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 baptized 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. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 ESV
Paul is still dealing with the problem taking place in Corinth. There is disunity in the fellowship over eating meat sacrificed to idols. Actually, it was about much more than that. There were those within the church who were most likely using their newfound freedom in Christ to excuse their continued participation in the sacrificial feasts or meals offered on behalf of false gods. These individuals saw nothing wrong with their participation in these pagan events because they rationalized that false gods don’t really exist. But there were others who once worshiped those same false gods, who felt that it was wrong for a Christian to have anything to do with idols. And while Paul agreed that the logic behind the first group’s argument was sound, their motivation was not. They were more concerned about their own rights than they were about the spiritual well-being of their fellow believers. He let them know that their rights needed to take a back seat to the spiritual health of the church, and he used himself as an example.
Now he lets them know that there is something even more dangerous going on that they are overlooking. The serious threat of falling into idolatry. While there were those in the church who pridefully felt free to associate themselves with others who worshiped false gods, Paul warns them that they are playing with fire. While idols are not really gods, idol worship is real and dangerously deadly. And their relationship with God as His chosen people was not an antidote or protection from the temptation of idol worship. Paul uses the people of Israel as a primary example and he utilizes five comparative illustrations to make his point. First, he talks about the pillar of cloud that guided them. It represented the glory and presence of God. He led, directed and protected them.
And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people. – Exodus 13:21-22 ESV
As they were leaving Egypt, the cloud came to rest between the people of Israel and the advancing armies of Pharaoh. God protected them throughout the night.
Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night. – Exodus 14:19-20 ESV
The next day, the people of Israel passed through the sea on dry ground. That is Paul’s second illustration. God miraculously provided a way of escape, delivering every one of the Israelites to the other side, while completely devastating the armies of Pharaoh. They were witnesses to the salvation of the Lord.
Next Paul refers to their “baptism” into Moses. In following the cloud and passing through the Red Sea, they were actually submitting to or immersing themselves under the leadership of God’s chosen deliverer: Moses. He was to be their God-ordained instrument of redemption, leading them all throughout their time in the wilderness. Next, Paul refers to the spiritual food and drink they ate in the wilderness – the manna and quail, as well as the water God provided from the rock. God miraculously provided for their physical needs, providing food and water when none was available. And in both cases, He did so in spite of their grumbling and complaining. Paul makes it clear that the rock was symbolic of Christ, the provider of living water.
But Paul brings all of these marvelous illustrations to a sudden and surprising close by stating: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5 ESV). Regardless of their unique status as God’s chosen and redeemed people, and in spite of all that God had done for them, they were “overthrown in the wilderness.” In reality, they all died. An entire generation of Israelites would spend the rest of their lives wandering in the wilderness and never experience the joys of entering the promised land. And Paul is going to unpack just exactly why this was the case and how their mistake was to be a warning to the people of God living in Corinth.
One of the most significant moments in the history of the people of Israel took place early on in their wilderness wanderings. They had not been free from bondage very long, when God called Moses up to Mount Sinai to receive the law. While he was there, something happened back down in the valley. Moses records the tragic event for us:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. – Exodus 32:1-6 ESV
Idol worship. They had been delivered by God, led by God, protected by God and were about to receive the law of God. They had also been given the instructions to build the tabernacle, a structure designed to house the very presence of God. But they returned all the favors of God with unfaithfulness. They had seen God perform ten miraculous plagues. They had seen Him part the waters of the Red Sea. They had walked across on dry land, then witnessed the devastating destruction of the armies of Pharaoh. And yet, they chose to put their trust in a false god rather than the one true God. And Paul tells us, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6 ESV). Their deadly mistake was to be a warning to us. Their ingratitude and unfaithfulness was to be a reminder to us. They enjoyed the presence, provision and protection of God as His chosen people, but that did not make them immune from the punishment of God. And that seems to be Paul’s point. As God’s chosen people, we must never think that we are incapable of sin or insusceptible to temptation. Unfaithfulness ia a real and present danger for each of us. As Paul warned the Ephesians:
For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true. Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. – Ephesians 5:8-12 NLT