Friday 25 February 2011

The end of history (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:1-4

The bible is a historical book. To love the bible is to love history.

I wonder if you have ever thought of it that way. The gospels record for us real events from the life of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion really happened. His resurrection was attested to by eye-witnesses. These facts are verifiable through archeology and contemporary historical accounts. The bible presents itself as documented factual evidence to be examined and investigated. These things happened.

This is all to say that Christianity is not a series of ideas brought together by some well-meaning individuals. Christianity does not make sense if the events recorded for us in the bible did not happen; if the claims made by Jesus in the bible are not true.

The bible is a historical book. To love the bible is to love history. This is the point the apostle Paul makes in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 10.


Paul is not talking to non-Christians. He writes to Christian believers in the city of Corinth.

And Paul isn’t simply saying the bible is history. He says this is our history. These are “our forefathers” (Verse 1). These things were written down “for us” (Verse 11).

Our fathers

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea.
1 Corinthians 10:1

At Rock Fellowship, we have been studying the book of Exodus. “Exodus” simply means “Way Out” or “Exit”. You sit in the cinema and all the lights go out as the movie begins; all except one – The green “Exit” sign with the familiar cartoon of a man sprinting out the door. Of course, it’s irritating; you wish there weren’t any distractions from the show. You wish the flight would just take off sooner without having the stewardesses do the usual show and tell – Everyone knows where the exits are.

But when there is an emergency. When there’s a fire. These exit signs save lives. Everyone’s looking for the way out.

So for the past few months, we have seen in the book of Exodus, God rescuing Israel and making a way out for his people. He saves them from slavery in Egypt. And here in verses 1 and 2, Paul recounts the highlights of that rescue – The crossing of the red sea; the pillar of cloud and fire, symbolising the presence and protection of God.

But notice that Paul calls these Israelites our “forefathers”. Some versions have “ancestors”.

If Paul were talking about a small village in Fuchien, China – then maybe I’d pay attention. Those were my ancestors. They were my forefathers. But not these slaves in Egypt. If I were a Jew, then yes. If I was born in Israel, sure. But Paul can’t possibly be thinking of me – a Chinaman living here in Cambridge, two thousand years later – can he?

Yes, he can.

Paul is not drawing a connection between the Jew and the ancient Israelite. He is talking about the Old Testament people of God, foreshadowing the New Testament believer in Jesus Christ. If you call yourself a Christian, he is speaking to you. We see this connection in verse 3 onwards.

They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
1 Corinthians 10:3-4

What we share is Christ. They ate the same spiritual food; the same spiritual drink. What sustained them was the same spiritual source. It was Christ. (Click here for my expanded thoughts on this and Exodus 17)

But verse 2 makes the further point that we share the same beginnings in Christ. “They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Yes, God was making a “way out” of slavery for the Israelites. But here, Paul is saying, God also made a way in. They were entering into a relationship with God. The crossing of the Red Sea symbolised a new beginning in their relationship as the people of God. They were all, says Paul, baptised.

Which is why, once you have made that powerful connection between us as Christians today, and these Old Testament Israelites then – through our shared identification with Christ, our shared salvation in Christ and our common blessings through Christ – once you have made that connection; then you begin to see the impact of verse 5.

Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them;
their bodies were scattered over the desert.

1 Corinthians 10:5

Our forefathers perished. They faced God’s anger and punishment. Their bodies were scattered in the desert. And the question is: What happened?

Our hearts

What happened was idolatry. Here the bible is warning us as Christians: Do not be an idolater.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things 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 got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
1 Corinthians 10:6-10

A couple of weeks ago, we studied Chapter 8 which had to do with the issue of food sacrificed to idols. It was an issue that connected with many of our own experiences growing up back in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia where there were temples all around us, and even altars in our living rooms. I got a lot of questions that week about friends and loved ones who continue to practice idol worship today. What were they doing? What were the effects? What did the bible say? We were rightly concerned out of love for our family members and acquaintances, and out of our regard for the warnings in the bible.

However, I am equally – if not more – concerned for you as a Christian, that you do not fall into idolatry. Here, Paul says idolatry has little to do with a carved, wooden statue. Instead, it has everything to do with our hearts.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.
1 Corinthians 10:6

The 16th Century reformer, John Calvin calls the heart an idol factory. We worship what we adore. Epithumetas can mean craving or desire. It is an inner longing for an external fulfilment.

“The heart wants what it wants,” says Woody Allen in the 1992 article in Time Magazine. In that famous interview, he justifies the relationship he has with the daughter of his lover. Woody goes on to say, “There is no logic to those things.”

Idolatry justifies our heart’s desire at the expense of conscience, truth and even logic. The heart wants what it wants. Paul says these things are examples so that we don’t set our hearts on evil things as they did.

Paul isn’t talking about Woody Allen. No, he points to the people of God. They were all baptised. There were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea. They all ate the spiritual food. They all drank the spiritual drink.

They were all one in experience, one in salvation – the one people of God. But idolatry presents itself as one evil in many forms. So when John Calvin calls the heart an “idol factory”, what he meant was, we are constantly producing various kinds of idols; various forms of worship.

For some it was food, drink and party (Verse 7). Now you might say: What’s wrong with that? The quote is taken directly from Exodus 32 verse 6, “Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” This was the famous incident of the golden calf. The Israelites told Aaron, “Come, make us gods”. So Aaron fashioned this idol, a figure made out of their gold jewellery and the nation bowed down and worshipped this golden calf.

The ironic thing is Aaron, the brother of Moses, actually tells the people, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” The eating and drinking and partying were part of a “festival to the LORD.” They actually justified their idolatry in God’s name. And all this while, Moses is up on the mountain of God receiving the Ten Commandments!

Or for others, it’s sexual misconduct (Verse 8). Again, it’s not just talking about sexual sin (there passive verbal form of porneia is used – a blanket term that includes just about all forms of sexual perversion), but the lure of sexual sin. The account in Numbers Chapter 25 begins with the men of Israel who “begin to indulge” in sexual immorality with Moabite women who “invited them to the sacrifices of their gods”.

Similarly, the testing in verse 9 refers to Numbers Chapter 21 where the Israelites complained about food and water. God fed them manna from heaven. They called it “miserable food” (Numbers 21:5). Their stomachs motivated their sin. They longed for nicer food, better-tasting food – but their longing prompted their actions in rebelling against God. Numbers 21:4 reads, “The people grew impatient along the way.” That is telling. They had every indication God was leading them towards the Promised Land; the land flowing with milk and honey. But God was taking too long. They wanted it all; they wanted it now.

Now the version I have in the NIV has verse 9 as follows: “We should not test the Lord”. If you check the latest translation of the NIV, it actually says, “We should not test Christ”, which my commentary says is much more likely the case (Also reflected in the ESV). Now, this is quite remarkable. So far, we have encountered two clear references to Jesus here in the Exodus. The first was back in verse 4, where Christ is both the presence that follows the Israelites through the wilderness and the Rock from which they are sustained through spiritual food and drink. And here in verse 9, where the people of God test Christ through their grumbling and idolatry.

Why is this important for us?

We have already seen that idolatry takes multiple forms. Sex, money, success – these are not necessarily bad things. New York pastor and author, Tim Keller defines idolatry as loving good things – good, wonderful, even godly things like education, money, respect; but making these ultimate things at the expense of loving God.

How did these Israelites sin? Yes, they rebelled. Yes, they sinned. But how did they sin? Did the Israelites say, “I don’t want God anymore”? “I hate him. I can’t stand God.” No. They said, “I’ve found this thing, which I love more than God. This is going to be my God.” So, they made the golden calf – it was a god they were familiar with. It was a god they could see and touch. It was a god, that for them, was real.

Yet, we read two weeks ago in Chapter 8: Idols are not real (1 Corinthians 8:4). They are a nothing at all, Paul says. Just a piece of wood. Like the table I’m using now is a piece of wood. But that doesn’t mean idols aren’t dangerous. We will see next week in Chapter 10 verse 20, that to participate in a sacrifice to idols is to participate in the worship of demons. And even then, Paul says, the danger is not in the demons that ensnare us. No, the real danger is in incurring the wrath of God.

And that’s the point of these verses. God is real in salvation; and God is real in judgement. The Israelites only understood the first point. They ate the bread, drank from the rock, crossed the sea. They were saved, hurray! They knew a God who saves and rescues – that God was real.

But they took for granted the God who judges. Verse 8 – twenty-three thousand die. Verse 9 – venomous snakes are sent among the camps. Verse 10 – God sends the Destroyer.

You would have thought they’d learn their lesson? Yet again, and again, they tested God. Again and again, they set their hearts on evil things. Till the bodies of an entire generation of Israelites were scattered in the desert. Only two made it to the Promised Land – Joshua and Caleb. Two! Everyone who made it out of Egypt, Moses included, fell into sin and fell under judgement. Every single one of them.

But Paul isn’t talking to them, is he?

Do not be idolaters. (Verse 7)
We should not commit sexual immorality. (Verse 8)
We should not test the Lord. (Verse 9)
Do not grumble. (Verse 10)

Paul is talking to us. These things occurred to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things (verse 6). And he is saying: As Christians we see the reality of God’s salvation and judgement, in a way that is much, much clearer than our forefathers ever did. We see it in Jesus.

For though they received the same promises, the same rescue and the same blessings from the same God, we have received something infinitely more glorious. We have Christ – the fulfilment of all the blessings and promises of God; or as verse 11 puts it – the fulfilment of the ages.

Our God

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment* of the ages has come.
1 Corinthians 10:11
* (tele/telos; means end, finishing or purpose – one of my favourite words in the bible)

You may know that the Christian and the Jew share the same Old Testament scriptures. The five books of Moses, the Psalms and prophets, the historical books of the kings and nation of Israel. Same books. Same writings. Same God.

Different purpose. Different end.

Paul is saying the Hebrew bible is the Christian’s bible. It was written down for us. This means: When God instructed Moses to write down the account of the Exodus thousands and thousands of years ago, he had you in mind. Yes you – the pathetic Chinaman living in Cambridge in the 21st Century, who can’t even read the original Hebrew language it was written in. If you are a Christian – the Hebrew Scriptures are your Scriptures. They were written down for you!

Why? Because the fulfilment of the ages has come in the person of Jesus Christ and his work on the cross. We can even go so far as to say, this fulfilment has come upon us. Which is why it is so important that we pay special attention to what Paul says next. The blessings are real, but so are the temptations.

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
1 Corinthians 10:12

The NIV “So, if you think you are standing firm” sounds like Paul is warning us against presumptuousness. Don’t think too highly of yourself. Yet actually, he has some specific people in mind.

The NASB gets closer to the mark, “Therefore let him who thinks (dokon) he stands”. Paul is referring to the same group of Christians we met back in Chapter 8. “The man who thinks (dokon) he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know”. This is the stronger brother who knows there is no God but one (8:4; Deuteronomy 6:4). He is absolutely right in his theology. Yet he is so wrong in his humility. He challenges the weaker brother struggling with idols to act against his conscience by eating the food sacrificed to idols. The stronger brother prides himself in knowing (gnosis) so much, yet selfishly ignores the good of his weaker brother. Paul begins Chapter 10 by addressing him, “I don’t want you to be ignorant (agnoein)” – the ones who know, but don’t yet know as they ought to know.

Paul warns the stronger, more knowledgeable brother, “Be careful (Blepete, Watch out), however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9). So here, Paul warns the stronger brother yet again – but this time, turning the tables – saying, “Be careful (Blepeto) that you don’t fall!”

The irony is: the stronger brother rightly sees the weakness of the weak. He sees the idols in the temple and knows in his head – they are nothing. But he is blind to the idols in his heart. And Paul warns him: Do not set your heart on evil things. He warns us about temptation.

And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
1 Corinthians 10:13

Peirasmos can either mean temptation or trial. So Paul could either be referring to desire or danger – to pleasure or to pain. God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear; he will not let you be tested beyond what you can withstand.

There are, of course, overtones of both temptation and trial. The Israelites were tempted in their passions. They were tested by hunger. What ultimately matters most is not our resolve, but God’s faithfulness. He knows our limits and he provides our relief. He is faithful.

Yet verse 13 is not the concluding statement. Verse 14 is: “Therefore, flee idolatry.” Earlier on in 6:18 Pauls says, “Flee from sexual immorality.” 1 Timothy 6:11 – speaking of the love of money and the desire and eagerness for wealth, he says, “Flee from all this.”

Yes, God will faithfully preserve the believer. And yes, he will not allow us to be tempted beyond our limits. He will guard our steps but we must guard our hearts. We need to watch what we watch, to guard what we gaze; to discriminate what we desire.

We learn this as we trust in Christ. We learn to do this in our personal walk with Christ. But Paul gives us one additional resource: We learn from the lives and the triumphs and even the mistakes of these Israelites thousands of years ago, written not simply for our example, but to point towards our fulfilment. That’s the purpose of the Old Testament Scriptures. They were written down for us to keep our gaze firmly focussed on Christ.

Our history

The Polish town of Oswiecim was invaded by Germans in September of 1939. We know it by a different name, “Auschwitz”. It was a network of concentration camps, dubbed by Heinrich Himmler, the Minister of Interior, “the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe”. From the spring of 1942 to the fall of 1944, Jews from all over Nazi-occupied Europe were transported by train to this one location. An estimated 1.1 million prisoners died in those camps, many exterminated in gas chambers. Those not killed by the gas chamber died of starvation, forced labour, disease, individual executions and medical experiments.
(Adapted from Wikipedia)

At the entrance to one of these camps stands a plaque with these words:
The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.

We ignore history to our detriment. It is true of world history – the world as seen great triumphs and great tragedies. It is true of the bible – humanity has received great grace yet committed great evil. We ignore the bible to our shame and our destruction.

1 Corinthians 10 reminds the Christian – the bible is our history. It is the history of God creating the world and sustaining it by his grace. It is the history of humanity’s rebellion against his maker and God’s response in judgement and death. It is the history of God become man, bearing the sin of the world, and raised as Lord of Heaven and Earth – Jesus Christ – the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Christ is the Lord over History.

And it is written down for us – on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.

The end of the ages – or you could even say – the end of history is not an event. It is a person. His name is Jesus. And he was written down for us.

Love Christ. Love His Word.

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