LCN Article
To the Overcomers

March / April 2021

Gerald E. Weston

We are reminded each year of God’s amazing plan for us individually and collectively as we observe the biblical Festivals of God. Think about that: Only a precious few people in all of human history have known the true meaning of life, and you are among them! How exciting it is that we are given the opportunity for eternal life as the literal divine children of our Creator—and how wonderful that every human being who has ever lived will eventually have that opportunity!

As time passes, however, we can easily come to take the lessons and meaning of these days for granted. Can you still remember your first year or two in the Church, when these Festivals were first explained to you? I certainly can. My first Passover remains etched into my mind—where I was and some of my thoughts at the time. The same is true for the Night to Be Much Observed—and I’m sure it is the same for most of you. That next evening after Passover, marking the start of the Days of Unleavened Bread, was filled with jubilation as we heard a message about Israel’s escape from Egypt and how this related to the beginning of our personal journey out of sin and towards the promised reward.

The earliest sermon I remember hearing during the Days of Unleavened Bread was about Israel’s sins that kept them out of the Promised Land—especially their sin of murmuring. I thought, How blind and lacking in faith they were after seeing such great miracles that brought about their liberation! While they were physically brought out of Egypt, their hearts and minds were left behind, still in bondage. I wondered, How could they be so foolish?

What my naïve mind found incredible then is no longer so unbelievable today. We see the same sins being committed right before our eyes. Miracles do not sustain faith for long. Too many individuals—though thankfully not all—experience a genuine miracle but then fall away from where God is working. Some forget the miraculous and “rationalize” a physical explanation, when none seemed to make sense at the time. Others “rationalize” that the miraculous happened because of their own righteousness and that they no longer need to associate with those who are “less faithful.” At other times, it is a matter of being offended and allowing bitterness to set in, creating a breach between the individual and the ministry through which God is working (Hebrews 12:15). Bitterness blinds the eyes, as John warns us: “But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11). Whatever the reason, miracles alone do not sustain faith to stay the course. This is a powerful lesson from the Exodus, one that we rehearse each year during the Days of Unleavened Bread.

Reading and hearing examples from the Exodus is the right first step to learning the lessons they hold, but unless we are moved to change our behavior, we miss the point. As James tells us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22–25).

Yes, there is a blessing that comes from looking into the mirror of God’s word, recognizing where we need to change, making those changes, and remembering to maintain them going forward. So why do so many come up short? Before answering that question, let us review the scriptural warnings given regarding the Exodus.

The Missing Meaning

Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie The Ten Commandments depicts the spectacular miracle at the Red Sea, but how many who have viewed that scene over the last 65 years understand the greater significance of the event? It is there for anyone to read: “I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1–2).

There was water above and water all around—a watery grave, as the Egyptians learned too late. But, for Israel, their enslaved life in Egypt was buried in the sea and they commenced a new life on the other side. Paul reminds us here in 1 Corinthians of this often-overlooked fact—and follows with the overall lesson that baptism is only the beginning of our journey out of sin and into the Kingdom of God.

Another little-understood truth is that the One who became Jesus Christ was with the children of Israel, just as He oversees our lives and provides for our needs today. “[A]ll ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (vv. 3–4). While this is not new to most of us, how often are we satisfied with technical knowledge while neglecting to act upon the truth? Knowledge is not enough—we must “practice the truth” (1 John 1:6).

Israel was continually thrown off guard when things did not happen the way they thought they should. They went three days without fresh water, and at other times there was no meat except for their limited flocks and herds—which, for whatever reason, they did not want to slaughter. When put in these situations, they judged by the sight of their eyes, failed to see the Rock that followed them, and took out their fears and frustrations on the men God was using to lead them.

Do You Trust in Jesus Christ, the Living Head?

There is something important about the way Paul lays down his message. Do we ever forget that this same Rock who provided for Israel’s needs—on His timetable and in the manner He chose—currently leads the Church as the Head of the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22–23)? We read this, but do we truly believe it? These are easy words to profess, but when things do not work out as we individually think they should, do we exercise faith in Him, or do we fall back to trusting in ourselves? Just as Israel could see no further than Moses and Aaron—human leaders—many today fail to recognize who is the living Head of the Church as He leads His body through flawed human beings. How hard it can be to see beyond men!

It is easy to see this error in the children of Israel—but do we recognize it in ourselves? There is a huge difference between administrative decisions and apostasy, but when something does not go the way we think it should, it is easy to claim the latter to justify rebellion. Yet we are warned, “A man who isolates himself seeks his own desire; he rages against all wise judgment. A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart” (Proverbs 18:1–2).

The history of the Church of God shows a disturbing pattern similar to the Exodus: “But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5). How many tens of thousands have begun the journey with a joyous baptism, but failed to remain faithful? No doubt many were called to support the Work without ever fully “getting it.” We can hope that their opportunity will come in the second resurrection, but that is not for us to judge (John 5:22).

Paul warns us twice in 1 Corinthians 10 that we would be wise to learn from the example of the Exodus. “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” (1 Corinthians 10:11). When he speaks of the “ends of the ages,” is he not speaking directly to us? He gives this same warning in verse 6, but attaches to it a specific failing—violation of the Tenth Commandment. “Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.”

There are many evil lusts, but it is sometimes not the object of one’s desire that is wrong, but the intensity of that desire. For Israel, ingratitude for what God was giving them was coupled with their desire to satisfy their cravings. “Now the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel also wept again and said: ‘Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!’” (Numbers 11:4–6). Even so, God provided meat in the form of quail for them—but their lust and gluttony, shown by their actions, soon brought destruction upon them (vv. 31–34).

Aaron’s Miraculous Calf

Israel also gave in to idolatry in the famous event at the bottom of Mount Sinai when Moses “delayed” in returning. It is shocking how quickly they forgot all that had gone before, but are we any different today? We certainly like to think we are, but are we? Consider this pandemic and how quickly it has caused some to forsake doing the Work of God over masks and temporarily refraining from singing. It does not take much to “upset our own apple carts!”

Consider also how quickly tens of thousands of Church of God members cast aside all that they had learned after the death of God’s servant Mr. Herbert Armstrong. Yes, that took more than 40 days, but many made nearly instantaneous reversals on individual doctrines when told they could. After a three-hour sermon by Mr. Armstrong’s successor, they cast aside the Sabbath. After another sermon, they went out that very evening to dine on unclean meats. These were not matters of administrative decisions on how to keep God’s Sabbath during an unusual circumstance, but casting aside His Sabbath altogether—along with His Holy Days, His food laws, and so much more. It all happened in a short period of time.

One form of lawlessness leads to more lawlessness (Romans 6:19). If Israel’s calf was not evil enough, the nation’s behavior was worse. The Israelites offered sacrifices to the calf, held a feast in its honor, and “rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6). What does the expression rose up to play mean?

After Aaron gave a most pitiful excuse to Moses for what had happened, claiming that he had cast the gold into the fire “and this calf came out” (Exodus 32:24), we find that their worship of the calf included “unrestrained” singing and dancing (vv. 18–19, 25). And Paul warns us, “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’” (1 Corinthians 10:7). It is evident from all this that the children of Israel had reverted to an unrestrained form of dancing. I have occasionally said of some of the dancing I’ve observed at weddings and other occasions that the only thing missing is the golden calf! There is a lesson in this for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. After all, is that not what Paul tells us (vv. 6, 11)?

This clearly led into Paul’s next warning: “Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell” (v. 8). One interesting point in this warning is that God’s wrath is not always immediate. The sexual immorality that is referred to in this verse is mentioned in Numbers 25, where we learn that “the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab” (v. 1). This did not happen in a single day, but the result was God’s wrath descending on “twenty-four thousand” Israelites (v. 9; the discrepancy between 1 Corinthians and Numbers is easily explained by 23,000 dying in “one day” and another 1,000 subsequently).

But if there is one lesson we ought to learn from the Exodus, it is found in 1 Corinthians 10:9–10, which says that the Israelites tempted God with their lack of faith and complaining. Many sermons have been preached on this subject over the decades, but one must ask, “To what avail?” Murmuring or complaining appears to be a characteristic of human nature and, try as we might to avoid it, it crops up far too often. So, how do we solve the problem? We will get to that, but first let us look elsewhere in 1 Corinthians for a couple of other lessons regarding Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread.

Puffed Up

This first letter to the Corinthians was written around the time of Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread and so contains many lessons related to these days. In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul uses three times the unusual expression “puffed up” (vv. 6, 18, 19). Bread puffs up when yeast is introduced to the dough. 1 Corinthians 5 again uses this unusual expression (v. 2), which is also found in two other places in this letter (1 Corinthians 8:1; 13:4)—yet the remainder of the Bible has only two such references (Colossians 2:18; 1 Timothy 3:6). Paul drives home the God-intended lesson of unleavened bread when he reminds the Corinthians that they are to put out the “puffed-up” old leaven of malice and wickedness and replace it with the unleavened, humble bread of sincerity and truth (5:8).

We also read that the Passover was “party time” for at least some members in Corinth—a time for gluttony and drunkenness. They totally missed the sober significance of Passover (1 Corinthians 11:17–34). They failed to comprehend what it meant for Christ to be our Passover (5:7), and Paul warned them that there were consequences for eating and drinking the symbols of Christ’s suffering in an unworthy manner (11:29–30).

What to Do?

This article has explained very little that most longtime Church members have not heard before, but have we truly gotten it? If not—and that applies to far too many—what can we do to get it? The answer is found in a simple but too-often-neglected tool for spiritual growth: meditation. It is too easy to read something without taking the time to think and deeply consider how it applies to the self. If you have a problem of complaining, consider spending a few minutes at the beginning of each day thinking about why you complain, when you are most likely to complain, what it is that you are likely to complain about, and what you need to do to overcome that habit. Focus on overcoming the problem, ask for and accept God’s forgiveness, and talk to Him candidly about this sin.

Meditation is clearly a neglected tool for overcoming. Each day, consider what it is that you are trying to overcome, reminding yourself that you can do so with God’s help. And always remember that it is the overcomers who will make it to the Promised Land (Revelation 2–3).