What do you think of when you hear the following names: Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard? What about Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom? Most people think: How in the world could these people let themselves do this? Why did they give up so much for so little? What would make them compromise their dreams? These are all legitimate questions since these three men and three businesses self-destructed. Each of these experienced so much success, yet in the end they failed.
The former New York Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra once said: “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” Now Yogi is no theologian, but he unknowingly expressed one of the greatest principles in the Christian life. It matters little to have the lead at the beginning; what matters is how you finish. Victory is won at the finish line, not at the starting blocks. Moreover, the Christian life is not a 100-yard dash; it is a marathon that requires endurance and a lifetime commitment to keep running with the intent of finishing strong. The cliché, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over” also serves to remind you and me that even if we have fallen far behind in the Christian race there is still time to finish well.
In 1 Cor 10:1-13, the apostle Paul is going to warn us about the dreadful and severe consequences of sin. He is also going to challenge us to avoid sin and persevere in our Christian lives. Paul will argue that there is a very real possibility that many Christians will not finish their Christian lives well. In 9:24-27, Paul shared that he strived to keep himself in check because he didn’t want to end up being disqualified from the prize of God’s approval. What he considered a possibility in his own life he now presents as a sad reality in the lives of God’s people in the Old Testament. Paul gives us a major history lesson, with the express purpose of getting us to learn from the past. Someone has said, “If history teaches us anything, it is that history teaches us nothing.” In other words, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. In these 13 verses, God is going to say, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” Two spiritual realities will reinforce this idea. First:
- ALL of God’s people experience great spiritual privileges(10:1-5). In 10:1-4, Paul tells the Corinthians that they have been blessed with the same spiritual blessings as Old Testament Israel. As we will see in this passage, this is also applicable to us as well. Paul explains, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, 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 were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” These four verses clarify that the Israelites that left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years were saved. They had observed Passover, which was an act of faith, and had come out of Egypt, a picture of salvation. Paul even used the Passover Lamb of Exodus 12 to describe the benefit of the cross of Jesus Christ to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:7). The saved status of the Exodus generation is also seen in the use of the word “all,” which is used five times in four verses. Paul states: “ALL were under the cloud; ALL passed through the sea; ALL were baptized into Moses; ALL ate the same spiritual food; and ALL drank the same spiritual drink.”
Like Israel in the Old Testament, we too have received many spiritual privileges. In the same way that Israel was “under the cloud,” we have experienced God’s protection and guidance. In the same way that Israel “passed through the sea,” we have “passed from death to life” (John 5:24). In the same way that Israel was “baptized into Moses,” we have been “baptized into Christ” (1 Cor 12:13). In the same way that Israel ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:17-34). In the same way that Israel was “followed” by Christ, Christ follows us (Heb 13:5).
To what degree do you revel in the spiritual privileges that God has given you? Can you honestly say that you are awed by the fact that God saved you? Do you ponder the wonder that out of all the people in the history of the world, God chose of His own initiative to save you?
After unloading the spiritual privileges of God’s people, Paul transitions into a startling contrast. In spite of Israel’s redeemed state and numerous blessings (10:1-4), Paul writes in 10:5, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.” The word “nevertheless” emphatically brings out the contrast between how many were blessed (“all”) versus how many with whom God was not pleased (“most of them”). This declaration is an obvious understatement of great proportions. Over two million people came out of Egypt, yet only two adults (Joshua and Caleb) were allowed to enter the Promised Land. The rest were “laid low”…as in six feet under! Literally, their carcasses were scattered across the wilderness. These individuals were tragically disqualified by death. They did not go back to Egypt and get “unredeemed.” The blood of the Lamb, which had taken them out of Egypt, was irreversible. They did not lose what they had, but they lost the reward God wanted to give them.
The best example of this is Moses. Obviously, Moses was saved, yet on account of unbelief (Num 20:12; cf. Jude 5), he did not finish well. If this can happen to Moses, it can happen to you and me. We must humble ourselves and take God’s warning very seriously. “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”
[So, while ALL of God’s people experience great spiritual privileges, we will now learn further that…]
- Many of God’s people experience great spiritual failure(10:6-13). In 10:6-11, Paul draws himself, the Corinthians, and all of us into the story. There’s a warning given to “us” collectively. Paul is going to summarize five stories from the 40 years of wilderness wandering that show a pattern of disqualification. He’s going to tell us that it is important for us to understand these Old Testament accounts, because we stand accountable as Israel did. Look at the first statement, in 10:6: “Now these things happened as examples for us so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.” Now look at 10:11: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” These bracketing comments are setting the context for the history lesson that unfolds in 10:7-10. Paul wants us to see ourselves here because there’s a danger that we too might fall into sin like Israel and be disqualified from our reward.
Before we look at the four sins in 10:7-10, it is important to note the source of all four of these sins—craving evil things. The “craving of evil things” in 10:6b was an episode that took place about a year after the Exodus (Num 11). Israel had been given the law, they had built the tabernacle, and they had begun to travel. Do you know what the evil things were that they craved? Fresh vegetables! They were sick and tired of manna, and they wanted to go back to Egypt where there were cucumbers, garlic, and onions. We may laugh at this, but how often are we guilty of “craving” a new car, a larger home, a new partner, a new wardrobe? In light of eternity, these cravings are on par with cucumbers, garlic, and onions. Seriously, in eternity, what difference will it make what kind of car I drove or how large my home was? What difference will it make how successful I was in my job? Who will ask me what material possessions I provided for my children? Will I even care about those things? The answer is “NO!” Yet, Paul wants us to know that craving evil things can keep us from finishing well. “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”
Let’s now look at the four sins Paul mentions in 10:7-10.
(1) Idolatry: In 10:7, Paul writes, “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, ‘THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.” The idolatry that Paul is referring to took place during the giving of the law at Mount Sinai (Exod 32). While Moses spent forty days on the mountain, the people became fearful and restless. They started to distrust that God even existed, and they asked Aaron to create an alternative god for them. In great weakness, Aaron gave in and created the golden calf. The result was an orgy with eating and drinking. Similarly, the Corinthians were guilty of idolatry through their temple feasts (10:14-22).
For you and me, idolatry is putting anything or anyone in God’s rightful place in our lives. Anything can become an idol, but I want to focus on making our Christian experience an idol. We can create religious idols because we are fearful of intimacy with the living God of the universe. The busier we stay in Christian activity, the less we have to deal with Him. So success in ministry can be an idol. Love relationships in the body of Christ can become an idol. A concern for a healthy self-image can become idolatrous, because we don’t believe that God Himself can be enough. So we end up demanding that our Christian experience and activity fulfill us—give us meaning and purpose. Then it becomes an idol. Paul wants us to know that idolatry can keep us from finishing well. “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”
(2) Immorality: In 10:8, Paul writes, “Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day.” The sexual immorality of God’s people continued through their wilderness wandering. Later in their progress through the desert, the Israelites practiced immorality when they participated in one of the Moabites’ religious feasts (Num 25:1-9). Like the Israelites, the Corinthians were also guilty of sexual immorality. One of their members was having an affair with his step-mother (5:1-2), and others had to be commanded to flee sexual immorality (6:18).
The Corinthian church wasn’t the only church to struggle with sexual immorality; we do as well—in thought and action. So here are some ways to guard yourself against sexual morality:
- Stay honest with your spouse. Even though it may be difficult, tell your spouse when you are struggling with sexual temptation.
- Monitor your marriage. Beware of child-centered marriages. Invest, first and foremost, in your spouse.
- Recognize that work can be a danger zone. Baltimore psychologist, Shirley Glass, has studied adultery and has determined that 25% of women and 44% of men have affairs. Of those men and women that do have affairs, the majority of them have their affairs with a coworker.
- Beware of the lure of the Internet. Use various safeguards to keep yourself from succumbing to on-line sexual sin.
- Commit to an accountability relationship. Howard Hendricks, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, has studied 237 instances of Christian men (most are Christian leaders), who have experienced moral failure. He found one common factor: not one of the 237 had accountability relationships with other men.
- Spend time in God’s word. Everyone has 96 15-minute periods of time every day. All of us have seven days in each week.
Paul wants us to know that sexual immorality can keep us from finishing well. We have seen this again and again in the Christian world. Thus, Paul exclaims, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” Persevere in your marriage vows. If you are single, stay pure and wait on God to provide you with a spouse. The consequences can be severe when you take matters into your own hands. However, if you wait on God, He will reward you with a greater sense of intimacy with Him.
(3) Testing God: In 10:9, Paul writes, “Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.” In Numbers 21, the Israelites tested the Lord Jesus Christ by taxing His patience. They continued to complain, even though He faithfully provided for them (21:4-9). His provision of manna and water was inadequate from their point of view, and they despised it (21:5). As a result, God destroyed them with serpents! Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would pick that way to die. God used snakes to destroy His people because they tested Him in the wilderness. God does not look kindly on a lack of faith.
Like Israel, the Corinthians had given evidence of being dissatisfied with God’s provision. First, the Corinthians were disgruntled with God’s servants (1 Cor 1:12). Second, the Corinthians repulsed God with their sinful arrogance (4:18; 8:1). Third, the Corinthians indicated dissatisfaction with the Lord’s Supper by participating in pagan feasts (10:14-22). Fourth, the Corinthians were divided over class distinctions (11:17-34). We can test God in similar ways as well. When we do so, we risk the chastening hand of God. Paul wants us to know that idolatry can keep us from finishing well. “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”
(4) Grumbling: In 10:10, Paul writes, “Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.” Tragically, the image of grumbling characterizes the whole wilderness experience of Israel (Exod 15 through Num 17). And this sinful behavior began one month after the Exodus. Sadly, God’s people grumbled incessantly for a period of two years, and then God decreed that all those twenty years old or older will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. They will be made to wander in the desert until the last rebel is dead (Num 14:26-35).
Paul’s deliberate link with testing God (10:9) demonstrates that grumbling is particularly associated with putting God to the test (Exod 17:2-3). Specifically, it seems that the episode Paul is reflecting upon is the Israelites’ grumbling about food. On these occasions, God’s anger was particularly kindled against them (Num 11:1; 14:2-4). In Num 11:1-3, God sent fire that consumed some of the people on the edge of the camp. If this is the occasion Paul has in mind, Paul adds that God executed His wrath by using an angel, a fact that Moses did not mention in Numbers. However, the translators of the Greek OT used the same term, “the destroyer” (olothreutes) to describe the angel who executed the Egyptians’ first-born on the night of the Exodus (Exod 12:23; cf. Heb 11:28).
In Numbers 16, Israel also grumbled against both Moses and Aaron. This resulted in a man by the name of Korah leading a rebellion where nearly 15,000 died. How would you feel if today’s newspaper reported that the military had executed 15,000 people? Suppose the victims were not criminals, foreign agitators, or political radicals, but ordinary citizens who were protesting the way their country was being run. Such a possibility seems unthinkable. Yet, in Numbers 16 we read that God responded like that to ancient Israel. He took the lives of 15,000 of His chosen people because they were complaining about the way He was caring for them.
The theme of ingratitude for all the blessings that God had given them marks this section. God’s people wanted more. His presence, His provision, His availability, and His power weren’t enough. Can you relate? Have you ever thought about the fact that when you grumble and complain, either against God directly or against those to whom He has delegated leadership over you (like parents, teachers, pastors, bosses), you are really questioning His wisdom, His grace, His goodness, and His righteousness? May I encourage you to cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Pick your friendships wisely. Later, in 1 Cor 15:33, Paul will warn, “Bad company corrupts good morals.”
Many Christians believe that every Christian has a guardian angel. I’m not sure that we can argue this from the Scriptures; nevertheless, undoubtedly various angels are protecting us from spiritual and physical harm. Yet, there comes a time in the lives of certain rebellious believers when God “pulls the plug” and assigns a death sentence! Instead of dispatching angels to watch over us, He assigns the destroying angel to take us home to heaven early!
The last two verses of this section (10:12-13) give a wonderful summary. In them are balanced an important warning and a hopeful word of encouragement and grace. In light of all that Paul has said, he challenges the Corinthians with these words in 10:12: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.” Those who have great beginnings may still fall and ruin the latter days of their lives. The child of God who thinks he has arrived is being set up by the devil to be knocked down. Those on the mountain top are the most vulnerable to attack. The taller they are, the harder they fall. The higher you are, the farther the fall. Elijah was on the mountain when he defied the prophets of Baal. The next day he ran across Israel as fast as he could, away from the painted face of Jezebel. He went from one magnificent, climatic victory to dismal defeat. There he sat under the juniper tree, defeated and discouraged. God came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He went from bravery to shrinking cowardice. Are all the breaks going for you? Even so, you must believe, “It could happen to me.”
Fortunately, we can choose to avoid disqualification and finish well. Paul closes this passage in 10:13 with these powerful words: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” Before we look at this verse, we must keep in mind that the Greek word translated “temptation” (peirasmos) can also be translated “testing.” Practically speaking, this term could be translated “temptation and testing.” Every temptation is a test; every test is a temptation.
In 10:13, we can see three principles about temptation:
- Temptation is common to every person, so there is no temptation that is unique. In the Greek, the three words translated into our English, “common to man” are actually pressed into a single term. A more literal reading would be, “No temptation has seized you that is nothuman” (anthropinos, i.e., manlike). No one can hide behind the argument that his sin is unique and so he can be excused. It is impossible to be in business and not be tempted to sacrifice people for profit. Government workers can be regularly tempted to forfeit integrity for promotions. A mother of preschoolers will be tempted by this culture’s priorities to think of herself as a victim of her family’s needs.
- God controls the context of our temptation. We’ve all seen load-limit signs on highways, bridges, and elevators. Knowing that too much strain can cause severe damage or complete collapse, engineers determine the exact amount of stress that various materials can safely endure. Posted warnings tell us not to exceed the maximum load. Human beings also have their load limits, which vary from person to person. Some people, for example, can bear the pressure of trial and temptation better than others; yet everyone has a breaking point and can take only so much. In this verse, Paul promises that God is faithful and He will not allow you to be tested or tempted beyond what you are able. Yet, we must draw on God to deliver us. Mother Theresa (1910-1997) once said, “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”
- God personally and providentially provides a specific way of escape. The use of the definite article (“the”) with both “temptation” and “way of escape” points to a particular way of escape that is available in each temptation. Paul did not mean there is one way of escape that is available regardless of the temptation. His point is: Look for the escape route! There is a way out! Overcoming temptation is not a matter of simply sitting down on a sofa with a box of chocolates and telling God to make the way of escape from whatever sin is tempting us. We are responsible to do our part as well. In 10:13-14, Paul states that we discover God’s saving plan in the key words: “bear,” “stand up,” and “flee” (10:12-14). Paul wants us to be victorious. He wants us to persevere through our tests and temptations. He is for us!
Paul is telling you and me that we must learn from our fathers—from Israel. We don’t have to repeat their mistakes. We can be obedient to God and finish well. Remember, it doesn’t matter how you begin, it only matters how you end.