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Worship the one true God (July 20, 2014)


Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 1 Corinthians 10:6-22 

Do people really learn from history? Can people learn from their mistakes and get their life back on track? Many of us undoubtedly know individuals who have done just that. History is full of instructive examples of people who either learned from their own mistakes or from the mistakes of others. In today’s lesson, Paul wants his readers to learn from the mistakes of his — and their — Jewish ancestors. Although most of his readers were probably gentiles, Paul considers them to be members of the expanded family of God, so he turns to the Hebrew Scriptures where the stories of God’s people are recorded.

Paul employs a Jewish method of scripture interpretation called a midrash. He cites a passage of Scripture, in this case Exodus 32:6, and cleverly weaves in several allusions to related texts, mostly from the book of Numbers. Throughout this section Paul uses an unusual vocabulary not found in his other epistles as he continues to deal with the issue of meat from animals offered as sacrifices to pagan gods.

1 Corinthians 10:6-11 — Lessons from the past 

Paul assumes that the Christians in Corinth are familiar with the tragic ending of the story about the Israelites’ wilderness wandering and their worship of a golden calf shortly after their miraculous deliverance from Egypt. Paul holds up the Israelites’ flagrant sin of idolatry and the consequent death of many Israelites in the wilderness. He warns the Corinthians not to fall into the same sins.

The only verse Paul quotes directly is Exodus 32:6, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” The text is well chosen, because the Corinthians are facing a congregational issue involving eating and drinking — and perhaps sinful “playing” as well. Less directly Paul refers to the Israelites’ sexual immorality described in Numbers 25:1-9, their craving for the wrong food in Numbers 21:4-9, their questioning of God about food in Psalm 78:18 and their complaining against God in Numbers 14:2-4. The ultimate result of all of these sins, Paul states, was the death of 23,000 Israelites in the wilderness. (Paul may be relying on his memory, because Numbers 25:9 says 24,000 Israelites died.) Paul’s clear implication is that if the Corinthians persisted in behaviors that replicate the sins of the Israelites, they will suffer the same fate as those disobedient and idolatrous Israelites.

All of these stories from the past are instructive examples, Paul says, that were written down to teach the Corinthians to avoid evil. In 10:6 and again in 10:11 the Greek work translated “example(s)” in the NRSV has a stronger connotation of “type” or “model.” Paul wants the Corinthians to think typologically by seeing themselves in the ancient stories about Israel and changing their life style by drawing the appropriate conclusions. As Richard Hays wisely says in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, “Thinking typologically is a necessary survival skill for adult Christians.”

1 Corinthians 10:12-13 — Be careful! 

Somewhat incongruously Paul inserts a word of encouragement in the middle of an extended series of warnings against sinful behavior. Even those who think their faith is strong should be careful. We all face challenges to our faith, Paul says, but God is trustworthy and God doesn’t allow us to be overwhelmed by those challenges. God provides the strength to endure every challenge.

1 Corinthians 10:14-22: Eating together creates community 

Paul has another very important reason for not eating meat offered to idols. Eating together creates a fellowship, a community, a “sharing” (the Greek word is koinonia), that links those who partake in a sacramental way with the resurrected Christ. Similarly, eating meat offered to idols creates an illusory bond between the one who eats and the pagan gods to whom the sacrificial meat has been offered. As Paul firmly asserts, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” This is a veiled reference to Deuteronomy 32:17 where Moses described the idolatry of the Israelites. Paul urges the Corinthians to be sensible and to “flee from the worship of idols.” This is a most counter-cultural injunction directing the Corinthians to remain strictly monotheistic in a pluralistic pagan world.

For discussion 

What does it mean to think typologically? How does a Christian do that? How is it different from making the Bible “relevant?” In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” John Calvin wrote: “The human heart is an idol factory … Every one of us from our mother’s womb is an expert in inventing idols.” What idols do you see today in our society? In our churches? In your own life?