Now if you would please take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians; 1 Corinthians chapter 10. We will be reading the first thirteen verses together; page 957 in the church Bibles if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Back at the end of chapter 9, in the very last verse, Paul has been talking at the end of chapter 9 about his self-discipline as he lives the Christian life and as he fulfills the ministry Christ has given to him. And in the very last verse of the chapter, he explains one of the concerns that has animated and driven that commitment to self-discipline. He says that he is concerned, “Lest after having preached to others, I myself might be disqualified.” That is to say, Paul is anxious to be an authentic Christian, not simply to be a superficial one so that the appearance is all that you get. He wants there to be a reality behind what you can see; more than just the message but also the man must be gripped by and shaped by the Gospel. Paul wants to be authentic.
And it’s easy for us, I think, to relate to the challenge of that. Isn’t it easy to slap a smile on our faces and project piety? We put it on like our Sunday clothes in preparation for being with God’s people on the Lord’s Day, but Monday to Saturday our hearts may be very far from the Lord indeed and we may have wandered off. And so Paul does not want to fake it. He wants to be the real thing. He never wants so to presume upon grace that he can shrug and indulge his sin because he knows that presumption like that, when it becomes a way of life, results in disqualification. He knows that it’s possible to preach the truth as he did, be a missionary of the Lord Jesus Christ as he was, to exercise great gifts and make a real difference for good in the lives of others as he did, and still be nothing more than a religious professional only and having preached to others, himself still be disqualified. It’s a sober warning at the end of chapter 9 about the dangers of presumption.
And that is the theme that he continues as he turns to address the Corinthians and us at the beginning of chapter 10. He is still dealing with this question of the danger of presumption. And now as we talked about that last time as the apostle Paul faced it in his own life and ministry, some of you came to me somewhat confused. All this talk about being disqualified almost seems to suggest that Paul was worried that he might lose his salvation. The slogan, "Once saved, always saved," comes to mind here. Right? Isn't that the truth? Well, the problem with slogans is that they very often fail to really deal with Biblical nuance. And when you come to texts like the one before us this week or the one before us last week, "Once saved, always saved," at least when understood to mean that after having made a decision for Jesus it really doesn’t matter how you live, when you come to texts like these it’s very hard to square the two. “Once saved, always saved” can sometimes lead us to think, “After I made a commitment to Jesus then I’m done. It’s saved; I’m secure, no matter how I live my life.” But that is not at all the teaching of the Scriptures as we’ll see in our passage this morning.
A better way, if you want to summarize Biblical teaching, is to use the language of perseverance because perseverance is at once the promise of God to everyone of His children. God will secure and preserve His people so that they will infallibly and certainly persevere to the end. That’s a great promise of God to us. But it is also simultaneously our responsibility. The way in which God keeps that promise to us that He will preserve us and keep us securely to the end is by enabling us to persevere with Him. And one of the ways in which He enables us to persevere is by wielding the Scriptures in our hearts and warning us about the dangers of presumption, by showing us where the danger lies and warning us to flee from it to safety.
Imagine a father who sees his little child reaching up to the stovetop to grip the handle of a pot of boiling water and there’s a stern warning and a sudden intervention and an explanation, perhaps, even of the consequences of disobedience that are terrible even to contemplate. And yet every word of that warning beats with a father’s love for his beloved child. Doesn’t it? Wanting to secure them and keep them from danger and preserve them from tragedy. That is how we are to receive the exhortation of this first part of chapter 10. It is filled with stern warning, but every word of it beats with a Father’s love for His children as He seeks to protect us and preserve us and to enable us to persevere.
Before we read it together, we’re going to pray. And before we do that, let me quickly outline the main contours of Paul’s thinking so that you can follow with me as we read and study it together. In verses 1 to 5, Paul gives us some examples to warn us. In particular, he directs our attention to the experience of the fathers of the nation of Israel during the exodus. Examples to warn us. Then in verses 6 to 12, he provides exhortations to direct us. Based on those examples, he has some rather straightforward, pretty blunt exhortations to direct us. And then thirdly, in verse 13, there’s a marvelous word of encouragement to help us and comfort us. So there are examples to warn us, exhortations to direct us, and some encouragement to help and to comfort us. That's where we're going. With all of that in mind then, let me ask you, before we read the Word of God, to bow your heads with me as we pray together. Let's pray.
O Lord our God, how we need the light of the truth to shine into our lives. So we pray now that the Lord Jesus would wield the royal scepter of His holy words as He rules and governs our hearts, to subdue sin, and to bring grace to bear that we may live for His glory and persevere to the end. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 10 at verse 1. This is the Word of God:
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Now, these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now, these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands to take heed lest he falls. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy and inerrant Word.
On Monday, February 20 of this year, there was a group of teenagers enjoying themselves in Central Park in Manhattan, New York, and they walked out onto the ice on one of the ponds there. And they were jumping around and laughing and joking, enjoying their time together, taking selfies on the ice, when suddenly the ice gave way beneath their feet and they all were plunged into the frigid waters. Some passersby saw the whole thing happen and they jumped in to try to rescue the teenagers and were soon swamped themselves by desperate and terrified children who began to cling to them in their fear. And now, both the teenagers and their would-be rescuers were in grave danger. Mercifully, in the kindness of God, the fire department arrived in time and was able to drag them from the freezing water safely to the shore, averting really by quite a narrow margin, a terrible tragedy.
As we read 1 Corinthians chapter 10, it's almost as though the apostle Paul was standing on the shoreline pleading with us to get off the thin ice. Understanding that beneath the Corinthians' feet, the ice is awfully thin and they need to get to safety; to get off the thin ice, lest it breaks under their feet and eternal tragedy ensure. Paul is warning us and pleading with us to flee the dangers of presumption that allow us to indulge in sin and assume that everything will be well.
Examples to Warn Us
And he begins that warning by offering us some important examples. If you’ll look with me at verses 1 to 5 first of all, we're back again in the story of the exodus where Israel was led by the Lord out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, through the wilderness into the Promised Land. And Paul is carefully drawing parallels between their experience and our experience; between the experience of the fathers of Israel in the old covenant and the people of God, the Corinthians and us, in the new covenant. Like us, Paul says in verses 1 and 2, they had a kind of baptism. Do you see that? Verses 1 and 2, "I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” They were led through the wilderness by the presence of God, portrayed before them visibly in a pillar of cloud that led them during the day and a pillar of fire that led them during the night. And they were led, you will remember, through dry land, through the middle of the Red Sea, as the Lord parted the waters that they might escape their Egyptian pursuers. And Paul says being under the cloud like this and passing through the sea like this was a kind of baptism for them.
Or he reminds them in verses 3 and 4 that even the people of God in the old covenant ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink when Moses, in Exodus 16, struck the rock when the people began to complain and the Lord caused water to flow from the rock to quench their thirst. And Paul says there is a sacramental parallel between the Old Testament believers’ experience and our own. They had a kind of baptism, they had a kind of spiritual food and drink – he’s thinking here of the analogy of the Lord’s Supper – just as we have a kind of spiritual food and drink. And the truth to which these things point, both in the Old Testament and in the New, is the same. He says it all points to Christ. Christ is the Rock that followed them. Christ is the one to whom all of this pointed them just as baptism and the Lord’s Supper today point us to the Lord Jesus Christ. You see, his big point is that there is a parallel of experience and a continuity between God’s people in the old covenant and in the new. We have similar sacraments; we have similar spiritual experience. And Christ is at the heart of both the old covenant and the new covenant life of faith. Jesus Christ is the one who was held out to God’s people then, just as He is to God’s people today in these sacramental signs that we enjoy.
The Danger of Presumption
And now that he has established this analogy between the Old Testament believers and the New Testament believers, all of us in the Church of Jesus Christ today, the implications of his conclusion, which you will see there in verse 5 really land with stunning force. Don’t you think? Look at verse 5. They were baptized like us. They ate and drank spiritual food like us. They had access to the same sacramental experience as we do. Jesus was offered to them just as He is offered to us. And yet, verse 5, “Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Of the generation that came out of Egypt and began their pilgrimage toward the Promised Land, you remember how many actually made it, don’t you? Of that generation, only two – only Joshua and Caleb. Beware the dangers of presumption. That’s the warning of the passage.
We may be standing on very thin ice. You've been baptized? You sit at the Lord's Table? You've had spiritual experiences? Well so did our fathers in the wilderness and God judged all but two of that first generation. With most of them, God was not pleased; they were overthrown. It's the same point Paul was making regarding his own life and ministry back at the end of chapter 9, isn't it, about the danger of being disqualified even after having preached to others. You can have so much, you see. You can enjoy the great privileges and blessings of outward association with the visible church of Jesus Christ and still, you can fail to receive the Savior Himself who comes to us and is offered to us through these great privileges.
Know Jesus Christ
Perhaps the Corinthians viewed the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and their visible association with the church as a kind of flu shot. You know, a kind of inoculation against the possibility of spiritual danger. But Paul says, “Remember the examples of our fathers and be warned.” They enjoyed the same privileges and they faced only destruction in the end. You see, more is needed, more is needed than outward privilege. You need Jesus Christ Himself. What use drinking from the rock if you don’t realize the true Rock from which you must drink and live is Christ? What use eating the bread and drinking the cup, as we’ll do together next Lord’s Day, God willing, in the Lord’s Supper? What use sitting together at the Lord’s Supper if you don’t actually come by faith to feed on Christ? His body broken and His blood shed for sinners like me and you at Calvary. What protection do you think your baptism affords you or your church membership provides you from the judgment of God if, after receiving these great outward benefits, you neglect the inner spiritual reality that they are intended and designed to offer you, even Jesus Christ Himself?
And so first of all, do you see, there are examples here designed to warn us, to remind us not to presume upon God based on our outward privileges, but to pursue the one thing needful – to know Jesus Christ. Do you know Jesus Christ? Do you know Him? There are examples here to warn us.
Exhortations to Direct Us
Then secondly, notice the exhortations Paul bases on those examples designed to direct us, to give us instruction. I have resisted the temptation to draw an analogy here between what Paul is saying and that little comedy sketch of Bob Newhart’s in the counseling room. You know the one where no matter what the counselee says, the response of the counselor is, “Stop it! Just stop it!” But that’s essentially what Paul is doing here. They’re not particularly difficult or complicated exhortation. They are straightforward challenges to stay away from sin. And sometimes we need to hear that. We need to be told to stop it, to stay away; not to play with fire, not to reach up for the boiling pot on the stovetop. That way lies catastrophe. And that is what Paul is doing with us here as he continues to reflect on the experience of Israel in the exodus. And so there are four sins in particular that he highlights. We’ve actually seen them as real plagues in the spiritual life of the Corinthian believers, and perhaps they resonate with your own Christian life and experience and struggle with sin as well. They were certainly the besetting sins of Israel during the exodus.
The first of them you will see in verse 7 is the sin of idolatry; the sin of idolatry. You see what Paul says? “Do not be idolaters as some of them were. As it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’” Paul is thinking about the events recorded in Exodus 32. You will remember the situation. Moses is up on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from the Lord God, and the people at the base of the mountain are getting impatient. And they say to Aaron, “Make us gods!” And so he gathers up their jewelry and he casts a golden calf for them and declares, “Behold, your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt!” And they have a great celebration of worship, adoring and worshiping the golden calf. And the comment of the text is that the people during their worship, as part of their worship, “sat down to eat and rose up to play.” They were worshiping an idol.
And you will remember that the Corinthians, in a similar way, have been converted in the midst of and out of the context of overt and open pagan idolatry. There were temples and statues and idols all over the city. And some of them were actually having a really hard time distancing themselves from the practices and the customs of their old ways. You remember back in chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians Paul has dealt with the question of whether or not Christians may legitimately eat meat that had once been offered to an idol. And Paul says actually as long as you don’t cause a weaker Christian to stumble, you’re free to do that. But others at Corinth were using that freedom and going a step further. They were worshiping, they were actually attending the sacred meals that were integral elements of pagan idolatry in the temples at Corinth themselves. So as we’ll see, God willing, next week in verse 14, the apostle Paul will have to say to them very directly and very plainly, “Flee from idolatry! Stop it! Enough! You’re done!”
And we too, although we may not worship literal statues or images, we too have a real idolatry problem. Our great idol, the great idol that all of us struggle with is the idol of self, surely; the idol of self. And Paul is saying just like the Corinthians were having the Lord’s Supper on Sunday eating the bread and drinking the cup and then on Monday eating and drinking in the temple of an idol, or like the Israelites would eat the manna and drink the water from the rock and then at the same time eat and drink as a part of pagan worship as they adore the golden calf, so also we must beware not to give vent to the passions of our flesh in pursuit of the worship of ourselves.
Then secondly, Paul mentions the sin of sexual immorality. You see that in verse 8? “We must not indulge,” he says, “in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” This time Paul has in mind Numbers chapter 25 where the people of Israel began to practice sexual immorality with the daughters of Moab, interestingly, again, as part of the pagan worship of the Canaanite god, Baal. And God destroyed many of them, twenty-three thousand in one day, Paul says; twenty-four thousand altogether, Numbers 25 says. In a similar way, so much of the hypersexualized culture at Corinth was also bound up actually with the vile practices of the temples of Aphrodite and Apollo that dominated the city. Sexual sin, as we’ve seen in the book of 1 Corinthians, was a real problem even in the Christians’ lives.
And we too have a real problem in our culture and society, and perhaps even within our church, with sexual sin. It is everywhere. It is normalized; it is made into entertainment. Pornography is epidemic. The norms of our culture have shifted so that what is acceptable socially and culturally is very different than once it was. And there is a kind of sexual obsession. But our sex obsession is part of our worship of self. We’re obsessed with sex because we’re obsessed with ourselves. Sex in the culture’s mind is not about love or giving or serving or celebrating someone else. Sex in our culture’s mind is about expressing ourselves, gratifying ourselves, worshiping ourselves.
Putting the Lord to the Test
Then thirdly, there’s the sin of putting the Lord to the test. Do you see that in verse 9? Putting the Lord to the test. “We must not put Christ to the test as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents.” This time the reference is to the incident that took place in Numbers chapter 21. The people were complaining about the provision of food that God had given them in the wilderness to care for them. They were saying, “You know, things were so much better off back in Egypt! Why did you bring us out here into the wilderness to die like this?” They were complaining at the provision of God; dissatisfied and were putting Him to the test.
Now isn’t it tempting for us, likewise, to be dissatisfied with God’s provision for us, to think of life back in Egypt as the happy life and not the hardship and challenges of following Jesus? To say, “You know, life before I knew Jesus was so much simpler!” And to long for the old days and the old ways. And to complain and to test the goodness and kindness of the Lord. And related to that, there’s the final sin Paul mentions in verse 10. The sin of grumbling. “We must not grumble as some of them did and were destroyed by the destroyer.” We don’t know, actually, which specific incident Paul has in mind here because in many ways you can characterize Israel’s experience in the wilderness as one of regular and constant grumbling and complaining. And the Lord responded again and again to those complaints with His judgment.
But while it may be hard to identify which specific incident Paul has in mind is not nearly so difficult to see the analogy with the Corinthians or perhaps even with ourselves. You remember the Corinthians were quite unhappy with the apostle Paul, with his approach, which was not focused on power and shock and awe but on the simple teaching of the Word of God and the scandalous message of a crucified Christ. They were dissatisfied with God’s provision and they were grumbling against him. You know in the United Kingdom when people ask us how we’re doing, it’s not uncommon to hear the reply, “Mustn’t grumble.” If you know people from the UK, however, you will understand that that’s the one thing we are expert in! It’s sort of a national pastime!
But I’m also convinced however adept at grumbling we may be, we do not have a monopoly on it. Do we? We’re all tempted to complain sometimes, aren’t we? We want bigger, more dramatic experiences of the power and supernatural dynamics of God in our lives. We want revival and we want it yesterday. We want Billy Graham in the pulpit. We want all our pews filled. We want everything fixed and nothing changed. We want our kids to be happy. We want our marriages to be harmonious. We want our lives to be prosperous. And when they’re not, when my sense of entitlement bubbles over, then I begin to grumble. Don’t you? And I begin to think to myself, “You know, other people are to blame. And maybe truth be told, Jesus isn’t all He’s cracked up to be after all. Where’s my best life now? What’s all this suffering?” But Paul says we “must not grumble as some of them did.” There’s a sober warning. “We must not grumble as some of them did and were destroyed by the destroyer.” Paul does not think that grumbling is a small thing.
These are not difficult points to grasp really. Are they, really? There’s no hidden meaning. There’s no subtle theological profundity. It’s just, “Stop it! Stay away! Stop playing with your sin! Beware of presuming upon the grace of God. You are standing on thin ice. Get to shore! Get to safety! Come back to Jesus lest the ice give way beneath your feet!” Isn’t that exactly what he says in verse 12? Look at verse 12. “Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands beware, lest he fall.” It’s the terrible danger of presumption. When we wander away from the Lord, we’re standing on thin ice and all the while we’re telling ourselves we’re safe. But we are not safe. “Take heed, lest you fall.” Hear the warning. Take action. Time to make for shore. Time to flee back to Jesus.
Word of Encouragement
So there are examples here to warn us, there are exhortations to direct us, and then finally and very briefly, there's a marvelous word of encouragement to comfort us. Look at verse 13 with me. "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape that you may be able to endure it." What a precious promise for those of us determined to stay in the fight with temptation and sin! What a precious promise. There are three parts to it. Very quickly, first of all, do not believe the lie that your temptations are unique. You are not a special case. Satan loves to trap us into thinking that our temptations are unique. Because when you begin to believe that, you begin to conclude that "The usual remedies will not work for me. There really is no help for me because I'm a unique case!" But Paul says, "No temptation has overtaken you but then that which is common to man."
God is Faithful
Then secondly and wonderfully, he says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.” Christians are not powerless in the face of temptation. It’s another lie Satan loves to trap us with. “There’s nothing you can do. You’re helpless. You’re in the grip of this thing. You’re stuck.” And so what do we do when we begin to believe that? We begin to say, “If there’s nothing I can do, why fight? Why struggle? Since all my struggle is futile, why fight? I’ll sign a truce with my sin.” But God is faithful and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability. You see, now that you have been born again, the Spirit of Jesus Christ lives in your heart and you are, not perfectly, often you will stumble and fall to be sure, but you are by the grace of God more and more able not to sin. Praise the Lord that’s true. The Christian life is not cyclical – wash, rinse, repeat. That is not the pattern of the Christian life. God has made you new and He will make you new still. You will get the victory one day. Stay in the fight. Stay in the fight. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you are able to bear.
Way of Escape
And then thirdly and finally, there is a way of escape that God provides in His kindness and providence that we may endure in our temptation. There is always an out. There’s always an out. You can turn off the TV screen. You can click away from that site. You can get the filters on all your devices. You can confess your sin to a trusted brother or sister and get the accountability you need. You can cry out for help. You can get out of there. You don’t have to stay playing with fire. You can flee temptation. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you”, the Scripture says. You can cry out to the Lord in the midst of the crisis of your temptations. Flee your sin. Stop playing with it. There is good news, isn’t there, for those of us who are locked in this daily combat with our sin – that we are not powerless. That it is not hopeless. And that change is possible. By the grace of God. That is the promise of the Word of God to you. You are not trapped, believer in Jesus. And so fight on! Fight on! Hear the warnings, flee from the thin ice to the shore. Hear the exhortations and stop it. Take action; make a change. Because the grace of God has provided for you the hope that change will come.
And you remember how the Lord Jesus was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. In Him, there are all the resources that we need, both for forgiveness when temptation overwhelms and we fall and for change and progress and transformation that we may not fall in that same way again. So we need to look to Him and rest on Him, not presume upon His grace but cling to it with urgency and with desperation, trusting that He is a sufficient Savior for us in all our trials. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we confess to You that there are times when we have believed Satan’s lies – that we are weak and powerless, that we cannot resist, so why should we? We have believed the lie that we are unique and that our struggles no one else has ever known. And so the remedy that works for everyone else could not possibly work for us. Would you please forgive us for listening to his lies and help us to hear the truth, that in Jesus Christ, we can be made new? That we may resist sin and flee temptation and find grace to help us in our time of need. Would You help us to do that? To hear the warnings, to get off the thin ice, and by the grace of God, depending on Jesus, begin to live anew for Your glory? For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
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