Christian living means being aware of biblical history. Here is why: “Now all these things happened unto them [Israel] for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:11). These lessons of history are emphasized in the 1 Corinthians 10. It has been stated that those who fail to understand the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.
Though few seem to understand this today, in this chapter Paul begins by calling attention to the fact that the God of the Old Testament was none other than the One who became Jesus Christ. He was their God. Therefore, there is a relevant connection between the Old and New Testaments. The events that occurred during the Old Testament period are empirical lessons for us today. At that time the Israelites displeased God. “But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:5). These people constantly disobeyed and had no faith. “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb. 4:2). “For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Heb. 8:8).
Paul describes why they were so displeasing:
How these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand. Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. (1 Cor. 10:6–10)
We should not emulate these examples. The Israelites were guilty of lust, idolatry, fornication, and tempting God. Christian living prohibits this kind of conduct, yet these same temptations entice Christians today. The problem is that since the sins of ancient Israel were committed openly in a national configuration, many do not recognize how they now apply individually.
Take for instance, lust. There are many New Testament Scriptures that warn against lusting. Lust is an intense longing for something that is prohibited in the Law of God, or harmful for himself or others. It is often manifested in an intense sexual desire. Christ addressed this problem in Matthew 5:27–28. “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” This statement must have shocked the disciples. Christ was saying that even thinking lustful thoughts was as bad as carrying out the act itself. With lewdness everywhere today, the temptation is great. Clothing styles accentuate the female figure. Television programs and movies portray acts of fornication and adultery. These shows stimulate lust in male viewers. The Apostle John wrote: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). Advertisements incite lust by creating a desire to possess various products that one does not need, or that may harm one’s financial condition. But credit cards are readily made available to “meet this need.” The list of ways that lust can be produced are seemingly without end, and the harm that is produced is equally endless.
Idolatry is linked closely to lust. Idolatry, in its various forms today, can be seen everywhere, though most people do not realize how it applies to them. Most regard idolatry as idol worship. Indeed this is idolatry. The example of idolatry to which Paul referred in 1 Corinthians 10:7 is recorded in Exodus 32. On this occasion the Israelites participated in illicit sexual activity. Sexual activity was an integral part of idol worship. Idolatry can take many forms, however. In a spiritual sense it includes covetousness. Here is what Paul admonished: “[Put to death] therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
What is covetousness? It is the inordinate desire for wealth or possessions, or for another’s possessions. In brief, it is lust. The Apostle Paul said: ” . . . I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). Covetousness is idolatry for this reason: Because of an inordinate desire to possess, placing one’s desires above all else, one who covets rejects God as the final authority in his life. Therefore, he regards himself and his interests above God. Coveting harms one who commits it because it is a violation of the Tenth Commandment. The Tenth Commandment reads: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s” (Ex. 20:17). To repeat, one who covets places his desires above the commands of God and, therefore, commits idolatry. Paul wrote: “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints” (Eph. 5:3). “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (v. 5). How many people today are willing to lie, cheat, steal, or even kill to possess what others own? It is no exaggeration to say that the “The origin of war begins with theft.”
Paul also called attention to fornication (1 Cor. 10:8). Fornication, along with adultery, is condemned in several New Testament passages. When Israel was encamped across the river from Jericho, they were led into this sin by the plotting Moabites. “And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods: and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel” (Num. 25:1–3). What took place here was not by accident. It was the result of a definite plan. The apostate prophet Baalam provoked it. In the war that followed this incident, the Israelites ” . . . slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword . . . .Behold, these caused the children of Israel,through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD ” (Num. 31:8, 16).
Josephus gives the details. Balaam, after several occasions of failing to curse Israel because God would not allow it, still desired the promised rewards. So he then advised Balak and the princes of Midian to do the following:
So that you have a mind to gain a victory over them [Israel] for a short space of time, you will obtain it by following my directions: do you therefore set out the handsomest of such of your daughters as are most eminent for beauty, and proper to force and conquer the modesty of those that behold them, and these decked and trimmed to the highest degree you are able. Then do you send them to be near the Israelites’ camp, and give them in charge, that when the young men of the Hebrews desire their company, they allow it them; and when they see that they are enamored of them, let them take their leaves; and if they entreat them to stay, let them not give their consent till they have persuaded them to leave off their obedience to their own laws and the worship of that God who established them, and to worship the gods of the Midianites and Moabites; for by this means God would be angry at them. (Ant., Bk. 4, chap. 6)
Those in the camp of Israel who committed whoredom and idolatry were held accountable. “And the LORD said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the LORD against the sun, that the fierce anger of the LORD may be turned away from Israel. And Moses said unto the judges of Israel, Slay ye every one his men that were joined unto Baalpeor” (Num. 25:4–5). Idolatry and fornication are inseparably linked. As a result of this sin, 24,000 people lost their lives (v. 9). God tolerated neither sexual immorality nor idolatry among His people! Paul gives a death toll of 23,000 while Numbers 25:9 gives it at 24,000. This is easily explainable. The number killed in one day was 23,000, but the overall number within a few days time was 24,000.
Much is stated in the New Testament about the sin of fornication. The reader may wish to refer to our website article on the Seventh Commandment. No fornicator will enter the Kingdom of God. Paul wrote; “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19–21).
Another lesson that Paul relates from the historical events of Israel is not to tempt God. Paul wrote: “Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents” (1 Cor. 10:9). What does it mean to tempt God? The Old Testament example is found in Numbers 21.
And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. (vv. 4–6)
Normally the word “tempt” means to present motives or inducement to sin, but when used with Christ, the word means to try His patience, to provoke His anger, to see how much He will bear, or to wear Him out by unbelief. After all His wondrous signs and miracles, along with the manifestation of His great power, and in spite of the fact they had their needs supplied whenever required, the Israelites tempted God by complaining about the manna and the shortage of water. They were ungrateful complainers who constantly found fault with God by criticizing Moses and Aaron.
The account in Numbers 21 is not the only time the Israelites tempted God. This sin is so offensive that it is mentioned more than once in both the Old and New Testaments. God did not want this repeated, regardless of the circumstances. For example, we read: “Ye shall not tempt the LORD your God, as ye tempted him in Massah” (Deut. 6:16). “And they sinned yet more against him by provoking the most High in the wilderness. And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust” (Ps. 78:17–18). “They soon forgat his works; they waited not for his counsel: But lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert” (Ps. 106:13–14). “Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works forty years” (Heb. 3:8–9).
It is very easy to get into this syndrome. Paul warns: “Let your [conduct] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5). Righteousness in God’s eyes includes having faith and confidence in Him, and knowing that the purpose being worked out in your life can only benefit you in the end. Jesus also warned against covetousness—the root cause of dissatisfaction: He said: ” . . . Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15).
Murmuring is the companion of complaining. The two go hand in hand. This was why Paul wrote: “Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10). The Old Testament example is found in Numbers 13–14. When the spies returned from scouting out the land, what did they say?
And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. (Num. 13:30–33)
What an insult to God! He had promised them the land of Canaan, but these spies had utterly repudiated His promise by saying it was impossible to conquer the people living there. Their report greatly discouraged the people of Israel, and they murmured against Moses and Aaron. This was a rejection of all of God’s promises to them. Because of their lack of faith, the spies received their just reward (Num.14:36–37). And of the people, Paul said “And to whom sware he [God] that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not?” (Heb. 3:18). The consequence was that God forbade that entire generation to enter the land, and their carcasses fell in the wilderness.
The lesson for us today is this: “Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14–15). Christians must strive to set the example by not lusting, committing idolatry, fornicating, tempting God, or murmuring.