“…we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and there is no God but one.” 1 Cor. 8:4
“To be a Christian means to live as a Christian and to live as a Christian means to live wholeheartedly by and out of divine revelation. Such a life is a life of faith. If a person no longer believes in God, that is in his God, and – in the midst of the church of Christ- in our God, then he cannot live by and out of divine revelation. He may still be called a “Christian,” but he is one in name only. Having ceased to live by and out of divine revelation, he will inevitably live by and out of an idol, which, as Paul writes, is not anything.” – S.U. Zuidema
Zuidema’s point here is that being a Christian means fundamentally living according to the revelation of Jesus. The only alternative is to follow a different truth, that of the idol. And the fundamental truth about idols is that they are lies.
An idol, as Paul says, is “nothing in the world”. Paul was specifically talking there about the false gods of the pagans, with regards to the question of eating meat that had been offered to those idols. Yes, Paul says, an idol of itself is nothing in the world. The problem is when they are something in our minds, as they invariably will be when Christ is not everything in our minds. Our minds must be occupied by something substantial, something real. And if what is real in our minds does not correspond with something that is real outside our minds, then the thing that is real in our minds will correspond to something unreal outside our minds. Zeus was a lie, a fiction. He was no god and had no power. But to the people that worshiped this lie, he was real in their minds. And the disconnect between the unreal thing in the world and the real thing in their minds is what causes all the problems. The result is a person living contrary to reality, someone living a lie. The only way to live in accord with reality is to live by and out of the revelation of Jesus.
So an idol is nothing in the world. Men live according to many idols. We live according to the false gods of sex and money and politics and entertainment. We think these things can save us, that they can give us security or significance or hope for the future. But they cannot. There is no God but One. The only one who can give us all the things we desire, who is Himself all the things we desire, is the One True God who made all things, and He is revealed fully in exactly one place, in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So if we live according to idols, we live according to things that are “nothing in the world”. We live according to unreality. Which is to say, we are insane. The only way to live in reality is to live “by and out of the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
When we are ensnared in sins, then, the answer is always the same. The great mistake we often make is to focus on the sin, to focus on not doing this thing anymore. And we make it into a great enemy, some demon force that we have no power over. But in doing so, we give the idol a reality it does not possess and a glory it does not deserve. The problem is never really the idol; the problem is the failure to live out of the revelation of Jesus. The problem is our relationship with God.
The discussion of idols in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is a great example of this. There is the faction in Corinth which wants to simply say, “we must not contaminate ourselves with idols and therefore eat no meat.” And there is the other faction which wants to say, “an idol is nothing in the world, therefore we can fully participate in these pagan festivals and practices with no consequences”. Paul shows that both are false premises. Both are wrongly focusing on the idol. Instead, Paul says, consider your relationship with God, and whether these practices draw you closer to him or harm the relationship. You cannot fellowship with the idol and with God. The idol itself is nothing- true. But in your mind, as you fellowship with those that believe these ideas, you become partakers with them, and they commune with demons. Communing with demons and God at the same time just doesn’t work. If the idol is truly nothing in the world, then you will gladly give it up rather than hurt the relationship with God. But at the same time you won’t fear the idol. When you can eat the meat and give thanks to God, then eat the meat. The relationship with God is always primary, not the thing.
So much of our trouble in life is just this- believing that things matter that don’t really matter, believing that if we only had this or that thing, then we’d finally be happy. God is our treasure, our fortress, our exceeding great reward. He has revealed to us all the truth needed to live out the joy of fellowship with Him, if we would only just believe that revelation. Jesus is the revelation of God, the Word of God, and in Him we have all we need. And then we see that in throwing away our idols, we are really throwing away nothing at all, and gaining the greatest of all joys and treasures in return.