The Object of Worship in Idolatry

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”[1] This is how C.S. Lewis prefaces The Screwtape Letters. With this observation, Lewis captures the importance of keeping our eyes open, metaphorically speaking, to the spiritual realities around us without obsessing over them.

I want to reflect on this idea this week in part to open our eyes to the reality of the idolatry that Paul observed in Athens in Acts 17. The truth is that the Athenians’ idolatry was not some silly superstition; rather, it was a serious error in that it was the giving of the worship and glory that was due to God alone to demons.

Here we need to begin with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Towards the end of a long section, Paul brings to a head an important point about worship in general and idolatry specifically:

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 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. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor 10:14-22 ESV)

Note the flow of Paul’s argument. First, Paul begins with a familiar reference. He reminds us that the bread and the wine on the Lord’s Table is a material sign that signifies something spiritual. Contrary to anyone who would take a strictly memorialist view of the Lord’s Supper, Paul argues that the bread that we eat together and the wine that we drink together are a participation in Christ himself—spiritual, of course, but no less a participation since we ourselves are composed of body and soul, material and spiritual parts.

Then, Paul applies this principle to idolatry, specifically pagan worship services. Here he confirms that the sign is, as we all understand, just a sign. There is nothing special about the food offered to idols in and of itself. Meat is meat is meat is meat, Paul could have said. And yet, those who participate in the sign are also participating in the thing signified. And the spiritual analog to participation in Christ is participation in demons. That is to say, those who participate in the spiritual meal of pagan worship participate in the life of demons just as much as those who participate in the spiritual meal of the Lord’s Supper participate in the life of Christ.

The obvious problem, then, is that those who claim to be united to Christ cannot also pretend to be united with demons. You can only serve one master, and the Lord is a jealous God, who is justly jealous because worship is due to him alone. The demons who coopt idolatrous worship for their gratification are pretenders and counterfeits who have no right claiming the worship of creatures they never created.

To bring this back to Paul’s provocation as he witnessed the rampant idolatry in Athens, his response is quite appropriate given what he says to the Corinthians. Idol worship is no silly superstition or harmless ignorance of more gullible cultures; it is the rendering of worship to a spirit that has no right receiving worship. It is an offense that provokes Paul to speak up, setting the record straight that there is only one creator and redeemer of all men, who alone is worthy of our worship.

To bring this home, we should be aware that idols need not be wood or stone to be coopted by demons for their own gratification. Unwitting worship of immaterial idols is just as much a participation in something foreign to our original purpose and chief end: to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Would that all of our eyes were open.

[1] C. S Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007), 183.

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