Examples and Warnings — Part Two
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Examples and Warnings — Part Two

Paul exhorted self-assured Christians to learn from the mistakes of the ancient Israelites, whose grumbling and testing of the Lord had disastrous results. Alistair Begg warns us that when our assurance has its roots in nonchalance rather than in the promises of God, we open ourselves up to Satan’s attacks. Christians will face temptation, but God will always provide a means of escape.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 Corinthians, Volume 4

Christian Freedom 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1 Series ID: 14604

Sermon Transcript: Print

For those of you who were here this morning, we’re continuing the study that we began in 1 Corinthians 10. For those of you who are visiting, at the moment we are going through the book of 1 Corinthians, and in the course of our studies, we’ve reached the tenth chapter. And we began to look at the first thirteen verses, this morning, of chapter 10 and only got so far, as I thought would probably happen. And I want us this evening to pick it up from where we left off.

We said that there were experiences that the people of Israel had gone through that we must acknowledge and then that there were examples that we must avoid. We looked at the first two of these examples—namely, idolatry and then immorality. We concluded there, and we begin by picking up the third example that is to be avoided as Paul gives it to us. And you’ll find it in verse 9: “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.” A very graphic and straightforward instruction here. These words should not be misunderstood. Even the average child at school can understand “do” and “do not.” And here we have a series of “do nots.” “Do not be idolaters.” “We should not commit … immorality.” Now we come to another: “We should not test the Lord.”

Now, we read in verse 5 and following of Numbers 21, but turn back to Numbers chapter 11 to set this in further context. You will notice in the verses that Pastor Lee read for us this recurring complaining spirit as the people of God, instead of waiting upon God, wanted God instead to fall in with their decisions and their demands. That is the kind of God that is attractive to most. That is the kind of God that is sought in the twentieth century—not a God before whom men and women bow and before whom we have to give an account and under whose provision and power we live our lives, but rather, men and women want to try God, to test him, and to see if they can’t make him fall in with their decisions and demands.

And it comes out in all kinds of ways. You hear people say, “I don’t like to think of God in that way. I’d rather think of God as this,” or “I would rather think of God as that.” And more often than not, what is actually being said is “I want a God who will fit in with me. I want to be able to push, as it were, God to the limit. I want to be able to try him and to test him and to have him comply with my designs.”

Now, whenever we’re tempted to that kind of activity, we are right there with the people of the Old Testament. And in Numbers 11:4 we read,

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”

First of all, they’re crying to God that they would have food. Then they get food; then they don’t like the food they’ve got. Just the way that children treat their mum so often: “Oh, I’m starving. Could I have something to eat?” “There you are.” “Oh, do we have to have this stuff again?” “Hey, you are pushing me to the limit! You’re trying me! You’re trying my patience.” That’s exactly what is happening here with the Corinthian believers. They were testing God’s patience. And the whole of the Bible makes it clear that God’s patience can and does run out.

And so Paul says to the Corinthians and in turn to us, “Make sure that we don’t do that. Don’t let’s try and live up to the limits of the freedom that God has given us.” As we said this morning, there were people going around Corinth saying, “This is the age of grace. We are free. God is a forgiving God. So why don’t we just do what we want to do?” And that notion is as prevalent tonight in Cleveland as it was in Corinth two thousand years ago.

And what happened to the people in Corinth, we’re told in 11:30, was that because they tried and tested God in this way, because they refused to submit to his plans and purposes, Paul explains, “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.” Falling asleep there is a picture of death. And these people were playing around with the Lord’s Supper, they were abusing the privileges that he had given them, they were trying God, and as in the Old Testament, God entered in and intervened in judgment.

The fourth area that we are to avoid and stay away from in terms of a bad example is grumbling. Grumbling. Verse 10: “Do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.” You may find it interesting, as I do, that we have this progression that goes idolaters, immoral people, trying-God people, and grumbling people. If we were asked to make a list of sins that would run against what God’s plans and purposes are, we probably would not put grumbling and sexual immorality in the same four. But that’s exactly where they’re placed.

Grumbling (or murmuring, as it’s described in the Bible) is giving “audible expression to unwarranted dissatisfaction.”[1] Giving “audible expression to unwarranted dissatisfaction.” Paul says, “You just need to read the history of your forefathers, and you will find that that was part and parcel of their lifestyle.”

Whenever the people of God grumble and complain against God, what we’re saying is this: “We know better than you.” We find ourselves challenging God’s wisdom, his grace, his goodness, his love, and his righteousness. Every so often, somebody points out that it’s okay to question God, and it is, as the psalmist makes clear. But it is not okay to grumble and complain against God.

Ask yourself the question: Have you grumbled about your lot this week? Have you grumbled about the fact that you live where you live, or you’re in the home that you’re in, or you have to go back to the office to which you return on a Monday, or the circumstances of your life are a certain way, or if only you had a little more money, or if you were a little taller, or if you were only brighter so you could hold down a different job, if only God had allowed you to live in a different way at a different time? Contentment glorifies God. A complaining spirit dishonors him.

So, these are the examples we should avoid. Take the test. Number one: idolatry. Are we worshipping anything other than God? Number two: immorality. Are we pure in our hearts? Number three: testing God. Are we pushing him to the limits? Number four: murmuring. Are we able to say with Paul, “I have learned in all circumstances therein to be content”?[2]

Contentment glorifies God. A complaining spirit dishonors him.

The Exhortation We Must Accept

Well, then let’s go to the third main heading which was part of our study from this morning—from the examples that we are to avoid to the exhortation that we must accept. Once again, in verse 11, Paul makes clear what he said in verse 6: that the things that he is recalling for the Corinthian believers “happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” For those of us, he says, who have the privilege of living in between the time of the arrival of Jesus and the reappearing of Jesus when he comes in power and glory, these warnings and examples are for us, living at this point in history. And then comes this exhortation: “So, if you think you[’re] standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” Very simple.

The Israelites had been sure of their position, and they had reaped nothing but disaster. Remember back in the opening verses, the first four verses: “They all passed through the sea,” they all were “baptized into Moses,” “they all ate the same spiritual food,” they all “drank the same spiritual drink. … Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them,” and all but two of them died in the wilderness. So it’s a telling exhortation.

The Corinthians were smug. They were self-satisfied. They were in danger of going down the same path. The principle is that of the proverb, 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, [and] a haughty spirit before [stumbling].” Peter announces before the other disciples and before Jesus, “Listen, Jesus, even if everyone else leaves you and falls away and denies you, I will never deny you. I will go everywhere with you, Jesus. I am your main man.”[3] And within a matter of hours he was reduced to tears, being unable to stand up against the questionings of the servant girl around the fireside in the governor’s palace. “Pride [comes] before destruction, [and] a haughty spirit before a fall.” The church in [Laodicea], mentioned for us in the book of Revelation, believed itself to be just absolutely fine—thought that since it was possessed of so many blessings and encouragements, that nothing could ever happen to it. And the Spirit of God addresses the church in [Laodicea]: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.’”[4]

Loved ones, don’t let’s miss the implications of this this evening, either as individuals or as families or as a church. “Pride goes before destruction.” And the exhortation is to us as it was to the Corinthians: “If you think [that] you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall [down]!”

As believers tonight, the more self-confident we become, the less dependent upon God we are. The more careless we grow in our living—as carelessness increases—so we are more open to temptation. As we’re more open to temptation, our resistance to sin decreases. When we feel ourselves most secure—when we think our spiritual life is at its strongest, our doctrine is at its soundest, our morals are at their purest—we should be most on our guard and most dependent upon the Lord.

I worshipped in a church in Glasgow which every Saturday and Sunday night had 2,200 people in it. They sat all around the walls. The seats in the windows had window boxes. They folded down, and people sat in the windows, and they were literally hanging all over the place as I grew up as a small boy. Today, it doesn’t even exist. In the space of thirty years, it is gone. There is no preaching there in Steel Street tonight. There is no sound of the singing of God’s praise. There is no open air, with the five hundred people marching down the street as they did from Glasgow Cross, being led by a little ensemble and into the church. There is no call to repentance and faith. It’s all over. It should never have happened, but it happened! Let those who think they’re standing take heed lest they fall.

Now, what is the word here to us? Is it a word, then, such that we shouldn’t have any sense of assurance? That we are supposed to stumble and bumble our way through our lives as if we had no confidence that we would make it to the finishing line? No, not for a moment. The Reformers very helpfully distinguished between two forms of assurance—that is, two forms of confidence in going forward with Christ. The one they identified as that which rests in the promises of God, whereby the believer, when recognizing who or what she is, is convinced in their heart that God will remain true to his word. Philippians 1:6: “I am confident that he who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[5] That is the kind of assurance which the New Testament brings to the hearts of those who follow after Christ. It is this which gives the believer confidence to stand up against Satan, to resist sin, to be cheerful in the midst of discouragement, to be undaunted in the midst of the battle.

It is not, however, a self-confidence. It is not that which rests upon the fact that I have been doing well recently. It is not that which rests upon the completion of my duty nor is grounded upon the fact that I have been in attendance upon the worship of God’s people or have been effective in evangelism or “I am involved in a Bible study.” For as we saw this morning, we may do all of these things and die in the wilderness. The real question of assurance tonight is, when the world and the Evil One condemns us, if our hearts are not condemned because we are confident in what Christ has done upon the cross, so that the ground of our assurance is the work of Christ, and at the same time, we recognize our own weaknesses, we recognize our fearfulness, we recognize our need of fresh replenishing of God’s Spirit.

But this kind of assurance, the Reformers said, was a holy thing and was united to faith. You read of it in Romans chapter 8: “What can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or peril or nakedness or the sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”[6] That is one kind of assurance. That is biblical assurance.

But the other kind of assurance—and this was the stuff that was going around in Corinth and which is prevalent in our day—is an assurance which has its roots in nonchalance, when men and women are bursting with pride because of the gifts that they have, as we’re going to see was happening in Corinth. They were able to say, “Oh, you know that I can speak with tongues. Oh, you know that I’m able to do dramatic things.” And they were resting in stuff that even pagan religions are able to duplicate. And they were nonchalant about things. They were quite unconcerned about their own situation. They believed themselves to be beyond the realm of danger. And the result was and is that whenever you or I live our lives that way, we are open to all the attacks of Satan.

This has got to be the explanation as to why so many pastors are going down the drain. They are living out their theology, and it’s wrong. They do not have a theology of the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom.[7] They have got a nonchalant assurance—not the kind of assurance which the Spirit of God produces, which on the one hand recognizes that the south side of my house is warm, as I recognize that “there is … no condemnation to them [that] are in Christ Jesus,”[8] but the north side of the house of my life is cold, because I recognize that the good that I want to do I don’t do, and the bad that I don’t want to do I end up doing.[9] And I say to myself, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? What a wretched man that I am.”[10]

But you see, the nonchalant have no theology of wretchedness. They have no theology for a north side of their house. They make you believe, when you’re in their company, that they only have a south side that is all sunny and warm and blessed and forgiving and encouraging, and they know nothing of falling or tripping or failing. That is not right, loved ones. That will turn you into a crazy person or into a liar. But it is not what the Bible teaches. And that spirit of nonchalance produces in the hearts of churches and individuals and families that which lays the believer open to the most dreadful attacks of the Evil One. “It is the kind of assurance which,” Paul then says to the Corinthians, “I want you to give up,” because he saw that they were self-satisfied. They were resting on a senseless belief. And he says, “Come on, now. Let us run as those who win the prize.”[11]

So in other words, he’s addressing those who had swollen heads. The reason they had fat heads was because their confidence was in men, and so he is seeking to put a stop to that weakness which comes from depending upon men rather than depending upon God. “So, if you think you[’re] standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” Probably we ought to put that on the dashboard of our cars, on the inside of our billfold, carry it with us in our purse, or whatever it is. It’s a timely word.

The Encouragement We Must Apply

Then, finally, in verse 13, having given them a very important warning, he concludes with a very wonderful encouragement. For those of you who have been trying to trace your way through this and make sense of it today, I did have four points. My first point was the experiences we must acknowledge, as described in verses 1–5. I then went on to try and look at the examples we must avoid in verses 6–10. I then have spent just a moment here, because it has been implicit in all that we’ve said, on the exhortation we must accept, which is verse 12. And now, finally, this evening, the encouragement we must apply.

“No temptation,” he says, “has seized you except what is common to man.” “First of all,” he says, “I want you to know that nothing exceptional has happened to you Corinthians. This is just standard stuff.” Phillips paraphrases it, “No temptation has come your way that is too hard for flesh and blood to bear.” “Secondly,” he says, “I want you to know that God is a faithful God, and he will not allow his children to be tempted beyond their ability to respond.”

Now, it’s important for us to realize that temptation, the word temptation, is used in the Bible in a good sense as well as in a bad sense. The word temptation is sometimes used in the way that we would use the word to test. Indeed, it’s used as much that way as it is to tempt. That is why we understand that in the good sense, God tests men so that they might prove themselves true. In this sense, we read in Hebrews of how Christ was tested and has come through with flying colors.

In fact, we should probably just look at those verses, and you should write them down, because they’re a tremendous help: Hebrews 2:18, and then Hebrews 4:15. Hebrews 2:18: Jesus “himself suffered when he was tempted,” and because he did, “he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Okay? When we are tempted, let us remember that Jesus understands and he is standing able to help the tempted. Verse 15 of chapter 4: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.”

Now, when you turn over a couple of pages to James chapter 1, James makes clear that while God brings circumstances into our lives to test us, God’s tests are never a solicitation to evil. Verse 13: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” Now, I don’t want to get delayed here and stumbling around with the Lord’s Prayer. Someone always comes and asks me after this kind of teaching, “Well, why do we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Lead us not into temptation’?”[12] I think the explanation to that is, in a sentence, that what we’re praying in that phrase is “Lord, stop us before Satan can turn your test into a temptation. Save us from the Evil One and from what he would do with the justifiable tests which are so much a part of our lives.”

Just staying in James for a moment, let me say a number of things about temptation, because it’s very, very important—three, in fact, and I’ll just hit them with you. If you want to note them down, you should.

Point number one, about which we should be in no doubt, is this: God is never and cannot be the source of temptation. God is never and cannot be the source of temptation. There is an inescapable logic contained in this, because God is incapable of tempting others to evil, because he himself is absolutely insusceptible to evil. You cannot have a good God tempting people to engage in evil. Now, that is a very important principle.

The second principle that James lays down is this: that temptation begins with our individual desires. That’s verse 14: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” That doesn’t mean that all of our desires are evil, but it does mean that as a result of the fall into sin, all of our desires have an unhappy potential for evil.

That’s why in Screwtape Letters you have Screwtape suggesting to his nephews that as they go out into the world to do their business, “All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our enemy has produced, at times, or in ways … which he has forbidden.”[13] And that is the subtlety of temptation. It is the subtlety which takes the beauty of sex and turns it into the monstrosity of fornication and adultery. It is the subtlety which takes the beauty and enjoyment of eating food and turns it into the sin of gluttony. It is the subtlety which takes the desire to provide for one’s family and turns it into unashamed greed. And we won’t all be tempted along the same lines. But when we fall into sin, it is because we are tempted in our own evil desires. Despite the fact that we may like to hide behind our heredity, or our present environment, or our evil companions, or even the devil himself, the fact is that we cannot escape personal responsibility for our actions.

Temptation begins with our individual desires. That doesn’t mean that all of our desires are evil, but it does mean that as a result of the fall into sin, all of our desires have an unhappy potential for evil.

Do you believe that tonight? Because our culture does not believe it. Our culture explains away virtually everything bad that is done on the basis of background, genetic structure, social environment, evil companions, and the rest. But you can search hard and long for people to take responsibility for their actions. The Bible doesn’t monkey around at all. It says it straight up. When we are tempted, we find that we are tested and tempted in the area of our “own evil desire.”

And we’re told, thirdly, that temptation, when it is succumbed to, leads ultimately to death. James 1:15: “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” In verse 12, he has said that there is a process which leads to “the crown of life.” He now says there is a process which leads to the dust of death. An inner craving demands action. It either must be acted upon or it must be resisted. Okay? You’re dying for a drink of water. You’re sitting in here right now, and you’re thirsty. You either have to act upon it or resist it.

And every day, as we live our lives, as the Corinthians lived their lives, they were facing all kinds of temptations like these. And the way to victory is to nip our temptations in the bud. There is no magic in this at all. I want to say to young people: There is no magic in this. There is no formula. There is no funny little trick that you can do. The only thing you can do is run. That’s it. “You mean that’s it?” I mean that’s it. It’s the refusal to allow our eyes to wander, to allow our minds to settle, to allow our hearts to conceive and our imaginations to linger.

Billy Graham’s become famous for saying it’s not the first look at the girl’s legs that’s the problem; it’s the second look. Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.

“Oh, but you don’t understand,” said the young man to the pastor. “If you lived in the real world, you’d realize it just isn’t as straightforward as that. After all, we’re just blown around. We’re buffeted by all these evil desires. We can’t resist. It’s not our fault. We’re just swept away.” And then the pastor pointed out to them, as I’ve quoted to you so many times before and love to quote—such a reminder to my own heart—he said, “Come on, and we’ll look at the boats going along the coast.” And the sailing boats were going east and west along the shore. The man said, “You see, the trouble is we’re just blown by winds that you don’t understand, pastor, because you live in a strange world.” What an illusion that is! And so the pastor said, “Listen: ‘One ship goes east, one ship goes west, by the self-same winds that blow. It’s the set of the sails and not the gales that determines which way they go.’”[14] And tonight, it is the set of your sails in the remaining hours of this Lord’s Day evening that will determine whether you enter into sin, succumb to temptation, and find yourself in perilous straits.

The Bible is an intensely practical book. Paul’s concern for the Corinthians was an intensely practical concern. He says, “Every sin is an inside job, but get this: God will not suffer you to be tempted beyond what you can bear. And when you are right up against it in terms of temptation, he will with the temptation provide a way of escape.”

The word that is used there is a graphic word. If you like old Western movies, the scene is clear. All the cowboys get themselves trapped in a canyon. The Indians are all around. They’re surrounded on three sides by Indians. There is no way out, because behind them, there’s just a huge cliff and rock formation. So they are totally trapped. But they always have a scout, and the scout goes away, and the drums are beating, and the faces are getting closer, and it looks as though they’re destined to destruction. And the word comes back: “I have found a passageway through the canyon. There is a way of escape.” And so they make their journey out into liberation and safety.

How well can I remember the headlights of my father’s car fulfilling the promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13 in my teenage years—the ring of the telephone in a moment of temptation, the arrival of a friend, the delivery of a book, the prayer of a loved one. Hey, it’s tough. It’s wild. It’s wicked. But Jesus says it’s not unbearable. None of us are experiencing anything save that which “is common to man.” In an experience of it, we remember that Jesus was tempted and can now help us. The promise is that we will be able to stand up in the temptation and we will receive a way of escape. So don’t let’s go despondent into Monday.

This is the song I was taught to sing as a small boy. I’m not going to sing it—it would be a dreadful end to the day—but it goes like this:

Yield not to temptation,
For yielding is sin;
Each vict’ry will help you,
Some other to win;
Fight manfully onward,
Dark passions subdue;
Look[ing] ever to Jesus,
He will carry you through.[15]

You go through the temptation. You don’t go around it. You don’t go over it, don’t go under it. You go through it—but through to victory. Not the victory of the nonchalant; the victory of the realistic. May God grant to us that kind of holy realism.

Let us pray together:

Father God, at the end of this day, having looked at these verses together and been confronted by the reality of them, we pray that we might learn from these bad examples and avoid them; that we may not rest in externals, recognizing that it is possible for us to march along with the crowd, to go when the band is playing, to sing the songs and yet in our hearts to be far from you.

Help us tonight, as we face a new day, to heed the exhortation, lest in pride, believing ourselves to be rock solid, we crumble and decay. Thank you for the word of encouragement with which this passage ends—the reminder to us that temptation is real, but when we experience it even at its maximum, it’s only what is common to man; that in Christ we have a God who is faithful and who provides a way of escape.

We bring the failures of our past to you, and we leave them at the cross. We resist the intimidation of the Evil One, who likes to drag them up again and rub our noses in it. We resist him firm in the faith, we dispatch him to the place of his dwelling, and we rejoice in the fact that there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.

Bless especially the young people of our congregation, we pray, as they face the challenges and changes of a world that is increasingly despicable in its attacks. Bless those who minister amongst the young people of this church and through to our children. Give them the courage and the grace to be thought peculiar, to stand against the prevailing drifts. May they set their sails, tonight and every night, for the heavenly harbor. Grant that neither they nor we should shipwreck as a result of foolish pride.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, tonight and forevermore. Amen.

[1] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Columbus: Lutheran Book Concern, 1935), 406.

[2] Philippians 4:11 (paraphrased).

[3] Matthew 26:33, 35; Mark 14:29, 31 (paraphrased).

[4] Revelation 3:17 (NIV 1984).

[5] Philippians 1:6 (paraphrased).

[6] Romans 8:35, 37 (paraphrased).

[7] See Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10.

[8] Romans 8:1 (KJV).

[9] See Romans 7:19.

[10] Romans 7:24 (paraphrased).

[11] 1 Corinthians 9:24 (paraphrased).

[12] Matthew 6:13; Luke 11:4 (NIV 1984).

[13] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942), chap. 9.

[14] Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “’Tis the Set of the Sails” (1916). Paraphrased.

[15] H. R. Palmer, “Yield Not to Temptation” (1868).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.