Immorality: The Forbidden Territory
Continuing what we covered in I Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul explains why self-discipline is critical to salvation. Most of us desire heaven. Likely, it is a major reason why you became a Christian (Ephesians 1:13-14). We want forgiveness of our sins, but more importantly, we want to go home. However, the sad fact is that few will complete the journey (Matthew 7:13-14).
Paul sought heaven, but he realized it wasn’t his yet (Philippians 3:7-14). He knew the danger that comes from thinking that you have something before you have actually received it. A person can become lax. He might not put in sufficient effort to reach his destination.
“But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5). How many people left Egypt? Numbers 1:45-47 says there were 603,500 non-infirm men above the age of twenty who left Egyptian bondage, and this doesn’t include any men from the tribe of Levi. Assuming an equal ratio of men to women, there would easily be 1.2 million healthy adults in the crowd, plus the elderly, the infirm, and children. Of the adults, how many of the original numbers actually entered the promised land? According to Numbers 32:11-13, only two!
Weren’t all these people saved by God? Didn’t God rescue them from slavery and corruption? Then why did so few make it to the destination?
Israel had blessings similar to Christians (I Corinthians 10:1-4)
Paul begins by showing there isn’t as big of a difference between Christians and ancient Israel as you might suppose. It is very easy to look back at all the mistakes the Israelites had committed, wonder how dumb they could be, and think that if you had lived back then you wouldn’t have made those mistakes.
A parallel is made between the Israelites’ salvation from the corruption and bondage in Egypt to the baptism of Christians. Baptism frees us from the bondage of sin (Romans 6:3-7). The Israelites experienced something similar to baptism when they crossed the Red Sea to leave Egypt behind. Yet, despite their salvation, the Israelites still died in the wilderness. Being saved does not guarantee that you will remain saved.
Paul then likens Israel’s reception of manna and water to the spiritual food and drink each Christian receives (John 6:53-58; I Corinthians 11:23-26; John 21:15-17). The Israelites received blessings from God, but those blessings did not guarantee their salvation. Too often Christians are convinced that as long as they come and partake of the Lord’s Supper once a week and hear a lesson, they will reach the promised land of heaven. While it is true that we cannot reach heaven without partaking, it is not true that partaking is all that we need.
The Israelites even had Christ on their side! How often do we quote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13)? The Israelites’ access to Christ did not allow most of them to reach heaven.
Despite their advantages, Israel sinned (I Corinthians 10:5-6)
Despite having all these advantages, similar to the ones we trust in, Israel still sinned. It is easy to think that as Christians we have the greater advantage. Yet with blessings similar to those of Christians, Israel still failed to reach the promised land (Hebrews 3:12-4:1).
It would be shameful that we don’t learn from their mistakes (Hebrews 4:11). God made sure we had a record of what happened so we might see the danger and not repeat their mistakes.
So why did they die? Paul gives a series of examples from the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. The order he gives is not chronological.
Lusting after evil (I Corinthians 10:6)
The first example focuses on the root cause of all the sins Israel fell prey to -- the sin of lust.
Right after leaving Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11-13), where God gave them the law and many had recently perished because of idolatry, the people began to complain. “Now the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel also wept again and said: "Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!" ” (Numbers 11:4-6). Ever since Israel left Egypt, God has been supplying them with all the food they needed. It has now been about two years that they have had manna. Manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Oh, and if you wanted a snack there was manna. Imagine your favorite food item. Now imagine eating nothing else but that for two years. No matter how much you might like something, it will get tiresome after a while.
We need to understand this because it is easy to condemn the Israelites for their complaints without realizing that we would very likely succumb to the same temptation to complain. They were bored with their diet and its lack of variety. They wanted meat and vegetables. They wanted spice to their food.
- Can worship services start to feel boring?
- What innovations have you heard proposed to spice up the worship service?
- What other aspects of being a Christian might people begin to find boring because it doesn’t change?
God gave the people what they wanted (Numbers 11:31-34). The Israelites’ camp was not small. It would be a fair size city all by itself with such a large population. Then, all around this camp, extending a day’s journey (probably about 10 miles but possibly extending up to 30 miles), God filled the area with quail – to a depth of three feet! Not trusting that the birds would remain, even though God said it would be there for a month (Numbers 11:20), the people stayed up for two days straight gathering quail. The pickings were so easy that the smallest amount gathered was ten homers. One homer was a typical load for a donkey, or about 6.25 bushels or 50 gallons. A large trash bag holds 40 gallons, so they gathered a minimum of 12.5 forty-gallon trash bags full of quail. They spread out to eat the meat right then, but before they could even swallow it, God struck them down with a plague (Psalm 78:30-31; 106:15).
- How many Christians and congregations die spiritually running after innovations? (Galatians 1:6-10)
- What is the danger in lust?
- How can we guard against it?
Impatient for Entertainment (I Corinthians 10:7)
It was only a few months after being freed from Egyptian bondage that the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai to receive God’s laws. Moses climbed Mt. Sinai twice, coming down once to warn the people not to get curious and thereby come to harm (Exodus 19:18-20). After the terrifying experience of hearing God speak directly to them, the people asked Moses to speak to God on their behalf (Exodus 20:18-21). And Moses returned to Mt. Sinai to speak with God. He came down again, told the people what God required, and then wrote it all down for them (Exodus 24:3-5). He then returned to the mountain to receive further instruction and to get a copy of the laws on tablets of stone (Exodus 24:12, 15-18).
It is important to note that the people personally heard what God said about idolatry, they heard Moses re-emphasize it, and they had a written copy of the laws in their possession. They also had a constant visual reminder of God’s presence on the mountain above them. “The sight of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel” (Exodus 24:17).
Yet, a problem arose because Moses was gone for a month and a half (40 days) on his last trip up the mountain. (Exodus 32:1, 7-9). They decided Moses wasn’t returning and they created an idol for themselves. They had just agreed to the terms of the covenant God had given them. They knew God was close by. Yet, they went off into idolatry anyway.
The result was that three thousand died that day (Exodus 32:25-28). Moses called for people on the Lord’s side to come to him. Only the tribe of Levi responded to the call. They were commanded to kill the idolaters.
Can you imagine the anguish of the Levites? This wasn’t a war against strangers. God required them to kill their relatives, friends, and neighbors – people they knew! What a terrible thing to ask of anyone, but what a terrible thing sin is in the sight of God.
- Understanding that people today aren’t that different from people back then, how could the Israelites have turned so quickly away from God?
- Why did Paul mention this particular event?
- What lessons do you think Paul wanted the Corinthians to draw from this event? Consider this in the light of what Paul discusses in I Corinthians 11:17-34.
- What lessons should we draw from it?
- What methods have you heard people employ to bring people to the church which are not authorized by the Scriptures?
- What do these methods have in common?
- Why do you think people aren’t relying on God’s method (I Corinthians 1:21)?
When people begin to think they can improve God’s plan, they turn to entertainment. They mistakenly think that what pleases them will also please God (Galatians 1:10). And so many are lost. It forces brethren to stand against brethren (I Corinthians 11:19). I’ve known many families who were ripped apart because some followed the lure of “fun.” It isn’t to take a stand for truth against your own loved ones.
Sexual Immorality (I Corinthians 10:8)
The next events skip to the end of the wilderness wanderings. The people had survived the long forty years in the wilderness. They had reached the very borders of the promised land. But even so close, they lost sight of their goal. “Now Israel remained in Acacia Grove, and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel was joined to Baal of Peor, and the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel” (Numbers 25:1-3).
God demanded that the leaders involved in this sin be killed in broad daylight (Numbers 25:4-5). Meanwhile, a terrible plague raged through Israel striking down people.
In the midst of this terrible chaos and grief, a man brings a Midianite woman into his tent right in front of those crying out to the Lord God (Numbers 25:6). It was obvious what they were intending to do. Phinehas looks up from his tearful prayers and sees this outrage. He stood up, right there, picked up a spear, and followed the couple into their tent (Numbers 25:6-9). With the couple’s death, the plague stopped. 24,000 people died in this plague, not counting the leaders who were slain. By the way, this wasn’t an average couple. The man was the son of a leader in Israel and the woman was the daughter of a leading Midianite (Numbers 25:14-15).
- Why do you suppose did God both demand the deaths of the leaders and send a plague at the same time?
- Why did God stop the plague when Phinehas killed this couple? What did Phinehas demonstrate by his action?
- What special message was Paul emphasizing to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 5:1-2)?
- What lessons should we draw from this event?
- Are people reluctant to take a stand against sexual sins? Why?
- Can people get to the very doorsteps of heaven and not make it?
- When can we relax our guard against sin?
Trying God with complaints (I Corinthians 10:9)
Paul then backs up to an earlier event, the death of Aaron at the beginning of the final leg of their journey to the promised land. The people had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years because they had rebelled against God. In all this time God has been taking care of them. After a forty-year wait, the people became impatient to complete the journey. Things were not progressing as rapidly as they wanted. They began complaining about God and their leaders – the very ones who brought them out of bondage. “Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 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 our soul loathes this worthless bread." So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:4-6).
This time the people apologized for their sin (Numbers 21:7). Moses erected a bronze serpent on a pole. Whoever looked at it after being bitten would live (Numbers 21:8-9).
- How did looking at the bronze serpent counter the complaints? What attitude had to change?
- Why did Paul bring this event to the Corinthians’ attention? (See: I Corinthians 4:1-8)
- What kind of complaints were the Corinthians making?
- Do people complain about God and the leadership in a church today (Hebrews 13:17)? What are some of the complaints you’ve heard about?
- What is lacking in complainers? What is needed?
Grumbling about punishment (I Corinthians 10:10)
After Israel was repulsed from Canaan because they did not believe God could give them the land, they were sentenced to wander 40 years in the wilderness. This was too much for some, and a rebellion was staged (Numbers 16:1-3). Moses opposed them, but they would not back down (Numbers 16:4-7). God was ready to destroy the whole nation, but Moses and Aaron interceded (Numbers 16:18-22). Therefore, God gave everyone an opportunity to chose whether to stand with Korah and the rebels or to separate themselves from them. Moses then pronounced judgment (Numbers 16:28-35). The earth swallowed up Korah and his followers in the sight of the nation. You might think that settled the problem until you read what happened on the following day (Numbers 16:41).
Moses is blamed for killing God’s people! Once again, God basically says that’s it, I’m wiping them out (Numbers 16:44-45). Once again Moses and Aaron interceded for the people who are blaming them for the problems they had caused.
A plague breaks out among the people. Moses tells Aaron to quickly bring a censor of incense to make atonement for the people. Now Aaron is no spring chicken. He is an 86-year old man nearing the end of his life (Numbers 16:46-49). Yet Aaron was willing to put his life on the line. He voluntarily stood before the Lord’s plague. All for a people who just accused him and his brother of killing God’s people. Even so, moving as fast as he could 14,700 people died, not counting those who died the day before in the rebellion.
Why did Paul select this story? Paul’s letter contains numerous harsh rebukes to the Corinthians. Paul told them to withdraw from a wayward brother, and Paul understood the nature of people. Instead of seeing that this man was dead in his sins, they would blame the messenger for the bad news. “It is your fault that he is not in the church anymore. You drove him out!”
It happens all the time. When someone sins and men are bold enough to say it cannot be tolerated, after the sinner is removed, there will be people who will turn against those doing the Lord’s command and blame them for dividing the church and driving Christians away. It is never the sinner’s fault, it is always the fault of those who oppose sin.
- Why do people blame the righteous when sinners are withdrawn from?
- Using Moses and Aaron as examples, how should the righteous respond to such accusations?
No one is immune to sin (I Corinthians 10:11-12)
Truly we must be impressed by the examples Paul gives that salvation is not assured to anyone. The lack is not on God’s part. God can and does save – of this, we have full assurance (Hebrews 6:4-12). But people sin. People turn against their Savior (I Peter 4:17-19). You cannot coast into heaven. You cannot reach heaven regardless of how you behave. The example of Israel teaches us this. Out of the possible 600,000 men, plus the women and the elderly who left Egypt, only two, Joshua and Caleb, entered the promised land.
It wasn’t because they were worse people than you and me. It wasn’t because they didn’t have the advantages we have. It is because they sinned (Matthew 7:13-14; I Peter 4:18).
- Why is it so important to study the Old Testament?
- Why did Paul want the Corinthians, and us, to be aware of the sins of Israel?
- When is a person highly vulnerable to the lure of sin?
- When can a person relax their vigilance against sin? (See: I Peter 5:8-9.)
God’s aid in the fight against sin (I Corinthians 10:13-14)
Temptations are going to happen, but Paul assures us that God has made three promises to His children. God is faithful; He keeps His word.
First, every temptation you face is not unique to you. Other people have faced the same temptation; some successfully, others miserably. This is not to say every person faces the exact same temptation, but that among the billions of people in the world, your particular trial is not rare. Satan’s bag of tricks is limited. This takes away the self-deception of “No one understands what I face.”
Second, God doesn’t allow Satan to give you more than you can handle (II Peter 2:9; II Thessalonians 2:7). This is not a guarantee that you will handle it well. But everything you face will be within your capability to resist. This takes away the argument, “I couldn’t help myself; I was overwhelmed.”
Third, there will always be a choice that allows you not to sin. God will not allow Satan to hedge you in so that no matter what you choose, you will end up sinning (Psalm 34:19; Matthew 6:13). There will always be a way out of Satan’s traps. What isn’t being promised is that the way out will always be the most obvious or the most convenient. Satan will strive to make sure that they aren’t. But what we are guaranteed is that the ways out exist. When we take those ways, we will be able to endure the difficulties of the trials. This takes away the excuse of “I didn’t have any choice. I was forced to do it.”
Summing up this entire section, knowing that Israel faced temptation and failed despite their advantages and knowing that God restrains Satan, we need to flee from idolatry and other sins (II Corinthians 7:1; I Thessalonians 5:21-24). Idolatry is particularly mentioned to lead into the next section.
- Why does temptation continue after you are a Christian? Why doesn’t God take it completely away?