Text: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
We are continuing our progression through these middle chapters of first Corinthians in which Paul works us through “meaty” issues. These are issues in which Christians find themselves and times in disagreement over; disputable matters. To recap, we first talked of why there are disputable matters. Some of it is attributed to us being fallible interpreters of scripture so that we don’t interpret the text properly, but it is also attributed to simply the way God has chosen to reveal his truth to us in principles that we apply cross-culturally. So we find that our practical application of Biblical principles might need to be adjusted if we are interacting with people who are weak in the faith, or if we are trying to reach people of a different cultural background. That’s why we spoke last week of how we evaluate and engage culture in such a way that we remain true to our biblical principles and values but using methods and forms that speak to the culture around us.
Let me tell you right now – that takes work. It is the work missionaries do when they study a culture to find how they can best present the unchanging truths of the gospel in such a way that will be understood by the people to whom they are ministering. They study the language, the literature, the music forms, the communication practices, the society values and norms, all to determine what they must reject and what they can use in delivering the gospel to them unencumbered with cultural baggage. This also takes intense study of the scriptures to understand what in the Bible is cultural and not necessarily demanded of us today, and what is super-cultural and to be practiced in every culture everywhere. It’s a hard job the missionary, and by extension anyone who wishes to live in culture and share the gospel – that’s you guys – has to do.
At this point, someone might ask, wouldn’t it be easier if we just had everything clearly spelled out? If God just told us do this, don’t do that, eat this, don’t eat that, go here, don’t go there. Believe this. Don’t believe that. Wouldn’t it be great if all Christians believed exactly the same things about every issue? If they always acted in exactly the same way in every situation? If they had specific and complete guidance in nearly every decision they came across during their day. Wouldn’t it be easier if God did just make us cookie cutter Christians? If instead of giving us principles to live by and apply in various situations, he simplified everything and just told us exactly what to do and how to act in every situation.
Guess what? It was already tried! That’s exactly the situation that the Israelites found themselves under when coming out of Egypt. Check out Paul’s description of life under that sort of simplified guidance:
1 Corinthians 10:1-5 For I want you to know, 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. (ESV)
There are two key words in this paragraph. “All” and “Same”. Under this sort of direction, the Israelites definitely knew what they were and were not supposed to do in every situation. God’s will was manifestly clear to them. As Philip Yancey writes:
God simplified matters of guidance, I discovered, when the Israelites camped in the Sinai wilderness. Should we pack up our tent and move today, or should we stay put? For an answer the inquisitive Israelite need only glance at the cloud over the tabernacle. If the cloud moved, God wanted his people to move. If it stayed, that meant stay. Most issues were pre-decided. He had spoken his will for the Israelites in a set of rules, codified into 613 laws that covered the complete range of behavior, from murder to boiling a young goat in its mothers milk. Few people complained about fuzzy guidance in those days.
God’s will was not hidden from them – he led them exactly where he wanted them to go and had them eat and drink exactly what he wanted them to eat and drink. They all went together under the cloud, they together went through the sea, they all ate the same food and drank the same drink. The Israelites didn’t need to worry about how to apply God’s laws to other cultures. There were no other cultures! If someone wanted to worship God, they had to become Israelite.
Yancey goes on to question: “Did a clear word from God increase the likely hood of obedience?” Apparently not! Look at Paul’s answer: Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them. Apparently, for all this clear guidance and uniformity, they missed the point of following God. You see, there is a limit for what external rules can do for you. God was not pleased with most of them because God wants faith. Yancey concludes:
The very clarity of God’s will had a stunting effect on the Israelite’s faith. Why pursue God when he had already revealed himself so clearly? Why step out in faith when God had already guaranteed the results? Why wrestle with the dilemma of conflicting choices when God had already resolved the dilemma? In short, why should the Israelites act like adults when they could act like children? And act like children they did, grumbling against their leaders, cheating on the strict rules governing manna, whining about every food or water shortage. As I studied the story of the Israelites, I had second thoughts about crystal-clear guidance. It may serve some purpose, but it does not seem to encourage spiritual development.
I don’t want you to be ignorant, Paul says. We lived under that type of external, precise, rules-based system before, and we failed the test of faith. God was not pleased.
Paul says in verse 6 that these things served as an example to us. I think Paul’s examples drive the point home that external rules to not promote personal holiness or faith.
Four ways that an external law undermines faith:
The Absent Policemen Effect: 1 Cor 10:7 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." This is referring to the story in Exodus 32. Moses went up to the mountain to receive the rules from God. It’s a big deal. But then he gets delayed, and what do the people do? They started worshipping other Gods! The problem with being legislated by an external law is this, when the lawgiver leaves, hearts haven’t been changed, so behavior goes back to normal. You look holy while people are watching you, but when you’re alone you’re a wretch, because nothing has changed inside. Parents, be careful about forcing your kids to be rule-keepers for the sake of keeping rules. When they are out on their own, how will the deal with freedom?
The False Firewall Effect: You know what a firewall is? It is to protect you computer so that unwanted viruses can’t harm you. They problem is that firewalls are worthless if the person inside the firewall grants access to an intruder. Paul’s charge “1 Cor 10:8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” goes back to a story in Numbers 22-25. Remember the story? Balaam is hired to curse the Israelites, and though he tries, he finds he is unable to curse them – they lord shuts his mouth and puts words of blessing in his mouth. The Israelites have a firewall around them. But do you know what Balaam did? Wicked, clever Balaam? Since he could not curse God’s people, he enticed God’s people to sin. Numbers 31:16 explains that on Balaam’s advice, the women of Midian approached the Israelite camp and seduced them into sexual immorality. An external law is like this. It offers a false sense of protection, but they are powerless against the wickedness of a human heart that is unchanged. You see, laws tell you what to do, but they assume that you are in your right mind to follow them. They do not protect you against temptation. And once temptation stimulates you, researchers have found that you will no longer be thinking of the long-term consequences of your actions but how you can get immediate gratification no matter what it is.
The Grass is Greener Effect: 1 cor 10:9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, Paul is referring here to a story in Numbers 21, where after wandering in the desert, they started to resent the manna God was feeding them with (Manna he gave them after they complained on a different occasion.) “We loathe this worthless food!” they complained. Anything but this. Why can’t we have other things? After living under an external law, one will at sometime look at wonder what they are missing out on. This can be positive or negative. Millions of people in China are interested in Christianity because the government has discouraged them from it. Yet if your religion is simply seen as a deprivation, it won’t be long until to overthrow the law that holds you back.
The I Can Do Better Effect: This is related to the last one. Paul says 1 Cor 10:10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. This most likely refers back to the story in Numbers 14 when the spies cmae back from the promised land and counseled the people to go back to Egypt. They grumbled and argued: isn’t our own way better. They rebelled against God and tried to follow their own plan instead of his.
The great limitation to external religion is that it doesn’t change the heart, and with out a heart change, you may look holy, but inside nothing has changed. Paul writes in verse 6: These things took place as examples for us so that we do not desire evil as they did. You see that, they looked holy on the outside, they all followed God’s rules together and played the part of cookie-cutter Christians. They all ate the right food and drank the right drink but they desired evil in their hearts!
So, says Paul, verse 12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” How’s your heart? Yeah, you might be standing great in the church and everyone might look at your spiritual walk like you got it all together, but how’s your heart?
One way to figure it out is to ask yourself how you feel about God’s word. Do you see it as boring, mechanical, legalistic, oppressive, archaic, burdensome?
Let’s read Psalm 19 together. Do you approach God’s word like this?
David loved God’s word. It was more desirable to him than honey, than gold, because something happened inside of him. God had changed him. God can change you. Maybe all you’ve ever known is religion. Maybe all you’ve ever known is rules. Maybe all you’ve ever tried to do is just fit in at church and if anyone asks you, you just want to give them a Christian sounding answer, because you don’t want them to know how evil your heart is. You feel trapped, you feel lost, and you don’t know the way out of the lie of religion while your heart is rotting away. You are powerless against temptation and if your friends or your spouse knew what went on inside your heart, they would leave you in an instant. You need an personal exodus. Just like when God led the children out of bondage, you need him to do the same for you.
Take heart. You are not alone.
1 cor 10:13-14 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. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. (ESV)
There is a way out, a way to escape. The word behind that idea is the same word that is behind the concept of exodus. God will lead you out. You are lost in man-made, legalistic, rule-based religion that leaves you powerless to face temptation? God has provided a way out my friend, and the way is this. Flee idolatry. “Therefore, flee idolatry” Paul writes.
You see, Jesus Christ is the only Lord, God alone. Anything else controlling your life that is not him, is by definition, idolatry. Are you controlled by popularity? Idolatry. Sex? Idolatry. Money? Drugs? Approval? Loneliness? Fear? Insecurity? Things? Friends? Pride? Ambition? If it controls you, and its not Jesus, it is idolatry. God promises to give you an exodus, but it is a very narrow way. It’s only through Jesus.
Jesus Christ died on the cross to free us from the condemnation we deserved for reducing God to rules, and inflating ourselves over him by making up our own. When we did that we found we were actually powerless to keep ourselves from temptation and our lives became more and more messed up. Yet he provides a way out as we follow him in faith. His death secured our salvation and his resurrection secures our life. He gives us with his spirit to do what the Law could never do – change our hearts. Now instead of following him as if we are manipulated by an external law, he changes our hearts to do the loving things that he created us to do. We are free to love, free to live and free, not to slavishly follow rules, but to creatively work out faithful application of his life-giving principles. What an adventure!