Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Saturday, February 27, 2010
I ask for your prayers this weekend and early next week. I am the Lenten Mission speaker at a near-by parish. I will speak during the regular weekend services, and then each evening Sunday through Wednesday. "Come, Spirit come...."
Friday, February 26, 2010
This is sermon #25 from my First Corinthians series, originally written in 1990.
1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1
FREEDOM AND CONSCIENCE
You will notice that I have put the first verse of chapter eleven with the final verses of chapter ten. Chapter and verse divisions in the Bible are something which was added over the years so people could more easily identify the location of a particular text. (Imagine me asking you to turn to a certain passage if we did not have these divisions.) One disadvantage, though, is that the divisions were not always put at the best places. This is one of those places.
The context is still that of idolatry and temple food, although this is bigger than that. Here we are dealing with an issue that we all face almost every day, even if we do not always recognize it: the difference between behaviors that touch absolute and eternal things and those that don't.
It matters what Christians do. My actions and your behavior have consequences that go beyond the immediate situation. Some are more important than others. How do we know the difference? What is our guide when the issue is not totally right or wrong?
I grew up with an understanding that if a thing was questionable at all, that was enough to make it absolutely forbidden. Such verses as avoid the very appearance of evil and whatever is not of faith is sin was the only perspective that mattered. That meant there were a lot of things one did not do in any context. A good Christian would not swim in public places (the principle of modesty might be compromised). Good Christians did not play any card games since cards were used for gambling. Good Christians did not dance or go to movies (that was what sinners did to keep their baser desires entertained). Christians did not drink alcohol, even moderately.
Those were some of the things I had to work through as I learned what it meant to follow Jesus. Some of you have had the same things; others of you will find what I just said to be rather strange. Do not let that get in your way. Instead, make note of my point that our behavior matters. There will always be decisions we must make on certain actions. The bottom line is that we need to know that, and know how to assess the behavior we choose to do.
The issue for the Corinthians was where and what to eat. Meat usually came from a temple where an animal had been sacrificed in worship. In pagan temples, such meat was available on a restaurant-like basis; a person would go to the temple at mealtime and eat, plus enjoy some of the accompanying festivities. Meat that was left over (and there was always plenty) was sold in a market setting.
The word about the former was plain: A Christian should not go to the temple to eat, since it was a direct connection with idolatry. The latter situation –– buying and eating temple meat from the market –– was not the same thing. There were implications, but it was not an absolute right/wrong behavior.
Now, go back with me to my foundational thought: Everything we as Christians do has significance, but not everything has the same level of significance. Do you live with that awareness? If you do not, then you have some basic things to learn about what it means to belong to Christ. If you do live with that awareness, then either you have matured to the place where you have learned how to judge a matter, or you live with either a lot of rules or a lot of guilt (or both).
The Corinthians as a whole had not yet learned the importance of what they did. They gravitated toward the spiritual benefits of grace –– they were perfect in Christ, which is certainly one side of the truth, but they did not do so well with practically living up to their spiritual heritage.
As I said earlier, I was nurtured with the kind of advice that said avoid the very appearance of evil and whatever is not of faith is sin. The Corinthians had a guiding phrase that was totally opposite: everything is permissible (v23). It's the blind assumption that it doesn't matter what a Christian does. It's the one-sided view that because Christ has died for us and our sins are forgiven and his righteousness has been given to us and his Spirit has been given in pledge of our full redemption, that it does not matter what we do. That is a great presumption based on a partial truth.
What is the full truth? Notice the last verse of the text: Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ (11:1). Jesus is not only the one in whom we have forgiveness of sins; he is our example of how to live as God created us. Being a Christian is more than trusting in Christ's death; it is also following Jesus.
How do we follow Jesus? One way is to follow others who have learned a lot about what it means to follow Jesus. Paul was that kind of person. He could say to those Corinthian Christians, follow me as I follow Christ. We need to look more closely at Paul here, but first let me encourage you to have the kind of commitment that would allow you to say to someone else, "Follow me...."
What kind of person was Paul that he could invite others to copy him? Some might say he was impulsive and inconsistent. The Corinthians were baffled. Here was a man who said in no uncertain terms that Christians could not eat at the temples, and yet he is also saying that meat is meat and they can eat anything in their homes or as guests (which is close to what the Corinthians themselves were saying about eating at the temple feasts).
If you look at Paul's whole record you find a man who stormed against circumcision, and yet he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16: 3). He taught that special days and ceremonies were spiritually worthless, and yet he himself joined other Jewish men in Jerusalem in a purification rite to identify with the Jewish law (Acts 21:20ff). The casual onlooker would think Paul was doing everything he could to confuse and anger people.
If you think about it, though, wasn't Jesus crucified because people did not understand him and he made them angry? Now do not misunderstand, for I am not saying that was what Jesus (or Paul) tried to do. His goal in life was not to confuse and alienate people. It's just that as Jesus gave himself to God's truth and kingdom the result was misunderstanding and hostility.
So perhaps it is not surprising that as Paul followed Christ it resulted in the Corinthians' disgust. That was why Paul's apostleship (leadership) was questioned (ch 4). The more pertinent question for us is why Paul seemed to be so inconsistent, and what that means for us as we follow Jesus.
At the heart of that answer is another question: When are we free to decide for ourselves how to act and when to come under a Christian authority? And on top of that, what are the levels of Christian authority?
Notice that Paul does not negate the Corinthians' assertion "everything is permissible." That is because Christians do not operate under a set of rules. On the other hand, there are boundaries to our behavior, and they are defined by Jesus' character.
What are some of those boundaries? Look at v23,24. Following Jesus means choosing what is beneficial and constructive. And not just for ourselves.... following Jesus means seeking the good of others instead of one's self.
How does that work out practically? In things that are not absolutely right or wrong (and please remember that as Christians we believe there are such things, whether our culture will admit it or not), there is a tension between freedom and conscience. In things that are neither right or wrong, we are free to do what is best.
But.... how do we determine what is best? One thing to consider is conscience. I hope you already know to obey your conscience in vague situations, but that is not what this is talking about. In some situations, you need to consider not your own conscience, but the consciences of those around you.
Does this mean mature Christians are condemned to bow to the scruples of other weaker Christians in everything? The answer to that is "maybe sometimes." What is important here is the principle of another's good.
The principle of another's good is one way to look at Jesus. That is how the Scripture describes him over and over. He was the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep (Jn. 10:11). He died for us when we were God's enemies (Rom. 5:7ff). He did not hang onto his equality with God, but humbled himself (Phil. 2:6ff). In the words of our v24, Jesus did not seek his own good, but the good of others.
Let's look again at Paul, this man who said follow me as I follow Christ, to see how he did that. Some might think giving in to another's conscience would be the most extreme type of people pleasing. It is suggested in v33. You have probably known someone like that –– a person who, to be accepted, always chooses or says what pleases other people. Is that what it meant for Paul to follow Jesus in seeking another's good?
The answer is emphatically NO. Paul did not care a lot about what people thought of him. Do you remember these words from the first part of this letter?
I did not come to you with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power (2:1–5).
Or again, I care very little if I am judged by you.... (4:2).
Paul’s concern was for people to understand and desire the gospel. In chapter nine he said he was all things for all people. Why? So they would like him? No. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (9:22). That is what he is saying again here: I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved (v33).
Sometimes Paul would curb his freedom so people would not misunderstand and thus reject the gospel. That is his point here with the meat bought in the market. To him it was just meat. But if he was invited to an unbeliever's home and the the unbeliever made it a point to say the meat was temple meat dedicated to an idol, then Paul would not eat it because he would know the unbeliever expected him not to because Paul was a Christian.
Sometimes you or I might be in a place where we would personally feel free to participate in something, but there are people there who would misunderstand Christian commitment if they saw us exercise our freedom. It might keep them from Christ or help them justify their own sin. Following Jesus in that situation means we are free, yes.... “free” to curb our own prerogatives for the sake of another's conscience.
Having said that, I need to give another picture from Paul for the sake of balance. Sometimes Paul most specifically did not respect others' consciences. Usually it was when the others were Christians, and were trying to hang a bunch of rules on yet other Christians. The prime illustration for this is the book of Galatians. There we find some
Christians who said all Christians should be circumcised. Paul saw this as an attempt to make one's standing with God dependent on keeping certain Old Testament rules. That is contrary to the gospel and Paul had no respect for people who would distort the gospel.
In situations where Christians have hardened opinions of nonessential things being absolutely right or wrong, other Christians who understand freedom in Christ are not loving or serving such judgmental Christians by giving in to their narrow views. Legalistic Christians aren't going to have their understanding of the gospel hurt by another Christian's freedom. The legalists may, in fact, have their categories shaken enough to grow up a little bit.
That last dimension isn't an explicit part of this passage, but I include it because it is a necessary balance to what Paul does say here. Besides, it implicitly belongs because it is part of looking at the man who said, Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
The bottom line here is an attitude of love, like Jesus had, that wants everyone to find the forgiving love of God. It is a love that chooses not to do anything that would cause anyone to misunderstand the gospel. And how can we do that?
It all comes down to what we find in v31: So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. The balance between freedom and conscience is found in that simple, yet extremely difficult exhortation. Do you live each day with an awareness that your actions help others understand or misunderstand what it means to follow Jesus? And if you do, how do you decide how to act?
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
From a portion of today's Readings – Psalm 12:
Monday, February 22, 2010
We have seen gentlemen and ladies spend the whole night, even many nights one after another, playing chess or cards. Is there any occupation more absurd, gloomy, or depressing than this last? Yet worldly people don't say a word and the players' friends don't bother their heads about it.
Saturday, February 20, 2010
This is sermon #24 from First Corinthians. I have edited this one more than usual since the subject covers some aspects of the Church and Communion and my understanding of those subjects is quite different than 20 years ago. Yet, I have maintained the main point I made in this sermon when it was first written. I would cover this passage differently today, but there is still something here for us.
1 Corinthians 10:14-22
THE BONDS AND BOUNDS OF FELLOWSHIP
What does it mean to belong to the Church? Of course the New Testament does not talk about formal “membership” as such, but the idea is implicit in many places. This passage also concludes the long argument about going to pagan temple feasts.
"What does going to pagan temple feasts have to do with the implication of belonging to the Church?" you might ask. Some people do not see a connection between identification with the Church and anything else at all. For them, the idea of “separation of church and state” is absolutized and extended to everything else: separation of church and business; separation of church and entertainment; separation of church and social life; separation of church and relationships. The word here is that belonging to the Church has everything to do with everything else in a Christian’s life.
Belonging to the Church cannot be separated from belonging to Jesus. If we belong to Jesus, we are called to identify with his Church. And if Jesus is our Master, then it matters what he thinks of where we go, what we do, who we are with, and how we conduct ourselves at any time. Let's see how these verses say that.
The foundation for the idea here is the Christian meal –– Communion (or, the Lord’s Table). It is one of the things that happens in the context of the Church. The Lord's Table is for people in the Church (and keep in mind the basis for someone being in the Church).
Why is the Lord's Table so special? V16 says it is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. Historically, in space and time, Jesus' sacrifice was once for all (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12, 25-28), yet at the Table (today often called the Altar) we enter into its eternal verity. Merely eating the bread and drinking the cup is not what makes us Christians; we eat the bread and drink the cup because we are Christians, but there is more.
What does it mean that the bread and cup is a participation? The answer is multi-faceted, but one consideration comes from a word meaning. The word for participation here is the word, koinonia, which can also mean "fellowship." The basic idea is "to share with someone in something." So, who and what is shared in the Lord's Supper?
In v17 where we read, one loaf.... one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The Church is a fellowship in the Spirit that binds Christians together in a unique community, the basis of which is a common salvation and a mutual allegiance to the kingdom of God, which transcends our present world. The Lord's Table (which is a central aspect of belonging to the Church) is a tangible way of entering into the very life of Jesus –– and having his very self come into us in a mystical way. That is the ultimate bond, the unity, of Christian identity.
Now because those basic things are true, there is a commonality –– a solidarity –– among the people who are in the Church. Because those things are true in an individual's life and are the common foundation in all those who belong to Christ, the Church becomes the place where we recognize commitment in each other and encourage each other in responses that will keep commitment to Christ healthy and growing.
That is what Christians are supposed to do. And why do they (we) do that? It is because we are partakers of Christ. Christians are in fellowship with God and each other through Jesus Christ. Everything we do affects other Christians as well as our own relationship with God. That is why we are called to live a holy life, apart from sin and separated unto Christ.
That's why the instruction was so explicit back in 6:18 –– flee from sexual immorality. That is why the instruction is so explicit here in v14 –– flee idolatry. When a person identifies with Christ, when people commit to the Church, a choice is made which, by its very nature, precludes other choices. Thus the direct statement in v21 –– You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons.
Notice v20 –– I do not want you to be participants with demons. Can you catch the significance if I tell you the word for "participants" there is koinonous? The idea is "Do not have koinonia with the demonic." You cannot and have fellowship with Christ at the same time.
You see, there are some activities and some situations where the involvement of a Christian is a compromise of faith. Have you truly given yourself to Christ? Do you really mean it when you profess faith in Christ? If so, belonging to Christ and belonging to his Church governs your every choice. If you belong to the Church for the right reason you have chosen to identify with Jesus, and to avoid anything that is an identification with “the other side.”
I do not think many Christians in our modern Western culture think much about the de-monic. The Christians that do talk about it often fall into the opposite error and blame everything that goes wrong on direct demonic activity. C.S. Lewis was right, I think, when he cautioned against ignoring demons or being too intrigued or awed by them.
The Bible is clear that there is only one God. Idols are not really gods at all. In that sense there is no such thing as idolatry and so the Corinthians were right. But.... in any false worship there is an evil presence. In places and activities dedicated to a wrong understanding of God, and in places and activities dedicated to immorality, it is right to expect the power and influence of the demonic. There are evil powers in our world which do not want God or his ways, and we as Christians are involved in the resulting conflict –– whether we want to be or not.
Religions that do not recognize and honor the deity and authority of Jesus Christ can be used by the demonic to keep people from truly coming to God. Please understand, that is not to say the people involved in them are willfully and explicitly cooperating with demons; it is only a recognition that spiritual forces are involved in things that touch our lives in significant ways, and we need to be careful what we choose to do and who we choose to do it with.
Or, consider so-called "adult book stores" or gambling casinos with organized crime connections.... those are places today that might not be so far removed from the atmosphere at the pagan temples. I use those extreme examples to make the point; it needn't be so extreme for us to take care.
The heart of the matter here is the existence of spiritual bonds among people. Those spiritual bonds are in the Church, and we are likely to recognize that to some degree. The thing we may not recognize is how far those bonds extend. Our brothers and sisters on Sunday are also our brothers and sisters Monday through Saturday; promises made in the church extend beyond the church, and coming to the Lord's Table at Communion means something besides personal spiritual experience.
Another thing we may not recognize so readily, though, is that just as Christians have a spiritual bond, so do people that are anti-Christian. There is a spirit at work among party revelers and political players and cut-throat financiers that goes counter to the Spirit of Christ. Christians are not to have koinonia with those kinds of people. That is to say there are bounds to Christian fellowship and activity once a person commits to the bonds.
People who are in the Church for the right reason understand the bonds that tie us together. They are the bonds symbolized when we take the bread and the cup and say that we are one in Jesus Christ. When we understand and accept those bonds, we accept the bounds.
Hear this word from the Scriptures –– you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. The bonds that tie us to each other and to the Lord are also our boundaries. Are you looking to our Lord's Spirit to show you what the boundaries are in your life?
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
"What do you want for Christmas?" We are accustomed to hearing this question, even if we have matured enough not to be consumed by it ourselves.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Monday, February 15, 2010
Part of this morning's Office of Reading is from St. Bernard (who wrote the hymn Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee):
If you have found wisdom, you have found honey. But do not eat so much that you become too full and bring it all up. Eat so that you are always hungry. Wisdom says: Those who eat me continue to hunger. Do not think you have too much of it, but do not eat too much or you will throw it up. If you do, what you seem to have will be taken away from you, because you gave up searching too soon.I was reminded of college and seminary days –– intensive biblical and theological studies so that the heart could not keep pace with the head. No wonder that seminary is often called "cemetery" for some who go in with hearts on fire and leave with the fire extinguished.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
This is sermon #23 from First Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
THOSE OLD TESTAMENT STORIES ARE RELEVANT
People are fascinated by different things in the Bible. Some develop an interest in prophecy. I remember those in seminary who thought biblical archaeology was the greatest thing since being born again. Others try to summarize the Scriptures into a systematic theology. None of those things, however, had any significant attraction for me; my fascination is illustrated by these verses which open chapter ten of 1 Corinthians.
What is it about this text that is so fascinating? It can be expressed in several concepts: the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament; the way the New Testament uses the Old Testament; the place of typology in the Old Testament; or if you want a couple of big words, apostolic exegesis of the Old Testament. I mention these things because they are important –– they lie at the heart of how we understand and interpret the Bible.
One of the most basic issues is this: does the Old Testament dictate our understanding of the New Testament, or does the New Testament interpret the Old? Christians are not unanimous in answering that question. Those who allow the Old Testament to dominate would be represented by Dispensational theology –– an insistence on a physical Israel fulfilling all the Old Testament promises literally. An example of those making the New Testament the dominate guide to understanding would be the Anabaptists. Using the New Testament as the starting place for interpretation will likely result in seeing Jesus as completing what God promised Israel, and so fulfilling the Old Testament. That is my understanding.
I would like to spend more time on this Old Testament/New Testament relationship, but that is not what this text is about. It is important, though, to understand the issue, because it affects the understanding and application of this passage. Again, my understanding is that the overall issue of the Old Testament we as Christians deal with today is not that of a literal Israel; in Jesus, God has a new definition of what a Jew is, of a new Israel –– as Paul says in Romans 2:28,29 and Galatians 6:15,16. There is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph 4), even in the Old Testament. It's just clearer in the New Testament. Keep that as a foundation to this passage.
A second thing to keep in mind is the main issue in this section of 1 Corinthians. Paul is still concerned with the Corinthians' attitude about eating at the pagan temples, and so here he gives them an Old Testament object lesson on what happens when God's people persist in disobedience. It is this very point that is so pertinent to us today. Disobey-ing God always has repercussions. It did in the time Moses lived; it did when Paul wrote to the Corinthians; it does today. We might also note that rationalizations have not changed so much in the hundreds of years.
The implication here is that the Corinthians were saying something many people in churches say today: "Well, I"m a Christian. I've been baptized. I take Holy Communion." It's the belief that merely identifying in some way with Christianity means God will overlook any wrong thing a person does. The teaching of the Scriptures is that people's real beliefs are identified by how they behave.
Look at Israel. Israel has something to say about God and his people. Israel was the "people of God" in the Old Testament. When Jesus instituted the new covenant, God's people were no longer limited to Israel, and so that name is insufficient for us today –– but what God did for Israel in the Old Testament is what he continues to do for his people. The Israelites are our spiritual ancestors. Look at how Paul refers to them to the Corinthians: our forefathers (v1). The Corinthians were pagan Gentiles, but Paul says Israelites were "our forefathers." God does not have an Old Testament people separate from his New Testament people; there is one contiguous people of God.
God's Old Testament people had a baptism and a eucharistic meal just like God's New Testament people. Paul says their "baptism" was into Moses, through the cloud and the sea. The sea, of course, was the water, and the cloud was God's presence. Turn back to Exodus 19 and read about the cloud being the presence of the Lord with his people, not so unlike his presence today through his Spirit. So the two things we associate with Christian baptism –– water and presence of God –– were the two things that the Israelites experienced in their deliverance.
Likewise, when we come to the Lord's Table we have the bread and the cup. Israel had manna, and water wondrously provided from a rock. I think it is more than coincidence that in John's gospel Jesus, in two consecutive chapters (6 and 7) is presented as the Bread of Life and as Living Water. Paul makes it plain enough here: the "rock" that went with Israel was Christ (v4).
The meaning is clear –– Israel was the full recipient of God's grace. But that's not the only point. The other point, you see, is that just as Israel could claim a baptism and a holy meal like Christians in Corinth (or in any American city), it did not mean they were free to disobey God. And the same thing is true for Christians. Whether it's Israel or the Church, God expects his people to live like his people. Israel did not do that; the cloud and sea, the manna and water were their security. "Nevertheless," Paul chides, "God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert" (v5). Just as God did not tolerate Israel's idolatry, so he would not tolerate the Corinthians'. We deceive ourselves if we think he will tolerate ours.
The word in the NIV which starts v6 is these things occurred as examples. The original word here is tupos, from which we get the word "type." Was Paul thinking of examples, or that the Old Testament occurrences are types that portray what the Corinthians are? It's likely a bit of both –– Israel was a type of God's people, since she had sacraments; the events, though, serve as warning examples.
Israel had spiritual privileges comparable to those of the Corinthians. On the other hand, most of them fell under God's judgment in the desert and failed to gain the prize of God's promise. The warning is: Do not do as they did. What did they do? To make sure they get the point, Paul specifies four situations where God did not tolerate Israel and her disobedience. Then he makes the application specific in v6: to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.
What evil things? The first is in v7: idolatry, the very thing the Corinthians are trying to justify. The incident with Israel is told in Exodus 32, about the golden calf. The quote is from the second part of 32:6. Actually it's the first part of v6 that specifies idolatry. Paul chose to give the part that says the people ate in the presence of the golden calf, a not so veiled allusion to what the Corinthians were trying to justify. The other part of the quote implies sexual immorality –– something always connected to any mention of idol food in the New Testament.
Perhaps that is what prompts the next thing in v8: an explicit identification of sexual immorality. The Old Testament incident here is from Numbers 25, when the Moabites, using Balaam's counsel, seduced Israel through their idolatrous worship of Baal, which had sexual orgies as part of the activity. The sin of idolatry as practiced in the Bible and the practice of sexual immorality go together as complementary vices. And even today, when you go to places characterized by people who do not know God, it is not unusual to find sexual impropriety at some level. Paul reminds the Corinthians what God's response was to that –– thousands died under God's judgment.
The third incident (v9) had to do with "testing the Lord." The Old Testament reference is Numbers 21, where the people denied God's care and accused him of bringing them out of Egypt into the desert just so they would die. They particularly spoke against the manna God gave them.
That incident is called a "test" in Psalm 78:18. Paul picks up on that here and says Israel was putting Christ to the test (the NIV says "the Lord," but the textual evidence is for “Christ”). That means Paul is again (as in v4) putting Israel and the Corinthians together as one people of God. It was actually Christ whom Israel was testing in the desert. At the same time it is Christ whom the Corinthians are putting to the test by trying to eat both at his table and at the table of demons at the heathen temples.
The final illustration is in the context of "grumbling" (v10) which is what Israel was generally doing in Numbers 21. In this verse, though, the reference is to Numbers 14, where the people grumble against Moses as their God-appointed leader. The analogy to the Corinthians grumbling about Paul should be obvious. The Numbers 14 passage is where the judgment is pronounced that only Joshua and Caleb, and those under 20 would enter the promised land, and from which the language of our v5 here (being scattered over the desert) is taken.
In v11 there is a repetition of the idea of v5: these things were written down to warn us. The Old Testament is not simply history or isolated stories in Scripture. Instead, behind all these things, lies the eternal purposes of the living God –– the One who knows the end from the beginning, and who has therefore woven just the right things into his unfolding Story so his "ultimate" people can understand. And it is important for us to understand this idea of God's ultimate people. It is the idea expressed in the last part of v11.
The whole New Testament is based on the perspective that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ a new age of history began (identified particularly in the gospels as the kingdom of God). Jesus Christ in our world means the old is on the way out; the new has begun (2Cor 5:17). Jesus has set the future into motion so that the people of God –– whether they are Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female –– are people of God's forever kingdom. That is what the phrase means: us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.
This does not mean the Israel of the Old Testament is unimportant; it was very important in its place –– at the beginning of the promises of God, promises which have found their fulfillment in the new and ultimate thing Jesus brings. The most important thing, though, is to see what God wants to do in and through his people. It is the same whether they are at the beginning of things in Israel or in the fulfillment stage in God's people who are now called Christians because Jesus has been revealed.
And what is the important truth that is at the heart of all this weaving of Old Testament Israel and New Testament Corinth? It is the sobering realization that some in the Corinthian community, like Israel, may fail to gain the promise of salvation. Just as Israel had their own "sacraments" which spoke of the grace of God, and yet they failed to please God, so can the Corinthians. Thus v12 strongly warns, "so, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!"
But that somber warning is not all that is here. In v13 we find one of the most comforting verses, one in which Christians often find refuge in times of testing. I must say, though, I have never heard it in its context. Why is such a thought inserted here at the end of this stern warning of God's judgement on the sins of his people?
The point is simple really. It's the assurance that there is no risk of a Christian falling as long as one is dealing with ordinary trials. God will always help us through the hard things that come our way. He will not allow more to come than we can take with his grace.
BUT...actually there are two "buts" here. The first is the realization that God is not saying there will not be hard trials. The idea here is one of endurance; God will not allow one of his people to encounter more than he or she can endure. In such situations a Christian can expect God's strength and grace.
The second thing is that God will not deliver his people from the wrong things they themselves choose. There is no divine aid when a Christian is "testing" Christ. God will let us have what we persistently choose. Some sins are so self-evident, and so incompatible with life in Christ, that to choose them is to choose against Christ.
What kinds of things could do that? The Old Testament tells us. Idolatry.... sexual immorality.... grumbling against God and godly leaders. Those who persist on their own way in the face of God's clear word invite the judgment of God, not his deliverance.
Do you doubt the seriousness of this? Then look at Israel. We are no more precious to God today –– no more the recipient of his grace –– than Israel was in the Old Testament. Why did God give those stories and preserve them for thousands of years? They are relevant to us today. They show us sin and what God thinks about it.
The bigger context, though, is the picture God gives us of his faithfulness. Why does he give us these warnings? So we can avoid the patterns of people who would not listen. God is faithful. He will not allow a bigger temptation to come to us than we can handle, and he warns us against choosing one that by its very choice is a choice against him.
Are you heeding the message of these Old Testament stories?