At the site of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany, there is a museum containing relics from the camp, as well as grim photos depicting conditions there during the war years. There is a sign next to the exit that reads: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.”
It is hard to believe that anything as horrible as the German death camps could ever take place again. However, mass genocide continues in various parts of the world. It underscores the truth that if we do not learn from the past we will have to repeat the painful lessons in the present.
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul gives the same message to the church at Corinth. Paul has been challenging the church to exercise their freedom in a way that is sensitive to the people around them. He told us that we should pick our fights. We should choose what is of ultimate importance and be flexible on everything else. Last week we talked about things that would help us to take first steps in the process of training for discipleship. I hope you have begun your own soul training.
I believe Paul moved from the discussion of discipline and training to this exhortation to learn from history because he recognized that one of the greatest hindrances to spiritual growth is the feeling of complacency that come from thinking we are “good enough for now”. Paul wants the church at Corinth to see that the solid ground that we often believe we are standing upon could be quicksand.
THE DANGER OF EXPERIENCE
For I do not 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. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
The key word in this passage is the word “all”. Paul went back to the time of the Exodus and drew an important lesson. He pointed out that everyone who was in that group who left Egypt with Moses, personally experienced the greatness of God. They saw the ten plagues fall on the Egyptians. They witnessed the parting of the Red Sea and walked across on dry land with the water on each side of them. They all followed as the cloud led them by day and the pillar of fire led them by night. They each gathered manna to eat in the desert each morning. They saw God provide water come from a rock. They witnessed God manifested on Mount Sinai in the giving of the Ten Commandments. They saw the smoke and lightning, they heard the thunder, and they felt the rumble of the earth in the earthquake.
Paul said these people all “drank from the same spiritual rock that accompanied them and that rock was Christ.” The term “Rock” was a common description of God. Paul contended that the blessings these people witnessed were actually typical of those which come from Christ.
Nevertheless, we are told, “God was not pleased with most of them and their bodies were scattered around the desert.” As you read the story in Exodus through Deuteronomy you see this same group of people rebelling against God time and time again. In the book of Numbers we see the pinnacle event. Moses sent twelve spies into the Promised Land (what we know today as Israel). Ten of the spies reported, “We can’t beat these guys”. Joshua and Caleb said however, “Hey, don’t forget, we have God on our side!” The people chose to trust their own strength and their own instincts rather than trust God. They had all seen God’s greatness but they would not really trust Him.
As a result of the lack of true faith, all the adults in the group (who had all witnessed God working in astounding ways) died in the wilderness. Joshua and Caleb were the only two adults who entered the Promised Land.
The lesson we are supposed to learn is this: we must not put our confidence in our experiences; we must keep building on those experiences as we continue to grow in our discipleship. It is all too common that Christians
- have a powerful conversion experience
- get baptized
- serve on a committee
- go on a mission trip
- have a powerful week at summer camp
- take a class
- are applauded by other believers
- have “success” in a church or ministry
- gain a reputation as a strong believer
and then become complacent. We are like people who are climbing a mountain and partway up the mountain we stop and enjoy the view and then decide that the view is so good there is no need to go further.
There are many believers who always talk about faith in the past tense. They had an experience once and seemed to decide to go no further.
HOW TO GUARD AGAINST SUCCUMBING TO A FALSE SECURITY
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 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.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
Paul looked at the history of Israel’s sins (coveting, idolatry, immorality, testing God, and grumbling.) and tells us that we should learn from their example. We need to see how these people who had been so richly blessed drifted from God so that we can guard ourselves from doing the same thing.
We are inclined to focus only on what we aren’t supposed to do. If we don’t do these things, we feel we have achieved our goal. I want to take these prohibitions and restate them in terms of what we should be doing – or in terms of what we should be striving for.
Let me illustrate what I mean. We may feel quite good about not smoking or drinking, but that doesn’t mean we are taking care of our body. We may feel good about the fact that we don’t take God’s name in vain, but that doesn’t mean we are honoring the Lord. We may actually kill someone but that doesn’t mean that we respect life. We may never misschurch but that doesn’t mean we are honoring the Sabbath. Let’s work to see beyond the prohibition to the goal God is setting before us.
Learn to desire what is good for you (v. 6). Paul said these people set their hearts on what was evil. The positive side of that is we must learn to set our hearts on what is good. In Philippians 4:8 Paul told the Philippians,
whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
To do this we need to monitor our thinking. We need to consciously feed our mind with things that are good. Advertisers have learned that if they can put something in front of you in a desirable manner before long you will begin to “need” their product. What you focus on is what you will desire. Why not take that lesson and use it to build positive desires?
If we want to desire what is good we must turn away from feelings of bitterness and focus on thoughts about mercy and forgiveness. Instead of daydreaming about earthly riches let’s consciously spend time thinking about Heaven. Instead of spending all day watching the news (and feeling the anxiety and despair that comes with the news), let’s take some of that time to fill our minds with the Word of God. Instead of listening to music lyrics that advocate godless attitudes, let’s seek out lyrics that honor the Lord. Our goal must be to desire what is good for us.
Keep God first in your life (v. 7) The Israelites were guilty of Idolatry. We think of idolatry as bowing before some foreign idol or following some earthly teacher. Idolatry is any time we allow something else to have more influence on our life than God does (money, our job, our family, our amusements, our politics). Consequently, our challenge is to give God first place in our lives.
Our job is to constantly ask ourselves whether we are “seeking FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Matt. 6:33) It really is helpful to constantly ask ourselves,
- What would Jesus do in this situation?
- What advice does God give?
- How can I honor God in my actions?
Develop wholesome and pure relationships (v. 8) The Israelites were sexually promiscuous. They sold out to the pleasure driven values of the society around them. That is easy to do. If we are going to develop wholesome and pure relationships we must start by repenting of our tendency to view people as objects. We must stop seeing people as physical forms to exploit and begin seeing them as human beings. We need to stop using people as a means to an end. We need to start asking, “How can I enrich this person?” instead of asking, “What can this person do for me?” We need to respect others.
If we want pure relationships we must work at honoring our marriage relationship and the marriages of others. We must throw our energies into enjoying and cherishing our spouse instead of toying with the spouses of someone else.
Trust the Lord even when life seems dark (v. 9). The Israelites put the Lord to the test by growing impatient. Things weren’t going well so they started to whine and complain. Perhaps you have noticed how naturally we fall into the same pattern. Things are hard so we: look for someone to blame; we pout; we strike out. We should learn from the Israelites that the better course is to true.
Ed Dobson is a Pastor who had to leave his church because of ALS or Lou Gerhig’s disease. Dobson’s body is gradually ceasing to function. Pastor Dobson has written an excellent book titled, “Prayers and Promises when facing a life threatening illness”. He writes,
“It is easy to believe that God will take care of you when you don’t need to be taken care of. But when you desperately need the care of God for the ultimate issues of life, it is not so easy to stop worrying.” (p. 27)
In difficult times instead of testing God we need to trust Him. Our challenge is to learn to trust God’s character more than we trust our circumstances. To do this we need to repeat God’s promises until we begin to believe them. My simple theological construct is this: God is in control; He loves me; and He never makes a mistake. If I can hold on to these truths I can stand in difficult times.
Be positive and grateful in all circumstances (v. 10) The most challenging command may be this last one: we are to choose gratitude instead of grumbling. John MacArthur writes,
Murmuring is dissatisfaction with God’s sovereign will for our lives and the lives of others, and is a sin that He does not take lightly, even in view of His grace. When God’s people question or complain, they are challenging His wisdom, His grace, His goodness, His love, and His righteousness. Our need for contentment is not merely for our own well–being, which it is, but for God’s honor and glory. Complaining dishonors our heavenly Father; contentment glorifies Him.
Have you ever noticed that a person who is a grumbler is like the flu virus during winter time? They make everyone around them sick! They have the uncanny ability to suck the joy out of any circumstance. They act like all of life is trying to rip them off.
Someone who is grateful and content is like the sunshine after the rain. They focus on how much they have been given rather than on what others have. They smile rather than pout. They are able to celebrate with others because they don’t see life as a competition. John Ortberg has written,
Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift. It opens us up to wonder, delight and humility. It makes our hearts generous. It liberates us from the prison of self-preoccupation.
A FINAL WARNING
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
Let me give you some final lessons we should be learning from the Israelites.
First, to learn from the past we need to study the past. Obviously, if the records of people in the Bible were written so that we would learn from their example, it follows that we should read the Bible. I know it is hard to read the Bible sometimes. It feels like we are just reading dry historical records.
Instead of simply trying to master the facts of Old Testament stories, it is important that we ask, “What is God trying to teach me in this account?” It will take some work but it is worth they effort.
Second, the sin of others can just as easily happen to us if we let our guard down. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this passage,
Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.
We will never be diligent in our discipleship until we recognize our own vulnerability to sin. We too can drift away from God. In the right circumstances we could be unfaithful to our spouse, or commit a criminal act, or lose control in our anger, or become an idolater.
We too often look at people who fall into these sins with an air of disbelief and disgust. Shame on us! Under the right circumstances, we could be that person. Our job is to guard our hearts and to help each other get up when we fall.
Third, we need to realize that each person must make a personal decision about Christ. You may have attended this church all your life, you may have served in various capacities over the years, you may have been baptized, you may have felt chills and cried tears. However, if you have never personally put your trust and confidence in Jesus as your Savior and King, you are still outside of God’s Kingdom . . . no matter what your experience has been. Please stop relying on your experience and start relying upon Christ.
Finally, as significant as past experiences are, they are past. All around the country we erect monuments to remind us of significant events from the past. As you walk through a cemetery you will see monuments that remind us of people that have touched our lives. Remembering the past is good. It is valuable. It is appropriate. As long as we remember that it is the past.
Most jobs require some kind of continuing education. The reason for this is that employers know that if you aren’t continuing to learn and grow, you are stagnating and falling behind. It is the same way in your spiritual life. If you are living on your past experience you are stagnating and drifting from God.
Sometimes employers will send you to a conference where a speaker passes on what he/she has learned and give you information and guidelines that will help you be more successful in your business. The best speakers will give lots of illustrations to show you what happens if you do or don’t follow the guidelines.
1 Corinthians 10 is designed to serve as continuing education. Paul is giving us valuable guidelines and illustrating those guidelines through the history of Israel. Like any good conference, if you take the information that has been given you and apply it in your life, you can avoid some very painful pitfalls. You will grow in your competency. However, if the information merely gathers in a notebook and is never put into practice, you will become another example of what happens when you refuse to learn from the lessons of the past.