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17. Lessons From the Present and the Past (1 Cor. 9:24-10:10)


My Dad told me one time that a preacher comes across better when he has that “lean, hungry look.” I think my Dad has something there, and unfortunately I wish I had that look now as I attempt to expound these verses in the ninth and tenth chapters of 1 Corinthians. I feel something like the woman in a weight loss group, who made this confession. She had lost a great deal of weight and was very pleased with herself. One of her bad habits had been stopping at a donut shop every morning on her way to work. There, she consumed more than her share of fat grams and calories. Now that she had gotten control of her eating, she was elated. On the way to work one morning, she was passing by the donut shop where she had failed so many times. On an impulse, she turned in to the shop. This time, it was going to be different. She was going to order a cup of coffee, and nothing else, and prove to herself that she finally had control of her eating.

She ordered her cup of coffee and sat down to drink it. There, across the table from her, was a man who was not showing the same self-control. He was drinking coffee and eating donuts covered with powdered sugar. Suddenly, he stood up and left the table—leaving one sugar-covered donut sitting on the table right in front of her. It was too much! She could not let this donut go to waste. She snatched it up and snarfed it down, dropping tell-tale evidences of the sugar all over the front of her dress. Then, to her horror, the man returned. He had not left at all, but only gotten up to refill his cup. How could she deny that she had eaten his donut? How could she explain?

All of us struggle with self-control. So do the Corinthians. In our text, Paul draws together all of his previous admonitions concerning the character and the conduct of the Corinthian saints. There are divisions and strife, with many looking down upon Paul as an apostle and upon his simplistic gospel of Christ crucified. There is immorality openly practiced by some of the saints, and some so vile that even the pagan Corinthians are shocked. Christians there are defensive of those things they consider their liberties, and they look to the secular law courts to protect their legal rights. Some Christians in Corinth are seeking to deal with immorality.

In the immediate context, Paul has been dealing with the question of meats offered to idols. This issue is first raised in chapter 8. For the moment, Paul allows their premises to stand unchallenged. These are: (1) they have the right to eat meat offered to idols since there is only one God; (2) they are wiser and stronger than those who have scruples against eating such meats, and (3) because this is their right, they have no reason not to exercise it. Paul deals with the last premise first. In chapter 8, Paul indicates that their right to eat meat, based on their “knowledge” is to be set aside for the sake of their “weaker” brethren. To insist on exercising their rights by eating such meat to the detriment of their brother is not walking in love.

In the first 23 verses of chapter 9, Paul contrasts his attitudes and actions with those who insist on eating these meats. He conclusively proves his right to “eat and drink” at the expense of the brethren to whom he ministers by citing biblical support from the Old Testament law, from secular life, from the practice of his fellow-apostles, and from the teaching of our Lord. In spite of his undeniable right to “eat and drink” at the expense of others, Paul sets this liberty aside, so that his ministry of the gospel will be enhanced. They insist on exercising a “right” which is wrong, and no right at all; Paul sets aside a “right” that is indisputable.

At verse 24 of chapter 9, Paul begins to approach the subject of eating meats offered to idols from a very different perspective. His point is powerfully made, but it goes even beyond the issue of eating certain meats. Paul’s words in our text apply to every one of the problems of the Corinthian church mentioned in chapters 1-9. Paul will show his readers that the Corinthians’ problems are not new, but simply a repetition of the problems faced by the ancient Israelites, as they made their way from Egypt to the promised land. He will also sum up all of these common problems and show that they have a common denominator, that all are sins of self-indulgence.

The problems of the ancient Israelites to which Paul refers, and the problems at Corinth which Paul has exposed, are precisely the same problems you and I face as Christians today. Let us listen to Paul’s words and learn, for to do so will avoid much needless failure in our Christian lives.

All … but One …

24 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25 And everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27 but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.

The Corinthians who feel free to eat meat offered to idols thought that they were wiser and more spiritual than their “weaker brethren.” It is their superior knowledge on which their liberty to eat idol-meat is based. Paul’s words in our text must sting: “Do you not know … ?99 If this is not enough, he will also say in verse 1 of chapter 10, “I do not want you to be unaware, brethren … .” These smug saints prided themselves on their knowledge of the Old Testament, as seen from Paul’s words in chapter 8, verses 4-6. But they are ignorant. Paul takes them back to some important lessons they missed. But first Paul introduces this concluding section by an illustration from the Isthmian games.100

Many run as contestants in a race, but there is only one winner. We know that to be true from our own experience with the Super Bowl. The San Diego Chargers found little consolation in coming in second. They are as deflated as the Dallas Cowboys, who lost to the San Francisco Forty-Niners the week before. Every contestant in the race seeks nothing less than to win the race. Only one runner receives the prize. The Corinthians should do no less than the contestants in the Isthmian games—they should run in such a way as to win.

Paul is not talking about salvation here. He is not urging the lost to work hard in order to reach the goal of winning their salvation. He is challenging the Corinthian saints to strive to fulfill their calling as saints. Paul’s words here should be understood in the light of his words elsewhere, along with those of Peter:

3 Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. 4 No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. 5 And also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules (2 Timothy 2:3-5).

5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. 6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:5-8).

1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Races are not won automatically. The athlete who wins outperforms his fellow-athletes, who also want to win. The athlete who wins the race is that individual who most wants to win, who purposes to win, and who is willing to pay the price for winning. The thing which sets a winning athlete apart from the rest is his self-control. This self-control is not simply evident in the race, nor is it restricted only to the realm of athletics. The winning athlete disciplines every area of his life so that he may win the race. The winning athlete will not stay up late watching television or going out, because his body needs rest. He will not eat like everyone else, because many foods will only make him fat and flabby. Every aspect of the athlete’s life is disciplined, so that he may win the prize.

If such discipline characterizes the athlete in the Isthmian games, how much more should the Christian be willing to exercise self-control to “win the race” set before him? In the Second Century A.D., the crown awarded the winner of the race was of pine or of withered celery.101 The Christian strives to win an eternal, unfading crown. How much more effort and sacrifice should we be willing to make in order to win so great a crown?

All … but Two

1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.

From the Isthmian games held near Corinth, Paul turns to the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, cross through the Red Sea, and begin to make their way toward the promised land. These ancient Israelites of Old Testament times are the counterparts of the Corinthians and Christians today. Paul refers to them as “our fathers” (10:1). While there are differences between Israel and the church, Paul wants his readers to sense the continuity. Their experiences are not that different from our own, and their failures are just like ours.

There were those in Corinth who looked upon themselves as “strong” in the faith, and who looked down upon others as “weak.” Those who think themselves “strong” are those whom Paul is showing to be weak, and whom he will shortly warn that their over-confidence may lead to their own downfall (10:12). These Corinthians, like their Jewish counterparts (see Matthew 3:8-10; Romans 9:1-5f.; 11:17-24; Galatians 2:15), seemed to think their privileges guarantee that they would not fall, and that they would surely “win” the race before them. Paul turns their attention to the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, showing that while they were granted blessings which closely parallel those of the New Testament saints, they nevertheless fail to enter into the promised land. Their bodies were strewn throughout the wilderness, and while all those who left Egypt experience God’s divine provisions, only two finished their course by entering into the promised land (see Numbers 14:30-32).

In the first five verses of chapter 10, Paul follows the same general theme he has introduced in 9:24-27, where he points out that in a race, all run, but one wins. Now, in 10:1-5 he turns to the ancient Israelites and points to the blessings which all experienced; yet most failed to enter the land, dying instead in the wilderness. The first blessing was that of divine deliverance, or we might say salvation. All were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. In so doing, the Israelites escaped from their captivity, and the army which pursued them perished. As the Israelites looked back upon the Red Sea, through which they had just passed and which now caves in upon their enemies, they must have thought to themselves, “We’re saved.” The New Testament parallel is the salvation from sin and death through our identification with Christ by faith.

The second blessing which all the Israelites experienced was that of “baptism.” Essentially, baptism refers to identification with something. The term was used of a garment which was immersed in a die, which identified with it by taking on that color. The Israelites of old were “baptized” too, in a sense. They were enveloped by the cloud and also by the sea as they followed Moses. As water baptism (by immersion) symbolizes our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (see Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27), so Israel’s immersion in the cloud and in the sea symbolized their identification with Moses, the one who is a prototype of the Messiah to come (see Deuteronomy 18:15).

Israel’s third blessing was a counterpart to the Lord’s Supper or communion. At communion, we eat of the bread, and we drink of the wine. The bread symbolizes the sinless body of our Lord. The wine symbolizes the blood which He shed on our behalf, cleansing us from sin. The Israelites of old were blessed with eating and drinking which foreshadowed the communion we now celebrate by eating the bread and drinking the wine. They all ate of the spiritual food. This food was the manna, which God miraculously provided for the Israelites for 40 years. Our Lord indicated that He was like this manna, only vastly better, because He was the “bread which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

The Israelites of old also had their own “spiritual drink.” This drink was the water God miraculously provided over the years which they spent in the wilderness. Jesus spoke of Himself as the source of this “water” (see John 4:7-15; 7:37-39). Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:4 are indeed surprising. Here, Paul identifies Christ as the “spiritual rock which followed” the Israelites in the wilderness. This is a most amazing statement. There are any number of fantastic explanations of what Paul means. The simplest way to understand Paul is to recognize that he is not speaking of a physical rock, but of a spiritual rock. Christ was the source of the water, particularly on those occasions when Moses struck the rock. But more than this, Paul wants us to know that Christ was ever present with His people in their wilderness trek. He was there to care for His people, to meet their need for water.

God supernaturally provided for all of the true needs of all the Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness. He divinely provided for their salvation, for their protection, and for their guidance, by the cloud and by leading them through the sea. He “baptized” them, identifying them with Moses, His divinely appointed leader. God provided for the food and water which these Israelites required while in the wilderness. Yet in spite of all these divine provisions, the Israelites failed to enter into the land. Only two of all those wilderness wanderers ever entered the land of Canaan. Even Moses was not permitted to enter the land. Even though God provided for their essential needs, they did not please God, and they did not enter the land. Many left Egypt; all partook of divine blessings and privileges; only two entered the promised land.

Divine blessings and privileges do not guarantee that one will “win the race.” No one can ever say that they failed to finish the race because they were not adequately provided for. Those who failed to enter into the promised land are those who failed to appropriate God’s provisions. More than this, those who failed to enter into the promised land were those who lacked self-discipline, and who fell due to their self-indulgence. In verses 6-10, Paul will identify those specific sins which plagued the ancient Israelites, resulting in their failure to please God and to possess the land of Canaan. Each of these failures is a sin of self-indulgence, and each points to a sin which is prominent in the Corinthian church of Paul’s day, as well as in our church today.

Israel’s Besetting Sins

6 Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. 7 And 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.” 8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. 9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. 10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.

In verse 1, Paul speaks of the Israelites as “our fathers,” stressing the continuity of the people of God, Old Testament and New. Now, in verse 6, Paul writes that the experiences of “our fathers” is for us. He may even be saying that their experiences are examples of us.102 Again, in verse 11, Paul stresses the importance of these Old Testament stories as they directly bear on our lives. The overall lesson to be learned from Israel’s wilderness wandering is that we should not crave evil things. Craving evil things is that self-indulgence which keeps us from “winning the race” and which kept the Israelites from entering the land of Canaan. Self-control is the discipline we impose on our flesh so that we can win the race. In verses 6-10, we will see that Paul links the experience of the ancient Israelites directly to the experience of the Corinthians (and us). They lacked self-control, and they craved evil things. Each of the failures Paul highlights from the history of the first generation of Israelites is a failure of self-indulgence. And each of the failures is associated with eating and drinking, with food. Food—that is, meat offered to idols—is still the issue at hand, and Paul now shows us what we can learn about food and self-indulgence from the Israelites of old.

The first offense of the Israelites, as we have already mentioned, is “craving evil things.” This seems to be a general heading under which the other failures are listed as specific transgressions. This “craving” of evil things is linked with eating:

1 Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. … 4 And the rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? 5 “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, 6 but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. 8 The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar, and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9 And when the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it. … 34 So the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had been greedy (Numbers 11:1, 4-9, 34, emphasis mine).

13 They quickly forgot His works; They did not wait for His counsel, 14 But craved intensely103 in the wilderness, And tempted104 God in the desert. 15 So He gave them their request, But sent a wasting disease among them (Psalm 106:13-15, emphasis mine).

How tragic is this description of the Israelites in the wilderness. It was not that they lacked food to eat, for God provided for their bodily needs. They grumbled because they found God’s provisions unsavory. They wanted something tastier, something spicier. And in so doing, they came to despise God’s provisions and to longingly look back to the days of their slavery, as though they were the “good old days,” simply because they then had tastier food. The unbridled craving, the fleshly desires of the Israelites which they sought to satisfy, led to their death in the wilderness. Self-discipline would have enabled them to finish their course, to win the race.

The second failure of the Israelites in the wilderness was that of idolatry; “And 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.’”

1 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 And Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 5 Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play (Exodus 32:1-6).

What is interesting about Paul’s words in reference to idolatry is that when he refers to the incident described above in Exodus 32:1-6, he does not mention the fashioning of the golden calf, but only the fact (described in verse 6) of Israel’s sitting down “to eat and to drink,” and then their rising up “to play.” The idolatry of the Israelites was clearly prohibited, and it was a most evil thing which they did. Paul seems intent upon pointing out not only their idolatry, but what accompanied it. Their idolatry was associated with eating and drinking. They offered sacrifices to the idol, and then they sat down to eat and to drink of these foods, which were a part of the heathen sacrificial service. Following this meal (including the eating of idol-meat), they arose to “play.” They were not playing “ring around the rosey”; the “play” which is referred to here is sexual in nature. And so both the eating and drinking of things involved with idol worship and immorality were a part of Israel’s idolatry. One further note should be made concerning this idol worship of the Israelites, which Moses described in Exodus 32:25: in their worship, the Israelites had cast aside all self-control. Their worship was not only heathen, it was unrestrained indulgence. There was no self-discipline here, and this is the kind of self-indulgence which kept the Israelites from entering the land.

The third failure of the Israelites of old is that of immorality: “Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day.”

1 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel. 4 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.” … 9 And those who died by the plague were 24,000105 (Numbers 25:1-5, 9).

The important thing to note here is that, once again, immorality is viewed as a part of the package of idolatry. The Israelites fell into immorality with the Moabite women as they joined with them in their idol worship. The people “ate and bowed down to their gods” (25:2). Here they were, sinning so as to be laid low in the wilderness, and this sin of immorality was linked with idolatry and with the eating of idol-meat.

The fourth failure of the Israelites in the wilderness according to Paul was that of “trying the Lord” or “putting the Lord to the test.” “Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.”

There were at least ten such occasions when the Israelites put the Lord to the test (see Numbers 14:22). Some of these incidents are recorded in the Old Testament:

1 Then all the congregation of the sons of Israel journeyed by stages from the wilderness of Sin, according to the command of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim, and there was no water for the people to drink. 2 Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water that we may drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and they grumbled against Moses and said, “Why, now, have you brought us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will stone me.” 5 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pass before the people and take with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand your staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he named the place Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, and because they tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7)

18 And in their heart they put God to the test By asking food according to their desire (Psalm 78:18, emphasis mine).

Putting God to the test was demanding that God meet their perceived needs, in the way which they demanded. The question of Exodus 17:7 sums it up: “Is the Lord among us, or not?” The way the Israelites determined God’s presence among them was by “counting their blessings.” If they were thirsty, they demanded that God satisfy that thirst, or they threatened not to believe He was with them. According to the psalmist, they demanded that God supply them with the food they craved to prove He was among them.

The specific instance Paul has in mind is recorded in the Book of Numbers:

5 And the people spoke against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this miserable food.” 6 And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7 So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.” 9 And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived (Numbers 21:5-9).

Here, the specific cause for Israel’s grumbling was the menu. They put Moses on notice that they were sick and tired of the food God provided. The result was the plague of fiery serpents, whose poisonous tongues (so to speak) were illustrative of the tongues of the Israelites (compare Psalm 140:3; Romans 3:13).

You will remember that Satan’s first temptation of our Lord was an effort to entice Him to cause stones to become bread. God had led Him into the wilderness to be without food or water. Satan’s assumption was the same as the Israelites—if God was really with someone, they would not lack anything they needed or desired. Consequently, Satan sought to persuade our Lord to make stones into bread. Later on in His wilderness testing, Satan sought to convince our Lord to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, reminding Him of the biblical assurance of angelic protection. Jesus, still dealing with Satan from the context of the early chapters of Deuteronomy, reminded Satan of the evil of putting God to the test, of trying to make God jump through our hoops. Once again, Israel’s sin of putting God to the test was closely associated with eating and drinking.

Finally, the ancient Israelites failed by grumbling: “Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.”

2 And the whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 And the sons of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2-3).

41 But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, “You are the ones who have caused the death of the Lord’s people.” 42 It came about, however, when the congregation had assembled against Moses and Aaron, that they turned toward the tent of meeting, and behold, the cloud covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43 Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly.” Then they fell on their faces. 46 And Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put in it fire from the altar, and lay incense on it; then bring it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, the plague has begun!” 47 Then Aaron took it as Moses had spoken, and ran into the midst of the assembly, for behold, the plague had begun among the people. So he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. 48 And he took his stand between the dead and the living, so that the plague was checked. 49 But those who died by the plague were 14,700, besides those who died on account of Korah (Numbers 16:41-49).

In Exodus 16, the grumbling of the Israelites was about food. They recalled the “meat” they had eaten in Egypt and grumbled against Moses and God for leading them into the desert to starve them to death. The incident Paul seems to have in mind is recorded in the 16th chapter of Numbers. Korah, Dathan, Abiram and 250 others from among the leaders of Israel rose up against Moses, protesting against his prominence and authority. In the events that followed, these rebels were swallowed up alive by the earth, along with their families (16:28-35). God’s act of discipline, performed at the hand of Moses, did not strike fear into the hearts of the people, who on the following day grumbled against Moses, blaming him for the deaths of those who had perished for their rebellion (16:41). Only the intervention of Moses and Aaron stopped the plague which commenced against the grumblers, but not until after 14,700 perished (16:49).

This incident is especially pertinent because the grumbling of the Israelites was occasioned by the exercise of divine discipline. The Israelites blamed Moses for the deaths of those who rebelled against God. In the church at Corinth, a man is known to be guilty of living in sin with his father’s wife, yet the Corinthians do nothing about it. Rather than mourn over this sin, they are proud of it (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul, even though at a distance from them, exercises discipline on his own, and urges the church to follow his example. If the church at Corinth is anything like the people of God in Moses’ day, they will grumble over Paul’s response to sin in the church. And thus the Corinthians find yet another point of contact with the ancient Israelites.


Now the real issue is out in the open. It is not really about what is right, or even about one’s rights; the issue is self-indulgence. All of the problems which have been exposed in the Corinthian church are really matters of self-indulgence. The little cliques are based upon some kind of mental self-indulgence; attaching oneself to a leader who is slick, smooth, and prestigious means that one gains status in the eyes of his (or her) peers. Often, I fear, “leaders” whom the Corinthians choose to follow are false teachers (see 1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Corinthians 11), whose appeal is fleshly indulgence (see 2 Peter 10). The man living in an incestual relationship (chapter 5), and those sleeping with prostitutes (chapter 6), are indulging their flesh, as are those who go to court to protect their “rights” (chapter 6).

The problem with the ascetics, who advocated abstaining from sex and marriage, is that their self-flagellation often leads to greater immorality (see 1 Corinthians 7:5). The kind of legalistic self-abuse which the ascetics and legalists impose does not really deal with the flesh. In the first place, many practice a form of “self-denial,” which is but a mere outward appearance. They do it to appear spiritual and thus win the applause of their peers, thereby indulging themselves in man’s praises. While the outward appearance is that of self-control, the old lusts are not really dealt with, for they are still deeply imbedded on the inside:

2 “When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4 that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 5 And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 7 And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:2-7).

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25).

23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:23).

While self-abasement is futile and fraudulent, Paul is consistent with the rest of the Bible in calling us to a life of discipline. Discipleship is, after all, founded on discipline, not only in its terminology, but in its essence and expression. When Jesus preached, He did not offer an easy path nor did He promise earthly prosperity. He spoke of taking up one’s cross and of selling one’s possessions and hating one’s family. He was careful never to give the impression that following Him was going to be easy. He did not conceal the “cost of discipleship.”

But more than this, Jesus Himself practiced the very self-discipline and self-denial which He advocated, and which Paul requires in our text. From the very beginning, Jesus knew that He had come to this earth to serve, rather than to be served, and He gave His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He consistently purposed to fulfill His calling and to carry out the will of His Father. The fulfillment of His calling was to die a most agonizing death on the cross of Calvary, and thus to make atonement for our sins. Never was there anyone who better exemplified the will and self-sacrifice to win better than our Lord. And it is because He completed His course that you and I may fulfill our calling as well. Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the grave is the basis for our sure victory as well.

Our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness, described by both Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-12), is best understood in the light of those Old Testament events which Paul calls to our remembrance in our text. Throughout that 40-year period, the Israelites were constantly stiff-necked and rebellious. They continually sought to indulge their fleshly appetites, and as a result, they often rebelled against God and were stricken with various disciplinary plagues. Except for two men, Joshua and Caleb, the entire generation which crossed through the Red Sea failed to enter the land of Canaan.

Our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness was a deliberate “replay” of that period of time. As Israel, God’s “son,” was brought forth from Egypt, so was our Lord (Matthew 2:13-15; see Hosea 11:1). As Israel was tested in the wilderness for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2), so was our Lord. But where Israel failed, our Lord triumphed. It is not by virtue of Israel’s faithfulness that we have hope, but by virtue of our Lord’s faithfulness. Israel was allowed to hunger and thirst (Deuteronomy 8:3), but they craved evil things and demanded that God give them what their fleshly appetites desired, loathing His provision of manna and water. Jesus was content to be hungry and to thirst, refusing to turn stones into bread. Our Lord succeeded where Israel failed. His success is the basis for our salvation, and thus for our successfully finishing our course. This is the case with Paul:

7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8 in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

It can also be the case for us. This is the basis for Peter’s exhortation of the elders in his first epistle:

1 Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, 2 shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; 3 nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4).

The Old Testament is strewn with the wreckage of those whose lives were ruined by self-indulgence. Our Lord and Paul not only call us to a life of self-discipline and self-denial, they model it for us. Let us purpose to win the race, to finish the course which God has set for us. Let us deny ourselves and discipline our bodies, for our own good, for the good of our brethren, and for the advancement of the gospel.

99 This is similar to the question our Lord asked the Jewish religious leaders: “Have you not read … ?” See Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31.

100 The Isthmian games were “held every two years under the patronage of Corinth and second only to the Olympics.” They “were extravagant festivals of religion, athletics, and the arts, attracting thousands of competitors and visitors from all over the empire. Its sponsors and greater athletes were honored in Isthmia itself by monuments, statues, and inscriptions. Paul would have been in Corinth during the Games of A.D. 51 (in the Spring). Since there were no permanent facilities for visitors until the Second Century A.D., they had to stay in tents. Broneer (pp. 5, 10) conjectures that Paul would have had ample opportunity to ply his trade and share the gospel with the crowds visiting the Games of that year.” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987 [reprint, 1993]), p. 433, fn. 1.

101 Fee, p. 437, fn. 20.

102 Fee (p. 451, fn. 7) indicates that the original expression may just as well be rendered “examples/types for us” as “examples/types of us.” Surely we can see ourselves in the attitudes and actions of the Old Testament saints.

103 In the Greek Translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), the texts in Numbers 11 and Psalm 106 employ the same root word as Paul has employed twice in 1 Corinthians 10:6. In verse 25, the psalmist speaks of their grumbling, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 10:10.

104 Notice that the psalmist also mentions the Israelites putting God to the test, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 10:9.

105 There are all kinds of explanations offered for the discrepancy of 1,000 souls between Paul’s account and that of Moses in Numbers 25. It may be worth noting that Paul gives the number as 23,000 who died in one day. Moses tells us that a total of 24,000 died. Perhaps 23,000 died in a 24-hour period, but there were 1,000 more who died after the initial 24 hours passed.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Spiritual Life

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