Sin and Grace

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Paul begins this passage with an interesting recapitulation of Israel’s history.  He begins by saying that he does not want the congregation to be unaware that “our ancestors” experienced the Exodus and wandered in the wilderness.  This is striking, because most members of the community at Corinth were born Gentiles.  Once again, Paul demonstrates his belief that baptism incorporates Christians into the heritage and history of Israel (cf. Romans 11:17-18).  Paul follows the story of the Exodus, referencing the pillar of cloud, the crossing of the Red Sea, the provision of manna in the wilderness, and Moses drawing water from a rock by striking it with his staff.  Notice that Paul uses the word “all” five times in these first few verses: all were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink (Paul may be using the language of spiritual food and drink to prefigure his discussion of the Lord’s supper in the next chapter).  From Paul’s insistent use of “all,” we get the sense that Israel received God’s blessings as a collective body; everyone was able to share the miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea and provision of food in the desert.  Paul’s frequent all use of “all” also adds rhetorical force to his observation in verse 5: God was displeased with “most” of the Israelites, and they were subsequently struck down in the wilderness.  While all of Israel was invited to share in God’s blessings, most of them fell away from God.

Before we continue, we need to pause and remember where we are in Paul’s argument.  Paul has been discouraging the Corinthians from eating idol meat from the marketplaces or in pagan temples.  Initially, he argued for the sake of the “weak;” while you may have the liberty to eat whatever you want, Paul said, do not allow your freedom to cause other members of the community to stumble and fall away.  Paul went on to argue that giving up one’s liberty is an important part of living within the Christian community.  In this passage, however, Paul has begun to argue for the sake of the “strong,” those who have sufficient “spiritual knowledge.”  This is a warning: you might think that you are protected from all the spiritual dangers associated with eating idol meat, but you are not as safe as you think you are!

Paul proceeds to recount some of the more dramatic stories of sin and divine punishment that can be found in the books of Exodus and Numbers.  Paul recalls the story of Israel’s worship of the golden calf when he quotes Exodus 32: “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.”  While this Scriptural quotation doesn’t specifically mention Israel’s idolatry, its context would be very clear to anyone who was familiar with the passage.  Moreover, Paul probably mentioned “eating and drinking” in order to highlight the question that is central to his argument: whether eating idol meat is fundamentally an idolatrous act.  Paul also alludes to the sexual immorality of Numbers 25:1-9 (remember that sexual immorality was often a symptom of idolatry in Paul’s worldview) and Israel’s complaining in Numbers 21:4-9.  The final reference seems to be a summary statement about Israel’s tendency to fall away from God.

Paul argues that all of these events happened in order to instruct the Christian community, those who are present to the “ends of the ages.”  He warns that those who think they are standing (i.e., the “strong” who believe that they can do whatever they please) are closer to falling than they might imagine.  The passage concludes with a pastoral note, with Paul affirming God’s faithfulness and promising that members of the congregation will not be tested beyond their strength.  Overall, Paul seeks to encourage the “strong” of the Corinthian community to be less self-assured, to understand that in spite of their spiritual knowledge, they are also vulnerable to spiritual evils and God’s judgment.

“The road to the promised land runs past Sinai.” — C.S. Lewis

One of Paul’s favorite topics is the grace of God.  An understanding of grace is, undoubtedly, a critically important component of being a faithful Christian.  As one writer has said, God paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, even though we had done nothing to deserve that love.  Paul’s comment in Romans 5 summarizes his attitude toward grace well: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.”  Nevertheless, we must not imagine that God’s grace has immunized us from sin.  We continue to fall short of God’s commandments and expectations, putting our own wills before God’s.  This is what the Corinthians had done; they were under the impression that their membership in the Christian community had made them invulnerable to the perils of sin.  Paul, however, warns against this mistaken assumption.  Christians are still vulnerable to sin, even though they have been incorporated into the fellowship of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, it is hard to be aware of the grace of God without first understanding our propensity to sin.  C.S. Lewis summarizes this well when he notes that God’s Law was given to Israel at Sinai before they entered the Promised Land.  We cannot truly appreciate our redemption without knowing that we are sinners, that we have done so little to deserve God’s favor.  Part of the reason we observe this penitential season of Lent is to make ourselves aware of the times that we have failed to honor God.  We are meant to use Lent as an opportunity to appreciate our need for God’s grace as we prepare for Easter and the Resurrection.  The Resurrection is a fundamentally world-changing event that is remaking all of us, and Lent is part of how we begin to appreciate the power of that transformation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.