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How to Finish Well

The story is told of a Baptist who moved into a large Catholic neighborhood.

On his first Friday in his new home, this Baptist was outside grilling a big juicy steak on his grill. Meanwhile all his neighbors were eating cold tuna fish for supper. This pattern repeated every Friday.

Finally, the Catholic men in the neighborhood got together and decided that something just had to be done about their new Baptist neighbor, he was just tempting them to eat meat each Friday and they couldn’t take it anymore. They decided to try and convert him to be Catholic. They went over and talked with him and were so happy that he decided to join all of his neighbors and become a Catholic.

They took him to church and the priest sprinkled some water over him and told him “You were born a Baptist, you were raised a Baptist and now you are a Catholic”. The men of the neighborhood were so relieved, now their biggest temptation was resolved.

The next Friday rolled around and just at supper time when the neighborhood was setting down to their fish dinners came the wafting smell of steak cooking on a grill. The neighborhood men could not believe their noses! What was going on? They called each other up and decided to meet over in their new neighbor's yard to see if he had forgotten it was a Friday.

The group arrived just in time to see their new neighbor standing over his grill with a small pitcher of water. He was pouring small droplets over his steak on the grill and saying, “You were born a cow, you were raised a cow, and now you are a fish.”


It just goes to show that there are various ways of handling temptation in life…


In this next section of 1 Corinthians, Paul shows us how to handle temptation and how to finish well in life. Listen for God’s word to you from 1 Corinthians 10:1-13…


For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all 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. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; 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 endure it.

In this passage Paul gives to the Corinthian Christians some warnings based upon the history of Israel. He suggests that they may be tempted in some of the same ways the Israelites of old experienced. Out of this comes some sage advice for us about how to handle temptation.


Paul informs us of three things we should know to finish the race of life well.


First, privilege does not necessarily lead to progress in our spiritual journey. 


The Israelites of old were a privileged people. Paul specifies four points of privilege. First, they were under the cloud. Paul is talking about the glory cloud that guided the Israelites by day which turned into a pillar of fire by night. (Exodus 13:21)


Second, all the Israelites were preserved by God when they passed through the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:22) Paul says that the Israelites were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. I think what he means is that the Israelites were identified with Moses as their leader through their redemption from Egypt and through their wilderness wanderings.


Third, the Israelites were privileged to eat what Paul calls spiritual food. I think he is referring to the manna and quail that God provided supernaturally for the Israelites to eat in the desert. (Exodus 16) 


Fourth, the Israelites were privileged to drink water that God provided for them supernaturally. There are stories told in Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 of God providing water for the Israelites from a rock. Because this happened at the beginning and toward the end of their wilderness wanderings, the story later developed that this rock followed the Israelites through the wilderness. Paul allegorizes this story and says that the rock which accompanied the Israelites was Christ.


Despite all these privileges, the Israelites disobeyed God and the only ones who entered the Promised Land were Caleb and Joshua because these two brought back a positive report from the Promised Land itself. All the other Israelites from that first generation who came out of Egypt died in the desert.


Similarly, the Corinthians were a privileged people. They had the privilege of God’s guidance through teachers like Paul and through the Scriptures. They had the privilege of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians also had the privilege of God’s provision. But Paul warns the Corinthians that their privileges are not enough to secure their safe passage into the Promised Land, as it were. They must combine privilege with obedience.


Paul’s second lesson about temptation is that there will be various types of temptation in life. He mentions four types in particular…


First, there is the temptation to set one’s heart on evil things. Paul is probably thinking of the story in Numbers 11:4-6 where 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!”


Now, there is nothing wrong with meat, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic… unless someone else must smell your breath! The problem comes in when we long for other things instead of what God has provided for us. 


God had provided manna and quail for the Israelites in the wilderness. God had redeemed his people from slavery. Yet, they wanted to go back and eat what they had enjoyed eating in Egypt. They were ready to return to slavery if they could only enjoy the meals they had in their old life!


I wonder, do you ever look back to something in your earlier life and long to return? That can be a great temptation. As C. S. Lewis says, the one prayer that God never answers positively is “Encore!” “Do it again God like you did it before!” 


God seldom, if ever, repeats the exact same blessings to us that he gave in the past. Perhaps that is because God wants us to live in the present and move into the future. He has new blessings to bestow upon us.


My father often quoted this poem by Martha Snell Nicholson: 


One by one He took them from me, 

All the things I valued most, 

Until I was empty-handed; 

Every glittering toy was lost.

And I walked earth’s highways, grieving, 

In my rags and poverty. 

Till I heard His voice inviting, 

“Lift your empty hands to me!” 

So I held my hands toward heaven 

And He filled them with a store 

Of His own transcendent riches, 

Till they could contain no more. 

And at last I comprehended 

with my stupid mind and dull 

That God could not pour His riches 

into hands already full!


Another type of temptation that Paul mentions here, and throughout 1 Corinthians, is the temptation to idolatry. Paul quotes from Exodus 32:6.


Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.”


Exodus 32 deals with the story of the golden calf. While Moses was on the mountain receiving the ten commandments from God, the Israelites, with the help of Moses’ brother Aaron, fashioned a golden calf and began to worship it.


The Corinthians were not tempted to worship a golden calf. But they probably were tempted to worship some of the Greek gods and goddesses like Aphrodite whose temple was situated on the Acrocorinth.


The gods we may be tempted to worship today may not be as obvious as a golden calf or the temple of Aphrodite, but our temptations to idolatry are no less real. Are we not tempted to worship the gods of money, sex, and power just to name three?


This leads to a third type of temptation Paul talks about throughout 1 Corinthians. Throughout this letter, and in fact, throughout the Bible, the temptation to idolatry is often associated with sexual temptation. Paul references yet another story about the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings. This one is from Numbers 25 and is about the time the Israelite men indulged in sexual immorality with Moabite women who then invited the Israelite men to sacrifice to their Moabite gods. The story says that the Lord’s anger burned against his people and 24,000 Israelite men died as a result.


Whatever you may think about what Paul and the Bible have to say about sex, I think there is one thing we can agree on. That is that sex is a powerful force. 


I did a series in my last church entitled “Ultimate Questions”. One of the questions I preached about was posed by someone in the congregation: “Why did God make the sex drive so strong?” You’ll have to check out the sermon on my blog to see how I answered that. 


Bottom line: sex is a powerful force, and therefore it needs guard rails. Just like when you drive a car, most cars contain engines that make a car into a powerful projectile object. Therefore, there are places on roads, especially on cliffs, where guard rails are absolutely necessary to keep people safe. 

So it is with the sex. Sex is a powerful force and a powerful source of temptation. That’s why we need guardrails around it—to keep people safe.


A fourth type of temptation Paul mentions here is the temptation to test God. Paul says, “We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes.”


This is a reference to Numbers 21:4-9 where we read about the Israelites getting impatient with God and Moses in the desert. As a result, the Lord sent venomous snakes to bite the people and many of the Israelites died. When the Israelites repented, Moses prayed for them, and the Lord instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When the people looked at it, they were healed. 


In John 3:14 Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” 


Jesus is the one who can help us to overcome every sin and temptation because he was the one tempted for us in the desert and yet he never gave into temptation, even the temptation to put God to the test. (Matthew 4) 


And Jesus was lifted up on the cross to die for us so that we can be forgiven for every time we give into temptation. All we must do is look to Jesus on the cross.


The fifth type of temptation that Paul mentions is the temptation to grumble. Paul says, “And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.”


Grumbling doesn’t seem like a very big sin, does it? And yet, according to Numbers 16, when Korah grumbled about Moses’ leadership and led a rebellion against him, God responded by killing Korah and all those who were part of the rebellion.


In C. S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, Lewis, who is himself a character in the story, says that he doesn’t think grumbling is a sin worthy of damnation. Another character in the story, George Macdonald, responds and says, 


‘Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’ 


‘But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?’ Lewis asks.


And Macdonald replies, ‘The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.[1]


If this sermon ended at this point it would be a sad sermon indeed. But Paul has good news for all of us grumblers, all of us idolaters, all of us sexually immoral people, all of us who put God to the test. Paul’s third and final point is that whatever temptation comes to us, it is not unique, and God will always provide a way of escape.


Many years ago, in the first church I served out of seminary, I was blessed to be able to lead a fourteen-year-old young man to faith in Jesus Christ. Some time later, Stephen came to me and confessed a sexual temptation that he had given into. He was surprised that he was facing such temptation as a Christian. I assured him, based upon 1 Corinthians 10:13, that such temptation was perfectly normal. I also assured him that Jesus would forgive him whenever he might happen to give into temptation as he had in this situation. I assured him that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was powerful enough not just to cover all his past sins, but his present sins, and any future sins that he might commit. The look of relief that came over Stephen’s face when I told him this was priceless.


I also pointed out, based upon 1 Corinthians 10:13 that the next time Stephen faced temptation, God would give him a way of escape.


William Barclay explains this verse in this way…


With the temptation there is always a way of escape. The word is vivid (ekbasis). It means a way out of a defile, a mountain pass. The idea is of an army apparently surrounded and then suddenly seeing an escape route to safety. No man need fall to any temptation, for with the temptation there is the way out, and the way out is not the way of surrender nor of retreat, but the way of conquest in the power of the grace of God.


The word that is used here for “way out” is similar to the word “Exodus” which means the same thing. Luke 9:31 refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection as his “Exodus”. Jesus is our way out of every sticky situation. Having Jesus in our hearts, and walking with Jesus every day of our lives is the way to finish well…


[1] Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 76-78). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


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