Participation in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14–16)

In 1 Corinthians 10:14–22, Paul writes:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Whenever you see the word therefore in Scripture, you should ask what it’s there for.

In verse 16, the word therefore signals the conclusion of the argument about eating food sacrificed to idols that Paul began in 8:1. In light of the relationship between theological knowledge and ethical love (8:1–13), between personal rights and spiritual responsibilities (9:1–27), and between idolatry and divine judgment (10:1–13), Paul prohibits the Corinthians to eat food sacrificed to idols at religious feasts in pagan temples (10:14–22), although he permits them to it at dinner parties in private homes on a case-by-case basis (10:23–11:1).

Like the Corinthians, Paul believes that idols are objectively unreal and idol-food is objectively insignificant (8:4–6). Unlike them, however, he takes into account the fact that idols and idol-food exercise a powerful hold on the “conscience” of some, whom he describes as “weak” (8:7–13). This is why he permits eating idol-food at dinner parties in private homes if—and only if—no one raises “questions of conscience” (10:25–30). The Christian duty to love fellow believers (8:9–13) and to evangelize unbelievers (9:19–23) trumps the Christian’s freedom to eat idol-food.

On this logic, though, the Corinthians might argue that eating idol-food at religious feasts in pagan temples is also permissible for Christians. After all, if idols are unreal, if idol-food is insignificant, and if idolaters have no scruples about the food they’re eating, why not eat alongside them? Christians are free to eat idol-food whenever and wherever they want.

Paul refutes the Corinthian application of their theology to their practice by reminding them what Christian communion is (10:14–17) and what pagan religious feasts are (10:18–22). Christian communion is “participation” in the “blood of Christ” and the “body of Christ.” By contrast, eating at pagan religious feasts makes the eaters “participants with demons.”

In the next two devotionals, I will comment further on the nature of Christian communion. I will also try to explain the paradox of how idols can be nothing but idolaters “participants with demons.” But in this devotional, I simply wanted to lay bare for you the logic of Paul’s overall argument and specific conclusions in 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1. I hope I have realized my intention.

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