Sunday, February 7, 2010

OT Stories are Relevant

This is sermon #23 from First Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13


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?

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