Idolatry, the Lord's Supper, and the Body of Christ
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in 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. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?
The Two-Sided Error of the Corinthians
What 1 Corinthians 10 is about is the way the Corinthians had overestimated the power of the Lord's Supper as sacramental food, and had underestimated the purpose of the Lord's Supper as spiritual fellowship with Christ.
In other words, they saw eating the bread and drinking the cup as a kind of sacramental antidote to any ill effects that might come from tasting the poison of idolatry. And so they overestimated the power of the Lord's Supper.
And they failed to see that the purpose of eating the bread and drinking the cup was to share in the life of Christ and to fellowship with him as one body. And so they underestimated the purpose of the Lord's Supper, and thus its true power in the fight against idolatry and sin.
And both their overestimation of its power to immunize, and their underestimation of its purpose to nourish fellowship with Christ, made them vulnerable to sin. And not only to sin, but to entanglement with demons.
The Tremendous Seriousness of Such Error
And so what we are dealing with here is something tremendously serious in the life of the church. The Lord's Supper is precious beyond words as a gift from Jesus to his church not only as a reminder of his death for us, but also as an occasion when he draws near to nourish our intimacy with him and strengthen us by his shed blood and his broken body. And yet it is possible to overestimate the power of the Lord's Supper and actually make it an encouragement for sinning.
And so I want us to unpack these two mistakes that the Corinthians were making. The aim is that we not make them ourselves, but rather have a biblically balanced view of the Lord's Supper.
Idolatry Is the Dominant and Key Theme
The first thing we need to notice is that idolatry is the theme that holds this chapter together. Our text began in verse 14 with the command, "Therefore, my beloved, flee idolatry." Then again in verse 19 Paul says, "What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?" Then in verse 28 he says, "If anyone should say to you, 'This is meat sacrificed to idols,' do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience' sake." Then notice back nearer to the beginning of the chapter in verse 7: "And do not be idolaters, as some of them [the Israelites] were."
So running through the whole chapter is this concern with idolatry there in Corinth: verses 7, 14, 19, 28. The pagan sacrifices to idols in Corinth were a tough issue for the church. Do you eat the meat used in such sacrifices when it's resold in the market? Do you go to dinner in a person's house when they might use such meat? Can you participate in the ceremonies themselves? Idolatry was not a merely theoretical issue in Corinth. It was a real life everyday problem. And it still is today, though the idols and the sacrifices have changed.
1. Overestimating Its Power
The first mistake some of the Corinthians made was that they overestimated the power of the Lord's Supper to make them immune to the destructive effects of this idolatry.
Paul takes this up in verses 1–14. What Paul shows here is that the Corinthians were saying, "I eat God's sacramental food. I drink God's sacramental drink. I've been baptized into Christ with water. I am safe and secure and so nothing can threaten me, not even participation with my old friends in the feasts of idolatry. The Lord's Supper and baptism make me secure."
How Paul Warns the Corinthians
Now that is a grave mistake. And the way Paul shows it up is by comparing the blessing of the Christian ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper to the blessing of God on Israel when they went through the water of the Red Sea and ate miraculous manna in the wilderness and drank miraculous water from desert rocks. Watch how he gives his warning to the Corinthians who are relying on the power of food and drink to keep them safe from God's judgment.
1 I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud [i.e., the pillar of cloud that led Israel], and all passed through the sea [i.e., the Red Sea at the Exodus from Egypt]; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea [i.e., Israelites were blessed by God with a kind of "through the water" deliverance just as remarkable as yours]; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ [i.e., the manna and the miracle water were types, as verse 6 says, of what was to come, namely, the food and drink of the Lord's Supper]. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness [i.e., died in the wilderness and were kept out of the promised land]. 6 Now these things happened as examples [or types] for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. 7 And do not be idolaters, as some of them were.
Seeing the Error the Corinthians Were Making
Now we can see the mistake the Corinthians were making. They were overestimating the power of the Lord's Supper (and baptism) by thinking that if they just ate this food and drank this drink, God would be pleased with them and they would be safe from his judgment, even if they went on participating in the idol feasts of their Corinthian friends.
This is frighteningly close to the way millions of professing Christians view the Lord's Supper today—as a grace dispenser, a sacramental antidote that immunizes against all forms of worldly idolatry. If you show up and eat and drink, you are safe. And the rest of your life can be just as entangled in secularism and sin as all the rest of the world.
To this Paul says, No. You are not safe. Verse 12: "Let him who thinks that he stand take heed lest he fall." The Lord's Supper does not protect from the judgment of God if we go on craving and grumbling and idolizing the way the world does. Israelites came to ruin in the wilderness (v. 5). And the same thing could happen to you.
That was their first mistake: they overestimated the power of the Lord's Supper to protect them from the destructive effects of idolatry. They substituted sacramentalism for personal holiness.
2. Underestimating Its Purpose
The other mistake they made was that they underestimated the purpose of the Lord's Supper as spiritual fellowship with Christ.
The Lord's Supper is not an external, automatic impartation of divine protection. It is an experience of personal, spiritual fellowship with Christ. In the eating and drinking by faith we nourish ourselves on the blessings purchased by Christ's shed blood and broken body. And so this Supper really does help protect us from destruction by making us want to flee idolatry not by making us secure in idolatry.
Sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ
Let's see how Paul brings this out. Verse 14 says, "Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." Then he asks them to judge carefully what he says (v. 15), and then in verse 16 he gives his argument that should empower them to flee idolatry—and it's an argument from the nature of the Lord's Supper. This Supper really is powerful, but not the way the Corinthians were using it. He says, "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?"
Now what does this mean? This is what will make us want to flee idolatry—flee from the pagan feasts where idols are worshiped (v. 14) because in the Lord's Supper we are sharers in the blood of Christ and sharers in the body of Christ (v. 16). What does "sharing in the blood of Christ" and "sharing in the body of Christ" mean? Does it mean that we drink the physical blood and eat the physical body of Christ? Or is there another meaning? There are two clues in the immediate context, one in verse 18 and one in verse 20. Both these verses use this idea of "sharing." (See also 1:9.)
Sharing in the Benefits Purchased by Them
In verse 18 Paul says, "Look at the nation of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?" Now this does not mean that they eat the altar. It means that they share in the benefits of what happens on the altar. On the altar God removes guilt and forgives sin and makes peace and establishes a fellowship of thanksgiving and love. So to be a sharer in the altar is to share in all those things that God is doing at the altar.
This is probably what Paul means in verse 16 when he says that the bread is a sharing in the body of Christ and the cup is a sharing in the blood of Christ. When Christ was sacrificed on the cross and shed his blood and gave his body for us, God was removing guilt and forgiving sin and making peace and establishing fellowship with all who believe. And the purpose of the Lord's Supper is to receive from Christ the nourishment and strength and hope and joy that come from feasting our souls on all that he purchased for us on the cross, especially his own fellowship. We share in the body and the blood by sharing in the benefits that they bought—including, as verse 17 says, our unity in the body of Christ (as we saw last week from Ephesians 2:11–22).
Submitting to and Entering into Fellowship with Christ
Then verse 20 uses this word "sharers" again, and helps us see more of what verse 16 means. Start in verse 19: "What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? [Here he is guarding himself from a misinterpretation: he is not against participation in idol feasts because idols of wood and stone are anything.] No [v. 20 says], but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons."
So here is the key word again: sharers. What does it mean? Again it does not mean that we eat demons when we eat meat offered to idols. It means that we get entangled in their power. We submit to them. We become vulnerable to them. We enter into some kind of fellowship. We affirm them in some way and give them leeway in our lives.
So, that is also part of the meaning in verse 16, when it says that the cup is a sharing in the blood of Christ and the bread is a sharing in the body of Christ. It is a getting entangled with Christ and a submitting to Christ and being vulnerable to him and giving him leeway in your life and entering into fellowship with him. This is why we call the Lord's Supper "Communion." It is a communing with Christ rather than with demons.
Powerful Against Idolatry
And so what the Corinthians were underestimating was the real power of the Lord's Supper that comes from its true purpose, namely, to deepen and strengthen our participation in the benefits of the cross, or to nourish our fellowship with Christ himself. And the reason this is powerful against idolatry is given in verse 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." You can't. Because when you truly partake of the cup and the table of the Lord, you are being nourished and satisfied by the Lord, and loving the Lord, and delighting in the Lord, and trusting the Lord and fellowshipping with the Lord. That's what it means to share in the blood and body of Christ—to sit with Jesus at the banquet of the benefits of his death. In that kind of experience idols and demons lose all their attraction and all their power.
I conclude with this word of application. Today's text concerning the Lord's Supper is really about what you do when you are not at the Lord's Supper. It's about the threat of idolatry in your life every day. It's a word from God that says, What you just experienced with Christ in the Lord's Supper dare not—cannot—be profaned this week by your sitting down at the feast of idols. You know what they are in your life. So I say in the name of Christ and in the words of Paul: Flee from idolatry this week. For at this table this morning you have sat with Jesus at the banquet of the benefits of his death, and such an experience dare not be profaned.