Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 10. 1stCorinthians chapter 10. We’ve been making our way systematically through this letter, and tonight we will continue our series through chapter 10 in particular.
If you will remember, Paul is in the middle of an extended argument that had arisen over whether or not the Corinthian believers could eat meat that had been sacrificed to the false gods in the pagan temples of Corinth.
Paul’s basic argument was that the false gods are nothing, and meat is just meat. So, you’re free to eat if you want, or free to abstain if you want. This is his general principle that applies to anything not explicitly condemned in scripture. If it is not necessarily unlawful, then you’re not bound in the matter.
But he doesn’t just leave it there. In our passage tonight, he gets to what appears to be a foundational problem for some of the Corinthian believers who wanted to partake of the pagan temple meat. And as we will see, the heart of the problem is a problem of the heart.
The problem wasn’t merely that they were hungry and wanted some food. The problem was deeper than the belly. The problem was at their core, at the level of desires. The problem was a problem of idolatry. And when there is a heart-level idolatry, we will see that there are all manner of wicked fruits that follow.
Let’s begin by reading our passage, 1 Corinthians 10:1-14, though I don’t think we’ll make it all the way to verse 14 tonight. 1 Corinthians 10:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers,[a] that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food,4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown[b] in the wilderness.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 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.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ[c] to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 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. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 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.
14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
Last week we noted a first point of this passage, that in verses 1-5 that Paul wants us to see some Old Testament Experiences as an illustration. Their Experiences were meant to be an illustration for us. He mentioned the cloud and the pillar and the sea and the rock, all of which reference the Exodus story and subsequent events detailed in Exodus 14-17.
Now, we will move on to the second section in verses 6-10, and see the Examples given as a warning. Old Testament Examples given as a warning.
Look at verse 6 again: “6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” He says something similar in verse 11, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction.” God made sure that these stories were preserved in scripture SO THAT future believers would have examples, both positive and negative, of what to do and what not to do.
Paul is reminding the Corinthian believers of these stories for a purpose, which he explicitly states in verse 6: “that we might not desire evil as they did.” The NIV renders it “that we might not set our hearts on evil as they did,” but the old King James I think gets to the nub of the issue: that “we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.”
The issue is not merely desire, nor even the intensity of desire. Desire is not inherently evil. But Desire can become evil when 1 of two things happen: we either (A) desire something that it itself evil, OR (B) desire something that it itself not evil, but desire it to a point that we would sin to get it or keep it. Let me say those two things again, and then I’ll give us some examples.
Desire becomes evil when 1 of two things happen: we either (A) desire something that it itself evil, OR (B) desire something that it itself not evil, but desire it to a point that we would sin to get it or keep it.
The first one is pretty clear. If I desire something that is necessarily evil, then that desire itself is sin, even if I don’t act on it. If I desire to murder someone, or to steal, or I lust after someone, then those things are clearly wrong, they stem from impure, ungodly desires. They are the fruit of remaining wickedness in the heart.
But the second condition is a little more complex. That’s when I desire a good thing, but desire it in a way that I’d sin to get it or keep it. That’s like a single person who desires a spouse. That’s a good and godly desire, but if I desire a spouse so much that I’d lie about myself in order to get married, or if I would attempt to steal a spouse from someone else, then that’s clearly desire gone wrong. Its disordered desire. It’s desire that has transgressed into the realm of sinful lusts.
And we have this temptation all the time. For example, desire for a good reputation is a godly thing. Proverbs says that a good name, a good reputation, is better than riches, better than silver or gold. We should all seek to maintain a good reputation. However, if our desire for a good name leads us to lie about our performance, or to deceitfully embellish our resumé, to fudge the numbers on this form or that report, then our desire to have a good name has lead us into sinful idolatry.
Or maybe we frame the example in a different way. Maybe your desire to be seen as a good parent, which can be a godly desire, but it leads you to be harsh with your kids. You’re so afraid that they might misbehave in public and make YOU look bad, that you tighten down the thumb-screws on them and drive them to exasperation, lest they goof off and spoil your façade of being a wonderful parent who has it all together.
Any good desire can be perverted, and that can be one of Satan’s best tactics. If he can’t get you to desire the wrong thing, then he’ll get you to desire the right things, wrongly. That is, if he can’t entice you with outright sin, then he’ll seek to entice you to desire the right things, but in the wrong ways.
Back to the immediate issue in Corinth. Paul seems to be suggesting that some of the people were right in their understanding of the issues. Eating the idol-meat wasn’t necessarily a problem. But they were actually being led astray through the pagan temple worship. They weren’t merely seeking some meat for their bellies, they were desiring something more.
And we can do the same, if we’re not careful. Consider your own heart. What kinds of desires are swirling around in there. Do you often ask yourself that question? You should.
- Whenever you find yourself angry or frustrated, ask yourself what it is that you are desiring.
- When you find yourself fearful, or ashamed, or depressed, what is your heart’s desire in that moment?
- When you feel impatient or irritated, what is it that you are desiring in that moment?
The answers to these questions aren’t always cut and dry. And many times we need the help of other brothers and sisters to see the desires of our hearts more clearly. But the point is clear for us: Consider your own heart. Proverbs says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, because from it flow the springs of life.” Everything we do in life, everything we feel, all of it is downstream of the heart. It’s all downstream from desire.
Often, God will bring frustrations or trials in life, in order to reveal that we’ve been longing after the wrong things, or we’ve been longing after the right things, but in wrong ways.
He’ll bring a tough diagnosis to reveal someone who’s sinfully lusting after health, or a desire to remain perpetually youthful. He’ll bring a bad grade to someone who’s desire for a perfect GPA has become a sinful idol. He’ll bring a stubborn child into the home of a parent who trusts in their own strength.
And we need to remember through it all that God always afflicts in order to heal. God brings bruises in order to bless. He’s a skilled surgeon, cutting to cure, not cutting to crush us. Scripture says that he will not snuff out a smoldering wick, and a bruised reed he will not break. He knows your frame, he knows your condition, and he knows the precise treatment needed in order to expose the root of the problem.
And that’s part of what he’s doing in each of these situations, in each of your trials. He is allowing us to see what’s going on in our hearts, he’s exposing the root. He’s showing us what we would never have seen, never have noticed, never have corrected, had the trial or affliction not exposed our heart’s desires.
God in his kindness shows us when our desires are out of whack, because he knows that there is only one thing that is the proper root desire. There is only one thing that will satisfy our hearts: and that is communion with him.
God in Christ is the only thing that can meet the desires of your heart. Have you considered that? Every possible good desire, finds its ultimate satisfaction in Him.
- Are you lonely and desire companionship? Jesus is the best friend you could have. His companionship is not limited by time or space or even health. And in John chapter 15 Jesus says this: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay his life down for his friends… 15 No longer do I call you servants,[a] … but I have called you friends.” Jesus calls us friends, even at the cost of laying down his own life.
- Or maybe you desire a good name, a good reputation. Jesus can meet that desire too. Listen to the good names that Jesus gives to his people: Beloved. Conqueror. Mine. Lovely. Cherished. Prized. Protected. Redeemed. Saved. Faithful. These are just a few of the multitude of names that Jesus gives you when you come to him.
- Or maybe you desire security. Maybe you want to be free from fear, free from the “what-ifs” and the unknowns of the future. Well, in Jesus, you find satisfaction for that desire too. For by faith in Jesus, you are granted a future that is guaranteed. A future destination that is secure. You’re promised that not a hair falls from your head without your all-powerful heavenly father knowing it. You’re promised provision for everything needful. You’re promised that Satan himself has been disarmed against you, and you will be more than a conqueror. You’re promised eternal blessedness and security in the everlasting arms of your savior, and no created being can ever distract God’s attention, which is fixed on your eternal good. Romans 8 says that: “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s security. If you desire to be safe and secure, only Jesus can meet that desire fully.
Do you have good desires? Jesus can fulfill them. All we need do is receive him. Trust in his promises that are extended to you in scripture. Hear of him, and trust that he can and will fulfill your heart’s desires.
And if you find in yourself desires that aren’t what they should be, Jesus can help you too. Maybe you’ve felt yourself get sinfully angry at someone you love. Maybe you’ve greedily coveted things that don’t belong to you. Maybe you’ve lusted after what you know is not yours to have.
Whatever the sinful desire, the bible says that Jesus can help. And he can help because he promises exactly what we need. Our desires don’t arise from nowhere. They bubble up from a heart. And scripture says that we’re all born with a heart-condition. We all arrive on this planet with a heart that is tainted by sin. We’re curved in ourselves, prideful in our disposition, and warped in our desires. We long for the wrong things, and we long for the right things wrongly.
But Jesus knows the heart of our problem, and he addressed our heart problem, not by seeking to tweak this or adjust that. No, He offers us a new heart. He cures our condition through cardiac transplant. When we are united to Christ by faith, we’re granted a new heart of flesh, that replaces our heart of stone. In our calling and union with him, we’re given the one thing that we needed most.
The seat of our souls is solved. The core of our condition is cured. And if everything else is downstream of the heart, that’s good news for the rest of our lives and our actions. We’re renewed by the Holy Spirit, from the inside out. The spring has been purified, so all the streams can run untainted.
We actually can grow in holiness. And as we grow in Christ and are led by his holy spirit, we will see that our desires can re-directed in a godly way, and can actually be fulfilled. Christ continually re-orders our desires to right and Godly things, through His word and His Spirit, and he helps us continually pursue those right and godly things in the right ways. That’s another way of saying that Jesus helps make us holy, even at the level of our desires.
And that gives us hope, and it gives us a message of hope to give to the world. The world says that your identity is the SUM TOTAL of your desires. Whatever you desire in the moment, that’s what you are.
If you’re a man who desires another man, that’s what you are, and to try and change that desire is wrong, the world says. If you’re a man who desires to BE a woman, then that’s what you are, and to try and change that desire is WRONG.
But to be held bound by sinful desires is a terrible slavery. To be captive to your lusts is to be drug off in chains that you cannot break. You are no longer in control.
But praise be to God that we don’t have to be enslaved to our desires. We don’t have to find our identity in what we lust after in the moment. Christ offers freedom to any who would come to him.
Have you tasted of that freedom? Do you know what it means to have your soul liberated to pursue righteous and godly things with a clean conscience? To be able to experience peace of mind and purity of heart? To direct your desires, rather than having your desires direct you?
If that is appealing to you, then trust in this Christ that is before you. Read of him in His word. No one spoke like him. Nobody lives like him. No one can cure like him. His freedom is perfect, and his liberation is free. All you must do is receive it. Trust in this one who has conquered sin and death.
If he’s overcome the grave itself, do you not think he can overcome your disordered desires? And once he’s overcome your sinful heart, He can plant within you new desires, which find their goal in Him. He’ll become the apple of your eye. He will be your desire fulfilled, which is like a tree of life, Proverbs says.
Come to this Jesus. Trust in him, and have your desires fulfilled, unlike any created thing can do.
Now, that was a bit an extended excursus on desire and the heart, but I think it is a hugely important topic. Now back to 1 Corinthians 10. Paul says that all these old testament stories were written for our benefit, that we might not DESIRE or LUST AFTER evil, like the Hebrews did in the wilderness.
Then he proceeds to list out specific examples for us to avoid. Let’s read verse 7 again:
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.”
Paul’s first warning is against the sin of idolatry, and he specifically quotes a part of a verse from Exodus 32, the classic biblical text illustrating idolatry. Turn with me to Exodus 32, and let’s remind ourselves of the story. We will spend the rest of the time tonight looking at the nature of idolatry, in hopes of offering some questions for self-reflection for each of us, to make sure that our hearts are ordered toward the worship of God, and not toward any potential idols around us.
Exodus 32, we’ll only read verses 1-6:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden[a] calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 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.” 6 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.
Let me take our remaining time to make some observations from this text, observations about the nature of Idolatry, which I think will be helpful for diagnosing idolatrous desires or tendencies within our own hearts.
First observation about idolatry: Idolatry deceives. Idolatry deceives. Idolatry deceives us specifically to think that we are the standard. Look at verse 1 again, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down the mountain…” They felt that Moses was taking too long. They didn’t want to be delayed. They didn’t want to wait on the Lord. They didn’t need to listen to God’s revealed command to wait at the base of the mountain. They could do what they wanted, because they were deceived to think that they knew best.
Idolatry always does this. It starts often with a question, like the serpent’s question in the garden, “Did God really say?” And then, if not corrected, idolatry inevitably moves to “I don’t care what God said.” Idolatry makes us the standard, and rejects God’s word. It deceives us to think that we know better than God.
Second observation about idolatry: Idolatry costs. Idolatry costs. Look at verse 2: “So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.” The most precious material possessions they had, the gold jewelry, was taken from them. Ironically enough, every bit of the jewelry was itself a gift of the Lord that he gave to them. Remember, the Hebrews were able to plunder the Egyptians on their way out of town, and so whatever they had of value came from someone else. That’s what Idolatry does. It perverts God’s good gifts, and eventually costs us what is precious.
An alcoholic idolizes the bottle, and ends up costing him his most precious things: like health and relationships. A greedy person idolizes money, and ends up never-satisfied with what he has, whether it is 1 dollar or 1 billion dollars. A fornicator idolizes sensual pleasure, but it costs him what his heart really desires: true communion with someone whom he loves and whom loves him. Idolatry is costly: sometimes very quickly, sometimes slowly over time, but the cost is inevitable.
A third observation about idolatry: Idolatry robs. Idolatry robs. Specifically, it robs God of honor. Look at verse 4: “And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden[a] calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”” It all seems so foolish to us at a distance. That the Hebrews could look at a statue of a cow and think that it was the cow that led them by a cloud and a pillar of fire, that it was a cow that split the red sea and enabled them to walk on dry ground. That it was a cow that wiped out the strongest army on the planet. What lunacy!
And yet, that’s what idolatry does. It seeks to rob God of the honor and praise that is due to him, and to ascribe his glorious character and work to another. It wasn’t YAWEH who saved it, it was this man-made statue.
And idolaters do the same today. It wasn’t God who provided for your material prosperity, it was market forces, or blind luck, or your own business savvy. It wasn’t God who enabled you to get the job, it was your hard work and determination. It wasn’t God’s mercy that granted you an escape from judgment, it was the fact that you really weren’t that bad off to begin with. Whatever the lie, idolatry seeks to rob God’s honor and give it to another.
Fourth observation about idolatry: Idolatry enslaves. Idolatry enslaves. Specifically highlighted here, it commands our worship. Look at verses 4 and 5 again:
And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden[a] calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 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.”
It wasn’t enough that they created the idol. The needed to worship it. They couldn’t just look at it, and marvel at it, and enjoy it. They needed to kneel. They needed to build an altar before it.
It’s part of our nature that we will worship something. We are worshipping creatures. And when it’s not God we worship, then we’re going to find ourselves enslaved to worship something or someone else.
If you worship the idol of money, then you will worship by giving your attention and time in devotion to making more.
If you worship the idol of praise, then you will be enslaved to bow at the feet of men who’s praise you seek. Your lips will be dominated by flattery, in order to satisfy the god of your reputation.
If you worship the idol of your own children, then you’ll be bound to spend your time and effort and your money in ways that worship and honor them and their desires, rather than spending it all to the honor of the Lord and to honor His desires.
Whatever the idol, it will command your praise. You’ll be bound to it. Enslaved by it.
Next, a fifth observation about idolatry from these verses: Idolatry pretends. Idolatry pretends. It pretends to be righteous, and it mimics what it is to be truly holy. Idolatry always has a moral bar and a ceremony to perform
6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings.
These Hebrews had done the unthinkable. They had rejected the God who just miraculously saved them, and instead fashioned a gold statue, and ascribed to that statue divine action and praise. Now, they wake up early, the text says, they give up their sleep and devote intentional exertion to this charade of holiness.
They go before the golden animal statue, and, ironically enough, slaughter animals to the statue of an animal. They are in control of, and taking the life from, creatures, in order to worship a creature. They’re killing like, for the sake of like. Do you see the image of futility?
Its also interesting that when someone or a people reject God, they don’t reject all ritual. They don’t reject all ceremony. Even pagan idolatry has its ceremonies. Roman Catholics have their rites and extra-biblical sacraments. Muslims have their 5 pillars. The religion of Hollywood has its ceremonies of awards shows and their sacrifices of allegiance to the god of fame. The feminists have their idol of abortion and their Molech of Planned Parenthood. Even the atheists have their God of human reason and their rituals of allegiance to Charles Darwin and Immanuel Kant.
But lest we think the problem is merely outside these walls, whole denominations and churches can have idolatries too. Recent revelations of evangelical churches and corrupted leadership make that much clear. Back room glad-handing, political posturing, domineering leadership, and influential kick-backs are sadly apart of church and denominational life, just as they are outside the church.
And that’s because Idolatry isn’t just for the Canaanites. Idolatry is an inside job, as the Hebrews illustrate for us. And wherever it is found, it likes to pretend holiness, and to mimic righteousness.
Finally, we’ve seen that Idolatry deceives, it costs, it robs, it enslaves our worship, and it pretends to be righteous. Lastly, idolatry celebrates. Idolatry celebrates. Look at the end of verse 6:
And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.
They sat down to eat and drink, meaning, they had their ceremonial feast. And, having once celebrated the worship of their newfound god, they then rose to play. They, having satiated their appetites and assuaged their consciences through this ritual performance, got up. Having satisfied their desires for worship, however misdirected, Frivolity ensued.
We’ve done the ritual of our own making, now my conscience feels cleared, now we are ceremonially pure, now we can party. Let’s celebrate.
That’s the result of idolatry that is so clearly seen in our culture in the current moment. It’s not enough for someone to be behave as a homosexual, you need to have pride in it, you need to promote it and celebrate it, and you need to coerce everyone else into celebrating it.
It’s almost like they have a guilty conscience that won’t go away, and they need everyone and everything to continually re-affirm to them, that they’re ok. You’re not in sin. You’re not accruing judgment from a Holy God.
And so, to pacify the innate sense of immorality that every person has, idolaters need to continually reinforce the lie that they are OK. They need the world to celebrate, to chant and cheer in support of their sin, in order to drown out the inevitable voice of God reminding them that sin is not OK. Idolatry is not OK. Sinful desire and action are not OK.
Maybe you’ve felt that tug. You’ve been living in a way that you think is right, that you wantto be right, but you can’t help but feel guilty. That feeling that isn’t going away might just be the Lord gently calling you back, to see that you’re actually worshipping an idol of your own making.
Consider these marks of idolatry and ask yourself if any seem familiar. Is it possible that your idol has deceived you? That it has cost you more than you ever imagined it could? That it robs God of his honor, and it enslaves you to perpetual worship and ritual obedience? That is pretends to be righteous, but actually has an underbelly of hate and hypocrisy that you never imagined? Is it possible that your idolatry is never content on its own, but it demands its celebration and promotion, in order to feel normal and right?
If any of this sounds familiar, then I want you to know the end of the story in Exodus 32. God sees Israel from the Mountain, sees them in idolatrous worship, and tells Moses that he’s going to consume them and start over with a new nation.
But Moses intercedes for the sinful people. He pleads with God on their behalf. He acts as their mediator and their go-between, and does so successfully. God decides not to wipe them out in judgement in that moment. Moses was a faithful priest in that moment. But his work of mediation wasn’t perfect, and it couldn’t last forever. Israel eventually accrues for itself more wrath and judgment, which we will see in upcoming sermons, and not even Moses is enough to be Israel’s high priest forever.
But the bible tells us that there is another mediator. Another prophet would come who would be like Moses, but better. This prophet would also be a priest. He would perfectly mediate the wrath of God against the people of God. And he would be able to do forever. And that mediator is Jesus Christ.
If you find within yourself any hint of idolatry, if you see in the Hebrews a little bit of yourself, then know that you too can be forgiven because of our great mediator. Christ was the perfect one, the perfect atoning sacrifice, the perfect intercessor, by whose work we can be acquitted of the guilt of our idolatry.
That’s the good news of the bible. That although we are all condemned as guilty idolaters, we can be forgiven of that guilt, cleansed of the stain of sin, renewed by the Holy Spirit, and transformed into faithful followers of Jesus Christ, properly worshipping the Triune God in the power of the Spirit, to the Glory of God.
Trust in that God, be forgiven of your sinful desires and idolatry, and be restored to right worship of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for in doing so, you’ll find that God is faithful, and will give you the desires of your heart.