Turn to 1 Corinthians. We’ll start from there.
Imagine a friend of yours. We’ll call him Fred. Fred is not a Christian and he’s living with his girlfriend. But then he comes to faith in Jesus. He moves out. The relationship is off, and then it’s on and then it’s off and then it’s on again, and then he moves back in with her. And gently but firmly you challenge him over the inconsistency. And he rationalises it to you, he gives you reasons why it is okay for him.
Or as another example, imagine another friend. We’ll call him Charlie. Charlie arrives in Newcastle from China. He hears the gospel here. He puts his faith in Jesus. And then he goes back to China and you keep in touch with him by e-mail. And he comes under more and more pressure from his family to go back to the family worship: a mixture of Buddhism and ancestor worship. And gently but firmly you challenge him over the inconsistency of taking part and he rationalises it to you, says why it’s okay for him in his situation.
Those situations are very similar to what Paul is dealing with in Corinth. In chapters 8 to 10, he’s dealing with a single issue in which sex and idol worship are rolled together. If you look at chapter 7:1, Paul writes “Now for the matters you wrote about”. We know from earlier in the letter, Paul had already written to them. They had reacted badly against some of the things that he had said, so they wrote to him to take issue with him. And now Paul is coming back to them on a series of topics. Chapter 7:1: “Now for the matters you wrote about”. Chapter 7 is about sex and relationships.
Chapter 8:1 “Now…” new subject “…about food sacrificed to idols”. The whole of 1 Corinthians 8 to 10 is on a single issue of idolatry, of idol worship. Before they became Christians, the Corinthians would have believed in many gods. Each god had his or her little temple with a statue of the god and idol and you would go along with a group of friends and you’d sacrifice a goat to the idol. They’d take it round the back and barbecue it for you, bring it back out, and you would have a meal in honour of the idol. And because the idea at the time was that being spiritual was a kind of let go experience, there was also a fair amount of sex involved in these places.
For many of the Corinthians that was their pre-Christian background. That was normal life. They then heard the gospel that Jesus was their rightful Lord, he’d risen from the dead to show that he was the one and only real God, and that Jesus had died for them to forgive them all their nonsense of living for the wrong things and the wrong gods. And they’d accepted him as their Lord.
So if you’d look at chapter 8:6, Paul says:
“Yet for us Christians, there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came, and for whom we live, and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live,”
that is as forgiven people. And they’d have said Amen to that.
There’s no problem with what they were saying. The problem was they were living something totally totally inconsistent. They were still going to the temple idols; they were still wrapped up in the sexual immorality. And so it was like my opening examples of Fred and Charlie wrapped together, and somehow they have rationalized it. They’ve persuaded themselves that it’s okay. So that’s what we’re on about in this part of 1 Corinthians 8-10; Christians saying one thing, living a settled inconsistency in a sinful lifestyle on the other hand and rationalizing the gulf between those two.
The reason that we need to hear what Paul has to say is number one that some of us in a gathering like this would be in exactly that situation. No one else may know, but what you say and what you’re living are miles apart. On the other hand there’s none of us who could sit back and say, “Well, that’s not me, this sermon is just for other people”, because all of us are inconsistent. There is a gap between what we say and what we live. And we are all capable of that gap getting as big as you care to imagine.
So that’s why we need to hear what Paul has got to say. He says three things, to challenge anyone rationalizing a settled sinful course of action.
The first thing he says is this: not all Christians are real Christians.
Not all Christians are real Christians. And this is chapter 9:24 – 10:5. The trouble with carving up the bible for sermon series or for daily bible reading is that you can read it in little chunks and not relate them to one another, whereas it was meant to be read from beginning to end. So let’s go back to chapter 9:24.
[Paul says,] “Do you not know that in a race, all the runners run but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that would not last but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly, I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
So he’s saying that Christian life is like a race to the death, (that’s the finishing line). Christians are like runners. But in a race, as we know from the news, not every competitor is a genuine competitor. Drug test them at the end: one of them has got Nandrolone in his system, and it shows that although he said he was genuine, he wasn’t.
Paul says it is the same with the church. The statistics say that on average, one thousand different people will come through our doors this Sunday: a thousand different people apparently in the Christian race. And Paul says not all Christians are real Christians. The fact that someone says, the fact that someone preaches, that Jesus is Lord, doesn’t tell you anything about what they’re actually living, whether they are genuine. And Paul is the first to admit that, in verse 27. He’s scared that while preaching to others a gulf could open up in his life, and at the end of the day he’s disqualified.
He says that it’s possible to preach and underneath not be a real Christian, and thousands of people are proving that in Church of England pulpits up and down England right now. The fact that I’m occupying this one tells you nothing about whether I really am a Christian or not. And Paul knew that, so he says verse 27, “I beat my body and make it my slave”, which is colourful language for saying ‘I’m careful to bring myself and my desires under Jesus as my Lord, because I know that it’s not he who preaches it that’s genuine, it’s he who lives it.’
Now maybe Paul guessed how the Corinthians would react. He could imagine them saying ‘Yes, but you cannot seriously be applying this to us. We’re the church you planted. You baptised some of us, so you must have thought that we were genuine. And we trust in Jesus, we trust that we’re forgiven through His death on the cross, we eat and drink the Lord’s supper regularly to remember that, we must be okay.’
And so Paul takes them back to another group of people who thought of themselves as spiritually secure. He takes them back to that generation of Israelites that came out of Egypt with Moses at the time of Exodus, chapter 10:1.
“For”, [in other words he’s still on the same tack,] “I don’t want you to be ignorant of the fact brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”
They went through the Red Sea, so they were baptised with considerably more water than you were, was what he’s saying. Verse 3: “They all ate the same spiritual food”, the manna, “and drank the same spiritual drink” the water from the rock in the dessert. Yes, they ate and drank the Lord’s Supper, in a manner of speaking. They drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them and that rock was Christ. Yes, they enjoyed the benefits that Jesus brought them.
“Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert”. (v5)
All of that generation said, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one, we’re going to love Him with all our hearts, souls, strength and mind.” Most of that generation died outside the Promised Land because that is not the way they lived. And Paul is saying in our days, not all Christians are real Christians.
The second thing that he says to people rationalizing a settled sinful cause of action is: be warned. Be warned.
Verses 6-11, this is not a sermon to the person sitting next to you, he says. “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry’”. We had that read to us earlier from Exodus 32. “We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 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. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.” Notice Paul is not there saying you, you, you, he’s saying us, us, us. Because he knows that he is as capable as the next Christian of compromise and sin. So he holds up the mirror of the Old Testament, these sinful episodes in verses 7-10, and he says to himself and to us, can you see yourselves in any of these? We would never get the benefits of reading the Old Testament or reading any of the examples in the bible, if we sat in judgment on them and said, “I would never have done that. I’d never have made a golden calf, a few weeks after I’d been rescued from Egypt.” Christian maturity says I’m quite capable of any sin in the book.
So let’s look at verses 7-10. Paul picks out four sinful episodes. If you’re taking notes, verse 7 is Exodus 32, verse 8 is Numbers 25, verse 9 is Numbers 21, and verse 10 is Numbers 14. Remember the problem that Paul has in his sights, is this cocktail of idol worship, sexual immorality, the desire to go back to the old ways, and he chooses some tailor made incidents from the Old Testament. Verse 7,
“Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it’s written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry’”,
a mirror image of Corinth. Verse 8,
“We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did - and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.”
They were judged for it. “We shouldn’t test the Lord, as some of them did”. They were saying, ‘Oh, if only we could go back to Egypt, life was so much easier there’, grumbling, ‘Why have you brought us out into this difficult new life?’ And Paul says to the Corinthians, ‘Look in the mirror. You are mixed up with all the same things. How can you possibly rationalise them, and think that they are okay in the present, when in the past God clearly judged them?’
So that’s what God was saying to Corinth then. What is he saying to us today? Remember in his sights, first and foremost, is idol worship. The most exact parallel that I can think of does apply to quite a number of our international brothers and sisters. It’s exactly that example of Charlie, the converted Chinese student going back home, coming under severe family pressure to take part in the family religion. But you cannot serve two gods: that is idolatry. Here in the UK, there are situations in universities, in schools - for example in assemblies and RE lessons. Again you’ll find the same thing in liberal churches, and organisations like the masons: situations where pressure is put on you, to take part either in the rite of another religion or in some multi-faith newly created religion. But you cannot serve two gods: that is idolatry.
Speaking more widely, anything that we put above loyalty to Jesus (so that in a conflict of interests Jesus loses out), is an idol. So in my other opening example of Fred and his girlfriend, the girlfriend is an idol, unless it is in fact the sex that’s the idol and the girlfriend is just incidental. But a person can be an idol, a pleasure can be an idol. Charlie’s idol, if he caves in to his family, is family approval. Another person’s idol can be career. A friend of mine works in a bank for a boss whom he respected, and then discovered was enmeshed in an unbelievable compromise. And my friend James said to him, ‘Why don’t you just resign and walk away from this?’ And the answer was, ‘I’ve been in this job too long, and in this lifestyle too long, to resign, even if I knew I ought to.’ Now, that is idolatry, that is ultimate control over a life. And there are many related idols to the big god of career, the whole family of gods, that it goes with, the standard-of-living god, the status god. And the idol of the family: it’s very easy to justify a huge amount of workaholism and materialism by saying we were doing it for the kids, we’re only doing it for the kids.
The question this passage asks us is: what is our idol? What is our potential idol? What is the person or people or pleasure or goal, that we know is or could be the biggest competitor to Jesus in your life and mine? Keeping your answers in mind, because I guarantee you’ve got some in your mind as I have, let’s hear the third thing that Paul says.
The third thing he says is: be careful with temptation.
Be careful with temptation. This is verses 12-14. He’s speaking to people rationalizing a sinful course of action, walking into temptation, sitting down to eat with it, and thinking they’re spiritually safe. And Paul says chapter in 10:12,
“If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
He’s speaking to people, remember, who on one hand are saying Jesus is Lord, but on the other hand are living something else. That is a contradiction in a Christian’s life that can only ultimately go one of two ways. Either you repent of the lifestyle and what is left is the profession that Jesus is Lord (it turns out that was the genuine thing), or you carry on with the lifestyle. Fred or Charlie plough on with what they were doing and they repent of the profession of faith. At the end of the day you got an e-mail and Charlie says, ‘You know, I was never really a Christian. It was just a face.’ Paul says be careful you don’t fall.
Again, he seems to guess the reaction. He imagines them saying, ‘but Paul, you don’t know how hard it is for us in Corinth, you don’t know what it’s like to be a Christian here. It is so hard, you’ve got to compromise some way. You just cannot fight every battle in life.’ To which Paul says, verse 13,
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.”
You see what he’s saying? He’s saying don’t make yourself a special case as if it is harder for you in Corinth than it is for them in Newcastle. It is so easy, isn’t it, to excuse our compromises? We say, at least we think to ourselves, ‘You don’t realise what it’s like for me in my workplace, what it’s like for me in my family. You don’t realise what I’ve been through in the past that makes me prone to certain things.’ Now, Paul is not, not, not denying that it’s hard, but he is denying that it is harder for you than the Christian sitting next to you. We’re in different paths of the battlefield, but the battle is as intense inside you as inside anyone else. Paul is saying, don’t make yourself out to be a special case.
The next thing he says is ‘Don’t believe the lie that temptation is too hard’. He’s not denying that it’s hard, but he is saying do not believe the lie that it’s too hard. In verse 13 he says, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” One of Satan’s best lies is this: he comes along and he says, ‘This temptation is too strong for you, you are bound to sin, lie down and be trampled over. This situation is unmanageable, you are bound to compromise, lie down and let me walk all over you.’ And verse 13 says that that is a lie.
So Paul says don’t make yourself out to be a special case, don’t believe that temptation is too hard. Trust God that it’s not, that he’s testing our spiritual muscle, like being in a gym, but he’s not piling on impossible weight like an incompetent instructor. And then in verse 14, he says don’t walk into it. It’s not exactly rocket science, and we’re all looking for that book that’s going to give us the secret of holiness, but verse 14 is Paul’s bottom line: “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.” He’s just saying ‘run’.
And if serious materialism and house worship is my problem, should I go to Ikea on a regular basis, praying Lord, lead me not into temptation? Or is that not just humbug? Paul is saying, yes, trust, (v13). God is not playing games with us, he’s not pushing us into things that are too hard. Pray that he will deliver us from temptation, but (v14), don’t go walking into it. God is looking to show the way out to people who are looking for the way out, not for people who are looking for the way in. Whatever our idol, whatever our potential idol, I am to flee from it, not flirt with it.
So the issue throughout these chapters 8-10, is Christians rationalizing a settled sinful cause of action - in their case, still going off to the idol temple with all that that meant. It’s about Christians in whose life a gulf has opened up between what they say and what they live, which calls into question whether they are genuine. Paul says, 1) not all Christians are real Christians, 2) be warned yourself, and 3) be careful with temptation.
Actually our attitude to temptation is an acid test of whether we are genuine Christians. Whether you’ve been baptised, or confirmed, or come to church, or whether you’re in a home group, or hall group, or whether you are preaching this morning - none is an acid test of whether you are a Christian. But our attitude to temptation is. Genuine Christians do not always successfully resist temptation (they’re not perfect this side of heaven). But in their heart of hearts that is what they want to do, that is what they set themselves to do. They do it in a way that they didn’t before they were Christians, and when they fail they regret it in a way that they didn’t before they were Christians. Is that you? Is that me? Because your answer to that will tell you whether you’re really a Christian.
Let’s pray together. Let’s just have a moment to respond to the Lord in the privacy of our own hearts and minds.