How do you commit idolatry when you don’t believe in idols? How do you fall from grace when grace is what you most affirm? How can you be in bondage while you revel in freedom? How can you know so much when your great knowledge keeps you from knowing what really matters? Let our fathers and mothers of the ancient church in Corinth show us how.
I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea…
They were all under the cloud. He is referring to the pillar of cloud that represented God’s presence with his people and which passed before them in their journeying. All passed through the sea. This is a reference to the Israelites passing through the Red Sea. The point so far is that all the people went through the same experience.
Now, what about it? Verse 2: all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. What an interesting perspective. Paul wants his readers to consider these events together as a baptism. By experiencing these miraculous events, the people left their bondage and entered into a new life identified as God’s covenant nation. That is what baptism signifies: entering into an identity as belonging to God.
Paul says they were baptized into Moses. What does he mean? They were baptized into the covenant that was mediated by Moses. In a sense, Moses is the Christ of the old covenant. He saved his people from bondage and mediated a covenant for them. Again, Paul is merely making the case that all the Israelites did indeed go through the experiences that qualified them as members of God’s covenant.
Next: 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. Paul is referring here to the incidents of eating manna (spiritual food) and drinking water that came from a rock (spiritual drink). Paul compares these activities to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with its spiritual food and drink. The next verse makes clear that he is thinking of the sacrament of Communion. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. In a sense, the Israelites were partaking of Christ, just as we partake of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
Again, Paul’s point is that all the Israelites possessed the credentials for being identified with God under his covenant. They had undergone baptism together, and they had participated in communion. He even contends that they were identified with Christ. Even so, these spiritual experiences did not save them.
5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. They perished along the journey. They did not complete the race begun. Only a few of the adult generation who left Egypt entered into the Promised Land. They failed, not because they were not hardy enough, but because they had disobeyed God, and he brought judgment against them.
6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 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.”
Their sin and fall should serve as a warning to the church of what could happen to its own members as well. Let’s look at this.
Here is the story Paul is referring to:
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.” 2 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.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 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!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 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).
What makes Paul concerned that the Corinth saints would abandon God and set up their idol to worship? There is no record of them keeping idols in their homes nor where they met for worship. No one spoke of turning away from God or from Christ.
Perhaps not, but this is in effect what some of them are doing by attending the temple banquets. They are sitting before pagan idols and participating in religious rituals through the temple meals. It is not by accident that Paul quoted the second half of 32:6 which speaks of the Israelites sitting down to eat and drink. He could have chosen the first half, which reads, they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. Presenting sacrifices to the calf is blatant idol worship. Nevertheless, holding a feast was also part of the religious worship, and that is precisely what the Corinth saints are doing. They are joining in pagan feasts dedicated to idols just as in their old pagan days. Thus, they are to take warning that they have already slipped into idolatry regardless of their motive and perspective.
What happened? How could Christians, who maintain faith in Jesus Christ and who consciously reject idol worship, nevertheless succumb to that very sin?
As we like to say in the south, “They got too big for their britches!” Turn to 8:1: “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.” 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.
The Corinthian believers thought they knew all they needed to know about freedom in Christ. And they did know a lot. But here is what they did not know – what this knowledge about freedom should mean for them. They thought it meant they were free to live above the restraints of the world and of legalistic religion. The gospel was the entry into knowledge which was the entry into freedom.
But the gospel is the entry into love – true love for God and for one’s neighbor. They missed somehow Jesus’ teaching that the greatest commandment (they were not into commandments) is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). They heard Paul when he taught that Christ had set them free from the law of sin and death (cf. Romans 8:2); they did not hear him teach that they were set free in order to become slaves of righteousness (cf. Romans 6:17-18). They got the part about not being saved or kept saved by works-righteousness; they tuned out the part about being “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
All they could see now is that they were free in Christ for having to obey the commandments intended to keep them on the path of earning righteousness, as some of their lesser knowledgeable brethren still will enslave to. And they knew a whole lot more than their pagan neighbors who actually believed their idols were gods. They knew better than everyone. They were superior in their knowledge. And as such became fools such as the type C. S. Lewis describes in The Screwtape Letters.
"He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper,” “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea – the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction" (Chapter 10).
And like the foolish client of Screwtape, the Corinthian believers entered unwittingly back into their pagan lives guilty of the same idolatry.
As a pastor, I know weak Christians who are torn up by their sin. They worry about all the ways they can commit sin; they have trouble having assurance of salvation. Taking Communion is not comforting for them because they worry about taking it in an unworthy manner, or they see it as a reproach for their sins.
But there is another type of Christians who perhaps is of greater concern. They worry about nothing. They have such confidence in what they know that sin is not a worry for them. They know they are counted as righteous in Christ. They know Christ sets them free from works-righteousness. They take Communion with confidence because it signifies what they already know – that they are okay with God. In fact, if truth be told, they feel like they belong to the “inner circle” that is so much more advanced in spiritual knowledge and freedom. Of course, if truth really be told, knowledge and freedom have become their spiritual idols. Their confidence is in their knowledge, and they worship their freedom, and they use the sacraments to justify it all. ““We can handle involvement in pagan and worldly matters. It’s okay to play along with those who actually believe in astrology and other gods. It’s okay to appear that we are like our worldly neighbors. After all, we will be in church next Sunday having Holy Communion. We are not united to non-existing idols. We’ve been baptized into Christ. We belong to the church.”
Paul’s point is that there were a lot of arrogant Israelites who went through their own forms of baptism and communion (actually more wondrous forms) and who were overthrown before making it to the Promised Land. Sacraments save and protect no one. They are for our good to feed our faith that we might have strength to run the race of obedience to Christ.
And we are to partake of the Lord’s Supper together as recognition that we run this race together. We put our arms around our weaker brothers and sisters when they grow weary; we restore those who have fallen; and we challenge those caught in sin to bring them back on course. Let us run to finish the race; let us run it together in love. It is love for God and love for our neighbor that will keep us on course.
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