Demons, Sickness and the Idolatrous Practices

by Oct 2, 2023Biblical studies, Christian Living, Discipleship, Spiritual Growth0 comments

The Jewish view of demonic and sickness began to be developed in the Second Temple period. They held ideas like, God permits human sickness and other disasters to occur. They also held that sometimes demons are involved, but in the end these powers will be overcome, and God’s work of renewing creation will be complete. 

Also in this period, God’s use of secondary agents is highlighted. The use of creation, that is herbs and primitive concoctions, to aid in healing is supported. All this sets up the role of secondary agents, from those knowledgeable in natural cures found in creation (ie doctors) to the sickness being the result of a secondary agent. (ie. demons). As one would expect, both natural remedies and calls for exorcisms began to rise during this period.  The possibility of various origins to a sickness made the assessment process an important point of care.     

Paul shared the Jewish-Christian view of demons, yet he liked the flashy cosmic terms like principalities and powers. What is very interesting is that Paul used the actual term for demon (daimonia) infrequently. All occurrences but one can be found in 1 Corinthians. With the Jewish view of demons in mind, let’s see what Paul has to say, paying special attention to his assessment process. 

In 1 Corinthians 10:14–22, Paul gave a classic Sunday school lesson: Israel’s apostasy in the wilderness (1 Cor 10:1–13, the back story from Ex 32:6). Paul even gave a fire and brimstone warning, complete with felt board cutouts, shadow puppets, and sound effects. (I have no evidence but I am ‘sure’ of it and it made me chuckle). 

Paul was making an application to current problems in the Corinthian church. Namely, certain Christians at Corinth had been joining pagan feasts held in the temples of their gods. They seem to have believed that they could share in such festivities and be exempt from consequences. They felt like they could act with impunity for two reasons.  

1.) Because they possessed the powerful Christian “knowledge” that there is only one God and idols are really “nothing” (1 Cor 8:4–7; 10:19). 

2.) Because their baptism and “sharing in Christ” at the Lord’s table had given them a heavenly status of immunity that was irrevocable regardless of conduct. (This line of thinking seems to be implied by Paul’s counter argument of 1 Cor 10:1–6 and at 1 Cor 10:21–22).

Paul responded that though an idol image lacks any of the potency claimed for it by pagans (1 Cor 10:19), and though the object of their sacrifice was not really a god (1 Cor 10:20; cf. 1 Cor 8:5–6), yet neither was the act of sacrifice or participation in it a matter of indifference. 

The attraction of the pagan ceremonies were clearly food and social life. The food because meat was a rarity for most working people and social life was just as important. Yet, lost to many Corinthians was the fact that the concept of eating together at someone’s house (a pagan temple being a ‘demons’ house), from a biblical worldview, was much more than a dining party. It was accepting someone’s hospitality. Which expressed, even in a passive way, is a commitment of mutuality, unity, and the acceptance of a sharing of one’s life. For the Corinthians to do this in the context of pagan temple worship was extremely naive. 

The Corinthians likely paid for the meat, at a significant discount, yet such payments are considered worship. A monetary transaction with a temple is an act of worship. Jews were even commanded to do it for upkeep of the tabernacle under the warning of a plague (Ex 30:11-16). Any transactional activity with a temple is a formal aspect of worship. Taken together, a temple transaction and an act of hospitality constitute on a legal and formal level an act of worship. 

Paul reminded them that behind the attraction of the pagan ceremonies lay the activity of evil supernatural powers, the “daimonia” or demons (1 Cor 10:20–21; cf. 1 Cor 12:2). With the above idea of worship in view, we see why Paul parallels their activity with the Lord’s supper. For  in the same way the Lord’s Supper renewed for them a new reality, and reminded them by faith of the new covenant relationship with Lord Jesus, so participation in cult-related eating and drinking (“cup of demons” and “table of demons,” 1 Cor 10:21) violated the “koinōnia” we have with Christ. In such acts, our fellowship/communion with Christ is strained as we establish an illegitimate but altogether real ‘binding’ reality in communion with inferior evil powers. 

Through Paul’s corrections, the Corinthians were shown the danger of their excesses: that their intemperate actions displayed a dangerous presumption on God’s grace, a presumption that paralleled Israel’s sin in the wilderness. His conclusion: they were inviting similar consequences upon themselves. That is, they were allowing an open door for the enemy to exploit.  

In short, Paul’s warning, one could say command, was that they avoid idolatry. For anytime idolatry is embraced, celebrated, and consummated, the devil has an open door. They were playing with fire, and they didn’t even realize it. In the end, Paul seems to be making a very simple point: You play with fire, you might get demonized.