Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 20, 2022
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
Gospel proclaimers who don’t have a strong working knowledge of the Scriptures’ original languages benefit from access to a good Greek and Hebrew-English Interlinear Bible. After all, English translations of the Scriptures sometimes obscure important points that the Holy Spirit makes through their original languages. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson provides (at least) one good case in point.
In verse 9 Paul writes, “We should not test the Lord, as some of [Israel’s ancestors] did.” In verse 13, he adds, “God … will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” While we may recognize the relative closeness of the concepts of “tested” and “tempted,” they seem to have space between their meanings.
Yet those words in Greek share the common root of peirazo. The word the NIV translates in verse 9 as “test” is ekpeirazomen. The word it translates in verse 13 as “tempted” is peirasthenai. So 1 Corinthians 10 at least suggests that though, as James 1:13 insists, “God cannot be tempted by evil,” God and God’s people both experience a kind of “testing.”
This presents this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers with an opportunity to explore the differences between the ways the God and people respond to testing. After all, that chasm demonstrates not just God’s grace, but also human sinfulness. It displays not just God’s salvation, but also humanity’s desperate need for it.
The New Testament scholar Shively Smith says this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson falls within “the question-answer section of the Corinthian letter. More specifically (and somewhat ironically), it’s the “meat” within “sandwich” that is Paul’s answer in chapter 8 and 10:15ff’s to questions about Christians’ eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols.
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul uses Israel’s history to “creatively” describe her persistent failure to resist temptation, though he never actually uses that word in the description. Instead he at length emphasizes both God’s remarkable generosity with God’s Israelite people and their ungrateful responses to it. In light of its “sandwich bread” that is Paul’s discussion of eating food that’s been sacrificed to idols, it’s ironic that this text’s description of the divine generosity that Israel met with such ingratitude often involved food.
In verses 3 and 4 the apostle notes that God didn’t just feed Israel food and water in the wilderness. Israel also “ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (3-4). While the precise meaning of those spiritual blessings is elusive, Paul is emphasizing God’s both physical and spiritual generosity with Corinth’s Jewish ancestors.
It is, of course, a generosity that God graciously reproduces each and every day in the lives of God’s dearly beloved people. It’s the grace that’s the ability to do things like both write and read this commentary. God generously gives us not only each new day, but also good and important tasks. In this Lenten season, however, we perhaps especially see God’s extraordinary generosity most fully on display in the gift of Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, for the sake of the whole creation.
God was exceptionally generous with God’s dearly beloved people that were Israel’s refugees in the wilderness between Egyptian slavery and the land of promise’ future. However, “God was not pleased with” most Israelites’ response to God’s generosity (5). “Their bodies,” grieves Paul, “were scattered all over the wilderness.”
It’s tempting for this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers to focus on God’s punitive response to Israelite ungrateful caving in to temptation. Twice (6, 11), after all, the apostle insists that God’s response to Israelite unfaithfulness was meant to be “examples” to his Corinthian readers.
In verses 7-10, in almost drumbeat fashion, he says “Do not … as some of them . . .” “Do not be idolaters as some of them were” (7). “We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did” (8). “We should not test the Lord, as some of them did” (9). “Do not grumble, as some of them did” (10).
1 Corinthians 10 offers its proclaimers an opportunity to spend time reflecting with our hearers on how some of our own responses to God’s generosity mimic Israel’s. How our responses to God’s generosity cave in to the same temptations toward idolatry and sexual immorality that Israel confronted. How Christians have failed to learn our lessons from God’s punitive responses to Israel’s testing of and grumbling against God.
The apostle makes it clear that when Israel tested God by caving in to temptation, God responded with punishment. When Israel ungratefully “tempted” her generous God to let her suffer the consequences of her death-dealing ways, God did not always limit those affects. God let countless rebellious Israelites suffer and die.
Yet God didn’t respond to human caving in to temptation only by letting Israel endured the kind of suffering and death she endured in the wilderness. God also responds to our deadly ways with grace and life. So, for example, a plague claimed countless thousands of sexually immoral Israelite victims (8). But once one of them was put to death, God stopped the plague (Numbers 25:8). God spared many Israelites’ life through the death of the one, Zimri.
What’s more, in verse 9 the apostle refers to God’s response to Israel’s grumbling against God by sending a plague of deadly snakes (Numbers 21:4-9). Many Israelites died of their bites. Yet God again graciously put a kind of “hedge” around Israel’s suffering. When Moses intercedes before the Lord, God tells him to erect a bronze snake on a pole. When the Israelites look to that serpent, they live.
So when God’s Israelite people tested God’s faithfulness, God sometimes let them suffer the consequences of their rebellion. But even when they suffered, God graciously gave them “a way out.” Even when God’s people tested God’s people, God relentlessly affirmed life in the face of death.
God graciously repeats that pattern with God’s dearly beloved people. We naturally handle temptation no better than Israel did. When we’re tested, we too constantly cave in. Even Jesus friends cave in not only to the temptations to which Israel caved, but also to the temptation to do things like ignore the poor, abuse the weak, and withhold forgiveness from those who have made themselves our enemies.
When, however, humanity tests and provokes God through our disobedience, God remains graciously faithful. In verse 13 Paul describes how God affirms life in the face of our death by equipping us to resist temptation. “God is faithful,” he insists there. “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 (italics added).”
Here is yet another amazing grace. God doesn’t just give God’s dearly beloved people one way of dealing with temptation. God offers two: God doesn’t let the evil one tempt us beyond what we can bear, and when the evil one does tempt us, God provides us with a way out so that we can resist him.
God, in other words, provides a kind of fortress for Jesus Christ’s friends. The One who creates us in God’s image knows us better than we know ourselves. God knows what we can “handle.” In fact, the God who created the evil one knows him even better than he knows himself.
So God knows not only how much Satan can tempt God’s people, but also how much temptation God’s people can successfully resist. Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrases this great news as, “God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed beyond your limit.”
Paul understands, however, that the evil one is both wily and persistent. So though God graciously limits his ability to tempt God’s dearly beloved people, Satan still tests us. When, however, we’re tempted, God “will also provide a way out” (13c).
The apostle doesn’t make the nature of that escape route perfectly clear. However, it may at least include an option for moving away from the people and circumstances that the evil one uses tempt us. That interpretation is supported by Paul’s very next plea in verse 14: “Flee from idolatry.”
Sometimes the evil one doesn’t move temptation away from Jesus’ friends the way it did from Jesus. Sometimes we’re the ones who have to move away from the evil one’s temptation.
In his commentary on his own delightful poem, “Stones into Bread,” in his book, The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite writes about our temptation to corrupt what’s good. He creatively links all three of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness to not only each other, but also to Jesus’ followers.
In regard to temptation that our “own bodily appetites and needs” generate, Guite writes, “We are tempted to serve first our own creature comforts, to tend to our obsessions and addictions before we have even considered the needs of others. Then we move on to the deeper temptations to feed not just the body but its driving ego, with its lust for power, the need to dominate the world.
“We may have overcome the first temptation only because we are captivated and driven by the second. We diet, and discipline our flesh in gyms and health clubs, we submit our appetites to the dictates of personal trainers and three-month fitness plans, but only because we hope thereby to sharpen our image so as to shine and succeed in the world.”
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