Exposition of 1 Corinthians 10:1–6 The road to idolatry ends with judgment

1 Corinthians 10:1–6

1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.

The commentators we have relied on most in this study all agree that the block of 1 Corinthians that deals with food sacrificed to idols extends from 8:1 to 11:1.[1] In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul gave his own personal example of surrendering his rights for the sake of others. His purpose was to encourage “the strong” in Corinth to give up their participation in banquets eaten at idol temples, or even food sacrificed there, for the sake of the weak, the believers with a fragile conscience.

We do not quite get the importance of this issue because our society is much more secular than god-saturated Roman Corinth. Think how hard it was for you to find a wide variety of organic foods five years ago; that is about how hard it was in Corinth to find meat for sale that had not been associated with idol worship in some way. Christians in Corinth were struggling to understand things as basic as how to eat in the idolatrous city without offending God.

In chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul explains the seriousness with which God views the disloyalty of those who were casual about idolatry. He does so by looking back at Israel’s history depicted in the Old Testament. Garland rightly says, “He does not rehearse the past events to understand the past but to understand the [Corinthian] present.”[2]

Thiselton offers a handy biblical reference for some of the terms used in verses 1–5: “Symbols associated with the Exodus wilderness narratives include the cloud (Exod. 13:21), the sea (Exod. 14:21–22), the manna (Exod. 16:4, 14–18), the spring (Exod. 17:6), and apostasy (Exod. 32:6).”[3] In particular, it is important to understand that the cloud refers to a towering cloud — shrouding the presence of God — that led the Israelites when they were moving and stood between them and the pursuing Egyptian chariot force while they were stopped. The sea refers to the Red Sea, which was miraculously parted to allow the Israelites to escape. The manna was supernatural food provided over all the years of wandering, and the rock was a source of water  during all those same years. The apostasy was the dabbling by many Israelites with various forms of idolatry even while God was continually providing for them; disaster was the result!

When Paul speaks of “our ancestors” (1 Cor. 10:1), Thiselton says the phrase often means “spiritual ancestor in a sense which denotes not necessarily blood ties but reproduction of character.”[4] That is exactly what troubles Paul; he sees the Corinthians playing with the same idolatrous fire that consumed their spiritual ancestors!

Garland says, “Israel’s deliverance through the sea marked the beginning of their separation from Egypt and their new identity as God’s covenant community, and the term ‘baptism’ fittingly represents that experience.”[5] The word “all” is very prominent in verses 1–4, occurring five times in the Greek text. Thiselton explains: “Such is the generosity of God’s grace that ‘all’ . . . participate in the privileges and blessings of the redeemed covenant people of God. . . . Nevertheless in the face of such divine generosity, less than the ‘all’ will appropriate God’s gifts and exercise the self-discipline which will bring them safely through the tests of the wilderness journey.”[6]

In this experience the Israelites were identified with Moses and the covenant God made with them using Moses as a mediator (Heb. 3:1–5). Just as Moses had the role of deliverer for Israel, so Jesus has that role all the more with those who belong to him.

When Paul speaks of “spiritual food” (verse 3) and “spiritual drink” (verse 4), Garland says he meant that “’they were formed not according to the law of nature but by the power of God.’”[7] Paul goes beyond the teaching of the Old Testament to speak of “the spiritual rock that accompanied them” (1 Cor. 10:4) and to identify that rock as Christ. What does that mean?

 A short detour from the main argument

The Old Testament contains two accounts describing how God provided water from a rock to quench the thirst of the complaining Israelites. The first account occurs in Exod. 17:1–7, not long after the passage through the Red Sea. Forty years later, the Israelites came to Kadesh and again bitterly complained about the need for water (Num. 20:2–13). Once again Moses summoned water from the rock — at an entirely new location than before.

Water was obviously needed by the people all during the long years between the two recorded occasions. Paul now reveals that “the spiritual rock” accompanied the Israelites during the whole time; further, “that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). What the people saw was a rock gushing water, but Paul speaks of the spiritual reality behind these events. He was probably thinking of Exod. 17:6, where God says, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it.” Paul suggests that when God stood on the rock at Horeb, it was no other than Christ.[8]

 Return to Paul’s primary concern

Paul has reminded the Corinthian believers of the Exodus generation for a reason. God miraculously provided for them with food and water even while judging their rebellion during the forty-year trek in the wilderness. All the while, many craved the “meat” of Egypt (Exod. 16:3 and Num. 11:4) rather than the manna God faithfully provided every day. As we will see in our next post, the moment Moses was absent, this rebellion and craving led swiftly to idol worship (Exodus 32). Paul sees clear signs of the same progression in Corinth!

Paul plainly tells the Corinthians where this dangerous road will lead: God’s displeasure will lead to their death (1 Cor. 10:5). In verse 6, Paul explains that there is still time to learn from the example of their spiritual ancestors and to turn back from craving meat offered to idols and other evil things, which NIV translates as “setting our hearts on evil things as they did.”

Take special note that 1 Cor. 10:6 sets the stage for what comes next (1 Cor. 10:7–13). Paul signals his intention by using the idea of craving or desire twice in the Greek text, once as a noun and once as a verb. The NIV obscures this repetition by using the phrase “setting our hearts on.” We prefer the clarity of Garland’s translation for 1 Cor. 10:6: “These things happened as examples for us so that we might not become cravers of evil just as they also craved [evil].”[9] (emphasis added).

Fee summarizes forcefully: “But [Paul’s] point in all this must not be missed: just as God did not tolerate Israel’s idolatry, so he will not tolerate the Corinthians’. We deceive ourselves if we think he will tolerate ours.”[10]

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 22; Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 607–612; Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 23.

[2] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 446.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 722.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 724.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 451.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 725.

[7] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 454, quoting Ambrosiaster, a church father.

[8] See NET Bible Notes for Exod. 17:6 for further information.

[9] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 447; also shown by Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 719, 733.

[10] Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 450.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!