Paul has been addressing various problems which had arisen in the church in Corinth, a church which Paul had planted when he went there and preached the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And since the beginning of chapter 8, he’s been dealing with one particular issue: should Christians eat food which has been sacrificed to idols? It’s not a problem for us living in Belfast, but it was a problem for the believers in Corinth, because Corinth was a city which was full of pagan temples; and most of the meat sold in the market had come from one of these pagan temples where it had been offered to an idol. So, should believers eat that meat? And what should you do if a neighbour invites you to their home for a meal. The meat they’ll serve you in their home was probably meat that had first been offered to an idol. Should believers eat that meat? And very often civic events and festivals were held in one of the pagan temples. And, of course, everyone is going to be there; and you want to play your part in society and be a good citizen. But you know that food will be served at this event; and that food will no doubt have been offered to an idol as a sacrifice before being served at the dinner. So, should believers attend such events and eat the food that is served there?
And it’s clear from what Paul wrote in chapter 8 that some of the believers in Corinth — if not most of them — had no problem eating such food. After all, an idol is nothing at all; it’s not real; and food is food. And so, if an idol is nothing, and if food is only food, then what’s the harm in eating food which has been offered to an idol. And we’ve seen how Paul technically agreed with them. He said in chapter 8 that we all know an idol is nothing and that there is no God but the one we worship and adore, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul technically agreed with them. However, he went on to warn them that they need to be careful, because by eating such food in the pagan temples they might put a stumbling block in the way of their fellow believer, causing him or her to fall away from Christ. He said you might damage your fellow believer’s conscience, so that it doesn’t warn him or her the way that it should that idolatry is wrong. And he said you might destroy the faith of your fellow believers if they see you in the pagan temple and start to think to themselves that there’s nothing wrong with idolatry. So, for the sake of your fellow believers, give up your right to eat such food, so that you do not cause them to stumble away from Christ and from his salvation.
That’s what chapter 8 was about. And then, last time, we turned to chapter 9. And it may seem that Paul has changed the subject in chapter 9 and was now talking about something entirely different, because in chapter 9 he starts to write about his right as an apostle to be receive financial support for his ministry. He has the right to expect remuneration for his work as an apostle. And he established his right to receive such support using a number of different arguments. However, he says in verse 12, we did not make use of this right. We have the right to receive financial support, but we did not insist on it and we supported ourselves. And I tried to explain that Paul’s point in chapter 9 is that just as he had the right to receive financial support for his ministry, but he didn’t make use of that right, so they had the right to eat food sacrificed to idols, but they shouldn’t make use of that right. The reason he did not make use of his right was for the sake of the gospel: he didn’t want to hinder the preaching of the gospel by having to ask for money. And the reason they should not make use of their right was for the sake of their fellow believers: they mustn’t do anything that would cause their fellow believer to stumble and fall away from Christ.
And so, the lesson we learned is that the Christian life is not about me and my rights. Out in the world, people demand their rights to this and their rights to that: I can do what I want and you can’t stop me! But in the church, instead of thinking about ourselves, and what I want and what I’m entitled to, we’re to think about one another and how we can encourage one another and build one another up so that we all remain faithful to the Saviour.
Up to this point, we’ve seen that Paul technically agreed with the believers in Corinth who said there was no reason they couldn’t eat food sacrificed to idols, because an idol is nothing and food is food. However, at the end of today’s passage Paul tells his readers to flee from idolatry. Do you see that in verse 14? He says:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.
They were saying idols are nothing; Paul technically agreed with them; but now he’s saying to them: Flee from idolatry. Have nothing to do with it.
Why’s he saying that now? Well, that’s what today’s passage is about and it begins with verses 24 to 27 of chapter 9.
Verses 24 to 27
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?
The Winter Olympics have just begun and perhaps you’ve watched some of the events. Perhaps you like to watch the Summer Olympics and see Usain Bolt and Mo Farah and others run around the track. We’re familiar with these things. And the Corinthians were familiar with such things as well, because not only did they have the original, ancient Olympic Games, but they also had the Isthmian Games which were held every three years or so near Corinth. They were familiar with the games and with the kind of training the competitors had to complete in order to compete in the Games. And they were familiar with the prizes which were awarded to those who came first.
And notice how in each of these verses from verse 24 to 27 Paul refers to the prize the competitors were trying to win. Verse 24: all the runners run, but only one wins the prize. Verse 25: everyone goes into strict training to win a crown, a prize, that will not last. Verse 26: I do not run like a man aimlessly or fight like a man beating the air. The man who runs aimlessly or the boxer who keeps missing his opponent will not win the prize. Verse 27: I beat my body, says Paul, so that I will not be disqualified for the prize.
What’s the point of these verses? Well, he’s saying — isn’t he? — that the competitors in the Games are trying to win a prize. They’re trying to win a prize and so they’ll undergo strict training and they’ll run as hard as they can in order to win that prize. In the same way, Paul was trying to receive a prize. He was looking forward to the day when he will receive the crown of life from Christ the Saviour. He was looking forward to receiving that prize; and so he’ll put up with all kinds of hardships now and he’s prepared to live a disciplined life now so that he will finally receive that prize in the presence of the Lord.
Well, in the same way, the believers in Corinth need to keep their eye on the prize. They need to think about the crown of life that is waiting for them in heaven. And they must ensure that they don’t do anything now in this life that will prevent them from receiving that prize in the end. And that’s also true for us as well: we need to keep our eye on the prize and make sure that we live in such a way that we do not do anything that will cause us to stumble and fall along the way and which will prevent us from receiving that prize which Christ has prepared for us and for all who believe in him and who remain faithful to him.
And this is important, because up to now, Paul was warning the believers in Corinth to watch out lest they cause their fellow believers to stumble and fall. But now, he’s warning those who think idols are nothing to watch out lest they themselves stumble and fall. They think idolatry is nothing; but Paul is saying to them: Watch out and be careful that you yourselves — who think idols are nothing — do not fall. That’s Paul’s message to them in today’s passage. It’s not so much that someone else will fall; it’s that you might fall if you’re not careful. If you’re not careful, you may well stumble and fall away from Christ and away from the prize which he has prepared for you, which is the crown of life in his presence. So, keep your eye on the prize, because if you do, then you’ll be prepared to give up whatever might cause you to stumble, just as an athlete is prepared to give up whatever might cause him or her to lose the race.
Verses 1 to 5
And so Paul goes on in verses 1 to 5 of chapter 10 to remind his readers of what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness in the days of Moses. And if you look at verse 1, you’ll see that it begins with the word ‘for’. The word ‘for’ means that what he’s about to say to them about the Israelites in the wilderness is connected with what he’s just said to them about keeping their eye on the prize. So, he’s saying to them: The reason you must keep your eye on the prize is because of what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. So, what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness? Well, despite all the many benefits they received from the Lord, most of them stumbled and fell before receiving the prize which for them was life in the Promised Land.
So, he first lists the benefits they received from God at that time. So, they were all under the cloud. You’ll remember from the book of Exodus, that when God rescued the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt, he went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire at night. They saw the pillar and knew God was with them; and the Lord guided them in the way they should go. When the cloud stopped, they stopped and pitched their tents; when the cloud moved on, they packed up their tents and moved on, following the cloud through the wilderness. So they will all under the guidance of the cloud.
They all passed through the sea, says Paul in verse 1. So, delivered them from their captivity in Egypt by leading them through the Red Sea. God brought them safely through the Red Sea by a mighty miracle.
Then they were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and the sea. Well, this is an unusual expression, but Paul probably means that they became followers of Moses. All those who are baptised in the name of Christ become his followers. So, all who were baptised into Moses became his followers. And just as we’re baptised with water, so they were baptised by passing under the cloud and through the sea.
And then in verse 3 Paul tells us that they all ate the same spiritual food and they drank from the same spiritual drink. Well, the spiritual food they ate was the manna, that special bread from heaven which God gave them. And the spiritual drink was the water which the Lord provided for them in a miraculous way whenever he brought water from a rock to satisfy their thirst. When Paul calls the bread and water ‘spiritual’, he doesn’t mean it wasn’t physical or it wasn’t real. It was real bread and real water. What he means is that it came from God, who is a spiritual being.
And then Paul refers to the spiritual rock that accompanied them. And he explains that the rock was Christ. So, are we to imagine that a rock followed the Israelites throughout their wilderness wanderings? Well no. That’s not what Paul means. It wasn’t a rock which followed them; it was Christ who followed them. In other words, before his incarnation when he came to earth as a baby in Bethlehem, Christ the Saviour was with his people in the wilderness, to guard them and to guide them and to provide for them. He ensured that his people had food to eat and water to drink to sustain them on their way, because he’s the Good Shepherd, who always take care of his people.
Paul has listed all the benefits which the Israelites enjoyed. God led them by his cloud. He delivered them from their enemies and brought them through the Read Sea. He sent them Moses to lead them. He gave them manna to eat. He gave them water to drink. And Christ the Saviour followed them through all their wilderness wanderings. They benefitted in so many ways from the Lord’s steadfast love and mercy. Nevertheless, Paul says in verse 5, nevertheless God was not pleased with most of them and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Paul is referring to the fact that most of them — nearly all of them — died in the wilderness. Among all those who were rescued from Egypt, only two — Joshua and Caleb — were permitted to enter the Promised Land. Their children were allowed to entered the Promised Land, but apart from Joshua and Caleb, none of the generation who left Egypt made it to the end and their bodies were scattered over the desert. So, they all benefitted from the Lord’s kindness; yet they did not make it to the Promised Land.
And Paul is saying this to warn this readers in Corinth and us: You too have benefitted in so many ways from God’s kindness, because you’ve been baptised into Christ and have become members of his church; and he’s given you his word and his sacrament to sustain your faith. You have received so many benefits from him. But don’t do anything to displease the Lord as they did. Don’t do anything that might cause you to stumble and fall.
Verses 6 to 10
And so, in verses 6 to 10, Paul lists some of the things the Israelites did which displeased the Lord and kept them from the Promised Land.
So, what did they do wrong? Well, they committed idolatry. That’s in verse 7 where Paul says to his readers and to us:
Don’t be idolaters as some of them were; as it’s written: ‘The people say down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.’
Paul is referring to the time when Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the law from God, and the people made a golden calf and bowed down to worship it. And they sang and danced before it. And at that time, many of them were put to death for their unfaithfulness.
They also committed sexual immorality. That’s in verse 8 where Paul says to his readers and to us:
We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did — and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.
Well, in Numbers 25 we read how the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with the Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices of their gods. And we read there how the people ate and bowed down before the false gods; and the Lord sent a plague against them to punish them for their unfaithfulness.
And they also tested the Lord by grumbling and complaining. That’s in verses 9 and 10 where Paul says to his readers and to us:
We should not test the Lord, as some of them did — and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did — and were killed by the destroying angel.
Paul is referring, first, to the occasion recorded in Numbers 21 when the people tested the patience of the Lord by complaining they did not have enough to eat; and the Lord was angry with them and sent poisonous snakes into the camp and many of them died. And, of course, on many other occasions they grumbled and complained about not having food or water; and the Lord struck them down.
So, the Israelites committed idolatry and immorality and they tested the Lord’s patience by grumbling and complaining. As a consequence, the Lord was displeased with them and he was angry with them and he kept them from entering the Promised Land. If only they had kept their eye on the prize; if only they thought about life in the Promised Land and how good it would be to live in that land, which flowed with milk and honey, they would not have turned to idols or indulged in immorality or tested the Lord or grumbled before him.
Verses 11 to 14
Well, says Paul, in verse 11, these things happened to the Israelites as examples for us. These things happened to the Israelites as warnings for us. They stumbled and fell in the wilderness and did not receive the prize which God had prepared for them, which was life in the Promised Land. And so, we too need to pay attention to the warning so that we will not stumble and fall before obtaining the prize, which is everlasting life in the presence of God.
Paul says to his readers in Corinth in verse 12: You think you’re strong enough to withstand the temptation to fall away from Christ. You think you’re able to stand firm in the faith and that nothing will move you. You think you can go into those pagan temples and not be affected by what’s going on there. You think you will not stumble. But be careful, says Paul. Be careful that you do not fall as the Israelites did. Like you, they received many benefits from the hand of the Lord. But in the end, the Lord was displeased with them, because they were not faithful to him. So, watch out.
And the passage ends with a reminder that even when we’re tempted, the Lord is faithful and will provide a way out for us. And what is the way out of the temptation to stumble and fall away from the Lord because of idolatry? Well, the way out is simple. It’s this: Flee from idolatry. Instead of going into those temples to be tempted by evil, turn around and flee from them.
As we think now of how this passage applies to us, it’s worthy noting how important it is for us to know our Bibles. When Paul was tackling this issue in the church in Corinth, he referred to the history of Israel in the Old Testament. And unless we know our Bibles — unless we’ve read the Old Testament and are familiar with the story of the Israelites in the wilderness, then we won’t be able to understand what Paul is saying here. Knowing the Old Testament helps us to understand the New Testament. And knowing the New Testament helps us to understand the Old Testament. If we know the Old Testament, we’re able to understand what Paul is saying here. And if we understand what Paul is saying here, it helps us to understand the significance of what we read in the Old Testament about the Israelites in the wilderness. So, we need to know our Bibles, which means we need to read them as much as we can.
Related to that, we should note how Paul turns to the Scriptures — God’s written word — for guidance. Here he is, trying to help the Corinthians with this issue. And where does he turn to for understanding and help? He turns to God’s word to see what we can learn from the pages of the Old Testament to help us to understand this issue and what we ought to do about it.
Some Christians, when trying to discern God’s will, will wait for a still, small voice; they’re hoping to hear God speak to them directly. Others are hoping for a new revelation from God’s Spirit. Others will rely on human opinion and what seems best to them. But Paul knew that God reveals his will to his people in his word; and so he turned to God’s word for help and guidance and understanding. As our church’s Confession of Faith says:
the Holy Scripture is now essential, for God’s former ways of revealing his will to his people have ceased.
Once he spoke to us in various ways through prophets and direct revelations of his Spirit. Now he speaks to us through his word, which is the only rule to direct us and which teaches us what we’re to believe and how we’re to live as his people. And therefore:
The Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures is the supreme judge by whom all religious controversies are to be decided….
The Corinthians wanted to know if they could eat food sacrificed to idols. And Paul turned to God’s written word and to the warnings it contains. And so, we must follow the Apostle’s example and turn to God’s word in order to know God’s will and to decide all questions of faith and practice.
And finally, we need to keep our eye on the prize and remain faithful to the Lord. Like the Corinthians, we’re often tempted to turn away from the Lord. So, when the world is against us, we can feel the pressure to conform to its ways and we’re tempted to think it would be easier if we gave up the faith. And the sorrow and suffering of this troubled life can get us down as well; and we begin to doubt God’s love and power. And sometimes, what leads us away from the Lord is our own sinful heart and the way we begin to love other things more than him and we put others things before him. We can so easily fix our hearts on others things apart from the Lord our God who deserves all our worship and praise.
So, we’re often tempted to turn away from the Lord, just as the Corinthians were tempted. But like the runners who compete in the Games, we need to keep in mind the prize at the end and endure all things now. We need to keep our aim on heaven and not let anything distract us. We need to remember that the Lord our Saviour has the crown of life, ready and waiting for us, which he will give to us one day, so long as we remain faithful to the end and run the race that he has set before us. We need to keep our eyes fixed on our eternal reward, so that we will overcome every hurdle in our way and step over every stumbling block, and turn our back on every distraction. We need to look forward to that day when he will place his crown on our heads, a crown that will not perish. And in the meantime, we’re to remain faithful to him, seeking to do his will every day, and loving and trusting him and worshipping him above all others.