As we begin chapter 10 of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian community, his treatment of the problems addressed in chapters 8 and 9 are not truly in the rearview mirror but are now brought to a further point of application. He takes both the themes of “food offered to idols” (Ch. 8) and “freedom in Christ” (Ch. 9) and brings them together in his concluding argument to the problem of idolatry which threatens this fledgling community. There is little doubt that he views the problem of idolatry as severe and perhaps of even greater concern for Paul is the very lack of concern in the Corinthian Christians for the danger that it poses.
His discussion of Christian freedom just prior to the text at hand was used not only to point out his apostleship but also the new reality in which they now live and the responsibility this new reality brings with it. He says in 9:19-20 “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.” If chapter 8 was a call to the spiritually strong not to harm the weak in their exercise of the freedom afforded them by their “knowledge” regarding idols as nothing, then chapter 9 was nothing short of a call to renounce their freedom for the sake of “the other”. Even Paul would not use his apostleship or his rights in any way that would harm another in their “weaker” faith.
Paul now turns attention to the issue of idolatry by utilizing an illustration from Israel’s past, a past he skillfully uses to pull his primarily Gentile congregation into as well.
“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” (vss. 1-4)
Paul believes these Gentile converts are incorporated into Israel through Christ and Israel’s history is now also their history. He is also communicating his belief that Christ was preexistent in the Old Testament, giving help to God’s people by associating the rock from which they drank with Christ. Why is this story from the past relevant to the context of Corinth? Witherington says, “What happened then is relevant for the instruction of the Corinthians now because their situation is analogous and because the benefits from Christ are comparable.”He likens their new birth in Christ through the waters of baptism to Israel’s new birth “into Moses” after emerging from the waters of the Red Sea. He then goes on to compare the blessing of the miraculous feeding in the wilderness by referring to it as spiritual food and drink.
It would be easy to over emphasize the sacramental nature of Paul’s comparison and miss the point of emphasis…Christ is the rock. This is the glue that binds Paul’s association of Israel’s failure and decent into idolatry with the current situation in Corinth.
In verse 5 we see the ultimate connection he wants to hammer home for the Corinthians. They should not think themselves beyond the possibility of failure. Yes, they have Christ and experience sacred and special privileges because of their union with him, but this does not preclude their need to remain vigilant. Just as Israel experienced a kind of “baptism” and “eucharist” many of them experienced God’s judgement.
Paul goes in verse 6-13 to detail the nature of Israel’s failure as an example for the Corinthians to avoid. 6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. The term desire is the same used in Number 11:4 describing Israel’s craving for meat rather than the manna God provided. Deasley points out the Corinthians “…were consumed with a hunger that amounted to covetousness, which Paul elsewhere describes as the quintessential sin.” Paul turns to these bad examples or models of conduct that should be avoided: idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the Lord and grumbling/complaining.
Paul’s first warning is against idolatry, one that has spent significant time on since chapter 8. He cites Israel’s melting down of earrings to make the image of the bull to worship in accordance with the Baal cult while Moses on the mountain. Paul quotes from Exodus 32:6, “They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” He specifically quotes from the portion that mentions eating in the presence of the idol presumably to further his concern for their participation in the idol feasts where the meat sacrificed to idols was offered.
The second warning of sexual immorality can be related to the first particularly regarding the role religious sexual activities played in the idol feasts. Paul easily could have picked up the word revelry (v 7), paizein (to dance, to play, to mock, to play with another sexually), to emphasize the incident from Numbers 25 that caused 23,000 to fall in a day. This text pairs the eating of food in the presence of idols and sexual play (as does the Exodus 32 text) creating the bridge he needs for his concern with their participation in the idol feasts.
In the third example Paul uses the Numbers 21 text to illustrate the way the people put the Lord to the test by their complaining about the menu God provided in the wilderness. God punished them with snakes for putting him to the test and Paul says the Corinthians are doing the same by their eating of the food known to be part of the idol worship.
Finally, Paul references Israel’s complaints against God and Moses for bringing them out to the desert to die. We do not know what situation Paul was referencing within the Corinthian church, but it apparently merits this warning from their collective past. This is perhaps more a reference to numerous complaints than one in particular.
Arriving now at his summary statement Paul emphasizes his belief that time is limited and God’s eschatological purpose for the church is of utmost importance. With such a purpose in mind it makes sense that Paul is so concerned that the Corinthians do not fail to live well rather than fall into unhealthy practices.
Paul’s words of warning are meant to draw their attention back to the task of remaining faithful and rejecting anything that would tempt them to compromise the vitality of their faithfulness to Christ. His use of previous examples from Israel’s past are meant to immerse them in a story larger than their immediate context and remind them they are participants in God’s grand work of salvation. The tendency to grow complacent is an all too present temptation. Perhaps they thought they needed to “play the game” socially to gain access professionally or personally to the resources of their culture. Are we any different? The temptation to compromise is the ever-present idol of our culture. Go along to get along can become our motto if we are not careful and Paul’s words ring loud today just as they did in Corinth.
Idols abound today we too need to hear Paul’s admonition to remain vigilant just as much as the Corinthians. Temptations also abound and God is faithful to assist us our times of deepest distress. As Mark Hopper writes, “It is dangerous business to cozy up to any idolatry, to any practice that rejects ultimate trust in God alone. God cannot be trifled with on a casual basis in a nonchalant manner.”
 Witherington, Ben III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 218-219.
 Deasley, Alex R.G. 1 Corinthians: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City, Beacon Hill Press, 2021) 166.
 Hopper, Mark. Feasting on the Word, Year C (Louisville, John Knox Press 2010)