George Santayana was a professor at Harvard who said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Winston Churchill popularized the idea by saying, “Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Mark Twain, in his typical whit, said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
The Corinthian Christians had a problem. Groups broke off into factions and were raising themselves above other believers. This resulted in sexual impurity and lack of doctrinal clarity, especially about the resurrection. Corinth was the Las Vegas of its day. The only rule was to do what made you feel good. You could live as if there were no consequences. Christians struggled with that way of living, but Paul brings the gospel to bear on that lifestyle
Corinth was the crossroads of the Roman Empire. It was a melting pot of nationalities and religions, not unlike America. The people coined a term, “korinthiazesthai”, meaning, “to act like a Corinthian”. It was a slur used to say that someone was a drunk or acting like a total skeezball.
All believers live in the tension between who we used to be and who we are in Christ. We need explained to us why we can’t think the same, behave the same, or live the same. The gospel must be brought to bear on every part of our lives. Paul does that here by pulling from examples of God’s people from the past. Paul teaches us this:
Learn from the past to be faithful in the present.
Coming up on the new year, many of us are making resolutions. We want to break bad habits and start new ones. Maybe we want to start a plan of reading your Bible, praying more, family worship, or not missing Lord’s Day worship. These are all good things. Some of us will join a gym, read a book every month, visit family more, finish that degree, move up to a craftsman, or buy a house.
It’s easy to get lazy in our Christian maturity in the same way we can get lazy in our resolutions. We must always be learning to be obedient. Maybe nobody is really calling us on it. “Are you reading your Bible regularly? In Bible study? Praying daily? Missing worship? Giving from your income?” How many times have you asked someone those questions?
Today is the day to get our spiritual act together, not tomorrow or next week/month/year. The Corinthians had gotten sloppy or careless in their faith. They made a confession with their mouths but not with their actions. And it’s not as if they weren’t good, church-going folks. The actions that called in to question their confession were actually the religious things they were doing, so Paul shines on a light on that problem and gives them the solution. Learn from the past to be faithful in the present.
Paul went to Corinth on his second missionary journey. You can read more about that in Acts 15-18. He would have written 1 Corinthians around AD 50.
Chapters 1-4 are about spiritual maturity, chapters 5-7 are about sexual and marital purity, and chapters 8-10 are all about personal liberty. Paul pulls mainly from the example of eating meat sacrificed to idols. After a sacrifice, the temple would sell the meat in the meat market. This raised the question, could Christians buy this meat? Paul’s answer is yes, a Christian can eat meat sacrificed to what amounts to nothing. But for weaker brothers and sisters it was a conscience issue, and they couldn’t do it. Paul says that eating meat sacrificed to idols is not a sin, but he isn’t going to form a tradition that’s binding on all Christians or fall on his sword for something as silly as deli meat. “You can eat it, but don’t make someone eat it."
Don’t let other people determine your conscience, and don’t determine someone else’s conscience on matters such as these. The goal is to bring all people to maturity in Christ, not set the lowest common denominator Christianity. There are just as many commands about growing in your faith and increasing in knowledge as there are about not harming another’s conscience. There is no virtue in a weak conscience, and there is no virtue in making someone stumble. We have a right, because of the knowledge we have, to eat and drink as we please, as long as we give thanks for it. But we do not have a right to bind the conscience or harm the conscience of someone with weaker faith.
But he starts with something of a strange word picture about the exodus, going through water, baptism, and rocks. “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
We have plenty of examples of those who lacked all self-awareness and self-control, primarily looking at Israel crossing of the Red Sea with Moses and then them having their physical needs being met by manna and water. Paul does this by saying this was a forerunner of what you do in baptism and communion;
He also calls the Israelites “our” ancestors. Corinthian Christians weren’t Jews, so what’s his point? The church stands in continuity with Israel. Abraham is our forefather as well. So is Moses, David, and all the others. The church is grafted in to Israel; we are not replacing Israel, and we are not completely separate from Israel.
Passing through the Red Sea was like baptism. Our second birth is followed by a baptism, and Israel's rescue from Egypt was followed by a baptism. They were delivered from slavery, and so are we: slavery to sin and death. Their baptism was in the cloud and the sea, above and below, almost as if the imagery of being immersed meant something. Now that’s not Paul’s point, that immersion is the proper mode, but we can say that the image he does present is of total covering, or water from all sides
Paul then speaks of spiritual food and drink. Israel was supplied with real food and drink, manna and water. They were divinely supplied with real material, and it’s clear he’s saying that the same thing is true for Christian communion. The elements don’t change into something else, but Crossing the Red Sea and the manna and water point to a spiritual truth: God supplied/supplies the way and mean of salvation.
Paul is more concerned about the source of the water than the water itself. For Israel, it was the rock, yet the rock was Christ in some mysterious way. For us, it is not so mysterious that Christ is the one who supplied his own blood, which the cup symbolizes.
Paul is emphasizing that Christ serves as the one who nourishes our body and spirit, who he says in Colossians “is our life." The continuity between Israel and the church means the church is in the same danger of idolatry as the Israelites were. This is the point he’s building up to.
Think about Israel’s failures: God was displeased with most of them. Because of their idolatry, God struck down those many in the wilderness. This is referring to response of the report from the spies. The people believed the report of the ten against the report of the two. They feared the people in the land so they didn’t go in. God said all those over twenty-years-old, except the two spies who were courageous, would die in the wilderness. He didn’t kill them immediately but let them live natural lives. Only their children would be able to enter the promised land.
Here is his point: all of Israel had all the same provisions that we have, and many of them rejected those provisions and turned instead to idols. If these were written down for our instruction, then we need to hear the same warning
It is possible to be baptized carelessly and receive communion carelessly. That doesn’t mean you do—and people who are concerned about receiving both of those ordinances rightly means the preponderance of evidence is that you do. The Spirit is who moves you to have spiritual concerns. Those who think lightly of them or do them flippantly, or those who think they are magic and have saving power in themselves, are those who need to take heed of Paul’s words. Those who think that they can baptize their children and it have some magic effect need to take heed of Paul's words. God did not tolerate the idolatry of the Israelites. We should not be under the illusion that he will tolerate ours. The episodes of the Red Sea and manna and water were examples for our instruction.
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did."
Paul does not want what happened to Israel to happen to the Corinthians or to us. Repeating those sins lead to the same judgments. Paul gives four examples.
First is idolatry. “Do not be idolators as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. (v.7).’” Paul brings up the story of the making of the golden calf, when Moses went up the mountain and the people got impatient and scared (Ex. 32:6). God saved them some slavery in Egypt, took them out to make a covenant with them, to protect them and provide for them. And as Moses is receiving the terms of the covenant, they hit their heads and start collecting gold jewelry to make an idol. This the greatest miracle of the Old Testament, and they revert to old ways in a matter of days. Idolatry is believing any being other than God has ultimate authority. It's like having a spiritual awakening or mountain-top experience, going to bed, and waking up the next day like it never happened. We can all say we’re guilty of that. Time passes and we forget. Our little idol-factories get back to work.
Second is sexual immorality. As a reminder, chapters 5-7 are all about it, which follows chapters 1-4, which are all about spiritual maturity. Where you find spiritual immaturity, you will find sexual immorality. “Do not be idolators as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. (v.7).’” That word for “play” likely has sexual immorality in the context. It's more like “revelry.” The people made the golden calf, ate in its presence, then likely did what was normal in ancient cults, which was something like ritual prostitution. He’s also referring to Numbers 25 where Israelites were sexually immoral with Moabites. God struck them down. Also, this has been a specific temptation for the Corinthians. Both letters that we have mention cases of sexual immorality in the church; it’s important for Paul to speak clearly about its importance.
Third is testing, as in testing Christ, or putting him to the test. In Numbers 21, God had been providing manna. The people grumbled, saying it wasn’t good enough. They even call it “loathsome food”. God sends serpents to bite and kill them, but God has Moses make a bronze serpent. The people can fix their eyes on that bronze serpent and live. The people were testing God by their complaining or grumbling about his provision, but the point is the testing, as if they were challenging God to judge them. By grumbling about the food, they were testing God’s patience. For the Corinthians, by their sexual immorality and involvement in ritualistic cults in social situations, they were testing Christ, as well. He even says the Israelites were testing Christ, which further ties the Old Testament people of God to the New.
Fourth is grumbling. In Numbers 14, the people are grumbling about Moses and his leadership. They want to find a new leader and go back to Egypt, the land of slavery from whence they came. God sends a plague and strikes down many of the Israelites for their grumbling. The people have constantly complained about the God who made promises generations before them, performed miracle after miracle, saved them out of slavery, and provided all the food they needed. Their response is to complain about it, make idols, and sleep around. Grumbling is thinking that God has done wrong to you. That God allowed any survivors is a testament to his mercy.
In v.6, Paul said these things happened as an example for us. He repeats himself in v.11. Their reason for being included in Scripture is clear: to warn us about the same kinds of temptation toward idolatry, which has many forms. These passages were not written down for them, but for us. It means they’re not just morality stories. The temptations we face were foreshadowed by Israel. We’re the people “on whom the end of the ages has come.” The resurrection of Christ was the pivot point of history. History has a goal, a point, a terminus, and a purpose, all focused on Christ. The Old Testament points toward the fulfillment of history in the new people of God, the “people of the end.” The Old Testament is our book.
Here’s the summary of it all for Paul: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Spiritual maturity is the goal, but there are real temptations out there toward idolatry and all of its forms. There are plenty of Old Testaments examples of its problems. They thought they could get baptized, receive communion, and then be free from the struggle that comes with following Christ. But that struggle is full of joy, because there is only the struggle if you are his.
The Corinthians were trying to be Christian while participating in the cults of the day, in a day when everybody was a part of a cult. Paul is always ready to warn the people of the danger they could be in, but he is also always ready to encourage them in their struggle: “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.”
This is a mind-blowing statement. Every temptation you feel is not as strong as it could be. Every temptation you feel can be overcome. In an act of mercy God restrains temptation in your favor. Temptations still come our way and act as trials, but they cannot overcome us. We will never finally and fully be tempted away from our initial confession of faith in Christ as Lord. God has proven himself faithful time and time again, and that is our reason to endure.
In your weakness, he will show how strong he is. When you fail, he will not. When you sin, he will forgive you. When you are tempted, he will provide a way of escape. But he doesn't say he will remove the struggle. One of the greatest tricks of the enemy is to make a believer think life should be easier than it is. The new birth is the beginning of spiritual warfare, not the end.
All the temptations you feel are the temptations that everyone else feels in varying degrees and expressions. It’s freeing to realize that I’m not the first to struggle with this or that sin but am one of many who needs the church community of which I’m a part to hold me accountable and remind me of my forgiveness in Christ.
So how do we take heed lest we fall? Where did Paul take his examples? From Scripture.
You need to be in Scripture regularly. All you need to read Scripture is a time, a place, and a plan. Read specific passages that address common temptations, especially it seems, sexual immorality and idolatry.
We often treat the Bible like a library book: take it off the shelf, borrow it, read it once, then take it back. The Bible is ordered systematically and is meant to be read systematically. If these things were written down as an example and instruction for us, it is on us to read those examples. Make a resolution to be in Scripture, our example and instruction, regularly.
All of your temptations are common to man, so get around other people. Common temptations are put to death in community. Discipleship groups function as Bible reading groups, and it’s natural that a little accountability will be built in to being in a community. Make a resolution to have a group of like-minded people who hold you accountable spiritually and bring you in contact with God’s Word.
God has proven himself faithful time and time again, and that is our reason to endure. He will see us through to the end. What he began in us he will bring to completion. The way out that God provides will be equal to the temptation. Temptations that come our way are not designed to be our undoing but our means of maturity, of growing into greater Christlikeness.
In the new year, resolve to soberly assessing your faith, not to be fearful, anxious, or condemned (because there is no condemnation for those in Christ), but to be totally committed to keeping your eyes on the One who died to give you faith. Feed that desire to be more and more obedient in all your ways. Learn from the past to be faithful in the present.
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. — Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV
If I were to ask you a little bit of Bible trivia, how do you think you would fare? How many of the four gospels tell us about the death of Christ? All four, right? They involve different details, but they all tell the same story and reinforce each other. How about his resurrection? All of them. How many of the gospels tell about the miracles that Jesus performed? How about his teachings? All of them.
So how many of the gospels tell us about the birth of Christ? All of them? The nativity is only taught in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Some have argued that because Mark begins with John the Baptist and John begins in eternity past that the birth of Christ wasn’t important to the early church and therefore should not be so important to us. The implication is that the virgin birth is not a hill worth dying on, and in fact, all of the miraculous things in Scripture are not hills worth dying on.
But what we have here is a completely unnecessary division between Old and New. While only two of the New Testament gospels give an account of the angel Gabriel speaking with Mary and Joseph, traveling around on donkeys, and the angels singing about Christ’s birth, the Old Testament more than makes up for the lack of nativity in Mark and John. In fact, Old Testament passages about the birth of Christ fill in so much of what Matthew and Luke do not include.
So it’s not that some of the gospels are not interested in the birth of Christ and therefore neither should we be; it’s that the gospels are interested in telling about the birth of Christ in Old Testament terms. The Christmas story is not meant to be a sentimental, romanticized oil painting but a declaration of the birth of a king who is coming with his kingdom.
The passage at hand is Isaiah 9:1-7, but before we get there I want to show how it’s quoted by the gospel of Matthew. A prophecy about the birth of Christ so familiar to Christians, especially around Christmas time, is not used to announce that Christ has been born. It’s used to announce that the King has arrived, and he’s calling for repentance.
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ From that time on Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matthew 4:12-17 ESV).
Old Testament prophecies about the birth of Christ explain why Christ came. Matthew chose this passage to explain Christ’s ministry quite intentionally. Christ came to establish the kingdom of God on earth. There may be many governments under Christ’s rule, but none are above it.
We can’t even imagine a time of worldwide peace. A given nation may not be actively fighting a war with another, but somewhere in this world there is always a time of fighting. It may be a bloody war or it may be a virtual war. Christ even promises us that from now until his return there will be wars and rumors of wars. He’s saying that world peace is a unicorn. But there is coming a time when all of that ceases. One day, all hatred and hostility and war and famine and death and disease will themselves be destroyed. And the meaning of the birth of Christ is that that day is the only sure thing amidst a world of chaos.
Peace in this world comes under no other government than Christ’s.
There is no wrong in getting sentimental around Christmas time. It should be a time when we are reminded of the joy of Christ’s first coming and the blessed hope of his second. Christ came to save sinners, and there is endless joy in knowing that we are at peace with our Father in heaven. He accomplished that reconciliation for us by offering up himself in our place.
And in so doing, he earned all authority in heaven and on earth to set up the kingdom of heaven on the earth. Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is here, it is now, even if the fullness of it is yet to come. It’s like leaven in the dough. The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of peace, precisely because all hostility between God and redeemed man has been eradicated. Peace in this world comes under no other government than Christ’s.
In Isaiah chapter 7 we’re told that the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel, or “God with us.” Starting from there, Isaiah continues to describe how God’s people will be attacked but God will be their safety and security in the attack. This same child is spoken of again in chapter 9, and to him will all governing authority over all creation be given. In addition to Immanuel, he’s given four more names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. There is no mistaking this child as God himself.
Israel had been unfaithful to God, and his promise to them was that in the event of unfaithfulness, foreign nations would take them captive for a period of 70 years. Isaiah is describing what that period of captivity or exile would be like. Up until the birth of this son, there would be gloom and anguish. At the birth of this child, there will then be light and joy.
The birth of the child himself is the announcement to the people that light has dawned. The people did not produce it themselves. They had as much to do with it as they do with making the sun rise in the morning. Light is almost always associated with God’s presence in Scripture. So the announcement of this light and the announcement of the birth of a son is the announcement of the presence of God. Not even the unfaithfulness of his people is enough to undo God’s will to be with his people.
And not only has God proven faithful in the midst of his people’s unfaithfulness, but he will even increase the people. He will multiply the nation; he will increase the number of people who are his. In the age to come, when the government of the Son is fully established, we are told that there will be people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people present to worship the Son. “Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).
In captivity, the people worried they would never see their own land again. But God’s promises have come true in Christ. Not only did the people return to their land, but God multiplied the nation and increased their joy, all at the birth of this son. There would massive numbers of Gentiles brought in. So it’s not just that the people looked forward to resettling their land, because Isaiah is speaking of their final deliverance. The return of their land to them is only a sign of what’s to come.
Isaiah uses another Old Testament example to make his point. A yoke is a bridle you put on an animal like an ox to plow a field. It’s heavy and uncomfortable, but the driver has control over the animal. The yoke of the foreign nation on the people of Israel was oppressive, but God will break it himself, Isaiah says, “as on the day of Midian” (v.4). This is referring back to the story of Gideon. The people of the nation of Midian had overtaken the people of Israel. God was going to send Gideon to throw out the Midianites and restore peace to Israel. Initially, Gideon had 22,000 soldiers, then sent home all but 10,000. God told him that there were still too many, so he whittled them down to 300. God’s plan to save Israel worked perfectly, and God broke the yoke the Midianites had over Israel. In the same way, God will break the yoke of whoever stands over his people.
In peacetime, soldiers put away their weapons. In the garrison, soldiers wear their dress uniforms. When God finally breaks the yoke of oppression, God’s people will burn their combat boots and uniforms. There will be no more need for them, because God will have defeated the last enemy. Every boot for war and every garment that was stained with blood from war will be burned as fuel. That’s their only purpose after victory—to keep you warm. You burn what you will never need again. The hostility is over.
How does God put an end to war and hostility? By sending us a son. This son is royalty. He governs by himself. The government is on his shoulders. The names given to him are divine. Not only is this son from the royal line within Israel, but he will also be of the same essence of God. He will be human because he will be born, and he will be God because he will rule forever. His government will have no end.
As a wonderful counselor, he would have perfect wisdom. The sort of counsel in view here is that of planning, having a will, and being able to determine the future. This is not something that mankind can accomplish. Though he will be born, our wonderful counselor has divine wisdom and understanding. He will know the deep things of God because he is God.
As the mighty God, he has power to put an end to all evil and oppression. Not only that, but the real enemies, sin and death, are placed under his feet once and for all. Sin leads to evil and oppression, and evil and oppression lead to sin. God Almighty, however, can break that cycle of sin and put in its place a kingdom of righteousness.
As the everlasting Father, we never have to fear losing our sonship. He is the Lord of the ages, God of eternity, immortal and invisible. It does raise the question, however, if the son is Christ, how is he the everlasting Father? Jesus often not only equated himself to God but also said that he and the Father are one. He said as much in John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” They have the same will and desire for his glory and our good.
As the Prince of Peace, he comes not to kill, steal, and destroy, but on the back of a donkey as a king returning from a great victory. Isaiah will later tell us in chapter 42 verse 3, "a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench[.]” Christ deals with his sheep gently and lovingly. He is peaceful. As the victorious king, he will reign over a peaceful kingdom.
Perhaps the greatest statement is that while the son will be all these things, he will not only increase the nation of Israel, but he will increase his government and reign over all the world—every tribe, tongue, nation, and people. And it will be unending. His throne will be established and upheld forever. This peace is not immediate, as we are all well aware. This peace is yet to come. In his first coming, he did not come to bring peace but a sword. Christ came once at the end of the ages to announce his reign and will come again to establish it with justice and righteousness.
His return is the most sure thing in the world. Isaiah says that the “zeal” or the “jealousy” of the LORD will accomplish this. Modern jealousy is self-interested and petty. Divine jealousy is a burning desire for the glory of God and worship from his people. God is passionate for his glory and the good of his people, and he will not let us perish.
So, Matthew interprets this Old Testament prophecy for us. It promises the birth of a son, and that will establish the kingdom of heaven on earth forever. The fulfillment of that promise began in the birth of Christ, and we celebrate that joyful truth every Christmas. Because of sin and death, our world and man’s understanding is darkened. But in the coming of Christ, a light has shone in that darkness. And Christ is that light who has shone in the darkness.