The Corinthians wanted to argue with Paul about their right to eat meat sacrificed to idols. They even made the theological argument that they believed in one and only one true God–Idols are nothing, right? So come on, Paul. What’s the big deal?
Paul’s unambiguous response: I’m telling you, run as fast and as far as you can in the other direction. Here’s why.
He begins with their participation (Greek, koinonia, meaning “fellowship”) in the Lord’s Supper, referring to it as the “cup of blessing that we bless” and the “bread that we break” (1 Cor 10:16, NRSV, CEB). The language of the “cup of blessing” would recall Jewish tradition. We might give thanks or say a blessing at the beginning of a meal, but Jewish households would also thank God for his provision at the end of a meal. More specifically, the final cup of wine in the Passover ritual was the one Jesus redefined as representing the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20). When Paul says that sharing the cup means sharing in Christ’s blood, he probably means participating in the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus.
Similarly, sharing from one loaf of bread means sharing in Christ’s body. The emphasis here seems to be on the fellowship of the church itself: “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17). And he gives yet another illustration from Israel’s history, in which those who offered sacrifices also participated in a ritual meal afterward. Deuteronomy 14:22-27, for example, describes how the people were to celebrate God’s blessing with a meal joyfully shared in God’s presence.
The upshot: Paul seems to be drawing on the positive side of their collective understanding, appealing to what they already know. You already participate in the Lord’s Supper. You already know the importance of the ritual meal. It’s one eaten in the presence of God; indeed, the Lord’s Supper began with a Passover meal hosted by Jesus himself.
Pagan rites were based on a similar understanding: when eating a meal in a pagan temple, you ate in the presence of a pagan deity, who was your host. Paul thus follows the implication of his earlier words. So, am I saying that meals eaten in honor of Christ or God are the same thing as those eaten in a pagan temple? Am I implying that pagan gods are real? Not at all. I agree with you: idols are nothing but worthless human creations.
And here Paul hammers home what the Corinthians, to their peril, haven’t yet understood. Even if idols aren’t real gods, that doesn’t mean that eating in the temple has no spiritual consequence. I’ve already told you that you’re throwing yourself into the lap of temptation, and that’s bad enough. But there’s more. The meat that pagans sacrifice to worthless idols? It’s really being sacrificed to demons. That’s right: you’re sitting down to a fellowship meal with demons. Do you think God doesn’t care about that? Do you think you can have it both ways, sitting down at the Lord’s table one day, and at a demon’s table the next? Again, remember the stories of Israel, how they continually provoked God with their idolatry. Remember the consequences. Don’t be arrogant. Flee idolatry.
Perhaps we don’t have pagan temples dotting our street corners. Perhaps we don’t believe in devilish little creatures running around invisibly creating havoc.
Then what relevance would Paul’s words have for us? We’ll explore that in the next post.