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Take Heed Lest You Fall

Jan 05, 2014Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13Keywords: assurance of salvation, perseverance of the saintPreacher: J.D. Shaw

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.


Before we get to the sermon, let’s do the fighter verse: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”  Isaiah 41:10.

We get back into our study of 1 Corinthians this morning – we spent most of 2013 in 1 Corinthians and we’ll spend most of January and February in it this spring – and we come this morning to chapter 10.  And to start us off this morning, let’s think back and remember the context of this part of 1 Corinthians.  Chapters eight, nine, and ten of 1 Corinthians form one section of this letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a Christian church in the ancient Greco-Roman city of Corinth about two thousand years ago.  

And in this section of his letter, Paul is dealing with a specific issue: in Corinth two thousand years ago, the dominant religious view was polytheistic.  There were many, many gods in the Greco-Roman pantheon.  A god of war, a god of wine, a god of youth, etc.  And in the big cities of the Roman world many of these gods in the pantheon had their own temples, where the gods could be worshipped.  

The participants in these pagan religions would go to the temples to worship, and part of the worship involved a fellowship meal, with the meat served at the meal formally dedicated to the pagan god of that temple.  And if you grew up in Corinth you probably went to these temples often (even if you didn’t even really believe in these gods) because the temples were basically the restaurants of the ancient world; they were an integral part of the social life back then.  

So wedding receptions took place there, birthday parties, anniversaries, other significant events in the lives of the people of Corinth.  But even in that setting, not strictly a worship service but a party where the temple was rented out, so to speak, by a customer, the pagan gods were still thought to be present at the meals.  In fact, when you had some kind of function at a Corinthian temple, you would send invitations out in the name of the god of that temple.  For example, archaeologists have a papyrus that was used as an invitation to one of the meals, and it reads like this: “Antonius, the son of Ptolemais, invites you to dine with him at the table of our Lord Serapus,” and Serapus was one of the gods of the Roman pantheon.  

And the question some in Corinth asked was, “Is it right for Christians, for followers of Jesus Christ, to go to these pagan temples and eat food that had been offered as sacrifices to these idols?  Or would it be a form of idolatry, the worship of false gods?”  

Some in Corinth said, “Of course, it’s okay to go to these social events and eat the meant.  Because these idols are not real.  They don’t exist.  And we’re just eating food anyway – food can’t bring you closer to God nor can it take you further away.  So of course it’s fine to go to these pagan temples and eat this food.  Use your Christian freedom, your Christian liberty, to be a part of the Corinthian social scene and have a good time.”

And Paul, apparently, thought these Corinthians were too flippant, too arrogant, too presumptuously secure, about their status as Christians.  So he writes to warn them about taking too lightly real threats to their faith.  He tells them, very famously, in verse 12: “12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”

And I believe that in Paul’s warning to the Corinthian church we can find answers to a very important question for anyone who wants to take Christianity seriously.  Here’s the question: how can I know if I’m a Christian?  Now, obviously, if you are here this morning and you believe you are a Christian, this is an important question for you – you want to know whether or not you are numbered among those Paul warns that they should take heed lest they fall.  

But even if you are here and you’re not a Christian, this is important for you to know as well.  I think I can say without any fear of contradiction that Jesus of Nazareth was the single most influential person who ever lived on the planet.  You simply cannot live intelligently unless you know something about him.  And the great claim of the Christian faith is not just that you can know something about him but they you can know him.  

Imagine someone comes up to you, very well-dressed, sharp looking, and says, “Excuse me, are you so-and so?”  And you reply, “Yes, I’m so-and-so.”  And the stranger replies, “You don’t know me, but I work at the White House, I just got into town today and, I know this may sound like a shock, but the President wants to meet you.  I don’t know all the details about why but I was sent here to give you this card and I can tell you that the direct line to the Oval Office is on it – call this number and they’ll work out how you can get to D.C. to meet him.”  And you take the card and it’s a very tastefully designed business card and sure enough it says “The White House” on there and there is a (202) area code phone number on it.

Now, you’d have every right to be suspicious, to think this was some elaborate prank your college roommate set up, but I guarantee you one thing: you’d be foolish not to call the number.  Even if you’ve voted Republican from Goldwater to Romney, you’d be foolish not to call the number and just see if you might have a conversation with the most powerful man in the world.

Well, friends, I’m a messenger, not from the most powerful man in the world today, but from the most influential man who’s ever lived.  And I’m going to tell you how you can know Jesus Christ.  And I don’t know why you’re here, and you may be very suspicious of me, you can think this is all a bunch of baloney (I remember meeting a man one time and he said, ‘You don’t really believe that stuff you preach, do you?’), but since you’re here and I’m making you this offer wouldn’t it be foolish not to listen?  I hope what I have to say helps you. 

And here’s the key – here’s how you can know whether or not you are a Christian; whether or not you know Jesus – you ready?  According to Paul, the way you can be assured you are a Christian is not through religion, but through relationship.  It is not through religion that we can be assured we are Christians; instead, it is through relationship.  

Now I hesitated to use that catchy little phrase – relationship, not religion – because lots of people have used it before and in an unhelpful way.  A lot of people have used that phrase so as to bash any kind of attempt to organize or formalize Christians into groups like denominations or even in local churches.  That’s dead wrong.  The Bible never does that; Jesus would not countenance that kind of view.  

But, it is true that in the Bible and in particular in the New Testament, the word “religion” or “religious” is rarely used, and when it is used it’s used almost always in a negative way.  Just one example – James 1:26: “26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”  That’s typical of the New Testament.  The Greek word translated as “religion,” the word threskeia, had come to mean in most contexts something like external, or formal, activities surrounding a religion.  

So I think that if we understand that phrase – relationship, not religion – rightly in the context of the Bible it will be helpful in getting to the heart of what provides Christian assurance.  So, two points this morning: first, Christian assurance does not come through religion.  Second, Christian assurance does come through relationship.

First, not through religion.  Re-read verses 1-4: 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.  1 Corinthians 10:1-4.

What’s going on here?  Paul is telling the Corinthians to remember what happened to their forefathers, the people of Israel in the Old Testament.  If you remember the history of the people of Israel, they were at one point in slavery in Egypt.  But God raised up a prophet for them, the prophet Moses, who was to lead them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey.  But Moses would not do this by himself.   We read that God appeared before Israel in the sky as a cloudy pillar by day and as a smoking furnace by night.  When Israel was hemmed in between Migdol and the Sea, with the Egyptian army bearing down on them, God opened up the sea, and Israel passed through on dry land.  When Israel went into the desert, God gave them manna from heaven to eat and water from a solid rock to drink.

And here’s Paul’s point – here’s why Paul points all this out to the Corinthians.  Paul says, “Every single man, woman, and child in Israel saw the cloudy pillar.  Every single one of them walked through the Red Sea on dry ground.  Every single man, woman, and child ate manna and drank water from the rock.  But ….”  Verse 5: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”  I think the NIV puts it even more starkly: “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.”  

Paul says, “Every single man, woman, and child in Israel had lots of reasons to be assured that God was pleased with them yet the overwhelming majority of them fell in the desert – they were under his judgment and never made it to the Promised Land.  So take heed, Corinthians, lest you fall; these events are examples to you, so that you will not be deceived and make the same mistakes” – that’s verse 6. 

I won’t read verses 7-10 again, but there Paul warns the Corinthians by going back through the books of Exodus and Numbers and finding four different instances where God killed Israelites because they participated in various sins: idolatry (verse 7), sexual immorality (verse 8), testing God (verse 9) and grumbling against God (verse 10).  Paul says, therefore, don’t do these things.

And while these verses obviously are worthy of our attention, I want to go back and think a little more carefully on verses 1-4, because I want us to focus on how they apply to us.  I said at the outset that the way you can be assured you are a Christian is not through religion, but through relationship.  Now if anyone had religious bona fides that could give an assurance of salvation, an assurance that the God of the universe was pleased with them, it was the Israelites.  

They had at least three distinct religious qualifications that if we share them can, if we’re not careful, give us a false assurance of our Christian faith.  First, the assurance of salvation cannot come from an impeccable religious heritage.  The Israelites of the Old Testament were God’s chosen people; they were all children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  These were the great patriarchs of the faith.  All through the Bible we read of people boasting how they are children of Abraham, all the way through the New Testament up until the time of Jesus.  The Pharisees, in contending with John the Baptist, would proudly point out, “We are children of Abraham – so you can’t say anything to us.”  And what did John say in reply?  “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”  Matthew 3:9.

As far as the redemption is concerned, the Israelites were a part of the world’s first and most important family.  Yet their background, their heritage, didn’t help them in the desert; they still fell under God’s judgment.  An impeccable religious heritage is not enough.

It can be tempting to think you are a Christian because everyone in your family is a Christian, your parents are Christians, and they raised you in this church or this denomination.  The heritage can be broader than that: I know that for many, many people who have lived in Great Britain over the last two or three centuries (not so much today but forty years ago and earlier), the assumption went roughly like this: I’m English, therefore I’m a Christian.  

We have our own version of that in the American South – we can just assume that because our family has been associated with this or that church tradition therefore we are Christians.  I know of one lady who, when she met you for the first time, would immediately follow up with this question: and are you [and then she gave the name of her denomination]?  And if you weren’t a member of a church in her denomination, then to her mind, you couldn’t be a Christian.  Now I’m not picking on denominations per se.  Denominations can do lots of things that individual churches cannot – seminaries, missionary training schools, camps, retreats.  We are at Grace Bible Church in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention of churches – we have denominational ties.  But we can wrongly depend on a religious heritage for assurance of our salvation.

Second, the assurance of salvation cannot come from participation in religious ceremonies.  We read, in verses 2-4, that the Israelites were baptized into Moses in the sea, they all ate spiritual food, and all drank spiritual drink.  As we’ve already said, Paul’s talking about the manna from heaven and the water from the rock but all the commentators point out that Paul is drawing a connection between what Israel did in the Old Covenant and what the sacraments of the church in the New Covenant – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  There were those in Corinth who apparently took something of a magical view of the sacraments and believed that so long as you had been baptized into the church and you participate in the Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist, the Mass, whatever you want to call it, you could have assurance of your salvation.  But Paul wants to be very clear that’s not the case, so he says take heed lest you fall.

Today, there are many professing Christians who hold to a very high view of the sacraments and believe they have assurance of salvation because they’ve been baptized and because they take communion.  I’ve spoken to some of them who have told me, “I can do whatever I want on Saturday night so long as I go to Mass on Sunday morning.”  All that matters, in this view, is participation in religious ceremonies, but the Bible never teaches that.

Now, these first two have been relatively easy for us because, let’s face it, almost no one comes to Grace Bible Church because it has a strong religious heritage – we don’t have any heritage here, we’re brand new, for most of our short history we were a completely independent church.  Nor do people typically come here because of their high view of the sacraments.  

But there is a third religious bona fide that a lot of people at Grace Bible Church do share with the Israelites, that members in our church need to watch out for, and that is a powerful religious experience.  It’s tempting to think that if you’ve had what you consider to be a powerful, emotional encounter with God, then no matter what else happens, you’re saved.

Maybe it was a time when you were really lonely and hurting, and you went off into the woods and you prayed, and you felt like God spoke to you – you felt joy, you felt gratitude, you felt comfort.  Or maybe you weren’t feeling well, so you went to the doctor, and the doctor said, “It’s not good, it’s cancer – and there’s nothing we can do.”  So you went home and you prayed and prayed and prayed and you gathered your friends and they prayed and prayed and prayed and when you had your follow up appointment the doctor looks at you and says, “I can’t explain it – the cancer’s gone!  It should be right here but the scan is completely clean.”  That does happen, you know.  It actually happens more often than you think.

And you’re tempted to make an experience like that into the foundation of your assurance – you are tempted to believe you are a Christian primarily because of that one time in your life when God powerfully showed up. 

Now, am I saying it was bad that you had that experience?  Absolutely not – I think it’s great.  Am I saying that it wasn’t God you experienced back then?  No, I’m not – it may very well have been God; it probably was God.

Here’s my point: your experience, no matter how powerful it was, doesn’t begin to compare with what the Israelites experienced.  God didn’t send manna from heaven down to you, God didn’t manifest himself as a fiery, cloudy pillar to you.  God didn’t let you drink water from a rock and God sure didn’t part the Red Sea for you.  He did all that for the Israelites – they had a far more profound and powerful religious experience than you did – yet their bodies were scattered all over the desert.  A powerful religious experience, while good, in and of itself is not sufficient to provide the assurance of our salvation.  

In Acts 19:11-16, we read this: 11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.”  These seven sons of Sceva had powerful religious experiences, they were casting out demons, and they were even in the name of the Lord Jesus, yet, clearly, they should not have thereby felt assured of their salvation.  

And we’re not just tempted to build our assurance of salvation on experiences; we’re tempted to do it with others.  I’ve pastored in college towns for several years now, and it never fails that two or three times a year a mother or father calls me up and weeps over how their student at Ole Miss is going through a dark time – they won’t talk to the parents anymore, the parents know they’re into drugs and flunking out of school, not going to class, and the parents are terrified.  What’s going to happen to their child?  So they call a pastor in the college town, which is a very reasonable thing to do.  And we talk for a little while and eventually I’ll ask them, “Do you think your child is a Christian?”  And they’ll say, “I know he’s got to be, because I remember that time he walked the aisle at the end of a church service one Sunday and bawled his eyes out while talking to the preacher.  He has to be saved.”

And of course I may not say this to the parents at the time – it might be too painful – but that doesn’t necessarily mean your child is saved.  If you have that experience in your life, that’s great, but if that’s the end of it – if twenty years later you haven’t been to church in the last ten years and there’s no Christian practice or thought in your life – then the conclusion that you draw is not that you were converted and became a Christian that day, but that you had the experience described by Jesus in the parable of the soils in Mark 4: “16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. 17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.”  Mark 4:16-17 (NIV 1984).

We cannot, we must not, try and convince ourselves that we are or anyone else is a Christian based on religious experiences alone.  Paul says to all of us, “Take heed, take heed, lest ye fall.”  

Religion – its heritage, its ceremonies, its experiences – can be very good, can be a huge blessing, but is not a sufficient ground for the assurance of salvation.  Only one thing is.

Second, we receive the assurance of salvation through a relationship with God.  I’ll just focus just on one verse in this point – verse 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.

Now this is a famous verse containing Paul’s instructions on how believers should handle temptation.  When they feel temptation, they are to go to God for help, and they will find that in those times God is there to help them.

But what’s implied in those instructions?  After twelve verses of warning the Corinthians about being presumptuous and arrogant about their Christianity, he wants to comfort them.  He’s showing them the key to true assurance of salvation.  And what’s implied in verse thirteen is that in order to go to God in temptation you must first have a relationship with him.

Friends, the truest test of salvation is not ultimately in any religious heritage, ceremony, or experience from the past, as good as those things are.  The truest assurance of salvation comes in temptation, when you struggle with sin, when you are afraid, when you doubt, and you don’t want to succumb and you cry out, “Abba, Father, I need you,” and you know someone is there listening to you who can help; you know he’s listening and faithful.  A personal relationship with God.  

Sometimes well-meaning Christians say that the source of the assurance of your salvation is the good fruit you will bear.  If you’re producing more good works, and sinning less, that’s should provide you with assurance of your salvation.  And of course it’s true – Christians should bear good fruit, and over time will bear good fruit in their lives.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

But the problem with looking to your fruit for assurance is that when you need it the most it’s usually during a time of temptation or doubt, and at those times your fruit just never quite looks good enough – you’re not as loving as you need to be, you’re not as joyful as you think you should be.  And, remember, fruit comes in seasons – while overall over the course in your life there will be this upward trend in the production of spiritual fruit, because it is seasonal there will be times in your life where it’s just not there like it was six months or a year earlier.

And then there’s this: the longer you are a Christian, it’s not like you begin to think of yourself as less of a sinner than when you began.  No – it’s just the opposite.  You see more of your sin the further along you go in your life; your spiritual sight grows more powerful and acute and you see more and more of your heart and how sinful it really is.  You don’t seem less sinful to yourself as you grow older; you seem more sinful. 

Paul says something along these lines that’s so interesting: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  1 Timothy 1:15.  Now he wrote this about thirty years after he first trusted Christ.  But note: Paul doesn’t say, “Christ came to save sinners, of whom I was the foremost.”  He says, “Of whom I am the foremost.”

You may think, “Oh, Paul didn’t mean that – that’s hyperbole.  He’s exaggerating; he knew he wasn’t as bad as he used to be.”  No, it’s not – he meant it.  It took thirty years, but Paul went from thinking he had a flawless righteousness before God (he says that in Philippians 3) to seeing what a sinner he was.

Being a Christian does not mean that you reach perfection; you don’t get anywhere close to it in this life.  You will always sin in thought, if not word and deed.  Being a Christian isn’t so much about the fruit that you produce; it’s about the person you know.  Being a Christian means that you know God and you know he’s faithful and you go to him over and over again when you are in need.  

One more thing along this line: 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? [those are powerful religious experiences, are they not?]’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’  Matthew 7:22-23.  Notice, Jesus doesn’t say, “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness; I didn’t see enough fruit.”  He says, “I never knew you.”  And by implication he means, “And you never knew me.”

Friends, do you know Jesus?  Do you know him like you know your wife, or your children, or your friends, because you talk to him through prayer often?  Do you hear from him through his Word – when you hear it preached or when you read it yourself, do you take comfort in it?  I knew one dear lady in my church in Starkville who would regularly tear up during the sermons on Sunday morning, not because I was a great preacher, but because she was hearing the Word of her Lord, and she was reminded not just that he died on the cross for the sins of the world but that he died for her sins, to reconcile her personally to God.  Friends, do you know Jesus like that?  Do you trust him to hear you even in temptation?  Do you trust him to hear you and be faithful to you even when you succumb to temptation?  Then you have the best possible assurance of salvation.  No one, no circumstance that you’ll encounter in this life, will take that away from you.

You may think, “I’m not sure I can know Jesus like that – I’ve never seen him.  All the apostles in the New Testament did.”  No, that’s not true – you can be as sure of Jesus’ existence as of anyone else you know on the planet.  1 Peter 1:8: “Though you have not seen him, you love him.  Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory …”   It doesn’t happen all at once, right when you first get saved.  If you’re a new Christian, don’t despair that you don’t know Jesus like this – it takes time to develop this relationship, like all relationships.  But it can and will come – and it will provide you with the assurance of your salvation.  

Martin Luther was a man who dealt with deep depression, that he was convinced was demonic in nature, so he had a lot of dealings with the devil, and when he did he did not look to his religious heritage, or ceremonies, or past experiences, and he certainly didn’t look to his fruit.  This is what he said: “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: "I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”   Or as the old hymn puts it, “Well may the accuser roar of things that I have done; I know them all and thousands more; Jehovah knoweth none.”  

Oh, friends, do you know him?  It’s all that matters now and it’s surely all that is going to matter in eternity.  Do you know him like that?  If so, all the angry powers of hell won’t pry you from his arms.  If you don’t, nothing and no one can help you.  Please don’t trust in religion, as good as it is; please don’t look to your fruit.  Instead seek a relationship with God through Jesus Christ; it must be personal.  You can start it today – you can pray right now: “God in heaven, I want to know you.  I am trusting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my sins and I want to know you.  Please show me yourself.”  Friends, you can do that right now – and he has never turned away someone who prayed a prayer like that.  Amen – let’s all pray together right now.

Father, I pray that everyone will leave here this morning knowing what biblical Christianity is – whether they actually trust Christ today or not, I pray nevertheless they know what it means to be a Christian.  For those Christians who have been looking to their fruit for evidence of their salvation, I pray you’d turn their eyes from their work to the work of your Son on the cross, and they would find rest for their souls.  For those who have been coming to church for years, for decades, but haven’t really been trusting in you, but instead in the comforts of religion, Father I pray you’d open their eyes and give them the knowledge of yourself.  And Father of course for those in the room today who aren’t Christians, let them see the beauty of the gospel.  Open their eyes, so they might see that they can know you and that Christian belief is the source of the most glorious knowledge in the universe.  Please have your Spirit do these things for us this day.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.