The Presumption of Immunity

1 Corinthians 10:1-14

A strange text indeed. Paul’s allusions and quotation from the Old Testament are striking and peculiar. What is Paul alluding to? What is the Red Sea’s relationship with baptism? Are there allusions to the Lord’s Supper or something more generic? How does this text contribute to Paul’s ongoing discussion about idolatry and corporate worship?

One range of meanings convincingly advocates that Paul is relying on a Jewish midrashic background (See Psalm 78 and Deut 32). However, its an odd argument for Paul to make to Gentile Christians. The first person plural used in the text precludes the hearer that would know such a tradition. Yet, Paul thinks of these Gentile converts as Israel and this is their story too.

Remember Israel. “All” were in community (5 times). They participated in God’s blessings. “All” of them were under the cloud and passed through the sea. “All” of them were baptized into Moses and ate the same spiritual food and drink. Even though they experienced God’s blessing, “most” of them also experienced God’s discipline. “Some” were punished (4 times). Receiving God’s blessing did not give them special license to do whatever.

Somehow the Corinthians felt immune due to their participation in the Christian community. The text contains sacramental language. References to baptism and eating and drinking remind many of Christian baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Others generalize these references. Nevertheless, the Corinthians felt they were a special case because of God’s blessing.

Throughout 8:1-11:1 Paul addresses the Corinthian practice of eating sacrificial food at pagan temples. This responds to a previous letter (8:1). Paul has already argued that this practice could be a “stumbling-block” to the weak (8:1-13) and that, even with the freedom of apostolic rights, he surrenders his rights to protect others (9:1-27). In 10:14-11:1 he gives the theological reason for the prohibition and lays down the law concerning marketplace food. It is in 10:1-14 that he uses the analogy of Israel as an example of how sacraments will not save them from punishment for idolatry. Israel did not heed the warning and many did not attain the “prize” (9:24-27).

Thought Questions: The absolute prohibition of contact with idols in this section seems to contradict his leniency in 8:1-13 and 10:23-31 where eating and drinking are not serious matters. Is Paul trying to have it both ways? Can we eat idol meat and reject idol worship? Can we live in, and use the products of, the secular world without falling prey to society as an idol? Where is the distinction? Is sexual immorality associated with idolatry today? If not, what seems to go hand in hand with idolatry for us?

What were the Corinthians doing? Are the references to idolatry, sexual immorality, testing, and grumbling actual sins in the Corinthian fellowship? The only quote Paul uses from the Old Testament is in verse 7: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” Sound familiar. Sounds like the abuses at the Lord’s Table found later in the context of chapter 10 and 11. 10:1-14 must be seen with 10:15-22 that also deals with idolatry and food sacrificed to idols. The tie to sexual immorality is plain. Even the grumbling against Moses could easily refer to the Corinthians grumbling against Paul. I believe Paul has selected his examples from the Old Testament specifically because they condemn what the Corinthians were practicing as a Christian community and around the Lord’s Table.

The Exodus of Israel was an act of Grace. The Exodus typology teaches that grace has priority with God. But how does one respond to God’s grace? Israel’s deliverance began with their “baptism into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Their deliverance continued as they gathered at God’s supper table every day to eat “the same spiritual food and [drink] the same spiritual drink.” Paul affirms their deliverance is a participation with Christ “for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” In spite of their deliverance, Israel fell into idolatry.

The Corinthians were somehow justifying what occurred at baptism and the Lord’s Supper in order to declare their freedom to behave the way their pagan neighbors behaved. Paul declares to them: Do you not know that when you were baptized that you all participated with Christ in his death (10:2; 12:13)? Do you not know that when you gather at Table that you all participate in the cup of thanksgiving and body of Christ (10:3-4; 16-17)? Just because God has granted grace, beware; some of you are in danger (10:12).

No one should ever entertain the notion that just because God has been gracious to me, just because I was immersed into Christ, just because I gather at the Table every Lord’s Day, and a dozen other frequently named externals, that somehow I am exempt from Christian behavior. You cannot participate in either baptism or the Lord’s Supper in a way that excludes ethics.

At the hinge-point of the ages, where the ages meet, these Old Testament stories serve as “typikos” (10:11). Their example brings to remembrance our own baptism and our frequent visits to the Table.

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