I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. … These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. [1 Corinthians 10:1a,6-7a (NLT)]
One of my pastors says that everyone has two kinds of experiences. They’re either good or learning and, if we actually learn from the learning experiences, they can move into the good category! Being a pastor, he admits to categorizing his experiences a slightly different way; they’re either good ones or sermon illustrations (and he readily admits to having many sermon illustrations from which to choose!)
When we learn from the learning experiences of others, we can avoid having to learn those painful things first-hand. When advising the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul offered some “sermon illustrations” as words of warning. Making reference to several of Israel’s failings, he reminded the Corinthians that, as blessed as the Israelites were, because they displeased God, most of their bodies were scattered through the wilderness.
Although the church at Corinth had some Jews, the majority of its members were Gentile converts. I wonder how familiar they were with the stories in Exodus and Numbers to which Paul refers. Did they know that, after the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, 3,000 of them died at the hands of the Levites? Were they familiar with the story of the 24,000 men who were executed for worshipping Baal and defiling themselves with Moabite prostitutes? Did they know that poisonous snakes bit the Israelites after they blasphemed God and rejected Moses? Were they aware that the Israelites’ complaint and rebellion against God, Moses and Aaron led to 14,700 dying in a plague? Did they even know that, of all the adults who came out of Egypt, only two (Joshua and Caleb) ever entered the Promised Land?
Actually, Paul’s congregation in Corinth probably knew those stories better than many Christians today. They had access the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) and, while new to the church, I imagine they faithfully studied it and knew the history of Jesus’s people. While many in today’s church occasionally refer to their Bibles, it seems that few of us actually read them. Some of us may read Scripture haphazardly but, by just reading a passage here or there, we never see how it all fits together into a unified whole. If we attend a liturgical church, we may hear snippets of the Old and New Testaments each week, but that’s just bits and pieces. Many Christians who didn’t grow up in the church don’t even know Sunday school stories like Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jacob and Esau, or Moses and the burning bush. How, I wonder, can we learn from Israel’s mistakes when we don’t even know what they were?
Paul hoped the outcome for the Corinthians would be different from that of the Israelites but knew that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t learn from their ancestors’ errors. The Bible is one beautiful sermon illustration and there is much we can learn from others’ faults and failings. As for me, I would rather have my experiences be good ones rather than lessons or sermon illustrations. One way to do that is to learn from other people’s painful learning experiences so to avoid their pitfalls. To learn from them, however, we have to know what they were.
The only ignorance worse than not knowing the book that made us who we are as a civilization is believing we can go on being civilized without that book. The marks of the Bible upon the West and its people are deep. … But they are not indelible. We were barbarians before the God of the Bible found us. And we can become barbarians again. [G. Shane Morris]