Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. – 1 Corinthians 10:7-14 ESV
To Paul, the Corinthians had a far too casual approach to sin. He has already chastised them for their laissez faire approach to the sexual sin taking place in their midst. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (1 Corinthians 5:1 ESV). They were overly tolerant and dangerously permissive when it came to sin. And they had developed an unhealthy arrogance regarding their own spirituality and standing before God. Which is what led to warn them, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12 ESV). Paul has resorted to using the Israelites as an object lesson. Their status as God’s chosen people had not prevented them from sinning or protected them from God’s punishment. They had enjoyed all the privileges and blessings of God’s favor, but had proven to be unfaithful in the end. And Paul warns the Corinthians, “Do not be idolaters as some of them were” (1 Corinthians 10:7a ESV). Like the Corinthians, the Israelites had been redeemed from a culture in which idol worship was commonplace. In Egypt, the Israelites had been surrounded by a plethora of false gods. It was toward many of these false gods that the ten plagues were directed. God had proven Himself superior to the false gods of Egypt, providing convincing evidence to the Israelites that He was the one true God. But in the end, they resorted back to the worship of idols. They went back to what they found familiar and comfortable.
The Corinthians found themselves in similar circumstances. Most, if not all of them, had pagan backgrounds. They had been idol worshipers when Paul and others had brought the good news of Jesus Christ to their city. As a result of God’s grace, they had been redeemed from slavery to sin and delivered from their hopeless worship of false gods. And Paul wants them to have nothing to do with idolatry any more, which is why he tells them to “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14b ESV). They were not to dabble with it, cozy up to it, or have anything to do with it. That included attending any feasts associated with it. Paul knew the Corinthians had a problem with compromise. They had already compromised their moral convictions and it was not impossible to consider that they might compromise their worship of God by associating with idol worship and justifying their actions as harmless.
Again, Paul uses the Israelites as an example. “The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry” (1 Corinthians 10:7 NLT). This refers to the time when Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God and, while he was gone, the Israelites forced Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship. Moses records the events of that infamous day:
So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. – Exodus 32:3-6 ESV
And God was angry. He told Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Exodus 32:9-10 ESV). They were arrogant, prideful and lacking in fear of God. They didn’t honor and revere Him. Despite all He had done for them, they turned their backs on Him. And at the end of the day, that is what idolatry really is. It is turning to something other than God as our source of provision and power, significance and security. It doesn’t have to be a golden calf. We can end up worshiping our career, family, finances, talents, or even our status as God’s chosen people. In other words, we can easily resort to worshiping our salvation instead of our Savior. We can put our hope in out eternal security rather than in the one who secured our eternity for us.
Paul is warning them and us against developing a casual attitude toward idolatry. Idol worship is nothing more than unfaithfulness to God. It is a form of spiritual adultery, making more of something or someone else other than God. Tim Keller gives a great definition of idolatry in his book, Counterfeit Gods.
What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…
An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.
The Israelites were disciplined by God for their unfaithfulness. They put God to the test “and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Corinthians 10:8 ESV). And Paul warns us, “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer” (1 Corinthians 10:9-10 ESV). Just because we are in Christ, doesn’t mean we have the right to insult Christ by giving our affections and attentions to something or someone other than Him. We are to flee from idolatry in all its forms. The Corinthians were worshiping their right to eat meat sacrificed to idols. It wasn’t that they were worshiping the idols, but they were elevating their freedom to enjoy the pleasures of this life over their submission to the will of God for their life. We cannot afford to get cocky or comfortable. Which is why Paul warns us, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12 ESV). We each face the constant temptation to worship something other than God. But, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV).