Paul has been discussing the participation of the Corinthian Christians in a culture that revolved around idolatry. For most of us, this doesn’t ring a cultural bell, but consider that idolatry was the center of the Corinthian life at that time. The Corinthians wondered how far they could go in participating in the culture of their world. That’s a valid question for all of us. There’s nothing inherently evil about culture, or even about secular culture, but there are aspects of the culture of today that Christ followers won’t want to involve themselves in. We all want to grow in our relationship with God. As we do, we’ll find that certain aspects of our culture no longer appeal to us. That can cause problems, but the problems aren’t a valid reason to forsake our convictions. We mustn’t ignore the tug of God on our hearts for the sake of conformity, or even family unity.
In Corinth, if you went to a family reunion, it would include a sacrifice in some idol’s temple. Grandpa and Uncle Cletus would fix up the fatted calf with gold horns and flowers around its neck and lead it off to be sacrificed to the idol, then the family would all gather at the temple for a feast. Maybe some of the family members would slip off to spend their money with one of the ritual prostitutes. That was summer holidays in Corinth. If you didn’t join the family feast, you could offend people. Plus, you were missing out on the fun. Mom might be crying because you weren’t going to be there, and you’re so obsessed with all this Jesus stuff, and you think you’re better than everyone else in the family, and how will she explain to Aunt Junia? And what will it hurt to attend the feast, just because it’s at the Temple of Aphrodite? A little old-fashioned religion wouldn’t hurt you anyhow. There was definite pressure, and the Corinthian Christians were feeling it.
In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Paul talks about the extraordinary ways God manifested Himself to the Children of Israel (the Jewish people) during the Exodus. They had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years, and God freed them and brought them through the wilderness with phenomenal signs of His presence, His power, and His care for them. Nevertheless, when they played around with sin, God judged them.
The cloud here refers to the way God showed Himself to the Hebrews (Jews) and the way He protected them from the Egyptians who were pursuing them with horses and chariots and battle weapons. God manifested Himself as a pillar of cloud and fire. On the side of the pillar where the Hebrews were, there was welcome shade in the form of a vast pillar of cloud. On the side of the Egyptian armies, there was roaring fire. While they were wondering what to do, God told Moses to hold his rod (his shepherd’s walking stick) out over the Red Sea, which was cutting off their escape route. The sea waters parted, and the Israelites walked through on dry ground while the pillar of cloud and fire held back the Egyptians. Once the Hebrews were all through, God allowed the Egyptians to enter, but closed the waters on them, drowning all Pharaoh’s armies.
This passage through the sea is a type or a symbol of baptism. The Israelis were leaving their lives of bondage to the Egyptians to become the people of God and to live in freedom. When a new believer in Christ is baptized, he symbolically dies to sin, to his old life, to the kingdom of Satan, and enters into a new life of righteousness as a citizen of the Kingdom of the Heavens.
Just as Israel’s passage through the Red Sea foreshadowed baptism into Christ, God’s provision of bread for them (called by them, “manna”), foreshadowed Jesus’ giving of His body for us. When we share in the ceremony of Holy Communion, we commemorate His death until His coming again. During the Exodus, God provided water for the Israelites supernaturally on two occasions by causing it to pour out of a rock. This rock symbolizes Christ, and the water symbolizes both His blood, which He shed for us, and the Holy Spirit, Whom He pours out into the lives of believers. The Old Testament is filled with these “types and shadows” describing the coming, the ministry, death, and resurrection, and the return of Christ to this world.
Despite all the signs and wonders, care and nurture, supernatural deliverance, etc., that God poured out on the Israelites, He wasn’t pleased with them. The parallel here is that the Corinthian church was proud of the many spiritual manifestations God had given them. Paul is intimating that these things God was doing in their midst were not necessarily a guarantee that God was pleased with them.
God is often kind to us in the hope of leading us to repent of the wrong things we do. Has God been good to you? This is a manifestation of His grace and not necessarily a sign of His approval. Perhaps He is pleased with you, but His goodness to you can’t be automatically taken as proof that He’s happy with your life.
Paul is saying, “Remember what happened to the Children of Israel after all the things God did in their midst. Don’t let it happen to you. You’re not better or smarter or more spiritual than them. You could fall just as they did.” God does put up with a lot–I know He’s been incredibly kind and patient to me–but there is a limit to His capacity to “suffer fools.”
While Moses was away for a month, spending time with God on Mount Sinai, the Israelites made themselves a golden calf and worshipped it. No doubt they told themselves some comforting story, perhaps that this calf was merely a physical representation of their God, Jehovah. They wanted to be like the other nations and have a god they could see. God judged them for this and was ready to kill them all and begin a new nation with Moses, but He listened to Moses’ prayer and gave them another chance. You can read about this starting in Exodus 32.
On another occasion, the Israelites sinned with the people of Moab, having sexual relations with the Moabite women and worshipping Baal with them. God sent a plague in which 23,000 people died. In addition to this, He also commanded that the leaders, another thousand, be executed for permitting and approving this idolatry. “God takes idolatry seriously,” Paul seems to be saying, “whether you do or not.”
In this incident, the Israelites were complaining about their food. This is from Numbers 21. They were sick of manna all the time and they complained that they had no water to drink. I think that, had they asked nicely, God would not have been angry. There was a reason for the Israelites to eat the manna, which was symbolic of Christ’s body, but God always provided them with pure water. Still, when they ran short, their first impulse was to complain and accuse God of not taking care of them–not to ask Him in trust for what they needed. They were constantly complaining against Moses and, by extension, against God.
The Corinthians weren’t satisfied with their pure feasts of Communion (which were celebrated as feasts, by the way, not just the ritual ceremony we usually see today). They wanted to partake of the feasts in the idol temples as well.
What about us? We don’t need to retire from the world, and for most of us, to do so would be contrary to God’s will, but we have no business taking part in wild celebrations, rowdy frat parties, questionable gatherings that include drinking and drugs . . . you fill in the blank. You know what pertains to your life. As followers of Christ, we should separate ourselves from the world. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have friends who don’t follow Christ. How else could we share God’s love with the world? It does mean that we shouldn’t and mustn’t participate in the world’s sinful ways. We aren’t to judge the world–that’s God’s job, but we aren’t to be like the world, either. If we aren’t, or aren’t becoming the kinds of people who simply can’t enjoy sin and can’t celebrate it and practice it, we need to spend more time with God and with His word. If we truly believe and understand that God is holy, the ungodly things we used to enjoy will seem repulsive to us.
Paul again emphasizes that the Corinthians (and we) should take warning from what happened to the Israelites when they provoked God. The Corinthians felt they were strong spiritually and that they could therefore participate in gatherings at idols’ temples without falling away from their faith. Paul says, “Watch yourselves. You could be wrong about that.”
Paul acknowledges that it’s difficult for the church in Corinth to live holy lives. Many of them had pagan backgrounds and pagan families and friends. He assures them that they’re not being tempted with some unique or extra-strong situation, but that God makes a way of escape from all temptations. The trick is to take the way of escape rather than yielding to the temptation, which is always more, well, tempting.
Just as the Corinthians weren’t suffering any special, unique kinds of temptations, our temptations have factors in common with theirs. We may be tempted to go to movies or watch television shows that won’t enhance our spiritual lives, but rather detract from them. Many of today’s most innocent movies and shows contain cultural allusions that, I hope, you find offensive. Should we be spending large amounts of our time and money taking in this type of entertainment? What if you’re at a friend’s house and she wants to play a movie you don’t think you should watch? How do you handle that gracefully? Or do you just cave and watch it to avoid possibly offending her?
What if you’re invited to a wedding reception and you know it’s going to be a wild party? What if it’s for a close relative’s son? How do you handle that? If you go and don’t partake, you’re likely to be seen as judgmental by the mere fact that you’re sitting there not drinking, and if you don’t go, people are as likely to be offended. Do you back out as gracefully as you can, telling the truth, but not judging? Do you make a token appearance and then slip out before things get wild? Do you let yourself go all out just this once? After all, it’s a special occasion, right? But is it a vacation away from God’s kingdom? Why would you want such a vacation? Would it be as appealing to you if you saw sin from God’s point of view?
Let’s say you’re trying to make friends and fit in at your job and someone in leadership invites you to hang out after work with the girls and guys and toss back a drink or two–or three–or whatever. Who’s counting? What do you do? Do you go, and just drink soda pop? Maybe, like me, you don’t think it’s a sin to have a drink, so long as you don’t get drunk. Does that make it okay to hang around in a bar? Will that bring glory to God?
You can fill in your own situations. We all have them, some more than others. The bottom line is that God will make a way for us to escape temptation, and He expects us to take it, not to toy with sin and tempt His patience. He’s very patient and long-suffering, but He won’t plead with us forever. At some point, He’ll say, in effect, “Okay. You do what you want.” And He’ll leave. That’s a scary thought. Let’s remember the Exodus and remember that our loving Father is also our holy God.
God bless and keep you,