1 Corinthians 10:1-33

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Drawing on the example of what befell the Israelites after their deliverance from Egypt, Paul illustrated the need for the Corinthians to exert themselves to remain faithful to God and Christ. The apostle did not want his “brothers,” fellow believers in Corinth, to be “ignorant” or to lose sight of the ancient events and the significance of these to them personally. The reference to “our fathers” could be understood as Paul’s speaking from the standpoint of a Jewish believer or his including the non-Jewish believers as having become part of the true Israel, with Abraham (by virtue of his faith) being the “father” of all believers. (Compare Romans 4:11; Galatians 3:7; Philippians 3:3.) Regarding “our fathers,” Paul said that all of them were “under the cloud and passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (10:1, 2)

When the sea opened up, allowing the Israelites to cross to escape the Egyptian pursuers, water was on both sides of their path. The column of cloud that had been in front of them passed over them, and took its place behind them. In this way, they came to be under the cloud, and they passed through the sea, with its waters forming a wall on their right and their left. (Exodus 14:19-22) So, “in the cloud” that moved over them and “in the sea” through which they passed, all the people were baptized “into Moses,” being united as a corporate body to him as their leader or head and YHWH’s unique “servant.” (Exodus 14:31)

Thereafter, in the wilderness, “all ate the same spiritual food.” As a miraculous provision, manna had a spiritual source and thus proved to be a spiritual provision for sustaining the Israelites. (10:3)

“All drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.” The Israelites received a miraculous supply of water from a rock at the beginning of their journey in the wilderness and then years later in another location at the close of their wilderness wandering. (Exodus 17:6; Numbers 20:11) So it appeared as if the rock from which the water had been miraculously obtained had followed them. (10:4)

According to the view of ancient rabbis, the rock accompanied the Israelites. The Tosefta (Sukkah 3:11, Jacob Neusner’s translation) says, “The well which was with the Israelites in the wilderness was a rock, the size of a large round vessel, surging and gurgling upward, as from the mouth of this little flask, rising with them up onto the mountains, and going down with them into the valleys. Wherever the Israelites would encamp, it made camp with them, on a high place, opposite the entry of the Tent of Meeting.” Whether Paul expressed himself about the rock from the standpoint of what appeared to be the case or with an allusion to ancient rabbinical thought cannot be determined from the context. He did, however, make use of typology, identifying the “rock” with Christ, the source of living water for all who put faith in him. (10:4)

In the case of the Israelites, the miraculously provided water had a spiritual source and could be regarded as life-sustaining spiritual drink. Through Christ, believers receive spiritual water, a provision that is essential for eternal life, the life of an enduring relationship with him and his Father. Although not explicitly stating that the Father, in his dealings with the Israelites, used his Son (the “Word” in his prehuman existence [John 1:1]), Paul may have had this thought in mind when saying that the “rock was the Christ.” (10:4)

All of the Israelites had been highly favored, being baptized into Moses and thereafter partaking of divinely provided food and drink, but most of them lost God’s approval and perished in the wilderness. (10:5) With the exception of Caleb, Joshua, and members of the tribe of Levi, the older generation that had left Egypt did not enter the Promised Land but died in the wilderness. (Numbers 26:57-65; 32:11, 12)

Developments among the Israelites served as “types” or examples, providing a warning to believers who had been baptized into one greater than Moses, the unique Son of God. By reason of their faith in Jesus Christ, they had become partakers of true spiritual food and drink. This did not mean they could be careless. Rather, they needed to be diligent in avoiding the kind of actions that caused the Israelites to lose God’s approval. (10:6)

In the wilderness, the Israelites began to desire bad things. They complained about not having the meat and other food they had enjoyed while in Egypt. Then, when quail in abundance flew into the camp, the people manifested wanton craving and killed more birds than they could possibly have eaten. (Numbers 11:4, 31-34; Psalm 106:14) A similar danger of giving in to a desire for bad faced the Corinthian believers. They may have looked back on their previous life, complaining about missing out on the sumptuous banquets associated with idolatrous practices. They needed to resist any desire for the tempting morsels. (10:6)

The Corinthians should have been on guard against idolatry, remembering what happened to the Israelites shortly after they left Egypt. As part of the festivities associated with the veneration of a golden calf, they seated themselves “to eat and drink” and then “got up to play.” (Exodus 32:6; see the Notes section.) The Corinthians needed to resist any longing for idolatrous feasting and the entertainment associated with the festivities. (10:7)

Sexual immorality proved to be a common feature of idolatry. At the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth, hundreds of temple prostitutes offered their services. In the case of the Israelites shortly before entering the Promised Land, many of the men, in connection with religious rites, were lured into having sexual relations with Moabite and Midianite women. As a result, 23,000 men perished in one day. (Numbers 25:1, 2, 5; see the Notes section.) In view of the environment in which the Corinthians found themselves, they had good reason to take seriously the warning example the Israelite men provided. (10:8)

Paul urged the Corinthians to avoid improper “testing.” Numerous manuscripts read, “Neither should we put the Christ to the test, as some of them tested him, and were destroyed by the serpents.” (10:9)

Instead of “Christ,” other manuscripts say “Lord” or “God.” Either “Lord” or “God” can be understood to refer to the Father, but “Christ” cannot. In the wilderness, the Israelites improperly tested God, murmuring with words that implied that he could not care for them. Subsequent to this challenging of divine power to supply their needs, many of the Israelites were bitten by poisonous serpents and died. (Numbers 21:5, 6)

If “Christ” is the original reading in 1 Corinthians 10:9, possibly Paul used the term “Christ” or “anointed one” in the general sense. The Israelites spoke against God and Moses. So, in the case of the Israelites, the “anointed one” would have been Moses, whereas Jesus Christ” would have been the “anointed one” for the Corinthian believers. Another possibility is that the apostle regarded the Son of God as the one through whom the Father acted and so could speak of the Israelites as having tested Christ. For the Corinthians to speak resentfully of what they no longer were able to enjoy and to imply that they were worse off than formerly would have constituted an improper testing. It was imperative for them to shun any testing of this nature.

Paul admonished the Corinthians to avoid murmuring. In the wilderness, the Israelites murmured against Moses and Aaron, claiming that they had killed God’s people when divine judgment had been expressed against Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Consequently, many Israelites perished by the “destroyer” or a divinely sent plague. (Numbers 16:1-49) Among the Corinthians, there were those who murmured against Paul, the divinely chosen apostle, and there may also have been a measure of murmuring about limitations the new way of life as disciples of Christ had imposed on them. Whatever improper murmuring existed should have been stopped. (10:10)

In an effort to aid the Corinthians to benefit from the warning example of the Israelites, Paul pointed out that these things were written to “instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have arrived.” With the coming of Christ, a new age or era would dawn, bringing an end to everything associated with the world of sin that existed in past ages. For the Corinthians to share in the blessings of the age to come, they could not afford to disregard the warning lessons from Israelite history. (10:11)

Events from this history demonstrated that proud self-assurance had no place among believers. Those who imagine themselves to be standing should watch out that they do not fall. One should not presume on an approved standing with God and Christ, becoming careless regarding one’s conduct instead of remaining vigilant concerning upright living. (10:12)

The temptations the Israelites faced in the wilderness were those common to human experience and not of a nature that only angels could successfully resist. Likewise, whatever temptations the Corinthian believers had encountered proved to be like those which humans commonly have. Nevertheless, the Corinthians were not left without any assistance to deal with temptations. “God is faithful,” dependable, or trustworthy, providing what is needed to remain loyal to him. Paul added, “He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength but, with the temptation, he will make the way out so that you may be able to endure.” The “way out” would come in the form of essential divine aid to avoid giving in to the pressure of the temptation, making it possible to endure as faithful servants of God and Christ. (10:13)

For the Corinthians, temptations were closely linked to idolatry. Understandably, therefore, Paul urged these beloved fellow believers to “flee from idolatry,” quickly getting away from it as one would from any serious danger. (10:14)

The apostle addressed the Corinthians as persons in possession of wisdom or discernment, capable of making proper evaluations. He invited them to judge what he said and then referred to aspects associated with the Lord’s supper, with a focus on shunning idolatry. (10:15)

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing of the blood of the Christ? The [loaf of] bread that we break, is it not a sharing of the body of the Christ? Because [there is] one [loaf of] bread, we, the many, are one body, for all [of us] partake from the one [loaf of] bread.” When drinking from the cup containing the wine and over which a blessing had been said, believers revealed themselves to be “sharers of the blood of the Christ.” They were beneficiaries of the new covenant that Christ had put into effect by means of his blood and which covenant made forgiveness of sins possible. On the basis of Christ’s sacrificial death, believers came to be members of his composite body, the body of which he is the head. Their partaking of the one loaf, breaking the unleavened bread to eat it, proved to be concrete evidence of this reality. All present for the occasion partook of just one loaf of bread, indicating that the “many” were just one composite body. (10:16, 17; see the Notes section.)

Developing the point about the sharing, communion, or joint participation as it related to the “body of Christ” and the “blood of Christ,” Paul called attention to the Jewish temple service and idolatrous sanctuary service. He wanted the Corinthians to “look” at or consider “Israel according to the flesh,” or natural Israel (descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). Those who ate of the sacrifices were “sharers of the altar.” They were joint participants in a communal meal consisting of the portion that had been placed on the altar and the part of the sacrifice they ate. Thus, through the one sacrifice in which a group shared, they had communion with the altar, which was regarded as God’s table. Accordingly, the worshipers could be viewed as having table fellowship with God as partakers of the same sacrificial victim. (10:18)

When it came to the sacrificial services at non-Jewish temples, something similar occurred. The apostle, though, wanted to make it clear that he was not attributing a real existence to the deities to whom sacrifices were being made. He continued, “What, then, am I saying? That food offered to idols is anything? Or that an idol is anything?” His rhetorical questions imply that neither what is offered to an idol nor the idol itself has any any significance or validity. No change was produced in any food offered to an idol, and the idol itself was just an object that human hands had fashioned. It was neither a real deity nor the representation of an existing god or goddess.

Being a veneration of nonexistent deities, idolatry is a counterfeit substitute for worship of the true God. It is a falsehood and an alternative option for worship that serves the interests of the powers of darkness. Idolatry stands in opposition to the only true God. For this reason, participation in idolatrous rights would constitute a sharing with demons or malevolent spirits. Therefore, as Paul expressed matters, the things sacrificed were not offered to God, but to demons, and the apostle did not want the Corinthians to become sharers with the demons. The Corinthian believers could become such if they were to involve themselves in participating in an idolatrous feast. (10:20)

Paul stressed to the Corinthians that, as believers, they could not drink of the “cup of the Lord” and also the “cup of demons,” nor could they be partaking of the “table of the Lord” and also the “table of demons.” (10:21) Participants at the idolatrous feasts drank wine from cups or bowls and ate food that had been offered to idols. For believers to have become active participants in the idolatrous feasts would have meant drinking from the “cup of demons” and partaking of the “table of demons.” This would have been inconsistent with their observance of the Lord’s supper, partaking of the wine and the unleavened bread in remembrance of his death and what it meant for them.

Paul raised the questions, “Are we inciting the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than he is, [are we]?” Believers have been bought with Christ’s precious blood, and are his servants. They owe him the honor and obedience that he deserves as their Lord. In thus honoring him and living in harmony with his example and teaching, they would also honor his Father. For believers to have attributed an existence to and honored nonexistent deities by participating in idolatrous feasts would have been an affront both to the Lord Jesus Christ and his Father. It would have been an act of disloyalty or one provoking a justified jealousy for what rightly belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. Such an inciting to jealousy would have been a foolhardy act of daring, for the Lord is the far stronger party. After his resurrection from the dead, he was granted all authority in heaven and on earth. (Matthew 28:18) For believers to have incited the Lord Jesus Christ to jealousy would also have constituted a provoking of his Father, the Most High God, to jealousy, resulting in becoming objects of divine anger. (10:22)

Continuing with comments about eating, the apostle reiterated a principle that he had expressed earlier (6:22), “Everything is lawful, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is lawful, but not everything builds up.” Just because a certain act is not in itself wrong does not make it right in every situation. It may not prove to be beneficial, advantageous, or helpful in its impact on others. Instead of having a wholesome effect, one that strengthens observers to do what is right and proper, it could embolden them to take an injurious course of action or to condemn as a wrongdoer the one who had made inconsiderate use of his Christian freedom. (10:23)

For this reason, believers needed to think about the effect their actions could have on others. They should not to seek their own advantage or what they might personally prefer or have the right to do. (10:24)

When it came to buying meat at the meat or food market (mákellon), believers could purchase whatever they might desire. The mákellon may not necessarily have been a place where only meat was sold, and not all of the meat would have been previously offered to an idol. Scrupulous Jews, with a sensitive conscience respecting defilement, doubtless would have asked about the source of the meat before deciding to buy it. The Corinthian believers, however, could eat whatever they may have bought without having made any previous inquiry on account of their conscience, “for” (as Paul continued with a quotation from Psalm 24:1 [23:1, LXX]) “the Lord’s [is] the earth and its fullness.” In the Hebrew text, the divine name (YHWH) is found. Accordingly, in this quotation of the extant Greek text, “Lord” refers to the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Creator, God owns the earth and everything that exists in it. The presentation of food to a lifeless idol that represented a nonexistent deity did not change that reality. (10:25, 26)

Upon coming to be believers, the Corinthians still had family ties and other relationships with unbelievers that remained intact. If an unbeliever invited them for a meal and they wanted to accept the invitation, there was no reason for them not to do so. At the homes of unbelievers, believers could eat whatever might have been served. For conscience’ sake, they did not need to inquire about the source of the meat, recognizing that everything belonged to God and that they partook of the meal as a provision from him. (10:27)

If, though, someone disclosed that the meat had previously been part of a sacrifice to an idol, the believer would have a reason not to eat it. This would not be on account of the believer’s own conscience but that of the one who had made the disclosure. Paul did not indicate whether the one speaking up would be a believer or an unbeliever. In the case of an unbeliever, the believer’s eating could suggest that he was joining approvingly in an idolatrous act. A fellow believer with a weak conscience, on the other hand, could be prompted to eat the meat with the feelings of previous conditioning to idolatrous banqueting and be afterward pained by a guilty conscience. There is also a possibility that the believer with a weak conscience would refrain from eating the meat and come to regard the one eating as having committed sin. (10:28)

Once a question was raised regarding the meat, the believer had to consider the conscience of others. It was not, as Paul continued, a matter of the believer’s own conscience, “but that of the other.” (10:29)

The apostle then raised two questions. “For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I am partaking with thanks, why should I be blasphemed for what I am giving thanks?” It appears that Paul’s meaning is that he would not do something that he had every right to do if it could result in others judging or condemning him on the basis of their conscience. He endeavored to avoid having others pass judgment on his freedom as a disciple of God’s Son. When he thanked God for the provision of food before him, he did not want to be blasphemed or denounced as a sinner who had engaged in an act of idolatry. (10:29, 30; see the Notes section.)

The use of Christian freedom should always be governed by what will contribute to the glory of God. To the extent possible, believers should earnestly strive to avoid any action that has the potential for bringing reproach on God from those who observe their conduct. Paul admonished the Corinthians, “Whether you are eating, whether you are drinking, whether you are doing anything else, do all things for God’s glory.” In every aspect of life, the believer’s objective should be to safeguard and magnify the reputation of God through praiseworthy conduct. (10:31)

Pointing to his own example, the apostle urged the Corinthians, “Do not become a cause for stumbling to Jews and to Greeks and to the congregation of God [the community of believers which belongs to God, having been purchased with the blood of his own Son], as I am pleasing everyone in everything, not seeking my own [advantage], but that of the many, so that they might be saved.” (10:32, 33)

Both fellow believers and unbelievers should be shown consideration, with love and compassion guiding one’s conduct in relation to them and their limitations. In matters that do not involve one’s loyalty to God and Christ, every effort should be made to treat the conscientious feelings of others with respect and to avoid giving needless offense. Paul set the example in this, not insisting on his rights, but recommending himself to the consciences of all. He was concerned about their eternal future and so put the interests of the many ahead of his own, doing so in the hope that they would respond favorably to the message about the Son of God, be forgiven of their sins, and be saved or delivered from the consequences of sin. (10:32, 33)

Notes:

The quotation in 1 Corinthians 10:7 reads the same as the extant Septuagint text of Exodus 32:6.

In Numbers 25:9, the number who died is given as 24,000. According to 1 Corinthians 10:8, 23,000 fell in one day. One possible explanation is that 23,000 were understood to have perished from the plague, whereas 1,000 of the prominent instigators (chieftains of the people) were not included because of having been executed earlier. (Numbers 25:4)

Paul’s reference (in 10:17) to the “body” as being composed of “many” indicates that the community of believers constitutes Christ’s body. A prayer contained in the Didache (thought to date from the late first or early second century) likewise associates the composite body of the community of believers with the loaf of bread from which all partake. “We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you [be] the glory for eternity. As this broken bread was dispersed on the mountains and gathered to become one, thus may your congregation be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.” (9:3, 4) The scattering or dispersing “on the mountains” appears to refer to the sowing of seed in hilly or mountainous regions, with the harvested grain from many ears being ground into flour and coming to be just one loaf of bread. In like manner, widely scattered believers come to be just one composite body on the basis of what Christ has done for them through his sacrificial death.

A number of translations render Paul’s questions (10:29, 30) as an objection to his admonition to show consideration for the conscience of others. “But why, you ask, should my freedom be judged by someone else’s conscience? If I eat the meal with thankfulness, why am I criticized because of something for which I thank God?” (NCV) “Now why should my freedom to eat be at the mercy of someone else’s conscience? Or why should an evil be said of me when I have eaten meat with thankfulness, and have thanked God for it?” (J. B. Phillips) “‘What?’ you say. ‘Is my freedom to be called in question by another’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I blamed for eating food over which I have said grace?’” (REB) The answer to the objection would then be, Because all things should be done to God’s glory, which requires showing consideration for the conscience of others and seeking to avoid putting a stumbling block in their way.

The context in which the questions are placed, however, does not introduce them as an objection. So it appears more likely that Paul meant to continue speaking of himself in the first person as an example to the Corinthians of what he chose to prevent from taking place. He wanted to avoid having his use of freedom condemned and his partaking of food with thanks denounced as sinful.