Lessons We Must Learn From Our “Fathers” (1 Cor. 10:11-14)
I had just finished preaching in a humble Methodist church in Baroda, a city in the state of Gujarat in north-western India. The pastor invited me upstairs to the humble dwelling where he and his wife lived, above the church. While we were drinking a cup of tea, a couple appeared at the door. They were invited in and asked to join us at the table. I could tell that they were having trouble. The pastor asked me if I would mind assisting in counseling them. This couple began to pour out their story. They could not speak a word of English. The pastor would translate, as I sought to counsel them. I will never forget the sense of “sameness” in their situation. The culture was vastly different from my own in the Western world. Their language was a complete mystery to me. Yet even before hearing the translation provided by the pastor, I gained a fairly accurate sense of what was going on between this couple. The husband drank, and this was obviously a part of the problem. He was angry with his wife, and she was not that happy with him.
I was struck by the “sameness” I sensed as this unusual counseling session began to unfold. There were so many differences between this couple and their culture and mine, and yet their problems were really the same ones I constantly face in counseling with couples in America. Neither great distances in space nor in time change men. This is why seemingly sophisticated Christians in America can read the ancient accounts of Israel’s experiences in the wilderness and learn much from them.
Some Corinthians had raised the question of whether or not they were permitted to eat meats offered to idols. In chapter 8, Paul allowed his readers the luxury of assuming, for the time being, that they were correct in thinking that “strong” Christians could eat meat offered to idols, and that those who had scruples about such meats were “weak.” Even if these supposedly “strong” saints did have the right to eat meats offered to idols, they would be wrong to do so, Paul taught, when their liberty became a stumbling block to the weak. Knowledge should not take precedence in such matters, but love. Love would never exercise a liberty at the expense of a brother. Even if these “strong” saints were right doctrinally in assuming they had the liberty of eating meats offered to idols, they were found wrong by love’s standards when they insisted on exercising their rights at the expense of their brother.
In chapter 9, Paul drew the Corinthians’ attention to a genuine right (as opposed to their incorrect liberty to eat idol-meats): the right to be supported as an apostle and a minister of the gospel. After supplying overwhelming support for this right, Paul reminds his readers that he refused to exercise it in his ministry to them. While they of all people should be supporting him, Paul chose not to be supported, but to provide for himself by working with his own hands. He did this so that no one could ever accuse him of putting his own interests above those to whom he ministered. He refrained from receiving support so that his preaching of the gospel might incur the least resistance from those who heard it.
Having contrasted his decision to forego his right to be supported with the insistence of some Corinthians on exercising their rights regardless of its impact on others, Paul now turns to the root problem of the Corinthians, the lack of self-control. Self-indulgence lay at the root of every other Corinthian problem mentioned up to this point. The solution to self-indulgence is self-control. Paul begins by showing how self-control sets the winner of the race over and above all the rest of the runners. He then turns back to the time of Israel’s wilderness wanderings, to show that self-indulgence was the cause of the nation’s failure to reach the promised land. The same failures which prevented the first generation of Israelites from reaching the promised land are those which endanger the church today.
From the failure of the Israelites in the past, Paul draws two lessons for the readers of his Epistle. The first is a word of warning, recorded in verses 11 and 12. If so many Israelites failed to reach their goal despite God’s presence and provisions, we too should not presume that we will stand in times of testing. Second, Paul gives a word of encouragement and instruction in verses 13 and 14. He assures us that while falling seems to be the rule in Israel’s wilderness wanderings, it need not be. He cites several reasons for us to be encouraged in the midst of our trials and tests. And then he concludes by instructing us to flee from idolatry. Now the cat, so to speak, is out of the bag. Paul in no way sanctioned the eating of meats offered to idols in chapters 8 and 9. Finally, beginning at verse 14, he explains why idol-meats are deadly and dangerous, and thus prohibited. It will not be until our next lesson that we will consider verse 14 in the light of the verses which follow it. For now, we will seek to understand it in the light of those verses which precede it.
Our passage contains one of the most well-known and often quoted verses in 1 Corinthians:
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, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Nearly all of us understand this verse in isolation rather than in the light of its context. In this lesson, we will seek to understand this verse in context. Let us look to this passage to warn us and to encourage us, so that we will purpose to run to win, and so that we will flee from every form of idolatry.
The Structure of Our Text
Our text contains two major elements: (1) Paul’s admonition or warning, in verses 11 and 12; and, (2) Paul’s encouragement and instruction in verses 13 and 14. Verse 11 lays down the premise of Paul’s lesson in verse 12, introduced by “therefore.” Verse 13 establishes the foundation for Paul’s command in verse 14, once again introduced by the word “therefore.” The structure of these verses can thus be summarized:
- The link between Israel’s experience and the Corinthian’s conduct—verse 11
- Paul’s warning, based upon Israel’s failures, as recorded for the church—verse 12
- Israel’s failures need not be our own, due to the faithfulness of God—verse 13
- Paul’s command to flee from idolatry—verse 14
Other Crucial Texts
Our text should be interpreted and applied in the light of two other biblical passages which bear on the same subject. Allow me to bring these texts to your attention as we begin this lesson:
1 “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers. 2 And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. 4 Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years” (Deuteronomy 8:1-4).
2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. … 12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:2-4, 12-15).
A Lesson to Learn From Our Link With Israel
11 Now [all]106 these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
The moral failures of the ancient Israelites brought divine judgment. In each of the instances of Israel’s sin, there was a dire consequence of divine judgment. Paul means for us to understand that only two of the Israelites who escaped from Egypt and passed through the Red Sea entered into the promised land, while the rest died in the wilderness. But he is not focusing here on those who died of old age in the wilderness, but on those who were smitten of God for their sin, those who were “laid low” (10:5), “fell” (10:8), and “were destroyed” (10:9, 10). In the light of all this, I understand Paul’s words in verse 11 to read this way, “Now all these things happened as an example to them, and they were written for our instruction, … .” When God struck some of the nation dead for their sin, it was meant as a lesson for the rest. It was an example to all the rest, not to follow their peers in sinning against God by indulging themselves. The principle underlying Paul’s words is expressed in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: “When the scoffer is punished, the naive becomes wise; But when the wise is instructed, he receives knowledge” (Proverbs 21:11).
In addition to instructing the Israelites not to sin, the recording of these events made it possible for those in future generations to learn from Israel’s mistakes as well. According to the NASB, Paul writes, “… and they were written for our instruction.” This translation is surely amazing. In the Book of Romans, Paul also referred to the Old Testament Scriptures when he wrote, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4, emphasis mine). Here, the Greek term which is rendered “instruction” is the normal term for instruction, which we would expect. But in 1 Corinthians 10:11, the term is not that which we would expect to find to convey the idea of instruction. It is, rather, the term which Luke uses of Paul’s words in Acts, and which Paul employed in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 14. “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears” (Acts 20:31, emphasis mine).
12 But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction,107 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. 14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thessalonians 5:12-14, emphasis mine).
Surely we can see that “admonition” or “warning” is what Paul had in mind here. The sins of the Israelites in the wilderness, which provoked God to wrath, should have instructed the people of God in ancient times and served to warn us today. The fine points of these words may be disputed, but the main point Paul wishes to make is that we should be warned and sobered by the sins of our “fathers” (see 10:1), and the wrath of our Father.
The apostles do not make the distinctions between the Old Testament and the New which some do today. Some think that because the Old Testament Scriptures were penned before the coming of Christ, they do not measure up to the New Testament Scriptures. Some dispensationalists minimize the importance of the Old Testament, and even the Gospels. They link the Old Testament texts with “law” and contrast them with the New Testament Scriptures which they associate with “grace.” Paul finds (and condemns) legalism, whether it is found in the Old Testament period or the New. Paul, and Peter as well, believe that the Old Testament Scriptures were written for the benefit of the New Testament saint:
4 For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).
8 I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops (1 Corinthians 9:8-10).
6 Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved (1 Corinthians 10:6).
10 As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10-12; see also 2 Timothy 3:13-17).
The final statement of 1 Corinthians 10:11 is noteworthy: “upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” We are those upon whom the ends of the ages have come. So were the Corinthians, and they lived nearly 2,000 years ago. How could they and we both live at the “ends of the ages”? From the perspective of the Old Testament saint, the last days would begin with the coming of the Messiah. They, of course, did not distinguish between His first and His second comings. When Jesus came to the earth, died on the cross for lost sinners, and then was raised from the grave and ascended to the Father, the last act of God’s eternal plan commenced. It is a long act, I grant, but it is the final act. As Peter reminds us, a thousand years is as one day with God (2 Peter 3:8).108
The writer to the Hebrews looks on the coming of Christ as the consummation: “Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26). The coming of Christ was, to this inspired writer, the “consummation of the ages,” or in Paul’s words, the coming of the “ends of the ages.” When Paul writes to the Roman believers, he underscores the urgency of watchful living, in the light of the shortness of the time:
11 And this do, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Romans 13:11-14).
When we lose sight of the shortness of the time and the fact that we live in the end times, we are tempted to think we have lots of time, and thus we become sloppy and sluggardly. This is the very thing our Lord warned against:
42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes. 44 Truly I say to you, that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45 But if that slave says in his heart, ‘My master will be a long time in coming,’ and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk; 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him, and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and assign him a place with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:42-46).
Consistent with Paul’s view of the people of God, verse 11 underscores the continuity of God’s program, Old Testament and New. Here in chapter 10, Paul has referred to the ancient Israelites as our “fathers” (10:1). He has likened their salvation and sanctification in the wilderness to ours. He has previously (9:9-10; 10:6) and now (10:11) indicated that our experiences are very much the same, and that we can learn much from those people of God who lived long before us. And now, by speaking of the “ends of the ages” having come, Paul seems to be saying that while Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery was an early chapter in God’s plan for the ages, we are those in whose days the events of the last chapter are taking place. It is one program, in which both Old Testament Israelites and New Testament believers play a part.
The warning, to which Paul referred in verse 11, is spelled out in verse 12: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” We must understand to whom Paul is referring when he warns the one who “thinks he stands.” Several observations should help us to grasp the meaning of Paul’s words:
(2) The one who “thinks he stands” is thinking wrongly, for he is in the greatest danger of falling.
(3) The one who wrongly thinks he stands is often the one who thinks he stands strongly. Those who are most confident that they stand are those who feel strongly about it. The unbelieving scribes and Pharisees had no doubts about their salvation, wrong as they were (cf. Matthew 7:20-23). Our level of confidence about our security is not necessarily indicative of our actual salvation. How we feel about something does not determine how things really are. How things are should affect our feelings on the matter.
(4) The one who thinks he stands is the one who thinks himself to be “strong.” Chapter 8 spoke of the “strong” and the “weaker” brothers. The “stronger” brother of chapter 8 is certainly the one who “thinks he stands” in chapter 10.
(5) The one who thinks he stands is also the one who thinks he can (eat idol-meats). Paul is really turning the tables here. He allowed the one who ate idol-meats to continue to view himself as the stronger brother from chapter 8, until now. Now Paul warns these “stronger” brethren, who were confident that they were spiritual enough to eat idol-meats and not fall, that they are the ones most likely to fall. Spiritual pride leads to over-confidence, and over-confidence in one’s own standing and abilities sets one up for a big fall.
The Israelites of old were warned against such smug self-confidence. The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day were also self-righteous and self-confident. They thought that having Abraham as their forefather, that being set apart by God, that being the stewards of the revealed Word of God, proved them to be better than others, and thus they began to think of themselves as invincible. A drunken man will often get in a wreck, not only because his perception and reactions are impaired, but because he thinks he actually has greater abilities than he does. Those who carry firearms on their person or in their cars often are involved in violence because they become over-confident in their weapon.
The events in the history of Israel (our fathers, verse 1) which Paul has reviewed in the first 10 verses of chapter 10 should humble all of us, for even though divinely delivered, divinely provisioned, and constantly in God’s presence, they failed and they fell (verse 8) in the wilderness. The warning Paul sounds here is not just of the danger of falling, but of the severe consequences for falling, as seen in the events which took place in the wilderness. Let the “strong” Corinthians take heed and beware. Their attitude was self-defeating and self-destructive.
Israel’s Past as the Basis for Our Encouragement
13 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, that you may be able to endure it.
In the early chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses reviews the experiences of the first generation of Israelites, who were delivered from slavery, and yet who failed to enter and possess the promised land. If Israel’s failures drive home a solemn warning to us, cautioning us against smug self-sufficiency and security, God’s faithfulness to this wayward people should afford us a great deal of comfort. Man fails, but God is faithful. The amazing thing is not that God destroyed some in the wilderness, but that He did not destroy everyone instantly, and that He brought the Israelites into the land. In spite of one failure after another on the part of the Israelites, God was faithful to His promise. God did not allow the failures of His people to cause His promises to fail.
In verses 13 and 14, Paul has some very encouraging words for the Corinthian saints, and for us. His encouragement is based upon two foundational truths: (1) that all temptation is “common to man”; and, (2) that God is faithful to us in relation to our temptations. Let us consider these matters more fully, beginning with some observations related to self-indulgence and temptation.
(1) God never tempts men to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13; James 1:13). James says it as clearly as it can be said: “… God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt any one” (1:13b). Paul very carefully words verse 13 to say that temptation may overtake men, but there is no indication that this temptation comes from God.
(2) The same Greek word (peiradzo) is translated “tempt” and “test” in the New Testament. In one sense, temptation is very different. Temptation never comes from God, but from our own flesh, or from Satan.111 (James 1:12-14; Matthew 4:1-11; 1 Corinthians 7:5). God does “test” us, to prove and to enhance our faith. Temptation has as its goal sin and death (James 1:13-15). Testing has as its goal our purification and sanctification, and eternal life (James 1:12; 1 Peter 1:6-9). Testing leads to faith and obedience; tempting leads to doubting God and disobeying His commandments.
Having pointed out the great difference between “testing” and “tempting” in the Bible, let us also take note of the similarities. Both temptation and testing are prompted by trials and adversity.112 Both tempting and testing expose what is in our hearts (Deuteronomy 8:1-2; James 1:12-15). The same circumstances which result in unbelief and disobedience for one person, produce a deeper faith and greater obedience in another. If Paul has shown the difficulties of the wilderness to have resulted in failure and divine discipline in our text, the writer to the Hebrews commends men and women in the “hall of faith” who trusted God and obeyed His Word in chapter 11, the great faith chapter of this Epistle.
(3) It is in times of adversity that we may persevere through the time of testing and grow stronger in our faith, or we may surrender to temptation and sin. Suffering and adversity is the context for both testing and growth and for temptation and sin. The difference is who we are, and what is within us. Somebody once said that suffering is like boiling hot water; it makes a potato soft and an egg hard. Because the Israelites had hard hearts and stiff necks, their adversity seemed almost always to lead them to doubt God and to disobey Him. For Paul, suffering and adversity was a context for service, and a means of knowing Christ more intimately (see 1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 9:1-23; Philippians 3:10).
(4) The only way to know how the term peiradzo should be understood is by understanding the context in which it is employed. In the examples below, the context indicates how we should translate and understand the word as it is employed in each instance:
1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1).
6 And this He was saying to test him; for He Himself knew what He was intending to do (John 6:6).
5 For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor should be in vain (1 Thessalonians 3:5).
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son (Hebrews 11:17).
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).
Temptations Are “Common to Man”
Paul’s words, “common to man,” are pregnant with meaning, meaning on which we must meditate and reflect, meaning which is spelled out in other biblical texts.113
(1) Temptation is “common to man,” and as such, it will overtake the Christian. The Christian is not above being tempted (after all, our Lord was “tempted” by Satan.114) We should probably go on to say that being tempted is not a sin. Sin occurs when we allow our fleshly lusts to respond to temptation.
(2) Christians are human, and thus they were not exempt from being tempted nor prevented from falling. Paul warns those who wrongly think themselves strong, because they are capable of falling; indeed, they are the most vulnerable to temptation and falling.
(3) Temptation stems from, and appeals to our humanity; that is, from our fleshly desires (see James 1:13-15; 4:1-3).
(4) Temptation is the enticement to choose to do what our flesh desires, even though it is wrong. Temptation appeals to our fleshly desires, and we must decide whether to indulge our flesh or not. Satan does not overpower us, forcing us to sin; he tempts us, seeking to persuade us to choose to sin.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean. Suppose I am walking down the street and a man approaches me with a gun, demanding that I give him my wallet. I have not “yielded to temptation” by giving him my money; I have been forced to give up my wallet. But a con artist works to get my money in a different way. He does not use force to make me give him my money; he uses subtlety and deception to cause me to want to give him my money. The con man appeals to my fleshly lusts.115 Usually, my sinful lust is greed. I think that if I give him my money, I will get even more money, and so I gladly hand him what I have. I almost force him to take my money! Satan is not an armed robber as much as he is a con artist. The devil didn’t make me do it; the devil tempted me to want to do it.
If we could be forced to do evil, it would not be sin. When we are enticed or tempted to do evil, and we choose to do what is wrong, we do sin. The person who is raped is not guilty of immorality in the Bible. The rape victim is pitied, because it was not a matter of choice; the adulterer is stoned.
(5) We don’t have to sin when we are tempted, but when we yield to temptation we become enslaved to sin. We are never forced to sin, but we choose to yield to temptation. In Paul’s words to the Romans, we “present ourselves to someone as slaves for obedience,” thus becoming “slaves of the one whom we obey” (Romans 6:16; cf. Ephesians 3:1-3).
The Israelites of old were enslaved to their cruel taskmasters, the Egyptians. When God brought them out of Egypt, He freed them from their bondage. When they faced difficulties on their journey to the promised land, they began to look back upon their slavery in Egypt as the “good old days.” They began to see life in Egypt as the good life. They actually wanted to return to their bondage. In Romans 6, Paul draws a spiritual parallel in the life of the New Testament Christian. When we are saved by faith, we are freed from the bondage of sin. When we choose to yield to temptation and to return to the sinful ways of our former lives, we are choosing to return to slavery.
(6) Because no temptation comes to us except those which are “common to man,” none of our temptations are unique to us. Throughout human history, men have grappled with the same temptations which plague us today. Some have failed and fallen in these temptations, and some have persevered and endured. Often, we are “tempted” to think that the trials we face are totally unique, unlike those anyone has ever faced before. When we think this way, we have already begun to formulate an excuse for our failure and sin. Many have faced the same temptations before. Many have failed, and by this we should be warned. Many have overcome, and by this we should be encouraged.
(7) Being human (“I’m only human …”) is not an excuse for yielding to temptation, nor is it an excuse for our sin.
Let us now seek to determine the more precise meaning of the first statement which Paul makes in verse 13 in the context of 1 Corinthians. All of Israel’s failures, to which Paul has referred in 10:6-10, are in response to the difficulties into which God has led the Israelites under Moses. God was not “tempting” the Israelites, but “testing” them (Deuteronomy 8:1-2). As a result of Paul’s teaching regarding the failures of the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, the Corinthians should conclude that their “trials” could hardly be compared to the adversity faced by their “fathers.” Further, the Corinthian saints should recognize that any trial or temptation they might face would not be unique, but would find its precedent in the events recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. In other words, no test or temptation which the Corinthians would ever face was new, but rather it was the common experience of many who lived before them. The Corinthians did not need to repeat the sins of their fathers, but they could learn from them so as to avoid the same mistakes.
Right now, I am learning to use a new piece of software on my computer. Frankly, I am having some difficulties. One of the ways the software company helps me deal with my problems is to set up a bulletin board, where the problems faced by others are described, along with their solutions. I can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before me. My problems are not new, and thus I can learn from those who have been down the same path ahead of me.
Paul’s words, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man,” have another encouraging message for me. The problems, tests, and temptations which I must face in my Christian life are truly “human problems.” Think about this for a minute. We are tested and even tempted with regard to our humanity. The Israelites were tested with regard to eating and drinking, to following divinely appointed leaders, and obeying God’s commands. The testings of our Lord were tests of His humanity. When Satan tempted our Lord, it was in the context of His doing without food or water for many days. Satan sought to entice our Lord to provide Himself with food, even though God had led Him to do without it. Satan sought to tempt our Lord to test God’s faithfulness by forcing Him to rescue Him (by plunging from the pinnacle of the temple). Satan sought to tempt our Lord to establish His rule by submitting to him, rather than by submitting to the Father and undergoing the suffering He had appointed on the cross of Calvary. Our Lord’s temptations were, so to speak, human temptations, temptations rooted in His humanity.
If every trial and temptation (lumping them all together) which comes upon us is a trial of our humanity, then Christians should be most encouraged, because God has provided divine enablement with which we can not only escape from sin, but by means of which we may endure temptation and trial, to the glory of God and to our own spiritual growth. This divine enablement is the subject to which Paul now turns in the remainder of verse 13.
Trials, Temptations, and the Faithfulness of God
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, that you may be able to endure it.
In the first part of verse 13, Paul addressed the subject of sin and temptation from the standpoint of our humanity. Now, he speaks of sin and temptation from the perspective of our union with Christ. For those who have come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, we have much more than human gumption to enable us to overcome temptation. We are now united with Him who was tempted to the limit, yet who did not sin: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). The One who was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” is the One who is faithful, and who provides the means for our not only surviving testing and temptation, but thriving in the midst of it.
One can hardly overstate the significance of God’s faithfulness to this matter of testing, trials, and temptation. When we surrender to temptation, it is usually due to doubt. In the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, Satan first cast doubt in her mind concerning God’s faithfulness. Though God had said that eating of the forbidden fruit would surely bring about death, Satan assured her that she would not die. Eve was deceived so that she doubted God’s faithfulness, and she trusted Satan. She obeyed the one she trusted.
When the Israelites were being led through the wilderness, they surrendered to temptation and fell into sin because they doubted God’s faithfulness. They doubted that God was with them, and so they demanded that God perform miracles to prove Himself and His presence among them. They doubted that God could sustain them in the wilderness, or that He would safely lead them to a land of “milk and honey,” so they sought to replace Moses and to elect another leader who would take them back to Egypt. We sing the song, “Trust and Obey,” and in doing so, we should see that obedience does stem from trust, just as disobedience flows from a lack of trust. Those who are listed in the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11 are those who obeyed God because they trusted in Him and in His promises, in spite of what they saw at the moment. The faithfulness of God is the foundation for trusting and obeying Him. And God is faithful.
The faithfulness of God is evident in several ways as we come to times of testing and of temptation. First of all, God is faithful to keep us from any situation in which we would have no choice but to fall. God never puts us in situations in which we must fall. He will not allow us to be tested or tempted beyond our capacity to stand. When our Lord was tested, He was tested to the ultimate extreme. When we are tested, it is a measured testing. Some, like Job, face greater tests than others. But whatever tests and trials come our way, we can be sure that God has allowed them, knowing that we are not being tested beyond our ability to stand. That ability does not come from within us, but from Him:
24 Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, 25 to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen (Jude 1:24-25).
Let us be very careful to note here that God never promises us that we cannot fall, but rather He encourages us that we need not fall. The Book of Jude contains a great deal of warning, for there are many false teachers who are denying the gospel. Jude writes the words above to assure us that God is the source of our strength, so that we need not fall into sin. But the book is also an encouragement to guard the purity of the faith, and to make use of the resources which God has provided. We will not fall when we trust and obey, when we appropriate the resources which God Himself has provided.
There is a reason we can be sure that our trials and tests are not beyond our ability. With every test, God provides “the way of escape.”116 Paul does not speak of “a way out,” but rather “the way out.” I am inclined to think that Paul has employed the definite article (“the”) here to underscore the fact that there is a “way out,” and that this “way out” is not ambiguous, but specific. Every temptation and trial which comes into our life comes with its “way out.”
We need to be precise here, as I believe Paul is. The “way of escape” is mentioned as an encouragement, so that we are assured that we do not have to fail. It is not pointed out as an incentive to live carelessly, but as an encouragement to those who fear that enduring the trials and temptations of life is impossible. God has not promised to get us out of trouble, if we carelessly wander into it. Too many times, I have heard people misuse this promise as an excuse to toy with temptation. We continue to pursue a course of action we know to be wrong, falsely confident that God will bail us out of trouble at the last moment. To live in this way is to “put God to the test.”
Neither is the “way of escape” a promise that God will remove us from our trials. The question is, “What is it that we escape?” Some seem to think that Paul is promising that we will escape testing and tribulation. This is not the case, as many, many biblical texts make clear.117 Israel did not escape the hardships of the wilderness, because these were a crucial part of the test which God was giving His people. What God promises Christians a way of escape from, is sin. Sin was the rule, rather than the exception for the Israelites. Their persistent failure should serve as a warning to those who are overconfident. But it is not intended to cause us to throw up our hands and give in to sin, as though it were inevitable. With every test, and with every temptation, God provides “the way” to escape sin, often without escaping the pain and hardship of the situation. This is certainly Paul’s meaning, because he concludes by saying, “… that you may be able to endure it.” God provides the means to escape sin while enduring the test.
What form does this “way of escape take?” How will we know what it looks like? How will we recognize this way of escape? Broadly stated, the way of escape is to love God and therefore to trust and obey Him. Did the Israelites grumble against Moses and Aaron, and therefore against God? They were “baptized unto Moses” by the cloud and by the sea. The “way of escape” was to follow the leaders whom God had appointed, remembering how God had already delivered them through these same leaders.
Did the Israelites “try the Lord” by demanding that He provide for them in a certain way? The way of escape was to trust in the Lord, and to pray that He would provide for their real needs. Did the Israelites act immorally? What was the solution? One solution to immorality was a godly marriage. This is precisely what Paul says. Marriage is a preventative to burning. Further, the Israelites would not have engaged in immorality if they had faithfully obeyed His commandments, which not only forbade immorality but also those things which are often associated with it. Did the Israelites suffer divine judgment for idolatry? The Law forbade idolatry, and further, the Law prescribed how the one true God was to be worshipped. Did the Israelites want to have a visible “god” which they could see with their eyes? Let them escape by knowing that God is invisible, and that He cannot be fashioned by human minds or hands. Did the Israelites “crave evil things”? Let the Israelites learn to exercise self-control in their lives, so that fleshly self-indulgence is not the pattern of their lives.
All of a sudden, the argument begins to come full circle. Some of the Corinthians, thinking themselves to be both “wise” and “strong,” insisted on exercising their “right” to eat idol-meat, regardless of the fact that the apostles had forbidden it, and that their “weaker brethren” were hindered by their “liberty.” The bottom line reason for the insistence of some to practice their liberties was that they were self-indulgent, and they could not say “no” to their fleshly appetites. When one develops a lifestyle of self-indulgence, any denial of fleshly appetites seems like a horrible deprivation. The Israelites of old expected to get to the “land of milk and honey”without breaking a sweat, without paying a price. In New Testament terms, they knew nothing of the lifestyle of the disciple. They were unwilling to deny themselves in this life, in order to enter into the blessings of the coming age. Instead, they demanded that God provide kingdom blessings now, and threatened to turn back to Egypt if God didn’t bless them with prosperity and ease.
The Christian is to view the Christian life as the athlete viewed the race. There was a goal to reach and a price to pay in order to reach it. An athlete attains the prize only if and when he or she is willing to deny fleshly appetites and bring them under control. Those who serve the flesh are enslaved to it, and thus to Satan. The Christian must strive to make their physical bodies serve them as they seek to fulfill their calling. The more self-indulgent we are in our daily lives, the more we react to trials and testings, and the greater the temptation when we experience trouble. Being a disciple is about being disciplined, so that we deny fleshly lusts in order to serve God and others.
It may seem inappropriate, but the analogy is clear and compelling, so I will mention it here. Many Christians are very distressed (and rightly so!) over the way our culture deals with sexual immorality. If we as a nation were characterized by self-control, rather than self-indulgence, we would deal with AIDS and other STD’s by practicing abstinence. But that is not the spirit of the age. And so we find authorities urging people to “use protection,” rather than to exercise self-control. We advocate the use of condoms rather than abstinence.
Some of the Corinthians were just like this, and so are many, many Christians today. We look at the gospel as “protection,” and the promises of God’s Word in passages like ours, as the basis for loose living, expecting God to bail us out of trouble. Paul is telling us that God’s “way of escape” is His divinely-provided means for escaping from sin by fleeing from it, rather than by flirting with it and expecting a miraculous deliverance.
The “way of escape” which God promises us should not be thought of in terms of a miraculous intervention on God’s part, due to deliberate folly on our part. Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, and there He “escaped” from sin. Satan was so bold as to seek to distort the promise of divine protection, making it instead a reason to put God to the test. God promised to protect His own, did He not, and especially His Messiah? So then, Satan reasoned, why not use this promise to check out God’s faithfulness, by our Lord casting Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, causing God to miraculously intervene? Our Lord refused, and it should not be difficult to see why. The promise of divine protection should never be misapplied as a pretext for carelessness or even precipitous actions, which would require a miraculous intervention of God. Such actions seek to force God to act, making Him submit to our will, rather than us submitting to His.
The “way of escape” should not be thought of in terms of spectacular, miraculous interventions. Some such events do happen, but these are due to circumstances beyond the control of the Christian. For example, Daniel (in the case of his prayers) and his three friends (in the case of their being ordered to bow down in worship of the king’s golden image) had no choice but to disobey the king’s orders, if they were to be obedient to God. They endangered themselves by being obedient to God, while being disobedient to men. Even in these instances, they did not demand that God miraculously rescue them, although they knew He was able. The rescue of these saints was miraculous and spectacular, but they did not deliberately endanger themselves to force God to come to their rescue.
The “way of escape” is often much more mundane than it is miraculous. For those who are unmarried, and “burn” with sexual passion, the solution may be marriage. This was Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 7:9. For those who are married, and who find themselves “oppressed” by an insensitive husband, or “harassed” by a nagging wife, the way of escape is not divorce, but bearing one’s cross silently, as our Lord did (see 1 Corinthians 7:10-14). In the most general terms, the way of escape is to love God and man, and to trust and obey Him.
The “way of escape” in many cases should come early, and not late; it should be a preventative course of action, rather than a prescriptive course of action. An alcoholic knows that there are certain people and certain places that are too dangerous. You don’t have to walk by the liquor store, or to call up those with whom you drink. Better to stay out of trouble than to get into trouble, expecting God to rescue you. Developing a lifestyle of self-discipline and self-control is one of the best “escapes” there is. That is what Paul is challenging us to do, to realize our own vulnerability to sin, and then to purpose to fulfill our calling in Christ, and therefore to pay the price which it requires.
If the Christian life is one in which we “take up our cross and follow Christ,” if it is a life of discipline and of denying fleshly lustsand it isthen surely our efforts to evangelize should not seek to deceive unbelievers by “luring them” or should we say “tempting them,” to trust in Jesus Christ for fleshly self-indulgence. Jesus was very clear on this to those whom He invited to follow Him.
34 “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. 37 He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:34-39).
42 And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
57 And as they were going along the road, someone said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” 59 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61 And another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).
Why is it then that when we proclaim the gospel, we tend to disguise or set aside the fundamental issues of sin, righteousness, and judgment? Why is it that we say we are appealing to “seekers,” but those who are “seeking” are looking for some form of self-indulgence? They want God as the means to better relationships, a healthier self-esteem, ridding them of psychological pain, and taking them out of suffering. They want the very kind of gospel which the “good life gospeleers” offer. The problem is that it is “another gospel.” Let us seek to proclaim to lost sinners a gospel which saves men from sin and judgment, but which calls men to a life of discipleship, a life of taking up one’s cross, not a life of self-indulgence.
And let us, as Paul has earlier urged, purpose to “finish our course,” to “finish the race” which God has set before us, willing to endure trials and difficulties, willing to pay the price. Let us remember that our Lord was our example, in that the cross comes before the crown. The cross is the way to the crown. Let us choose then to take up our cross, and follow Him. To win the race is to bring glory to God, to build up believers in their faith, and to win the lost to Christ. Let us not fail to win because we cannot say no to fleshly lusts. And let us run the race, knowing that the time is short, for we are those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come”:
8 Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law. 11 And this do, knowing the time, that it is already the hour for you to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed. 12 The night is almost gone, and the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts (Romans 13:8-14).
114 Satan sought to tempt our Lord; it was his intent to tempt our Lord and to cause Him to fail. In one sense Jesus was “tempted” because this was what Satan sought to do. In another sense, this whole temptation event served only to demonstrate that Jesus could not be tempted, He was “untemptable.” The reason is that in His perfect humanity, there was no fleshly lust which was attracted to Satan’s self-indulging proposals.
116 The Greek term, here rendered “way of escape,” is used but once by Paul in its verb form (“cast out”), and employed only one other time in the form it is found in our text. There, in Hebrews 13:7, the term is used of the “end” or “outcome” of the lives of the leaders whom the saints are to follow.