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.

Taking Sides: Joining Jesus When It’s Hard

As I was doing my new Bible reading plan this morning, I was reading about the time when Israel was camped below Mount Sinai and Moses returned from meeting God on the mountain. Consider this bracing passage in Exodus 31:19–29:

19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”

22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the LORD, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the LORD today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” [END]

Clearly, God was not playing games! As believers, we are compelled to acknowledge that life is God-given, and he can also take that life whenever he chooses. Set that issue aside and consider that this story is about taking sides. Who is on the Lord’s side? One answer, based on this story, is that those “running wild” in defiance of God were rejected by him. Another answer is that those who were willing to serve God no matter the cost were blessed.

A more personal question is this: would you have stood with the Levites on that day? Jesus challenged the following crowd in a similar way in Luke 14:25–27:

25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus challenges all to take a side! Following Jesus may cost a lot. The cross that we carry is a symbol of our death, and death severs all relationships except one.

To deal with a distraction, the word translated “hate” (Luke 14:26) by NIV2011 might better be rendered “disregard” according to the standard Greek lexicon (BDAG-3).

So, the Luke 14 passage ties to Exodus 31 in regard to taking sides. But I think Exodus 31:27 may relate to another enigmatic thing Jesus told his disciples: “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36, NIV2011). Both passages feature a sword. The swords in Exodus are literal, but I think the ones in Luke 22 are metaphorical. Jesus is telling his disciples to get ready to take a stand for God; the decisive hour is upon them, and they will be forced to take a side at risk of their lives.

The idea of taking sides may also explain Matthew 10:34, where Jesus  says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” You may have other passages to suggest as well.

When all is done, the message is clear: Stand with Jesus, no matter what!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.