“The Paradox of Perseverance” (1 Corinthians 10:11–13)
Listen to the Sermon:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, 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 drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil 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 rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, ESV
This is the word of the Lord and it is given to us in love this morning.
We are going to be studying 1 Corinthians 10:10-13 this morning, even though we just read the first thirteen verses of 1 Corinthians chapter ten.
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone where this person you are in a conversation with suddenly, and you couldn’t quite tell why, began to tell you a story? As you are listening to this story, you are experiencing the lift and falls of listening to a story, but you are also experiencing other emotions that are running parallel to whatever the story is about.
You are listening and experiencing intrigue, suspense, maybe a little anxiety that really doesn’t have anything to do with the story itself. You are having all of these feelings because the question you cannot get out of your head is, “Why are you telling me this?” You are listening to this story and thinking maybe this person just wants to share an experience they had, but sometimes you probably know that people tell you these stories because they want to confront you about something.
You see, when we tell stories for this purpose, to confront someone with sin, it’s a way around some of their defenses. You draw them into the story, you get them to at least on the surface agree with you. It sort of side steps any defensiveness that might rise if you went to the task directly.
As you may know, in 2 Samuel 12, there is a famous story where the prophet Nathan confronts the mighty King David himself about his sin. David had committed this great sin where he had fallen into adultery with a woman named Bathsheba and conspired to put her husband to death. David thinks that everything is going to be okay, no one knows about it. Then the prophet Nathan comes and tells David a story.
David is drawn into this story, it’s a story about a rich man who has all the wealth he could ever want. He is contrasted with a poor man who has one possession, an ewe lamb that he loves. This ewe lamb is like a daughter to this poor man and his family. In the story, this rich man, instead of providing from his own riches to provide for someone who has come into his midst, he steals the only prized possession of this poor man.
David, who is a former shepherd himself, is outraged. He says this man deserves death. That’s the point when Nathan stops and says you are the man.
What can we do in that kind of a situation? You can’t any longer dismiss the issue. You can’t get defensive because in fact Nathan had put his finger on a real sin in David’s life. This is perhaps what the Corinthians are worried about at this point.
We have been hearing about these stories from the Old Testament. Paul has been reminding them about all of these stories about God’s faithfulness to the Old Testament people of Israel. Nevertheless, in spite of the sin of the people of Israel, their desiring of evil, their idolatry, their sexual immorality, their putting God to the test, their grumbling; the Corinthians are hearing this and probably wondering why Paul is telling them these stories. They agree with them, they are familiar with them, we think that the Israelites were knuckle heads in those situations.
Paul is about to have the other shoe drop. Paul is about to give them, and us, the principle of what he wants to teach them. The principle that he gives them is a principle about perseverance. How is it that any person who professes Christ will make it all the way to the finish line, into the kingdom of God?
Paul has been saying in chapter nine that not everyone who professes faith in Christ will make it. Paul has been citing these stories to give us a principle about perseverance that is in fact a paradox. A paradox is something that seems to be absurd or self-contradictory, but the more that you dig into it you find that what seems to be absurd is true.
So, Paul is going to give us a principle about perseverance that is paradoxical. Our big idea is this, Christ’s power is made perfect in weakness. That’s from another passage, 2 Corinthians 12:9. It applies to what Paul is teaching us here. That’s a phrase that seems absurd and self-contradictory. Yet, as we will discover this paradox is true.
We are going to see three points.
1. The Purpose of Scripture
2. The Paradox of Strength
3. The Paradox of Weakness
The paradoxes are two sides of the same coin. The paradox of strength is that strength is not strength. The paradox of weakness is that weakness is not weakness. We will see this more as we get into them.
The Purpose of Scripture
Let’s start with verse eleven. As Paul teaches us about the purpose of scripture, which will lead into his purpose for telling us these stories.
11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 1 Corinthians 10:11, ESV
Now, Paul is telling us in verse eleven, not only that there is something for us to learn but he’s also telling us about how we are to learn what he wants us to learn from this passage. He’s telling us that as we look at these Old Testament stories about Israel’s faithlessness in the midst of God’s ongoing faithfulness. He’s saying what we should see about these stories is that there a close connection between those stories in the Old Testament and our life and experience and walk by faith now.
You may not look at these two things and think that they are anything alike, but what Paul is telling us is that there is a closer connection between these two things than we might at first realize.
The way that Paul gets at this is that he explains that this is a typology. The words here literally are, “Now these things happened typologically.” Back in verse six, the same verse for type is used, “Now these things took place as types” (it’s translated as examples in the ESV). When Paul tells that, he talks about types and typology, he’s talking about a specific technique for interpreting the Bible.
We talked about this a few weeks ago but let’s go over it again. Typology is when you recognize that there is an event that happens early on. This even that happens is what it is in itself at one level and you are recognizing it for what it is. These Old Testament stories are true history.
God’s people Israel were enslaved in Egypt. God did deliver them from slavery in Egypt by bringing miracles against Egypt. God did bring them through the Red Sea. God really fed them in the wilderness and gave them water to drink. Israel really did rebel against the Lord sinfully. Those things really happened. They are what they are.
But there is a connection between those events and later events that on the surface there doesn’t seem to be a connection. You look in the New Testament in the Gospel of Luke, we learn that Jesus’ death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension are described as his exodus.
We are being told that what happened in the Old Testament when God brought his people out of Egypt and what Jesus did at the cross and in his resurrection and by ascending into heaven, that these two things are connected. On the surface they don’t look the same, but there is an organic connection between the earlier events and the later events.
By organic connection I mean that they are made of the same stuff. The classic illustration of how typology works is to think of the connection between a little acorn and a giant oak tree. You look at an acorn and you look at a giant oak tree and you say that these two things have nothing in common.
It’s not like the acorn looks like the shape of the oak tree. What you know is that in the acorn there is all the stuff that is contained in that oak tree. The acorn grows into the oak tree. The DNA, everything that is contained is the instructions for what that oak tree will be is contained in that earlier form of a seed. The acorn is connected to the oak.
In the same way, Paul is saying that these Old Testament stories happened and are true. At one level these were the earliest stories of God’s people navigating through a sinful, hostile world. That was what it was.
But more than this, as we read these stories, we can learn more than the Israelites did. As we look back on the Old Testament stories, we have an advantage that they don’t. Namely we can see those stories in the light of Jesus Christ.
I had a mentor who talked about reading the Old Testament as though you were going into a museum that has been in the dark. Imagine going to a museum in the dark with all of these wonderful exhibits and artifacts that you can kind of see what’s there but not really discern what is interesting about them.
Then when Jesus comes the light of the world, the lights come one. You see exactly what these things are. You see the purpose for what they are. In the light of Christ, we not only see those things for what they were at a very basic level, but we see the way in which these things pointed forward to Christ. They have something to teach us who are living in the light of Christ on this side of the coming of Jesus that the original Israelites could not learn.
We are learning as we study these stories from the pilgrims, the pioneers, our forefathers in the faith. To walk in the same footsteps of faith that they walked in. Also, by standing on their shoulders to see farther. To understand deeper into the mysteries of God and his salvation that he has revealed to us through Jesus Christ.
For those of us who live at the end of the ages, we are living in these last days now that Christ has already come, and we wait for him to return again. What Paul is saying is that we actually need the instruction of the Old Testament. It’s not something we can look at and say, “well that was interesting but now we’ve moved on.”
What Paul is saying is now is the only time we can fully glean what God always wanted his people to glean from the original stories of scripture contained for us in the Old Testament.
Now, that’s a true principle for all of the Old Testament. You could say that kind of thing that is contained in the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. Yet Paul has a very specific piece of instruction that he wants us to glean from those stories. The specific thing that Paul wants us to take from these Old Testament stories he has been leading us in 1 Corinthians chapter ten, has to do with the issue of perseverance.
If many of those who profess faith in Christ will never inherit the Kingdom of God because at one point or another they will fall away from Christ, how do any make it ever? It’s a really important question for our day to day life. Paul says there are two aspects to this paradox. There’s the paradox of strength and the paradox of weakness. Strength is not strength and weakness is not weakness. This is really two sides of the same coin.
Let’s look first at what Paul says we should be gleaning from these Old Testament passages about strength.
The Paradox of Strength
12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 1 Corinthians 10:12, ESV
This makes sense at a basic level, you kind of understand what Paul is saying. Then you start thinking, what is Paul saying here? To understand what he is saying we have to understand what it means for someone to think that he stands and second of all we have to understand what Paul means by falling.
The idea of thinking that he stands is fairly straight forward. These are people who believe that they are strong. They have confidence in their strength. Maybe their confidence arises when they look at their external situation.
They realize they have membership in the visible church, they are attending corporate worship services, that’s great. They participate in the sacraments of the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, that’s great. They do these activities in service to God and to others, that’s great. Maybe they are confident because of those external means.
Maybe they are confident because of internal issues. They know that they don’t struggle with those sins, whatever might be on that particular list for that particular person. These people are careful to lead their lives in a moral way, at least as they see it as being moral. They feel strong and secure in their righteousness.
What Paul says is that if that’s the way you look at strength, if you think that you are strong in yourself. If you think that you have a claim, a standing of righteousness before God, then your strength is in fact weakness.
When we put too much confidence in ourselves, our works, our righteousness, our strength; we begin to ignore the real dangers around us. The real dangers around us in the allure of the world. The real dangers around us in the temptations of Satan. Even the real dangers inside of us in the remaining corruption of our sin.
Precisely the things that scripture has given to us to build us up and to preserve us in the truth, to safeguard the church as we read these stories, these are things that we stop looking at. We overlook them, we downplay them, and we discount them. If we think that we stand, we are liable to fall.
What does fall mean though? This is a little more difficult to understand precisely what Paul means because there are two good options. Paul could simply mean to fall into sin. When believers are overconfident in our strength, we are the most vulnerable to fall into sin.
If you are on the Harvest Bible reading plan, today the reading is from Matthew chapter twenty-six. Matthew 26:41 Jesus tells Peter to watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. When you are watchful, you are sometimes able to see temptations coming and prepare for them. If you are not watchful, if you are sleepy and sluggish like Peter was on that night, you will be very vulnerable to fall into sin.
Believers must be, of all people, most aware of our weaknesses. Not so that we can wallow in our weakness. You hear some people use weakness for a justification of sin, they say I’m weak and so I can’t help if I sin in this that or the other way. That’s not what we are talking about. We need to be aware of our weakness so that we are wary of our vulnerability to sin. We find these vulnerabilities and eliminate them from our lives.
Here’s the thing, if we don’t do this for ourselves, God is very good in his kindness about using even our sin to teach us these lessons. When God allows true believers to fall into sin, he does this to instruct us not to be so confident in our strength. When believers fall into sin, we are chastised and disciplined. When we fall into sin, we understand in a new fresh experiential way how deep the hidden strength of the corruption of our heart goes.
We are humbled from our pride and our arrogance. God does this not to condemn us, but to instruct us. He does it to raise us up to a more constant dependence for our support upon him. He wants to make us watchful.
If we are not going to watch and pray to avoid this sin, then hopefully we will learn this next time we fall into sin. We need to learn that next time we need to be watchful to watch and pray so that we may not fall into temptation. We want to avoid this, to find the areas of our weakness and to avoid those weaknesses wherever we can.
So, fall might simply mean to fall into sin.
It might have a bigger sense. Not just to fall into a sin in a particular situation, but rather to fall away, to perish. In the Old Testament when people fell, they died. Paul just used fall in this sense a few verses in verse eight,
8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 1 Corinthians 10:8, ESV
In the Old Testament, it’s largely just physical death. In the New Testament Paul uses this word elsewhere to talk about eternal condemnation, to be condemned to hell forever. In Romans 11:11, fall means that.
In the immediate context, here in 1 Corinthians chapter ten, this is probably what Paul has in mind because this is what he has been talking about. In the end of chapter nine Paul says,
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it… 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24, 27, ESV
Then in 1 Corinthians 10:5, after talking about all the ways in which God was generous and faithful to his people to protect them and provide for them in the Exodus and the wilderness. Nevertheless, with the vast majority of them God was not pleased, and they fell dead in the wilderness.
Again, Paul why are you telling us all of these stories? In the case of the Corinthians, they were committing idolatry by eating food sacrificed to idols. The did so because they thought they were strong, and this wouldn’t harm them.
One commentator, David Garland, gives a great illustration. You think about this thirsty hiker who thinks everything is going his way. He finds a cool mountain stream, reaches down to get some water from the perfectly crystal-clear water but he doesn’t realize that there are parasites in there that can do a lot of damage to you. It looks clean and clear; it doesn’t look like it would be a problem.
But because you are brash and ignorant. Because you think you are strong, you aren’t calculating if this will be a good thing to do because you don’t think there will be a consequence. Your strength becomes your weakness.
This is the paradox of strength. Strength is not strength. When we think we are strong, we are not strong. Strength in fact is weakness. It’s a seemingly absurd statement, but Paul says it’s true. “Let the one who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.”
Of course, there is another side of this, the other side of the paradox. This brings us to our third point.
The Paradox of Weakness
Weakness is not weakness, but weakness is in fact strength. Look at what Paul writes in verse thirteen.
13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13, ESV
What temptation is Paul talking about here? He’s talking about this sin of meat sacrificed to idols. Why is that such a temptation? Were they hungry? It was more than that. In those days it was a really important thing to eat meat sacrificed to idols because that was the way that you participated in the values of that culture.
That culture took a lot of pride in their gods. You can read stories in the book of Acts where people think that Artemis of the Ephesians was despised and there’s a riot that breaks out. The people took their gods seriously, so if you were someone who disrespected the gods either a riot was going to break out, or at the very least you were going to face significant suffering and ostracization, maybe even violence or death. That was your lot.
So, of course they were tempted to eat just a little meat. It’s not like they were bowing down to these idols, what’s the harm? They thought they were strong enough.
Paul is saying no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. Or without the double negative, every temptation that has overtaken you is common to man. The temptation we face are serious and the consequences of falling into sin can be severe. Believers in every place in every age have faced these same temptations.
The early Christians were ridiculed, persecuted, ostracized and killed because they refused to take part in idolatrous worship. They were called atheists because they didn’t believe in the gods, plural. They were seen as unpatriotic and treated with suspicion. They were excluded from financial opportunities.
Today around the world Christians are imprisoned, beaten, and executed for their faith. If you are not a subscriber to the Voice of the Martyrs, they tell you where you can pray for where Christians are facing the heaviest, fiercest persecution.
Today, here in America. If we face some difficulties because we cut against the grain of our culture, and we do in a variety of ways. If tomorrow we face more difficulties because we cut against the grain of the culture, and almost certainly we will, Paul is encouraging us to put that suffering into perspective.
It’s common, it’s been happening since the beginning. Look at the Old Testament, that’s your connection with them back there. They suffered because they didn’t worship and serve with the surrounding pagan cultures and they were worried about that.
When they turned from trusting in the Lord their God, and instead just doing whatever their culture did to appease the culture, they fell into deep idolatry and sin. They were destroyed over it.
Still, knowing that these temptations are common, doesn’t completely address them. It’s one thing to be reminded in 1 John 3:13,
13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you.
1 John 3:13, ESV
There’s an encouraging memory verse you can put on a plaque in your house. It’s one thing to be reminded of this, it’s another thing to deal with it. In the moment, how do you face temptations knowing that saying no to temptation will bring you serious consequences from the world around you?
So, Paul says, “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” Then here is his gospel assurance, God is faithful.
We talked about history last week. As we think about history, part of it is remembering that people don’t change. The people of the Old Testament are more similar to us than they are different. People don’t change, so we can learn from their circumstances. The other part of learning from history is remembering that God doesn’t change. God doesn’t change.
As we see God deal faithfully with his faithless people. This give us encouragement and boldness as we think about how to deal with the temptations that face us. God is faithful and this means that we do not have to depend on our strength, but on him. We are weak when we depend on our strength. We are strong when we confess freely that we are weak. We don’t have anything, but Lord I’m looking to you to do what I cannot do for myself.
This is what faith meant in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The God we serve is unchangeable. Hebrews 13:8 says,
8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8, ESV
You are truly strong when you depend on the unwavering strength of God. Which is based in the unchangeable love of the Father. It’s grounded and accomplished by the power, merit and ongoing intercession of Jesus Christ. It’s applied to you by the abiding ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. This is where Jesus assures Paul himself when Paul is struggling with his own suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:9,
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
2 Corinthians 12:9, ESV
This is a lesson that Jesus knew personally. The power of God was most manifested when he was at his humanly speaking weakest. When he was hanging, bleeding, dying on the cross. In the eyes of the world that is utter weakness and foolishness. In the eyes of God that is the power unto salvation.
Just as the power of God was made perfect in the human weakness of Christ, so the power of God is made perfect in you when you most freely acknowledge your weakness. You are strong when you are weak.
Practically what this means is that God, in his faithfulness, will not let you be tempted beyond your ability. In the temptation, both in the Old Testament and New Testament, and even today he will also provide the way of escape so that you may be able to endure it. You can endure and resist temptation. Not because of you or your strength. Your strength is nothing, it’s weakness, but because of the power of God in your weakness by faith.
1. Learn to fear and to follow the Lord Jesus Christ from the whole Bible. This was our big idea from last week. You may have been wondering what applications I should be taking from scripture. We have talked about the three ideas that people don’t change, God doesn’t change, and God’s plan for salvation doesn’t change.
What Paul teaches us to do as he talks about interpreting the Old Testament typologically as an example for us, given for our instruction. Not that we have less than the Old Testament Israelites did, but more to learn because we see those events in the light of Christ. Here’s what we need to look at.
People don’t change. Study the patterns of the corruption of sin in people’s lives. Look at this, this is what Paul is teaching us from the specific examples he is naming. Look at where the sin starts. Follow and trace and connect the dots to see how sin progresses. Look as a warning to see how far sin can sometimes go if left uncheck.
Identify the deceitfulness of sin in the lives of the people in the Old Testament. Why did these people give into sin? What did they believe is true that is not true? What justification and rationalizations do they use? Finally, pay attention to the weaknesses. We are so frail. Psalm 90:12 says,
12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12, ESV
Wisdom begins with recognizing that you are feeble and that you will die. In light of your frailty you realize you need to look to the unchangeable, faithful God.
Look to the fact that God doesn’t change. Study his unchanging character. Learn to love his righteousness and holiness. Seek to grown in you awe of and reverence for him.
See that his plan for the salvation of his people doesn’t change. See how he cares for his people in the past. Recognize when and how he acts and identify how he works to build our faith. There is so much to study from the Old Testament. Gain everything you can in light of Christ. Learn to fear and to follow the Lord Jesus Christ from the whole Bible.
2. Beware of your strength. Where do you think you are strong? Where do you think where you’ve had success? In light of that strength and success, where have you stopped being so careful because of your arrogant confidence? Jesus says, “Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Even as much as you want to obey God right now and even as much as you have some strength built up, recognize that you are weak. As willing as you are in the spirit, you are weak. Watch for temptations to come. Do not rely on your own strength. Pray that God will protect you by leading you not into temptation.
It’s dangerous to be in strength because the corruption of the sin inside of you is stronger than you realize. The cunning of Satan to deceive you is more subtle than you realize. The lure of the temptations of this world are more enticing than you realize.
If you are depending on your strength you are putting your confidence in something that cannot sustain or support you. Will power alone will not bring you into the kingdom.
This is the paradox of strength. Strength is not strength, strength is weakness. Repent from depending on your strength and your righteousness and your works and your power. Turn from these things and look to Jesus Christ alone.
3. Embrace Christ in weakness. Brothers and sisters, the gospel is better news than any of us could have dreamed up. If we created a system of religion in this world, it would surely award those who did the best in this life. Yet the gospel turns all of that on its head. God does not save the strong. It’s not the healthy that the Great Physician, our Lord Jesus Christ, came to heal. It’s the sick.
God does not save the strong, the smartest, the best looking, the most moral, the most powerful of this world. God save the weak. God saves those who are dead in their sins and trespasses. Not just weakened, but actually dead. Utterly non-responsive to God.
God saves the poor and the wretched, the weak and the wounded, the sick and the sore, those who are broken and bruised by the fall. As written in the hymn, “Come Ye Sinners”, “all the fitness”. All the fitness God requires of you is for you to feel your need of him. For you to recognize that you are weak.
Do you recognize your weakness? Do you see and sense your sin and your guilt before him? Don’t look to your strength. Look instead away from your strength to the strength and the goodness and the power of God in the person of Jesus Christ and in his work, birth, life, death on the cross, burial, resurrection, ascension. He is now at the right hand of God making intercession for you. That’s your strength and your power. Come to him by faith as you turn from your sin.
Pray with me.
Father, we ask that you will give us grace to look to Jesus in faith. Father, we are so weak and wounded, sick and sore. Yet we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we stand even though we are flat on our backs having already fallen.
Father, forgive us for our foolishness and our weakness and our self-deceived hardened hearts. We pray Father that you would soften our hearts, open our eyes, open our ears to respond to the gospel. That for all those who know and love Jesus, who turn to him in faith, repenting of our sins and sorrow, that you stand ready and able to forgive.
Father we know that this is all for your glory and to your majesty and praise and power, to glorify Jesus in this life and the next, for eternity to come. So, we pray that you would speed the day when we will see all of this brought to completion as we live now, we upon whom the end of the ages has come. We pray that you would sustain us by your word and the power of the Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.