As a church, we have spent considerable time over several decades studying the Old Testament, including Sunday morning sermons in Genesis through Numbers. Some might question the wisdom of this, particularly studying the book of Leviticus on Sunday mornings! I suppose that some had the same reservations when we commenced our study of the book of Numbers the first week of January 2021 while still under COVID-19 restrictions. But those who endured to the end found those studies of that very ancient book to be reverently relevant and therefore helpful in our journey as the people of God together.
Several times in those studies, we referenced 1 Corinthians 10, which mentions many of the narratives found in Numbers. In this study, we will make relevant and reverent connections between our studies of two books separated by 1,500 years. We will find ourselves experiencing something like “back to the future.” In God’s sovereign ordering of all things, what the corporate people of God faced and experienced in the Old Testament is similar to what the corporate people of God faced in Corinth. And what the corporate people of God faced in Corinth in the past is what the corporate people of God—you and me—face and experience in the present. Therefore, when we look back, we are seeing both our present and our future. We have no excuse to not be prepared.
We will study this passage under three headings.
1. Be Aware (vv. 1–5)
2. Beware (vv. 6–12)
3. Be Assured (v. 13)
Paul first urges his readers to be aware:
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 baptised 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.
(1 Corinthians 10:1–5)
Paul continues to answer questions some in the church had raised with reference to eating meat offered to idols (8:1). From what we read in chapter 10, it was not simply a matter of them consuming food that had, at some point, been offered to idols; rather, it was about eating food offered to idols in a temple setting. That is, the question was about eating food in the context of objectively participating in idol worship. “While subjectively they reject the notion, objectively their actual behaviour implicates them as participants in idolatrous activities…. They were participating in idolatrous behaviour whether or not they conceived of it that way themselves” (Ciampa/Rosner).
As a contemporary example, it would be like going to a wedding feast, being present as a cow is slaughtered to an ancestor and then joining in the consumption of the meat as a part of the idolatrous ceremony. Though you may not subjectively be worshipping the ancestor (because you know better), nevertheless, your participation is an objective participation in false worship. Regardless of your knowledge, you are at the same time ignorantly involved in idol worship. Paul was making them aware of this.
By such objective participation in idolatry, some Christians were tempted to subjectively engage in it. Therefore, Paul has said that those with “knowledge” should defer to those who lacked this knowledge. He goes so far as to say that he was willing to be a lifelong vegan if, by doing so, others were protected from a spiritually fatal fall (8:13).
In chapter 9, Paul expanded on the need to be sensitive to the spiritual welfare of others. He refused his rights of remuneration for the sake of the gospel. His attitude and actions exemplified the cross-shaped Christian life, dying to self for the spiritual welfare of others. He concluded that, if he refused to take up his cross, dying to self, he was living like one who would be rejected by God: a hypocrite. He might externally run the race but, in the end, he would be “disqualified,” rejected as a spiritual reprobate. It is with this in mind that Paul writes chapter 10, beginning with the word “for.”
This danger of being “disqualified” has always been a concern for the corporate people of God. The Corinthians needed to be aware of this. And so do we. We need to be aware of the past, for it is often repeated in the future. That future was now. Be aware of this. Be aware of spiritual complacency.
The word translated “unaware” stems from a word from which we derive agnostic. It literally means “without knowledge.” Those “in the know” were behaving as though they were ignorant, or, at least, they were ignoring the past. Perhaps they were suffering from what Lewis termed “chronological snobbery”: smugly dismissing lessons from those who have gone before them. As the adage mocks, “The only thing we learn from history is that no one learns from history.” Well, they should; we should, and we must.
Paul reviews God’s grace to Israel in their exodus and yet concludes that, despite their corporate blessings, “with most of them [an understatement!] God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” That is, God killed them. The Corinthian Christians needed to be aware of this history, and so do we.
It is significant that, in writing to a predominately Gentile church, Paul says, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers” and then he lists various things the children of Israel experienced in the Exodus.
“Brothers” was a term of family endearment. And coming from the pen of a “Hebrew of the Hebrews (Philippians 3:5), we should realise just how much Paul was saying. He saw Christians, including Gentile Christians, as his kin (see Romans 9:1–3). But further, by saying “our fathers,” he was declaring solidarity between Gentile believers and old covenant believers.
Through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, one becomes a child of God and therefore a child of Abraham—a member of the Israel of God (Galatians 3:26–29; 6:16).
Christians corporately (i.e. the church) do not replace Israel; we are Israel! It always has been so, and always will be so. Schreiner captures this idea well: “He designates Israel ‘our ancestors,’ even though most of the Corinthians were Gentiles, indicating that believers in Jesus Christ are part of restored Israel. Israel’s story, Israel’s history, is their history.”
This point is important not merely ecclesiologically (and that is important) or hermeneutically (very important) but existentially; that is, experientially. Paul is assuming solidarity with God’s people throughout the ages. There is a long and connected history from generation to generation of God’s people. If we are guilty of chronological snobbery—dismissing the past—our future will merely repeat the past. When we read Old Testament narratives, we are reading about our heritage, and we must pay attention.
Yes, the Old Testament matters. It is not time to unhinge the New Testament from the Old. We need to learn from the Old Testament. We need to be aware of their weaknesses and sins so that we don’t repeat them.
Paul recounts the redemptive history of Israel as recorded in Exodus and then some of their journey as recorded in Numbers.
“All under the cloud, and all passed through the sea” references Exodus 13–14 and Numbers 9, which offer examples of corporate salvation, redemption, or deliverance. “All ate the same spiritual food” refers to Exodus 16 and Numbers 11, which records Israel eating manna in the wilderness, supernaturally supplied to be not only physically but also spiritually sustaining. This food pointed to Jesus Christ (John 6). “All drank the same spiritual drink” references Exodus 17 and Numbers 20. As the rest of the statement indicates, this refers most likely to the miracle recorded in Numbers 20:2–13. However, it may include all the water miracles in the wilderness, commencing with Exodus 17 at Rephidim. Prior summarises: “As well as being necessary for physical sustenance, they were also of spiritual value, nourishing their whole relationship with God.”
Paul writes of a “spiritual rock,” which “was Christ.” There was a rabbinical myth that the rock of Numbers 20 literally followed Israel throughout her wilderness wanderings. This is highly unlikely. It probably referred to the ever-present Son of God, who was with them all the way. He did not appear as he did in the incarnation; nevertheless, he was always there, sustaining them.
Hanson writes, “Paul assumes ‘the real presence of Christ in Israel’s history’ accompanying, and providing for, Israel.” In other words, they should have built their lives upon that Rock. As we too are called to do (Matthew 7:24–27). Be aware of Christ’s very real presence and live accordingly!
Paul wanted them to be aware that, just as they had experienced an exodus, just as they had identified as followers of a leader (cf. 1:12–13), just as they had participated in spiritual food and drink at the Lord’s Table, they must also be aware of Paul’s sobering “nevertheless” of v. 5. Paul wanted them to be aware of the possibility of apostasy. “The greatest danger of all is the complacency that is happy to rely on an outward conformity to Christian norms, while the heart is, in reality, in a far country. ‘This people draw near me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me’ (Isaiah 29:13)” (Jackman).
The most experienced are often the most vulnerable. What does all of this have to do with us? I’m glad you asked.
First, we need to be aware of our solidarity with God’s people throughout history. Perhaps at this moment in history, it needs to be emphasised.
The church has an existential and salvific connection with Israel of the old covenant. As Paul has written, we have a solidarity with “our fathers,” the nation of Israel, whom God preserved. We need to be aware that the church is indebted to the nation of Israel, for it was through her that God brought his promised Messiah into the world. Paul reminds the church in Rome of this when he warns them to not be dismissive of Israel, for the church was grafted into her (Romans 11:11–21). We need to be aware of this affinity we have with the Jewish people.
God used the Jewish nation to bring about his redemption. He used the Jewish nation to give us a Bible. He used the Jewish nation to birth the church. Because of this, Satan hates Israel. There is no other way to explain the millennia of hostility towards Israel, including the antisemitism we see today (Revelation 12; etc.). We should have great empathy for Israel, while not confusing the gospel of Christ and what makes a Christian. We should have empathy for their suffering. We should have empathy for their unbelief and eternal destruction apart from Jesus Christ. What a sorrow of tragic proportions to be so near and yet so far away, to have such a spiritual heritage and yet fundamentally be no different than their unbelieving enemies. We should have evangelistic zeal for Israel, this is how we seek her “peace” (Psalm 22).
Second, this principle of corporate solidarity should humble us. We did not arrive either on our own nor are we any better than those who have gone before. We stand on the (sometimes very stooped) shoulders of others, which give us a better view, despite their stoopedness. We have less excuse for failure, which seems to be a major point with Paul. Note the implication of v. 5 concerning “most of them” being “overthrown.” A new generation took their place (Numbers 26ff) with hope of a better future. So it should be for us. The next generation of our local churches should “go back” and have a better present and future.
Third, again, be aware of being complacent and presumptuous. Being a member of a community is no guarantee of not being disqualified. However, as a community realises this, we will help one another to persevere. This is a means by which God preserves us. Children, are you a part?
In vv. 6–12, Paul urges his readers to beware.
Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 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.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 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.
(1 Corinthians 10:6–12)
With the word “now,” Paul drives home why some were overthrown in the wilderness, and why some of the Corinthians may be in the end: God sovereignly ordained and recorded Israel’s failures (yes, you heard that right) for his new covenant people (v. 11). Paul continues to “provide a sense of historical perspective as well as of scriptural authority” (Thiselton).
Rightful Blame but Righteous Purpose
Israel’s apostasy was Israel’s failure and fault. Her defection through unbelief was her choice. Israel is solely responsible for her compromises with idolatry with immorality and with indulgence. Yet God sovereignly permitted and providentially controlled it. He then preserved it for all of posterity. This is a profound reality. Paul wanted the Corinthians, and believers throughout history to see that “behind all these things [i.e. Israel’s rebellious past] lies the eternal purpose of the living God, who knows the end from the beginning, and who therefore has himself woven the prefigurement into these earlier texts for the sake of his final eschatological people” (Ciampa and Rosner) As Schreiner recognises, “God designed salvation history so that the life of Israel would function typologically.” Their example served as both a warning as well as giving hope (see v. 13).
In God’s gracious kindness, he uses the sin of old covenant Israel so his new covenant people will beware of doing the same. God used the negative example of Israel’s spiritual complacency and sinful complicity to warn us of the same evil and similar consequences. When we “go back,” we experience Romans 8:28 in the future.
Remember this when you fail. God can use it for the benefit of others. But don’t miss the emphasis of the passage: You don’t have to repeat the failures of the past! You don’t have to sow the proverbial wild oats.
Paul’s particular concern is highlighted in telling the Corinthian church to beware not to “desire evil as they did.” They are not to crave that which is worthless and, in the end, harmless and injurious. “Unrestrained ‘letting one’s hair down’ led to a spiral of self-indulgence in contrast to the ‘self-control’ for which Paul pleads in 9:25” (Thiselton). This admonition reminds us of Israel in the wilderness craving meat and then, later, craving immorality, which culminated in that which was ultimately worthless: idolatry. Indulgence, immorality, and idolatry were a trio of evil in the past; they are a trio of evil in the present; and they will be a trio of evil in the future. We need to beware.
They and we need to beware of desires that lead to evil. All sin is a result of misplaced and misused desire (Ephesians 2:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:5; 1 Timothy 6:9; Titus 2:12; 3:3; James 1:14–15; 4:1–3; 1 Peter 2:11; 2 Peter 1:4; 2:10; 1 John 2:16–17; Jude 7). Perhaps some church members in Corinth desired to be accepted by their peers and so they crossed the threshold into an idol’s temple. Perhaps the desire for economic security made it conducive for hanging out at the temple’s guild meetings. Perhaps the desire to avoid a fight in the family led to compromising their no idol commitment. Whatever the case, Paul feared for their souls and so he warned them to avoid selfish indulgence (v. 6), to avoid senseless idolatry (v. 7; see Exodus 32:6), to avoid sexual immorality (v. 8; see Numbers 25:1,9), and to avoid sinful insolence and ingratitude (vv. 9–10; see Numbers 21:4-9; 14:2, 29-37).
The word translated “grumble” means to say something under one’s breath, in a low tone. It refers to the response of the discontented. It is an onomatopoeia: its pronunciation sounds like what it means. Goggusmos sounds like a grump! You have heard goggusmos from your children. And probably out of your own mouth.
So soon upon experiencing the Lord’s gracious deliverance, so soon upon experiencing the Lord’s powerful inimitable deliverance, so soon after experiencing the Lord’s provision of food and water and protection, the people of God became guilty of ingratitude, idolatry, and immorality, as they fed their self-indulgence. The Corinthians were being tempted to do the same thing.
Rather than gratefully taking up their cross, dying to their rights pursuing pleasing the Lord, some were hell-bent on doing life their way. Rather than humbly assessing their spiritually vulnerable position amid a sinful world and reining in their desires, they were complacently tempting Christ, presuming on him as they objectively played around with idols. And in some cases, they committed the sin of immorality (chapters 5–7).
Brothers and sisters, sin will always take you further than you intended to go; it will always cost you more than you thought you would pay; it will always be more painful than you ever imagined it would hurt; it will always disappoint you more than you ever thought.
The old covenant was being removed from the scene (“end of the ages”; cf. Hebrews 8:13) while the fullness of the new covenant was coming to the fore. Again, Paul wanted them to be aware that this transition did not remove all of the potential dangers for God’s new covenant people. They needed this instruction to beware of their own falling away and falling under the judgement of God. “Their relation to the old underlines the need to take ‘warnings’ seriously (v. 11b); their relation to the new addresses doubt and anxiety on the journey of self-pilgrimage, self-discipline, and growth” (Thiselton).
This is no light matter. “The judgment of Israel in redemptive history points to and anticipates a greater and more serious judgment, one that is eternal and not merely temporal” (Schreiner).
Paul’s “therefore” of v. 12 brings his admonition to a crescendo, warning against spiritual complacency. As Jackman says, “Complacency is a danger in any sphere of life” but especially in our relationship with the Lord—and subsequently with the world around us.
Mary Oliver wrote on Thursday morning at The Daily Maverick newsfeed: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Perhaps she was thinking of this passage, for this is precisely what Paul was telling the Corinthian church. It is precisely what the Lord is telling local churches today.
We must endlessly pay attention to the dangers of complacency in our relationship with the Lord. We are constantly assaulted by temptations to indulgence, immorality, and idolatry. Yes, idolatry.
Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and relies on, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.” Idols are not only material possessions, but they can also be ideological: a certain political party or position, education, status and social acceptance, marriage, family, identity, ministry, career achievement, etc. Don’t assume you are exempt. The fight for our ultimate affection and loyalty is relentless and we dare not assume that we “stand.” When we do, then we are in danger of “falling.”
As throughout the section (chapters 8–10), Paul was concerned about the fall of apostasy, a full and final fall into hell, forever separated from God. The writer to the Hebrews has a similar warning as he too remembers Israel’s past failures and fall (Hebrews 3:17; 4:11).
Let the past fall of Israel, and others, make you beware your own potential fall. Let the past help you to have a blessed future. Worship God in a world where you are tempted to worship yourself, anything, or anyone else.
Don’t think you can stand while being exposed to pornography. “Self-worship is the root of all immoral sexual behaviour, since its basic motivation is self-gratification and sexual pleasure” (Jackman). Don’t think you can stand while engaging in a flirtatious conversation. Don’t think you can stand while taking that second or third drink. Don’t think you can stand by just sleeping in this one Sunday. Don’t think you can stand while rejecting church membership. Don’t think you can stand going it alone as a Christian.
Finally, Paul urges his readers to be assured: “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” (v. 13).
The passage concludes with a well-known, but often misapplied, verse. Though this verse does offer encouragement and assurance, it begins, not with a word of encouragement, but rather with the negative assurance that you and I are going to face temptations. He is not saying that our temptations are not unique and therefore we should realise that we are like everyone else. Rather, he is saying that to be tempted is to be human and to be human is to be tempted. In other words, there is no escape in this world from the temptations of indulgence, immorality, and idolatry. Beware!
However, we are also assured that God has ordained an escape (literally, an exodus) from falling to such temptations. Though God’s people are tempted to be unfaithful, nevertheless God is faithful. God has ordained that we face the foe but he has also ordained that we not fall to the foe. God provides us with what we need to flee (v. 14).
There is no escape from temptation to sin as a whole, yet there is the promise of escape from giving in to that temptation. Sin will tempt us but the Saviour will deliver us. “Verse 13 teaches us that while we can easily be deluded, we can also be delivered” (Jackman).
Having expressed severe warnings, Paul did not intend to create a “a threat to assurance, for those who heed the warnings grow in their assurance…. Promise and warning work together to strengthen the Corinthians as they run the race to the end…. The assertion that ‘God is faithful’ is consistently tied in Paul’s thought to a divine pledge to sustain his people until the end” (Schreiner).
Brothers and sisters, as you look back, be warned and be assured. God is faithful to keep his promises and to keep his people. Joshua and Caleb serve as examples of God’s faithfulness. In Numbers 14:38, we read of these believers who truly believed God, and he kept them from falling into the corporate defection of others. They serves as wonderful examples of the promise of v. 13.
If the Corinthians looked to Jesus Christ, they would find the way of escape, for he both provided and he proved it. He will do likewise for you and me. As Prior comments, “God himself provides the oppressed and sorely tried with his exodus… It is the certain consummation of an exodus already achieved that enables us to endure: we see the light at the end of the tunnel and we press on.”
The most faithful person who ever lived on this earth was our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He withstood temptation in our place. By believing and obeying his Father’s word he was able to escape and then the angels came and ministered to him (Matthew 4:11). One day, he would face the strongest of all temptations:: the temptation to turn away from the ordained cross (Luke 22). But knowing that God the Father is faithful, he said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Several painful hours later, entrusting himself to his heavenly Father, he died, undertaking the ultimate exodus for sinners like us.
Look to that past event on Good Friday; look to the past and that first Lord’s Day and see that Jesus rose from the dead. Let that past provide you with comfort in the present that God is faithful. And then be assured that God will be faithful in your future as well. Back to the future, indeed!