Idolatry. Responsible for the first fallen angel, the last condemned sinner, and almost every evil in between. Idolatry springs from pride, selfishness, entitlement, unbelief, and godlessness. Without idolatry there would be no envy; no strife; no wars; no sin. Little wonder why the first and second commandments deal with whom we must worship and how we must worship him, respectively. Little doubt these are given firstly because our God of perfect order knew they must take absolute precedence over all else regarding our relationship with him.
Idolatry: the worship of a picture or object as a god; the worship of a physical object as a god; immoderate attachment or devotion to something.
Satan’s sin was idolatry. Eve’s sin was idolatry. Need I mention Joseph’s brothers? David? Jezebel? Judas? Idolatry devastated them all.
The biggest issue the earliest Christians had in the church was…idolatry. Christian Jews who had previously been forbidden could not fathom eating meat sacrificed to idols. Gentiles who had previously been imbibing on far worse couldn’t see the big deal. Pagans who had no intention to repent kept worshiping blatantly in the idols’ temples.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is. This is our culture. Then, now, but, praise God, not forever.
The days are evil. We must be wise, not foolish, and understand what the will of the Lord is. How do we deal with our innate desire to be God and to worship anything but him?
Paul’s instruction for us regarding how and why we should most certainly abstain from that which is permissible at best, but clearly questionable in the eyes of many is pretty straightforward.
For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak,you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. ~1 Corinthians 8:10-13
Paul, as the reputable leader he was, is setting a very high standard with his love-focused, self-denying example. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
Here is a man who was far more concerned with loving well those over whom God had given him influence than with thumbing his nose at those who sought to restrict his self-absorbed freedom. Precious little doubt which group Jesus concerned himself with as well.
So we never see Paul strutting around in the idols’ temples on a mission to make known his Christian liberty in the face of certain Jews who would tell him he did not have it. On the contrary, we find only the law of love at work as he abstained from all he knew would hinder his brothers (1 Corinthians 8), circumcising Timothy (Acts 16), taking a Nazarite vow (Acts 18), and allowing for the most drastic changes associated with the New Covenant to be held off for those who could not readily accept them in good conscience (Acts 15).
Apparently it isn’t just statues and the eating of lifeblood that constituted idolatry. I guess it never really was. Idolatry is that motive lying behind every work that exalts a man above the will of God and the good of others for the sake of self – even in the most lawful things. How much more in those things which are unlawful!
Therefore, Paul willingly abstains. He isn’t begrudgingly submitting. He is sacrificially loving – and this he lives to do! Make no mistake, he writes with great zeal concerning this issue saying, “…I will never eat meat…” (if I must not.) He knows his culture, he knows his brothers, and he is not about to injure them for the sake of his own flesh. He was truly an imitator of God.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2 And walk in love,as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. ~Ephesians 5:1
Paul goes on in Ephesians 5 to speak about sexual sin, impurity, and coarse joking. Guess what was going on in the idols’ temples? Sexual sin, impurity, and coarse joking. The words he uses regarding these things are pret-ty clear. He instructs his followers to shun them and avoid all association. He reminds his brothers and sisters of the grave severity of these practices. He warns them of the coming judgement for those who practice them and the great danger of participating with them. He knows well the great temptations he and his friends are met with in both the Corinthian and Ephesian cultures of pagan idolatry. He knows their great tendency to believe the Devil’s first lie about sin: You shall not surely die. So, he tells his friends to “Walk as children of the light.” He tells them what light looks like, “for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.” He tells them to “ and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” Why?
Good leader Paul knows his friends. Good leader Paul loves his brothers. Good leader Paul understands the immense pressure they are under to conform to and imbibe in the ubiquitous godlessness in the world in which they all live. Therefore, he tells them to take no part in darkness…and he does not make use of any liberty that would destroy his example or hinder their progress. He directs them to expose the evil they encounter, be careful and wise, and be filled with the Spirit, holy songs, and thankfulness. He warns them not to waste time, get drunk, or be foolish. I guess idols’ temples tend to have those kinds of results.
What he did not say was, “Did you know we are allowed to eat dinner at the temple, guys? I do it all the time! I’m going this Friday night. Who wants to come?” How ridiculous. Neither was he justifying any such action with Cain’s arrogance saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” How absurd.
Matthew Henry writes, “There are many ways of our being accessory to the sins of others, by commendation, counsel, consent, or concealment…We must not only dread and avoid that which is displeasing to God but inquire and consider what will be acceptable to him, searching the scriptures with this view, thus keeping at the greatest distance from these sins.”
Clearly, Christian liberty is never a license to sin, approve of sin, accept sin, or disregard sin. Food and drink is neutral — unless we possess knowledge that it grieves our brothers’ and sisters’ consciences. Sexual immorality and course joking is not neutral. Our culture, very like unto the culture of Corinth and Ephesus, tends to try to confuse the facts on matters of Christian liberty here. Do not buy it. The temptations of idolatry are never far from our own hearts no matter how spiritually mature we may think we are. We must live by the law – not of legal duties or legalism but of love - towards both God and our brothers. Because it is not about keeping rules, it is about keeping pure, keeping faith, keeping good conscience, and keeping ourselves and our brothers from the enslavement of sin as much as it depends on us.
Beware the idols’ temples, friends – where the jokes are coarse, the dress is scandalous, and the food and the sin are worshiped as gods. Even if you still believe that in good conscience you can go, it does not mean you should. Instead, let’s learn how to be imitators of God – ever willing to sacrifice and abstain from what is neither necessary nor edifying.
“If we must be so careful not to occasion other men’s sins, how careful should we be to avoid sin ourselves! If we must not endanger other men’s souls, how much should we be concerned not to destroy our own!” ~Matthew Henry