A little over a month ago, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, gave a speech before our Congress in which he asked the United States to do more to help Ukraine fight the Russian invasion. During that speech, President Zelensky said:
“Just like anyone else in the United States, I remember your national memorial [at] Mt. Rushmore, the faces of your prominent presidents, those who laid the foundation of the United States of America as it is today: democracy, independence, freedom, and care for everyone, for every person…We in Ukraine want the same for our people, all that is [a] normal part of your own life.”
In other words, Zelensky was saying, “You’re the same people who fought, time and time again, to defend and protect these American values. This is who you are. You’re related to these people who’ve gone on before you. And because this is who you are, it only makes sense that you would want to help us fight for these values that we both cherish.”
In our text this morning, Paul is going to say something similar to the Christians in Corinth. He’s going to say to them, “Remember those people of ancient Israel who have gone on before you. You’re related to them. They’re your family. Israel’s story is also your story, and so you need to learn from them. Learn from the good things that they did, and learn also from their mistakes.”
We continue in our study of I Corinthians and, this morning, we’re going to be in chapter 10. Now, it’s important for us to see that chapters 8, 9 and 10 are really one long discussion that all started with the question of whether or not it was okay for Christians to eat meat which had been offered to idols.
And, as we saw at the end of chapter 9 last week, Paul encourages us to run our race — this Christian life — as if we really want to win. He said that being a Christian is like being a great athlete — it takes commitment; it takes sacrifice. And if we really want to win, we will do everything we can to succeed at the mission that God has given us to reach lost souls and bring them to Christ. And that means we need to be willing to give up whatever we need to give up in order to accomplish that goal.
In chapter 10, it may look like Paul has changed topics, but he hasn’t, and we’re going to eventually tie everything all together. But he begins this chapter by saying, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers [he’s talking here about the children of Israel, the Hebrews] were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (I Corinthians 10:1-2)
Paul is talking about the time when God led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, headed for the Promised Land, and he says they were all “under the cloud.” In order to know which direction they were supposed to travel, they didn’t have GPS, they didn’t have Google Maps, so God traveled with them. He was a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night.
And not only was that a guarantee that they would not get lost, but it was also the divine presence of God. Imagine what it must have been like to have God’s powerful presence in their midst every moment of every day.
And so, God guided them until they came to the Red Sea, when suddenly they were trapped. In front of them was the sea and behind them was the Egyptian army closing in quickly to recapture them. And, of course, we remember the miracle where God parted the waters of the Red Sea and the Israelites crossed over on dry ground.
It was an amazing event. And, as they were crossing through the Red Sea, there would have been these massive walls of water on either side of them. They could not possibly have missed the presence and the power of God in their midst. It had to be absolutely overwhelming.
And when Paul talks about the fact that they were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”, I think he’s relating what they experienced with what we experience when we become Christians. When we’re baptized into Christ, we leave behind a life of bondage to sin, and we’re headed to the Promised Land. Just like the children of Israel who left behind a life of bondage, and were headed to the Promised Land.
And just like we are immersed in water when we’re baptized, the Jews were also immersed in water. They had the walls of the Red Sea on either side and the water in the cloud above them. They were surrounded by water, baptized in a sense.
And then when they got to the other side of the Red Sea, they “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.” (I Corinthians 10:3-4)
When Paul talks about the spiritual food they ate, he’s referring to the manna that God provided from heaven to meet their needs. Out in the wilderness with nothing to eat, every single morning God gave them what they needed to eat that day.
The spiritual water is talking about the water that God provided in the desert. Sometimes, that water literally came out of a rock. There’s a tradition among the rabbis that says there was a literal rock that followed Israel around… and Moses could strike that rock any time he wanted with his staff and bring forth water.
Now, of course, that story isn’t true, it’s not in Bible, but I do think Paul is referring to that tradition to say that there really was a rock — a spiritual rock — that followed Israel around. A rock that provided the people with all their spiritual needs, and that Rock was Christ!
But think about all those things that the children of Israel saw. How they experienced, in amazing ways, the power and presence of God. It would have been absolutely overwhelming: God’s guidance, God’s provision, God’s deliverance. And so, you would think that these people would have been the most spiritual, the most godly, the most faithful people on the face of this earth. How could you possibly experience that level of God’s power and presence without being overwhelmed by the greatness of your God?
But in verse 5, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” (I Corinthians 10:5)
Saying that God was displeased with “most of them” is being rather generous. Of the three million or so people that experienced this unbelievable deliverance, this unbelievable evidence of God’s power and presence — out of three million people, only two of them entered the land of Canaan: Joshua and Caleb. Every single one of the rest of the adults died in the wilderness, punished by God because he was so offended by the way they were living.
I find that incredible. How could these people experience that level of the power and presence of God and, despite that fact, live so offensively to God that their judgment was they would all die in the wilderness, except for two of them. So, why is Paul telling us this story?
Verse 6, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” (I Corinthians 10:6)
Paul’s concern was that the Corinthians were headed down the exact same path that the Israelites were. So, he goes on to identify four specific things that the Israelites did wrong that he needs to warn the Corinthians about.
Verse 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.” (I Corinthians 10:7)
Paul is referring here to what happened in Exodus 32, when Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive God’s commands. But it didn’t take long for the Hebrew people to turn from God. Influenced by the pagan nations around them, they decided to gather up all their gold, melt it down, form it into a golden calf and worship it. Even Moses’ brother, Aaron, was in the midst of this idolatry. It makes you want to say, “What was wrong with these people? How could they see all the things that they saw and behave like that?”
2. Sexual Immorality
Verse 8, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (I Corinthians 10:8)
Paul is referring here to Numbers 25 when the Hebrew men were having sexual relations with pagan Moabite women. It reached the point where it was so sickening to God that he poured out his judgment on Israel in the form of a plague.
About that time, there was a Jewish man who took a Moabite prostitute into a tent, right in front of Moses, in the middle of the camp, in front of God and everyone else, and was just flaunting this in the face of God. And there was a young priest named Phinehas who just couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed a spear; ran into the tent, caught the two of them in the act and drove his spear through them both. That stopped the plague that God had unleashed on the people, but not before 23,000 Israelites died that day.
Now we’re shocked at that story, but we’re shocked at the wrong thing. We’re shocked that God would kill 23,000 people. But we ought to be shocked at the behavior of those people. That’s what’s shocking. How could they possibly have experienced what they experienced and turn right around and do that to God?
Verse 9, “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents.” (I Corinthians 10:9)
In Numbers 21, we read where the people of Israel became more and more “grumble-y” toward God. They’re sick of the manna; they’re sick of the wilderness; they’re sick of the journey. They just want to go back home to Egypt. “Why did God lead us out here?”
It reached the point where God couldn’t take it anymore, so God let loose serpents into the camp and those poisonous serpents were biting the people and killing them. But God gave them a way to be saved. He commanded Moses to take a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. To those who believed that this was God’s way of delivering them, they looked up at that pole in faith and God spared their lives.
Jesus later tells us that this was symbolic of the fact that he would be lifted up just like that serpent was, and that God would save all those who look to him in faith. But, for the Israelites, many of them died because of their grumbling. After all that God had done for them, after God had poured out so many blessings on them, all they could do was grumble. And God said, “I’ve had enough!” and he punished them.
The last story that Paul mentions is in verse 10, “nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.” (I Corinthians 10:10)
Paul is referring here to Numbers 16 when Korah and some other Hebrews decided to lead a rebellion against Moses and the leadership that God had put into place. They were tired of Moses; they were tired of God; they were going to rebel and go back to Egypt. And God became so offended by their behavior that he literally opened up the earth and it swallowed them up.
All four of these sins committed by the Israelites — idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling, and rebellion — were things that the Corinthians were struggling with.
As so, Paul says in verse 11, “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.” (I Corinthians 10:11)
Paul’s concern was that the Corinthians — and we today — might make the same mistakes that the Israelites made. It’s hard to believe that the very same people who, in verses 1-4, were being led by God through the Red Sea and provided for in the wilderness are the very same people committing the sins in verses 7-10? How is it possible for God’s power and presence to be poured out on these people in such amazing ways and they immediately turn away from God? In fact, it almost seems like the more God blessed them, the more determined they were to see how much they could offend him. And it’s easy for us to say today, “We would never do anything like that.”
So, Paul says in verse 12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (I Corinthians 10:12).
In other words, if you’re thinking, “I would never do anything like that,” then you better be extra careful. Because the truth is, we’re all tempted to turn away from God, and sometimes it seems like the more God blesses us, the more likely we are to get off-track.
Verse 13, “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.” (I Corinthians 10:13)
These are familiar words. Words that are comforting, but at the same time, a bit disturbing. Because God’s promise is, no matter what temptation you face, “I will give you what you need to resist that temptation and I will give you a way to escape it.”
Which is very comforting. But it’s also a bit disturbing. Because that means every single time you give into temptation, it’s your fault. Because God promised, “I’ll always you a way of escape.”
Which means we can’t blame our past. We can’t blame our circumstances. We can’t blame anything or anyone else. If God gives us what we need to be able to escape temptation, then every single time we give into temptation, it’s our fault and God will hold us accountable.
Now, up through verse 13, Paul is kind of giving us this big picture. But, starting in verse 14, he moves on to the specific issue that he’s been talking about for several chapters. And that has to do with the Corinthians’ behavior regarding meat and pagan worship and everything that goes with that.
“Therefore, [in light of everything I’ve just said] my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.
“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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?” (I Corinthians 10:14-18)
What Paul is doing here is he’s using an analogy. When we come together on Sunday morning and we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we have a piece of bread and a cup of grape juice. And even though there’s nothing spiritual about that bread and there’s nothing spiritual about that grape juice; they represent something very deep and meaningful to all of us. There’s a symbolism that’s a part of our worship, where we are remembering the death of Jesus on the cross – his broken body, his blood that was shed.
And so, while these elements, in and of themselves, are not spiritual, they become deeply spiritual because of what they represent to us as part of our worship. The same thing was true of the Israelites whenever they ate meat which had been sacrificed on the altar. That was part of their worship to God.
Now having used that illustration, Paul goes on in verse 19, “What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?” (I Corinthians 10:19)
You remember Paul said back in chapter 8 that the meat which was offered to idols was just a piece of meat. It’s not good; it’s not evil. It’s just meat. And an idol is actually nothing. It’s a piece of stone; it’s a piece of wood. So, Paul is still reemphasizing that truth.
But, just like the Lord’s Supper, this meat which had been offered to idols, it’s more than just a piece of meat. It represents something.
Verse 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. 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. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (I Corinthians 10:20-22)
The Corinthians were eating meat in their homes which had been offered to idols and was sold in the marketplace, and Paul told us in chapter 8, “That’s okay. There’s nothing sinful about that. Unless it causes a brother to stumble, it’s fine.”
And Paul talked about the activities that went on in the temple courtyards of these pagan temples, because that was kind of the hub of the social activity of the community. And, even though it was done in the presence of those idols, it was still okay. Christians had the liberty to do that as long as they didn’t cause anyone else to stumble.”
But the Corinthians had apparently pushed things to the point where they were participating in meals that were dedicated to the worship of those pagan gods. And Paul says, “Now you’ve crossed the line. At that point, you’ve gone too far. Because just like the elements of the Lord’s Supper are connected with our worship of God, so this meat that is being used in that ceremony is connected with the worship of those pagan gods. So, now this is no longer an issue of a weaker brother; this is just a sin issue.”
When you reach the point where you are participating in behavior that is offensive to God, then you’ve crossed the line. At that point, it becomes sin. Paul says participating in heathen worship is offensive to God and he warns them that they’re going to provoke the jealousy of God. He basically says, “This is a fight you don’t want to pick because this a fight you cannot win.”
There is always this danger when we emphasize grace — and I love grace. But grace does not mean that sin is okay with God. Grace does not mean that God is not going to discipline his people like he did in the past. Grace doesn’t mean, “Anything goes”. So, Paul is very serious when he tells the Corinthians, “When you’re participating in heathen worship, you’re provoking God, and there are some serious consequences when you do that.”
Now when we think about the application is for us today, we understand that the issue is not the same. I don’t think anyone here in the room this morning has ever been tempted to go to some pagan temple and participate in pagan worship. So, what would our issue be? Maybe the best way to answer that is to go back through the four issues that Paul identified with the Corinthians and understand them in our context today.
The first of the Ten Commandments was, “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind.” Jesus taught the same thing. This is the greatest commandment: Our God is a jealous God, and we need to put him first.
So, what would be, for us as Christians in America, our greatest idolatry? I think it would have to be materialism. God has blessed us as a country beyond what any country has known in the history of the world. Everything we enjoy is the result of God blessing us. But it’s easy for God’s blessing to become a point of idolatry. The more we have, the more we want. And the more we want, the more we justify what we think we need.
It’s a cycle that can that easily become the passion of our lives. It becomes our focus; it becomes our idol. The very blessing of God is the very thing that steers us off-track. There’s nothing wrong with stuff; but when we take what God has given us for kingdom purposes and we keep it for ourselves, at that point, we’re guilty of idolatry. We’ve bought in to the value system of the world.
2. Sexual Immorality
We talked about this in chapter 6. Let me just summarize it very simply. If you’re involved in a sexual relationship with someone who is not your marriage partner, you’re guilty of the sin of sexual immorality.
I think most of us would say, “Idolatry is wrong and sexual immorality is wrong, but grumbling, that’s not a big deal.” But it’s interesting when you read through scripture how much emphasis there is on how offensive grumbling is to God.
The reason is this. God in his grace has poured out his goodness on us in so many ways, and if our response to that is a lifestyle of grumbling and complaining, that’s offensive to God. We think if things don’t go just right, and things aren’t falling together like we think they should, we deserve more. And we forget that, even on my worst days, I have more than I could ever deserve and I need to give thanks to God for all of it.
Lastly is the issue of rebellion. We live in a culture that admires the individual and independence. It’s all about me. We don’t like being told what to do: I’ll do it my way, thank you very much. That philosophy of the world, which is a philosophy of arrogance, and the concept that I am my own god, can make its way into our lives.
But, as Christians, God expects us to be humble, submissive people — to authority at work, in government, in the home, at school and at church. That’s what God has called us to be — a humble, submissive people.
So, what does it mean to run the race to win?
It means that I will love God with all my heart, soul and might. I will have no other gods but him, and I will not allow God’s blessings to ever become my god.
It means that I will be sexually pure and not contaminated by the sexual idolatry of our culture.
It means that I will not grumble, but will have an attitude of thanksgiving and joy in appreciation of all that God has done for me.
It means that I will be characterized by a heart of humility and submissive to the authorities that God has placed in my life.
That is how we run the race to win!