In my younger years, I got the opportunity to learn about shepherding by following a shepherd through the Judean Wilderness for a short time. That was many years ago, but one striking image remains fixed in my mind – the sheep “pile up”. Sheep are followers, and when one falls in a crevice trying to reach was appears to be very nice grass to feed upon, other sheep follow the first into the tight crevice, eventually causing a “pile up” of sheep – nose to rear end – badly stuck and in need of immediate help from the shepherd to be set free. When I read in the Word that we are like sheep, that image sticks in my mind. We are followers, that is the single best reason both polls and marketing work in American culture.
In more recent years, one of the things I have learned to take joy in that I did not when I was younger is watching little children. I have developed a huge soft spot for babies and little ones since I became a grandparent. Watching them discover things, process them and learn how to do things is nothing short of a total joy! What I have noticed is in many ways they are very much like those sheep I saw long ago – they follow. They learn by watching those who are going before them. It is obvious that most people grow up watching other people, and take their cues from others who appear to be older and perhaps wiser. That is how we learn to speak, walk, ride a bicycle and act in social situations.
My work now includes being both a Pastor and discipleship “pattern builder”, and something has become very clear to me from the study of a few words that came from Paul’s quill and were recorded in 1 Corinthians 10. I openly confess this particular truth has bothered me ever since I discovered it in the Scripture. Even more, I have found that most believers don’t seem to recognize that it is a Biblical truth. The lesson that comes from the first half of the chapter may surprise you as well, because it reveals three ideas.
• First, Paul made clear that most BELIEVERS aren’t actually following the right path, even though they began a walk with Jesus. That makes it hard for those who are learning to follow by watching those who are already supposed to be followers.
• Second, the same text revealed that most believers fall into the same four traps believers have fallen into for centuries. The four traps are idolatry, immorality, deliberate defiance and negativity – none of which are the call of God in following the Savior.
• Third, God clearly indicated that no follower of Jesus MUST fall into the four traps – there is always an alternative way to navigate.
Let’s summarize the key to our lesson from 1 Corinthians 10 in this way:
Key Principle: The path to overcome temptation is the uncommon one – not the path of most Christ followers. It can be found in God’s Word by following the escape provided by His Spirit.
Paul argued that believers must do three things to navigate our walk successfully: Understand the powerful help God provides us, take special note of the danger zones that trap most people, and finally utilize three tools to bypass the traps (or get out of them if we have been caught in the past).
Before we go any further, here is the sobering truth: We won’t please God following everyone else, and that seems counter-intuitive because that is how we learned most everything else.
We must recognize that we are directly responsible for our own intentional spiritual growth, not those around us. Even in discipleship and equipping environments, we must understand that most are following the common paths that do not ultimately honor God (10:1-5). These probably seem like hard words, but let’s start by celebrating some things God provided to help you successfully follow Jesus…It all began with God’s help.
Understanding the Powerful Helps from God
Paul opened with a reminder of God’s provision for a follower’s success…
1 Corinthians 10:1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 and all ate the same spiritual food; 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.
Look at four advantages believers have been provided to follow Jesus, based on what God provided His people in the past. (10:1-6a):
God’s provision began with the direction of God: God gave His people direction as He led them: With the cloud, God directed His people, guiding them through unknown territory. (10:1). Out in the unfamiliar surroundings and far away from familiar comforts that came with the predictability of a slave life, God’s careful direction was a welcome and needed extension of His care. Read about the trip through the desert and one thing stands out about ancient Israel: people who are removed from their comfort zone tend to whine incessantly. Ultimately, whining comes from belief that God has brought us in a direction that is uncomfortable and unclear!
Our lives have been made better by warning lights and caution signals. Pastor Daniel Shroeder wrote:
My car has a yellow light that turns on when the gas in my gas tank level gets down low. With another car that we had, that meant that you had plenty of time to finish what you were doing and then fill up with gas some time later. The car I drive now doesn’t work that way. I know this from experience. When the yellow light turns on, I had better fill up with gas soon or it may not start again. It took getting stranded twice in order for me to learn that lesson. Do you think I’ll repeat that mistake again? Not if I learned my lesson I won’t. (via sermoncentral.com).
When we build directions, indicators and warning signals into our life, they help direct us and keep us from harm For ancient Israel, God pulled them from one place to another by means of a cloud. It offered direction, just as God offers direction to people today. You may think the cloud was more overt than the Word of God, but that isn’t really the case. With 1189 written, tried and tested chapters of God’s warning indicators, direction signals and beckoning lights (not to mention the Spirit within that makes things clearer than we would have without Him) – there is plenty of direction we have for which ancient followers of God would have longed.
Second, there is the rescue of God: God gave His people rescue when He intervened in their capture and destruction (10:1b). Imagine passing through the Sea of Reeds with the wind whipping and the water piled high beside you! There was simply no way to outrun Pharaoh’s chariots, so God stopped them. There was no way to get the children of Israel, together with carts, animals and house wares across the water, so God blew the water back. Though we may not believe it, God provides more protections than what we can see and calculate. You and I see the accident, not the many times God stepped in and saved us from one! God is there before us and knows where the traps and mine fields are before we arrive. When He has a task for you – He knows how to open the waters. You and I are indestructible until we are finished what God has intended our lives to accomplish. There is no force that is our God’s equal. Nature does not confound her Creator. God CAN make a way.
Third there are the voices God provides a follower: God provided leadership all along the way for followers to publicly choose to follow as the leaders followed God. The people followed Moses in the desert, and were publicly known to have done so. Though Moses was filled with inadequacies and personal flaws (which were made clear from his own mouth at the first meeting with God in front of a burning bush), he was part of God’s provision. We must remember that although no leader is flawless, it doesn’t mean none are worth following (10:2). God provides leaders and if they follow His Word, they are worth following. The people were “baptized into Moses” in the text. That wasn’t a reference to a religious ceremony, but rather a reference to “public identification” with Moses. The word “baptizo” was used as a figurative way of showing identification, as we baptize to identify ourselves as followers of Jesus today. Here it was used as a play on words to show they were the “people of Moses” in one sense.
Fourth, there are God’s periodic intervening miracles: God has always provided by in miraculous and unforeseen ways (10:3-4)! Water doesn’t normally come from the rocks and the materials to bake bread don’t normally blow in with the wind – but the people in the wilderness can testify they did just that! God provided water and manna by His own hand, because He cared for the people when they could not care for themselves! He did it because He is good, and because He loves His people. He did it because He wanted them to know Him better.
Keep this in mind: the destination for a follower of God isn’t a mystical promised land, but an intimate walk with the God of the journey of life. This is the tragedy of immoral thinking – it is small thinking because it makes this life and its comforts the most important thing, the gauge of all other things. It places our immediate satisfaction the ultimate key to our happiness. That isn’t the truth – because our ultimate happiness is in His arms!
Let’s remember this: The more immoral a society becomes, the more it will frame immediate and continual comfort and happiness as the most important things, the very goals of life. That kind of thinking values the life of a mother, but cares little about the extermination of the unborn when conceived in an unplanned way. That kind of thinking emphasizes the immediate happiness and ‘freedom’ of two adults over the value of caring for the children in their household in a stable home. Immoral societies look at their world as consumers, not as builders. The more immoral, the more short-lived and small thinking one becomes. Dear ones, there are many believers today who live a life of immoral pleasure and think too little of it. We were born of the Spirit in new life to think of each moment as an opportunity to show Who God is, not to simply serve ourselves and feed our desires. We must not live like one who has no Lord and no eternal purpose.
Perhaps for that reason, Paul introduced a shocking truth: Though God has provided for followers to be successful, but it is equally true that most don’t really follow Him very far into the wilderness of life!
When Paul made the point that there were leaders provided by God that believers could and should follow in verse two, I was perfectly comfortable – because it fit the equipper model. When I read verse five, however, I am much less comfortable, because it makes clear that each believer is forced to learn to follow the right voices, and they won’t be the most popular or widely acknowledged ones. He wrote:
1 Corinthians 10:5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.
Doesn’t that shock you? With MOST believers of the past wilderness experience, God was not pleased. They started with God, following His direction, experiencing His rescue, knowing His powerful provision and being led by His appointed leader – but those things weren’t enough for them to finish well.
I am still stunned by this truth from the Word. The plain fact is MOST BELIEVERS DON’T REALLY FOLLOW GOD.
Walk in any church – even the best of them – and you will find many who began a journey with God, but they are now walking in disobedience to Him. In some churches they aren’t even embarrassed about it, because embarrassment sounds so “judgy”. When did it become a GOOD THING to openly defy God and feel fine about it? Even worse is the truth that they both KNOW it and they choose not to CHANGE it. This is what makes learning to be a disciple by watching other disciples such a problem in the church.
The record of their walk was not merely to journal their failure, but to warn us the same failures would be common among us if we didn’t change from the way they walked. Paul made that clear in verse six:
1 Corinthians 10:6 Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.
In a way, the Word of God’s record of their journey provided us two additional resources that can help us as we follow Jesus.
First, we got an opportunity to learn by Biblical EXAMPLE instead of the much more painful EXPERIENCE (10:6a).
Second, we saw their end, and it can become a DETERRENCE or a “wake up call” that allows us to avoid their end (10:5b). We can have the blessing intended in a walk with God – but we must intentionally change course.
It was 1804. Napoleon Bonaparte stared with frustration across the English Channel toward his nemesis. Behind him was the invincible Grande Armee, nearly 200,000 crack veterans, all straining at the leash to crush the hated English. Everything was ready for the invasion: the transport barges, the escort fleet, ammunition, cavalry, artillery, ambulance wagons, even field bakeries. Every last detail had been meticulously planned. It was merely a matter or crossing the 28 miles of water in a single night’s journey. Yet for month after month Napoleon paced the beach at Boulogne, hesitating to act. Finally, after over a year of waiting, he suddenly turned his huge army around and marched it into the heart of Europe. The plan to invade England was laid aside forever. The thing that had stopped the great conqueror at the height of his career was the Royal Navy, Britain’s “wall of oak.” Out of sight, just over the horizon, it was nevertheless always foremost in Napoleon’s doubts. And though the future Emperor’s own fleet outnumbered the British, he dared not test it. That is the power of deterrence. The true effectiveness of a strategic system is in the mind of the enemy. Source Unknown.
Now that we have briefly looked at the provisions from God, and clear recorded examples of those who went before us, we may rightly ask: “Why do so many fail to continue to follow God in a way pleasing to Him?” Paul explained that many haven’t identified the TRAPS a follower of Jesus must face…
Identifying the danger zones that ensnare
Paul made clear the common snares believers who live displeasing to God fall into. They include idolatry, immorality, stubborn defiance, and negative whining (10:6-10). Each are dangerous traps. The first one is found in verse seven:
1 Corinthians 10:7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.”
Idolatry is placing something before God as our chief source of joy, happiness and contentment. The people were brought to Sinai by God, but decided to craft their own religious symbols and worship in a way that was pleasure-filled and comfortable – rather than wait to hear from God and follow Him. The truth is that with all the provided advantages from God, we can still easily ignore the symptoms of slipping into the hole.
It begins insidiously when we hunger for things that will satisfy us now, but dishonor our Master and leave us in guilt (10:6b-7a). Idolatry isn’t about a carving or bowing before a statue; it is about making something our chief joy that isn’t our Creator. It is about indulging in things and then chasing the feeling we got from indulgence. Often, as our wilderness companions of old, we indulge in things that start honestly, but lead to blatant sin (10:7b). When faced with the truth, we cling to the indulgence instead of clinging to God.
Immorality is when we use that which God made for one purpose for a wholly selfish one – strictly indulging our own pleasures. Paul wrote:
1 Corinthians 10:8 Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day.
When we live outside of God’s protective fences, we begin performing acts that violate what He told us to do, and we begin risking our lives and testimonies in the process (10:8). We don’t think about the long term consequences and we move blindly ahead. I am thinking of a story I read long ago that expressed this idea well:
“In November, 1975, 75 convicts started digging a secret tunnel designed to bring them up at the other side of the wall of Saltillo Prison in northern Mexico. On April 18, 1976, guided by pure genius, they tunneled up into the nearby courtroom in which many of them had been sentenced. The surprised judges returned all 75 to jail.” From Campus Life, September, 1980.
Stubborn Defiance is when we know exactly what God wants us to do in some area of life, and we deliberately defy Him. Paul wrote about it:
1 Corinthians 10:9 Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents.
Can you see how defiance worked in the children of Israel? They played games with God, thinking they could trick Him into believing that we are being faithful when we aren’t (10:9). God isn’t dumb, though many a believer has played the games thinking He is. Testing God isn’t wise, but it is frequent among His people!
Are you being defiant in an area of your life where God has made it completely clear what you SHOULD be doing, or what you should be refraining from? The honest truth is that many of us have faced this before, and we know the hooks of sin are harder to break free from than the uninitiated may believe. Serpents hurt, main and destroy, but we invite them into our lives when we play with God’s right to be first in our lives.
Negative Whining is when we act as though God is either not paying enough close attention to us, or He isn’t acting justly toward us. Paul recalled the Israelites:
1 Corinthians 10:10 Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.
Many of us have followed Jesus with an angry and complaining heart, acting as though others have it better because they serve a better and more accommodating master (10:10).
Imagine that you’re a child in Chicago and there is a widow who lives across the street, who can’t do a lot of heavy lifting. When winter snows come down, your parents tell you to shovel her driveway. Even if you don’t want to do it, because you are a child, and you must obey your parents, you really have no choice. You have to shovel the snow whether you like it or not. The whole time you shovel, you grumble and fuss because you don’t want to do what you should do – obey and serve. Can you go to the Lord that night and claim that as an act of obedience… Not hardly!
There they are… the traps that can ensnare us. We can put something before God, and that becomes idolatry. We can place feelings and pleasures before God and that becomes immorality. We can kick against God’s conviction and that becomes defiance. We can follow Him with a sour heart and complaint-stained soul, and that is negativity. These traps have long existed. We are all familiar with the feel of them closing on our legs and ensnaring us. What now? The text continued…
Three Ways to Avoid Traps
Cautiously heeding the Scriptural examples of the past, and honestly embracing our own weakness in the present can help us look sensibly for God’s provision of small escape hatches to abandon the common way of living (10:11-14).
First, we must note the examples God gave us, and recognize they are intentional lessons for our benefit, not just stories of antiquity. That is why 1 Corinthians 10:11 explained: “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”
Second we must be realistic about ourselves, and be careful to TAKE WARNING from the stories and be careful to measure what we learn from them. For this reason, Paul continued with these words:
1 Corinthians 10:12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall.
Failure to embrace our own weakness will lead to arrogance, and that is the edge of the hole. God told us all of the stories of Scripture to offer us ways to avoid falling! (10:11). How can I effectively use these lessons?
We cannot arrogantly believe we can do the same things they did and not get the same result! “Take heed” means we need to watch the guys that fell in before us. If I want to navigate the danger it will begin with telling myself the truth – I am in danger. To avoid the fate of those who fell, I will need to use different tools, different methods, and have a different approach! (10:12).
Not everyone is open to change, even when the outcome is obvious: “You,” said the doctor to the patient, “are in terrible shape. You’ve got to do something about it. First, tell your wife to cook more nutritious meals. Stop working like a dog. Also, inform your wife you’re going to make a budget, and she has to stick to it. And have her keep the kids off your back so you can relax. Unless there are some changes like that in your life, you’ll probably be dead in a month.” “Doc,” the patient said, “this would sound more official coming from you. Could you please call my wife and give her those instructions?” When the fellow got home, his wife rushed to him. “I talked to your doctor,” she wailed. “Poor man, you’ve only got thirty days to live.” Source Unknown.
Third, we must not become unduly self-focused and feel we are somehow in a worse situation than many who went before us. It isn’t true. Paul reminded:
1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man…
Our temptations and problems are the same as everyone else has faced. Maybe the specifics are different, but the feelings are not. I need to stop babying myself as if I have it worse than everyone else! My problem is a “common” one with others – we are all sinners and want to be selfish, period.
What is temptation? Seduction to evil; solicitation to wrong. It stands distinguished from trial thus: trial tests, seeks to discover the man’s moral qualities or character; but temptation persuades to evil, deludes, that it may ruin. The one means to undeceive, the other to deceive. The one aims at the man’s good, making him conscious of his true moral self; but the other at his evil, leading him more or less unconsciously into sin. God tries; Satan tempts. Fairbain, quoted in The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, J.D. Pentecost, p. 99.
Fourth, we must grasp the truth that God is FOR us, and He does make a way of escape from the power of your temptations. Scripture concludes:
1 Corinthians 10:13b “…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, so that you will be able to endure it. 14 Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.
Think of it like getting on a plane. We must LEARN to identify the emergency exits before the trouble starts (10:13b-14). We must learn, practice, identify and discuss using the escape ropes God provides. Don’t try to invent a new way, look for the ways God has already invented to free you from being trapped. These include timing, accountability, creative avoidance, etc.
Historian Shelby Foote tells of a soldier who was wounded at the battle of Shiloh during the American Civil War and was ordered to go to the rear. The fighting was fierce and within minutes he returned to his commanding officer. “Captain, give me a gun!” he shouted. “This fight ain’t got any rear!” Daily Walk, July 10, 1993.
He was right to lend a hand because the fight was enjoined on all sides – just like our fight to follow God and not be ensnared. We need each other, and we need to prepare constantly for the next wave of temptation to think like the world, compromise with the world and satisfy ourselves in the world. In the end, either the world will be your guide, or the Word will. Only one map will get you to your desired destination of satisfaction in Him.
Finally, think about all that you have heard. Consider your other options. If you are open to grabbing the examples of Scripture, and you will avoid giving yourself some “special break” because you feel your situation is somehow unique in temptation… if you will believe that God has provided an escape and look for it… perhaps you will see the wisdom in what God’s Word says. Paul finished the subject with these words:
1 Corinthians 10:15 I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say.
We must JUDGE God’s Word to be the TRUTH and to be WISE, or we will walk past its warnings (10:15). Paul offered words of the Spirit to them, but they could easily ignore God’s words and bury His truths in “advice” from many others. That is what SO MANY believers do!
We must let His Word rise to the TOP before we sink to the BOTTOM! Years ago, Chuck Colson warned:
According to sociologist Robert Bellah, 81 percent of the American people also say they agree that “an individual should arrive at his or her own religious belief independent of any church or synagogue.” Thus the key to the paradox is the fact that those who claim to be Christians are arriving at faith on their own terms – [often] terms that make no demands on behavior. A woman named Sheila, interviewed for Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, embodies this attitude. “I believe in God,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time I went to church. But my faith has carried me a long way. It’s ‘Sheila-ism.’ Just my own little voice.” Charles Colson, Against the Night, p. 98.
I must deliberately call you to be different than even the “Christendom” of our day…