The Third Sunday in Lent March 23, 2014
1 Corinthians 10:5-13
7, 172, 792 (TLH alt. 400), 783 (TLH alt. 401)
May the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ lead you to contemplate and appreciate the priceless gift that was thereby earned for you—the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life. Amen.
Dear fellow Christians:
The problem with living in a free country is all of the freedom it affords. Life in a free and independent culture requires many things of its citizens if such a system has any chance of working. These are things like self-control, honor, integrity, obedience, and—perhaps most important of all—self-discipline. These things cannot be legislated or commanded. They have to be provided by the citizens themselves. They have to be practiced by parents and taught from little-on to their children.
It all starts with little things like tending to chores and brushing teeth. It includes learning to do the right thing even when no one is watching or will ever know. This is where it all starts, but it never ends there. In fact, the need for self-discipline never ends at all.
Adults need to be able to consistently determine the line where alcohol use becomes alcohol abuse, where eating becomes gluttony, and where relaxation becomes slothfulness. Adults have to learn to say, “No,” to the new toys, tools, and clothes that will forever beg to be owned. They need to learn to say, “No” to temptation, “Yes” to devotions, “No” to bad language, “Yes” to exercise, “No” to sinful fantasies, and “Yes” to prayer. In short, nearly every moment of every day we can expect to be confronted with choices that have to be made with a rather rigid self-discipline firmly in place. No free society can long survive without it. What is more, no Christian can long remain in the Christian faith without it.
We are not damned because of our sins since we are now saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, who has paid the penalty for all sin in full. Nevertheless, sin that is retained as a pet in the human heart will always gnaw away at the faith that saves. It acts like an acid or cancer that gradually and inexorably destroys what God has created in us. For example, skipping church occasionally, just because you don’t feel like going, leads invariably to skipping more than attending and eventually to spiritual starvation. Putting off family devotions until it is more convenient means it never happens.
Our God knows all about this which is why He did not leave us without warnings and examples. Today’s text speaks of this very thing. That text is found recorded in the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, the tenth chapter:
But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.
So far the words of our text. Fully confident that these are indeed the very words of God, and confident that He will work powerfully through these words in our hearts, we pray: “Sanctify us by the truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Our text talks about examples, albeit negative examples. If I were to ask you to name the individual who has been the best Christian example in your life—the Christian individual you most admire and would most like to imitate or emulate—whom would you choose? Take a moment to answer that question in your own mind.
Now ask yourself what it is about that individual that led you to choose him. No doubt, if we all made a list of the attributes we considered essential there would be striking similarities. A strong faith in Jesus Christ would, naturally, be on the list; but my guess is that self-discipline would also rank very high.
We think of our mentors, our shining Christian examples, as special not because they were never burdened, tempted, or pressured, but because they demonstrated the ability to maintain their balance, serenity, and humility even in the midst of trials and some times in extreme trials. They are our heroes in the faith, not because they were never tested or refined in the fires of life, but because they were given the grace to sing praise to God even while they suffered. We seek to emulate them, not because they were never tempted, but precisely because they were tempted and yet demonstrated the rare ability to say, “No” to themselves and to their natural passions. In other words, they demonstrated self-control, self-discipline. A good Christian man or woman is not one who has no evil thoughts or inclinations, it is, rather, one who consistently denies those impulses.
Certainly, we would all agree that each of us wants to be a follower of Jesus Christ. But that means more than just to walk where Jesus walked. It is possible, in other words, to follow, and yet to follow wrongly. For example, let’s say you told your son to follow you quietly through the store. He does follow you quietly, but also kicks the other shoppers in the shins as they pass by and displays a generally bad attitude. In this case, you would not be pleased even though your son complied with your direction.
So also “following Jesus” means not only that we believe that He died for our sins on the cross, but also that we acknowledge His will as our guiding directive in the moment-by-moment decisions of life. That is why we focus not only on following our Lord, but also on the characteristics we ought to demonstrate as we follow.
Peter provided something of a negative example for us during Holy Week. You will recall that when Jesus was arrested, all of His disciples fled in fear. Peter and John also fled, but not very far since they “followed Jesus” at a distance and eventually were allowed to enter the compound of the High Priest, Caiaphas.
Peter waited in the High Priest’s courtyard while Jesus was questioned. That proved to be both the good news and the bad news as far as Peter was concerned. The good news was that Peter was there to witness what was going to happen to Jesus. The bad news was that Peter was there to witness what was going to happen to Jesus. That is bad news as well as good news because Peter found himself in a situation he simply could not handle—surrounded and threatened by the enemies of his Lord. He found himself in hostile territory, and although he thought himself strong enough to survive in such an environment and under such circumstances, he was, obviously, mistaken.
Peter made the same mistake we tend to make. He mistook good intentions for true self-control. This was exactly the same mistake the Children of Israel made when they first entered the Promised Land. Do you remember Joshua’s famous declaration: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15)? What was the response from the people? “So will we!” Yet, our text gives us a partial list of the miserable failures on the part of these same Jews. What happened? What went wrong? How is it that they demonstrated such profound lack of self-discipline? The simple truth is that all apparently believed that intending to do the right thing ensured that they would actually do the right thing. They believed that knowing the right thing and wanting to do the right thing would somehow magically provide the ability to actually do the right thing. Surely the intentions of the Jews were good. Surely Peter’s intentions were good. Yet, all fell victim to what is still today a common fallacy concerning self-discipline. In fact, it is probably safe to say that the biggest misconception about self-discipline is the understanding of the term itself. Nor are Christians immune from this misunderstanding.
When the world hears the term “self- discipline” or “self-control” it hears the term as though “self” is the subject rather than the object. That is, they imagine that “self” is the thing doing the controlling, when in fact “self” is that which needs to be controlled. “Self” is the entity that needs to be disciplined. At the very least, natural man believes that “self” is both the subject and the object—that an individual must control “self” by “self.” So it’s no wonder that the world does such a poor job when it comes to self-discipline—or self-help of any kind, really. The old Adam “self” can never be counted on to police itself. In fact, the old Adam never accomplishes anything truly good and God-pleasing. As Paul says, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells” (Romans 7:18).
That’s, undoubtedly, why Peter spoke and acted as though he had unlimited reserves of self- discipline. I’m sure he was bound and determined to do the right thing. He bragged that he would never forsake Jesus even if all others did just that. What he found in reality was that his own personal reserves of self-discipline and determination could not even stand up to the questions of a couple of non-threatening, unimposing servant girls. Learn this lesson well, for our own personal reserves of inner strength and resolve are equally as unreliable. Our text gives us fair warning: “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. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” [vv.11-12 ESV]
The Bible does advocate self-control, but not control by self. The Word of God promotes control of self by the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace—the Gospel. There is where the real power lies. Note that our text points away from the power of man and to the power of God when it says, “God is faithful…” [v.13] Not man, God is faithful. The New Man in us certainly is willing enough, but on our own, by our own strength and determination, we fit Paul’s description of himself when he said, “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice.” [v.19]
Add to this the fact that we all have the same pride and self-confidence that got Peter into all his trouble, and you have a recipe for consistent disaster. I wonder, for example, how many of us would have done any better than Peter did under those circumstances in the courtyard. How many of us would have withered in the face of the servant girl’s questioning—recognizing the public scorn that would have been his had he answered differently? You and I also tend to trust in “self” rather than in the power and strength of God the Holy Spirit. You will recall Jesus’ own words of caution to Peter and the other disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
Our Savior, Jesus, gave us an example that is different from that of Peter which is why He will always be our only completely reliable example. Think of all that our Savior suffered for us: the ridicule, the false accusations, the blasphemy, the torture, the shame, even Hell itself. Yet, never once did He lose His composure. Never once did He lose His self-control or self-discipline. Through it all He remained quiet, unperturbed, on track, and focused. This is exactly what the prophecies about this Man told us to expect. Isaiah, for example, foretold in the 53rd chapter of his book: “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
Note also that Jesus demonstrated self-control in the face of the greatest injustice ever witnessed. The only perfect, truly innocent man the world has ever known was sentenced to death for that which He never did. He was condemned because of our sins, yours and mine. The self-discipline shown by our Lord was for us, for our salvation. It was the self-discipline that led Him to the cross. It was that self-discipline that has paid in full for our lack of self-discipline, our failure, our sin. God the Father punished His son in our place. To make that payment, He first had to practice perfect self-discipline and obedience for an entire lifetime. It was that perfect life that constituted our sin-payment.
That’s the kind of Lord we have: perfect, holy, self-sacrificing, loving. It is a mistake to suppose that even Jesus, as true man, could supply by Himself and for Himself all the strength needed to remain perfectly consistent. Time and again we read how He mastered the Scriptures even as a young boy, how He went off by Himself to pray, and how angels ministered to Him. If Jesus Himself looked outside of Himself for strength and power, how foolish of us to do otherwise.
God deserves the best from His children. The truly exciting news is that self-discipline is a gift that the Holy Spirit longs to work in us, a strength He longs to give us. In Isaiah 30:20-21 we read, “And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide Himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.” [ESV]
Self-discipline is right there for the asking. So ask Him for it. Temptation is everywhere and our enemies are powerful. Success, therefore, can only come through the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in us, through His Word. Pray for such a gift, and the Lord will certainly grant it. And then, by all means, teach the same to your children. More than just our society depends on it. Eternity itself—for them and for us—surely hangs in the balance. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.