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.
In chapter 9 Paul used himself as an example of a mature Christian who disciplined himself to better serve God. Chapter 10 presents Israel as an example of spiritual immaturity, shown in their overconfidence and lack of self-discipline.
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,
This chapter continues Paul’s argument concerning the lifestyle of the believers and the need for self-discipline, as recorded in chapters 8 and 9. At the end of chapter 9, Paul had described his own self-discipline and had warned about the danger of being “disqualified.”
The Christian life is a struggle, precisely because it is “Christian.” It is a struggle to obey God, face persecution, exercise self-control and self-discipline, and deal with sin in one’s life. When people are “saved,” they grow in their relationship with Christ and want to become more like him.
They will not become perfect in this life, but they desire to work toward holiness. Some of the Corinthian believers thought that because they had professed faith, went to church, and joined in the Lord’s Supper, they could then live as they pleased. But this was a false belief, as Paul would show through the example he used from Israel’s history.
A perfect Old Testament example of believing the false notion that one can be saved and then live a faithless, God-less life can be seen in what happened to the Jews’ ancestors in the wilderness long ago. The book of Exodus contains the record of their miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt by the intervention of God (see Exodus 1–12). God gave them a leader (Moses), set them free (through great miracles), and then guided all of them as they moved out of Egypt and headed toward the land God wanted to give them (the Promised Land). “A cloud” refers to God’s presence in the form of a cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 13:21–22). Their guide was God himself in a physical form, directly in front of them! When they came to the Red Sea, God brought them all safely through the waters of the sea on dry ground. This event is recorded in Exodus 14.
The emphasis in 10:1–4 is on the word “all,” which Paul used four or five times. Paul was making the point that all of the Israelites experienced the miracles of God’s protection and guidance. Yet, later, so many turned away. Many thought that their place among God’s people assured them the Promised Land. Assuming themselves secure, they refused the life of self-discipline, self-denial, and obedience to God. Because of that, many were “disqualified” from entering the Promised Land.
From the example of his own life (chapter 9) Paul turned to the subject of the Exodus. God’s power in freeing his people from bondage in Egypt provides countless insights into God’s grace and integrity. The people were liberated en masse. Many walked out of slavery physically, but their hearts, minds, and wills remained captive. Freedom from oppression did not lead them to grateful living. Though all benefitted, many nullified those benefits by persistent unbelief.
Christians today have a marvelous heritage of God’s faithfulness. We also have a lengthy history of human sinfulness. How tragic it is when, through ignorance of the past, we repeat many of the same mistakes that spiritually crippled and limited the spread of the gospel. When we read in God’s Word about the failures of others, do we respond, “That couldn’t happen to me”? If so, we may be falling into the same danger.
2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea
This verse at first seems very difficult to understand. But it must be understood that “baptism” here is used for comparison, not as an exact equivalent. And “into Moses” is used as being analagous to the Christian experience of being baptized “into Christ” (see Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). The Israelites were baptized in that they shared the blessing and gracious deliverance of God with and through Moses’ intervention and leadership. By their experience of passing through the Red Sea, they were united and initiated together under Moses’ leadership. “When the people of Israel saw the mighty power that the Lord had displayed against the Egyptians, they feared the Lord and put their faith in him and his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31 nlt). The cloud represented God’s presence and glory among them (Exodus 14:19–22), indicating his leadership and protection. The sea represented God’s salvation of his people through the Red Sea as they crossed safely to escape the Egyptians. All of the Israelites experienced this “baptism.” However, the common experience of this baptism did not keep most of them faithful to God in the days that followed.
3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
Further miracles sustained the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert. God provided spiritual food in the form of “manna” that came from heaven (Exodus 16:4, 14–31). Paul called it “spiritual” because God had provided it for them. The spiritual drink referred to the water Moses obtained from a rock, again a provision directly from God. Moses got water from a rock both at the beginning and at the end of Israel’s journey (Exodus 17:1–7; Numbers 20:2–13).
5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
God had performed great miracles for his people—setting them free from slavery, guiding them through a sea, and giving them food and drink in a barren wilderness. Yet after all this, most of the people rebelled against God.
The word “most” is actually an understatement; of the thousands who stood at the very edge of the Promised Land, only two men had faith enough in God to enter (Numbers 14:5–12). Because of their lack of faith, God caused the people to turn back from the land and wander for forty years in the wilderness.
God destroyed them in the wilderness by causing them to wander until they died. Only Joshua and Caleb lived long enough to enter the land (Numbers 14:30). The rest died without ever having entered the Promised Land—this was God’s punishment on them for their disobedience and rebellion against him. See Hebrews 3–4, where the wilderness example is also used as a warning.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.
Far from being irrelevant to New Testament Christians, the stories of people in the Old Testament provide examples from which the believers can learn. In particular, the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt teaches believers to not desire evil as they did. Clearly, the Israelites’ status as God’s people and recipients of his love and provision did not mean that all of them loved and served God in return. Instead, many actually desired evil and turned away from God, as the following verses describe.
As Paul wrote about the history of his people, he highlighted God’s directions, warnings, and examples. It turns out that events transpired and were recorded for future purposes. Twice in this chapter, he pointed out that “these things occurred as examples” for us (10:6, 11). The examples were specific behaviors: idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the Lord, and complaining. In each case, the consequences were death. Each also represents a real temptation toward “setting our hearts on evil things” (niv).
Instead of obeying the One who gave them freedom, God’s people rebelled. We rebel against God when we give in to our cravings to put pleasures ahead of service to God. Don’t let anything come between you and God.
7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”
This incident, when “the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry,” occurred when the Israelites made a golden calf and worshiped it in the wilderness (Exodus 32). Paul was quoting Exodus 32:6.
The people became idolaters, worshiping an image rather than God, who had brought them out of Egypt. The Israelites claimed to be worshiping God (Exodus 32:5); however, God was dishonored by what they were doing—both by their idol (a golden calf) and then by their “pagan revelry.”
“Revelry” refers to singing, shouting, and dancing that promote sexual immorality. This also shows that the problem addressed in 8:1–13 was idolatry, not merely eating marketplace meat. If those people who had witnessed the miracles of the escape from Egypt could so easily be tempted to turn to idolatry, then the Christians in Corinth, who were surrounded by idols, should also be on their guard.
The Corinthian believers needed to remember that God is completely separate from idolatry. They could not participate in idol festivals or celebrations and claim that they were really worshiping God through them. This dishonored God. He does not overlook sin, nor does he take it lightly. Neither should his followers.
Why did people continually turn to idols instead of to God?
|Idols were:||God is:
|Intangible—no physical form
had human characteristics
has divine characteristics
|Able to be manipulated
|Not able to be manipulated
|Worshiping idols involved:
|Worshiping God involves:
|Purity and commitment
|Doing whatever a person
|Doing what God wants
|Focusing on self
|Focusing on others
8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.
This incident, when 23,000 of the Israelites died in one day is recorded in Numbers 25:1–9. The Israelites worshiped a god of Canaan, Baal of Peor, and engaged in sexual immorality with Moabite women.
Part of the worship of this god, Baal, involved sexual immorality; the Israelites had engaged in actions clearly against their own laws in order to “worship” an idol. This occurred during the wanderings in the wilderness, so it involved the same group of people who had left Egypt and had already been punished for worshiping the golden calf (10:7).
Many continued in sin, without regard for the God to whom they claimed to belong. Because of their sin, God punished them harshly. For the believers in Corinth, the comparison would have been inescapable. Much of the idol worship there focused on ritual prostitution and sexual immorality of all kinds. God would not go lightly on those who claimed to be his but still engaged in idol worship or sexual immorality.
Today we can allow many things to become gods to us. Money, fame, work, or pleasure can become gods when we concentrate too much on them for personal identity, meaning, and security. No one sets out with the intention of worshiping these things. But by the amount of time we devote to them, they can grow into gods that ultimately control our thoughts and energies. Letting God hold the central place in our lives keeps these things from turning into gods.
Sexual sin is powerful and destructive. That is why God has so many laws about sexual sins. Instructions about sexual behavior would have been vital for 3 million people on a forty-year camping trip. But they would be equally important when they entered the Promised Land and settled down as a nation. Paul recognized the importance of strong rules about sex for believers, because sexual sins have the power to disrupt and destroy the church (see also Colossians 3:5–8). Sins involving sex are not innocent dabblings in forbidden pleasures, as is so often portrayed, but powerful destroyers of relationships. They bring confusion and tear down the respect and trust so essential for solid marriages and secure children.
9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents
Other versions (such as the niv), following some manuscripts, read “the Lord” instead of “Christ.” But “Christ” has the better manuscript support and is the reading that scribes would be tempted to change because it is difficult to imagine the Israelites tempting Christ in the wilderness. But Paul had already affirmed that Christ, as the spiritual Rock, accompanied them in their wilderness journeys (see 10:4 and discussion). This verse affirms Christ’s deity and preexistence.
This verse also recalls Israel’s complaining about having been brought out into the wilderness. The people complained, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness? … There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this wretched manna” (Numbers 21:5 nlt). The people even complained about the manna—the miracle food that God had provided (see Exodus 16:31–32). They were testing the Lord’s patience to see what he would do, and he punished them for their complaining attitudes by sending poisonous snakes among them. Many were killed by the snakes. Those who claim to be God’s people will not test the Lord to see how much they can get away with. True believers will seek to stay near to God in order to constantly live in obedience to him (see also Hebrews 3–4).
10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
This incident of grumbling occurred when the people complained against the leadership of Moses and Aaron—an event that actually happened several times. The phrase “God sent his angel of death to destroy them” could refer to when the Israelites grumbled at Kadesh, refusing to enter the Promised Land. God punished them with a plague (Numbers 14:2, 36–37). This could also refer to the incident recorded in Numbers 16 when a group rebelled against Moses, and God sent a plague that killed the rebels. In both cases, the assumption is that the plague that resulted came through God’s angel of death. This angel is first mentioned in Exodus 12:23, with the last plague that came upon Egypt. Grumbling against God or against his leaders results in divine punishment. God does not take this sin lightly either. This was another problem that the Corinthian church was facing (3:1–9).
Paul warned the Corinthian believers not to grumble. We start to grumble when our attention shifts from what we have to what we don’t have. The people of Israel didn’t seem to notice what God was doing for them—setting them free, making them a nation, giving them a new land—because they were so wrapped up in what God wasn’t doing for them. They could think of nothing but the delicious Egyptian food they had left behind (Numbers 11:5).
Before we judge the Israelites too harshly, it’s helpful to think about what occupies our attention most of the time. Are we grateful for what God has given us, or are we always thinking about what we would like to have? Don’t allow your unfulfilled desires to cause you to forget God’s gifts of life: food, health, work, and friends.
11 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.
The Old Testament stories were written down as warnings for believers of the first century, and for today. When the Israelites disobeyed, they received punishment. Likewise, when people who claim to be Christians sin with no repentance, no desire to change, and no concern for God’s laws, they too will receive punishment. When Christ came, everything changed. The ages past reached their fulfillment, and now their lessons, recorded in the pages of Scripture, can be understood in the light of God’s mercy and salvation in Jesus Christ.
12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
The Israelites had received numerous pictures of God’s grace and witnessed many miracles performed before their very eyes. Yet they gave in to temptation and fell away from God. Paul warned the Corinthian Christians to be careful. If they began to take pride in their faith, if they began to take it for granted, if they thought they were standing firm, that was the time to be most careful not to fall. The Corinthians were very sure of themselves, almost prideful. Paul said that if the Israelites fell into idolatry, so could some in the Corinthian church. No human being is ever beyond temptation while he or she is on this earth. Paul warned the believers not to let down their guard. Those most liable to fall are those who think they won’t.