1 Corinthians 10:5-12 (Falling away over food)


(1Co 10:5-6 ESV) 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.  6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.

We now learn that Paul’s purpose in discussing the Exodus is to compare the church with the children of Israel — especially the fact that not all of Israel made it to the Promised Land.

The word translated “overthrown” is translated in other versions as “laid low,” “cut down,” or “struck down.” It’s an unusual verb, used only here in the New Testament, but also found in —

(Num 14:15-16 ESV)  15 “Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say,  16 ‘It is because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.'”

It’s the same word in the Septuagint (found in the Old Testament only here and in Job 12:23). This is the passage where God threatens to kill them all, except Moses, and to raise up a new nation from the descendants of Moses! (Num 14:11-12).

Paul’s point is that the Corinthians can fall away and fail to make it to the Promised Land just as nearly all the Israelites died in the desert. It’s a warning of the severest kind.

Hence, the TNIV gets the translation right —

(1Co 10:5 TNIV) 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

Don’t think that your baptism and taking the Lord’s Supper will save you if you rebel against God. Israel was baptized in the Red Sea and ate spiritual food in the presence of God — and yet nearly all of them died before crossing the Jordan!

I don’t know how anyone reconciles this warning with the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. I think Paul and the rest of the scriptures teach that Christians will generally make it to the end and be saved, but I also think that rebellion is possible and will damn.

This is, indeed, a major theme of Hebrews, beginning in chapter 3 and culminating in chapter 10. It’s quite possible that this extended treatment of falling away in Hebrews was based on this teaching of Paul. Both compare the Christian life with the Exodus, and both conclude that Christians can fall away for rebellion as did Israel —

(Heb 3:13-19 NIV)  13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.  14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.  15 As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”  16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?  17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness?  18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed?  19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief. 

Paul then warns the Corinthians against particular sins that the Israelites committed —

(1Co 10:6-8 TNIV)  6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things 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 got up to indulge in revelry.”  8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did–and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 

The phrase “setting our hearts on evil things” in v. 6 refers to Num 11:4 —

(Num 11:4-6 NIV) 4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!  5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost– also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”

Paul choose this word from the Septuagint —

(Num 11:34 ESV) Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving.

In short, remember that God struck down the Israelites who complained for meat.

The quotation in v. 7 is from Exo 32:6, referring to the golden calf, in which eating and drinking are associated with idolatry. Remember: we’re still discussing meats offered to idols!

In v. 8, Paul refers to Num 25:1-9,

(Num 25:1-2 ESV) While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab.  2 These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 

Another reference to idolatrous eating.

(1Co 10:9-10 ESV)  9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents,  10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.

Yet two more references to the Israelites being punished because they complained about a lack of food.

(Num 21:5-6 ESV)  5 And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”  6 Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 

Paul’s reference to the Destroyer is to the Passover and the death angel. In this case, the eating of the sacrificed lamb — meat — saved the people.

Now, it’s a little odd that Paul refers to the event in Num 21 as putting Christ to the test. There are ancient manuscripts that replace “Christ” with “the Lord” or “God,” but textual critics believe “Christ” to be original here. After all, why would a copyist change “God” to “Christ” in this passage?

Hays suggests the parallel between the two halves of this verse does not necessarily imply that that Israelites had put Christ to the test. Paul could be understood to say “We should not put Christ to the test like some of them tested God.”

On the other hand, Paul has already identified Christ with the rock which provided water (and followed Israel) in 10:4 and in Exod. 17:2, 7, the people of Israel are twice described as testing “the Lord,” perhaps leading to Paul identify Christ the Lord as the one tested there. Furthermore, in Num. 21:6 it is “the Lord” who sends the serpents in response to the complaining.

Paul has already identified Christ as “the Lord” named in the Shema (see on 1 Cor. 8:6) making the identification between Christ and the Lord in those other OT texts a natural one. Numbers 21:5-6 is probably being read in the light of Psalm 78:18 where the incident is related to craving food, a theme found throughout this passage.

The Corinthians are warned against following the example of those in Israel who tested the Lord’s patience by insisting on eating the food they crave or desire even if it entails provoking him. Such insolence can expect to be met with judgment.

The theme of testing the Lord will be raised again in vv. 21-22 when Paul warns against provoking the Lord and the motif of God’s strength (see the comments there). While Paul would certainly vehemently oppose any behavior or attitudes that could be interpreted as putting the Lord to the test, the context indicates that his present concern is with the possibility of testing the Lord’s patience through participation in idolatrous activities. In Corinth that was most likely to happen through persistent consumption of food associated with idols.

Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 462-463 (paragraphing added).

I quote this lengthy discussion in the Pillar Commentary to make this point: Rather than treating the God of the Old Testament as the source of Divine Wrath and Jesus as our Protector and Shield from God’s Anger — as though Jesus were somehow unlike the Torah’s YHWH, Paul goes well out of his way to associate Jesus of Nazareth with the severe punishments meted out to the Israelites for their complaining about food. Paul says Jesus killed the ungrateful, complaining Israelites.

Therefore, Paul is saying, don’t take the servant-hearted Messiah who died on the cross for you to be some sort of pushover. He is not to be trifled with — and certainly not over meat!

(1Co 10:11-12 ESV)  11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.  12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 

Is it possible to fall? Yes. What might cause that? Being more concerned about your stomach than your brother. Will the grace of Jesus protect you? Not necessarily. Jesus will treat rebellion today just as he treated it in the Sinai desert.

Of course, not all sin and not all doctrinal error is rebellion. As Heb 10:26-27 makes clear, the sin must be a continuing, deliberate rejection of the will of God.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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