέρᾳ εἴκοσι τρεῖς χιλιάδες.  9 μηδὲ ἐκπειράζωμεν τὸν Χριστόν, καθώς τινες αὐτῶν ἐπείρασαν, καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν ὄφεων ἀπώλλυντο.  10 μηδὲ γογγύζετε, καθάπερ τινὲς αὐτῶν ἐγόγγυσαν, καὶ ἀπώλοντο ὑπὸ τοῦ ὀλοθρευτοῦ.  11 ταῦτα δὲ τυπικῶς συνέβαινεν ἐκείνοις, ἐγράφη δὲ πρὸς νουθεσίαν ἡμῶν, εἰς οὓς τὰ τέλη τῶν αἰώνων κατήντηκεν.  12 ὥστε ὁ δοκῶν ἑστάναι βλεπέτω μὴ πέσῃ,  13 πειρασμὸς ὑμᾶς οὐκ εἴληφεν εἰ μὴ ἀνθρώπινος· πιστὸς δὲ ὁ θεός, ὃς οὐκ ἐάσει ὑμᾶς πειρασθῆναι ὑπὲρ ὃ δύνασθε, ἀλλὰ ποιήσει σὺν τῷ πειρασμῷ καὶ τὴν ἔκβασιν τοῦ δύνασθαι ὑπενεγκεῖν.  

14 Διόπερ, ἀγαπητοί μου, φεύγετε ἀπὸ τῆς εἰδωλολατρίας.

Seeing God work (v. 1-5)

For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 

Paul begins with the word “For,” which could also be translated, “Because.” He is about to explain his reasoning for making the contextualization of the gospel such a big deal, even a salvific issue—lest anyone disqualify himself from partaking in that gospel. Paul does not want the Corinthian “Christians” to be unaware. It is good to have biblical knowledge and understanding, an awareness of what God did and why.

Paul references “Our fathers,” God’s chosen people of the past—the covenantal ancestry of the Corinthian church. This covenant ancestry is not necessarily a spiritual or eschatological ancestry, as we are about to see. Yet, they were those among whom God worked mighty wonders in the past. Paul alludes to the Exodus. In the Exodus, the Israelites followed a providential cloud (Exodus 13:21) and passed through the red sea on dry ground as they escaped their Egyptian overlords (Exodus 14:22, 29). In being saved by God’s work through Moses, they were baptized into Moses—the vessel God used to save them from the hand of the Egyptians. Baptized, here, does not refer to the baptism of spiritual salvation but of national salvation—which was a type of what Christ would do on Calvary. The Israelites at manna from heaven to sustain them in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4, 35). They drank the water that miraculously flowed from the rock (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11). Paul clues us in, telling us that the rock was Christ. Not that the rock was transubstantive, but it was a type of Christ.

Can you imagine having been around for all of these miraculous things recounted in Exodus? I cannot fathom what it must have been like to have the sea stand up so I might walk across it on dry ground. I cannot dream of following a pillar of fire or great cloud to the promised land. I would never dream that, after complaining to God about my hunger, bread would fall from the sky to feed me or water from the rock—which opened when it was struck. The Israelites experienced God’s work firsthand. They experienced the movement of the Holy Spirit. They experienced Christ, for the rock was Christ.

Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.

Even though the Israelites experienced God, God was not well-pleased with most of them—which is why they were sentenced to an extra forty years of God’s miracles in the wilderness. They cared so much about their own experience of things that God gave them more. Pay attention, church.

Saying in sin (v. 6-12)

Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

God had a purpose for bringing about the events of the Exodus, and there is a recognition of the historicity of the Exodus account here. These things really happened so we might have an example of what it means to crave evil things in the local church like the Israelites craved in the Exodus. Even though the Israelites experienced the miracles of God, they fashioned a golden calf and worshipped it. They sat down to eat around it and stood up to play, a sexual term, and dance in its honor. They wanted some kind of feel-good, selfish religion by which their ears were tickled and their senses pleased. As a result, even though they experienced God moving, God killed twenty-three thousand of them because of their idolatry (cf. Exodus 32). Paul is admonishing the Corinthian believers not to be like them, who were destroyed by the serpents. Paul admonishes us not to act immorally, try the Lord, or grumble in any way—lest they be destroyed by the destroyer, be disqualified from partaking in the gospel.

Paul, here, identifies the time he is living in as the end of the ages. He sees the Corinthian church as going through the end-times. If Christ’s kingdom was established at His incarnation and will be consecrated at His return, Paul’s language makes sense. The end of the ages began with Christ’s incarnation and continues to His second coming—a period in which the wheat is being separated from the weeds and Christ’s people are being sanctified for the resurrection. Paul’s language, here, is very postmillennial. 

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.

Many people experience God moving. Why? God is always moving in all places at all times. He is omnipresent and sustains all things by His word. It is nothing special to experience God, the movement of the Spirit, or to encounter Christ. Even the Israelites did in the wilderness, yet God was not pleased with them. If any of us measures our faith by our experiences, how many miracles we see, signs and wonders, sensuality, the filling of our preferences or expectations—let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. Fall into what? If Paul is speaking in the context of religious people disqualifying themselves from partaking in the gospel (eternal life), then he writes here of falling into damnation. There is a type of religion that causes people to fall into damnation. This is it.

It is tempting for all people to, instead of identifying with the wretched people of the world, think that they are better off because of their experiences—whether they’ve seen miracles, had their ears tickled, been flattered, felt good in church, or anything else. A spiritual superiority complex develops that actually damns them. So, we have all these Christians walking around convinced of their own salvation, but they have defined their faith according to their experiences and religiosity. Scripture is clear; They are damned—having fashioned a church or religion for themselves based on what they perceive as right and good rather than God’s instruction. This is a salvific matter, and so many so-called Christians are running to Hell and taking others with them. Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.

Swaying toward idolatry (v. 13-14)

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

Speaking to the Corinthians believers, Paul believes that this temptation has overtaken the members of the local church (you, plural). People are concerned about their own preferences, expectations, pleasures, and sensibilities. Instead of identifying with the wretches of the world for the sake of the gospel, they identify selfishly and look down on others for not meeting their expectations or profiting them in some way. This temptation is common to man. Even though this temptation has overtaken the Corinthian congregation, God is faithful like He was toward national Israel. Paul ensures the church at Corinth that God will not allow her to be tempted beyond what she is able but will provide a way of escape so that the local church will be able to endure the temptation that has overtaken the congregation.

Here, you’ll see a difference between the way I am presenting this passage and the way it is most often presented. Most preachers present it as if it is about an individual being overtaken by some secret sin. If we do not pluck Paul’s statements from their context, we see that he is addressing a local church. Temptation to become self-righteous, self-indulgent, people of flattery, pleasure, and guarded sensibilities is common to man and overcomes local churches. God provides the local church a way to endure such temptation and maintain unity in the body through maturity in Christ. We should not read this selection out of context, as if it were written in reference to individualistic religion. The local church endures temptation together. Temptation cannot be endured apart from the covenant local church. God designed the church community for this kind of admonition and accountability for the purpose of bringing maturity and unity to His people according to Paul in 1 Corinthians. What is the way God has provided to endure such temptation—temptation that opens the door to the damnation of an entire congregation? Paul answers:

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

Even though Paul used the Exodus example of idolatry, the idolatry in Corinth is the idolatry of self—a refusal to identify with others and a promotion of personal expectations, preferences, pleasures, and sensibilities. We can endure such temptation by fleeing any form of idolatry—particularly the idolatry of self, my expectations, preferences, pleasures, and sensibilities.— and actually identifying with others while not presenting myself as better than them. As soon as we believe we can flee from idolatry by ourselves apart from the local church on this earth, we have given ourselves over to the idolatry of self—which describes most western religion.

This is Paul’s explanation as to why contextualization and evangelism are salvific issues. This is what it means to love others rather than be lovers of self. I want to call this type of living personal kenosis. We empty ourselves to live with, for, and like others for the sake of the gospel (but without sinning). We can either be lovers of self, which leads to the damnation of the local church body (and possibly our personal damnation), or deniers of self, which is the way Christ taught us to live as His people. May our local church be after God’s own heart. May we never define our faith by our experiences and so be exiled to the wilderness and disqualified from partaking in the gospel. By our works, we disqualify ourselves from eternal life. Only by redemption in Christ can we be saved from our wretched, self-interested, ways.


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