Expositor's Bible Commentary
Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;
IN discussing the question regarding "things offered unto idols," Paul is led to treat at large of Christian liberty, a subject to which he was always drawn. And partly to encourage the Christians of Corinth to consider their weak and prejudiced brethren, partly for other reasons, he reminds them how he himself abridged his liberty and departed from his just claims in order that the Gospel he preached might find readier acceptance. Besides, not only for the sake of the Gospel and of other men, but for his own sake also, he must practise self-denial. It would profit him nothing to have been an apostle unless he practised what he preached. He had felt that in considering the spiritual condition of other men and trying to advance it he was apt to forget his own: and he saw that all men were more or less liable to the same temptation, and were apt to rest in the fact that they were Christians and to shrink from the arduous life which gives that name its meaning. By means of two illustrations Paul fixes this idea in their minds, first pointing them to their own games in which they saw that not all who entered for the race obtained the prize, and then pointing them to the history of Israel, in which they might plainly read that not all who began the journey to the promised land found entrance into it.
The Israelites of the Exodus are here introduced as exemplifying a common experience. They accepted the position of God’s people, but failed in its duties. They perceived the advantages of being God’s subjects, but shrank from much which this implied. They were willing to be delivered from bondage, but found themselves overweighted by the responsibilities and risks of a free life. They were in contact with the highest advantages men need possess, and yet failed to use them.
The amount of conviction which prompts us to form a connection with Christ may be insufficient to stimulate us to do and endure all that results from that connection. The children of Israel were all baptised unto Moses, but they did not implement their baptism by a persistent and faithful adherence to him. They were baptised unto Moses by their acceptance of his leadership in the Exodus. By passing through the Red Sea at his command they definitely renounced Pharaoh and abandoned their old life, and as definitely pledged and committed themselves to throw in their lot with Moses. By passing the Egyptian frontier and following the guidance of the pillar of cloud they professed their willingness to exchange a life of bondage, with its security and occasional luxuries, for a life of freedom, with its hazards and hardships; and by that passage of the Red Sea they were as certainly sworn to support and obey Moses as ever was Roman soldier who took the oath to serve his emperor. When, at Brederode’s invitation, the patriots of Holland put on the beggar’s wallet and tasted wine from the beggar’s bowl, they were baptised unto William of Orange and their country’s cause. When the sailors on board the "Swan" weighed anchor and beat out of Plymouth, they were baptised unto Drake and pledged to follow him and fight for him to the death. Baptism means much; but if it means anything it means that we commit and pledge ourselves to the life we are called to by Him in whose name we are baptised. It draws a line across the life, and proclaims that to whomsoever in time past we have been bound, and for whatsoever we have lived, we now are pledged to this new Lord, and are to live in His service. Such a pledge was given by every Israelite who turned his back on Egypt and passed through that sea which was the defence of Israel and destruction to the enemy. The crossing was at once actual deliverance from the old life and irrevocable committal to the new. They died to Pharaoh, and were born again to Moses. They were baptised unto Moses.
And as the Israelites had thus a baptism analogous to the one Christian sacrament, so had they a spiritual food and drink in the wilderness which formed a sacrament analogous to the Christian communion. They were not shut out of Egypt, and imprisoned in the desert, and left to do the best they could on their own resources. If they failed to march steadily forward and fulfil their destiny as the emancipated people of God, this failure was not due to any neglect on God’s part. The fare might be somewhat Spartan, but a sufficiency was always provided. He who had encouraged them to enter on this new life was prepared to uphold them in it and carry them through.
One of the expressions used by Paul in describing the sustenance of the Israelites has given rise to some discussion. "They did all drink," he says, "the same spiritual drink, for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them; and that Rock was Christ." Now there happened to be a Jewish tradition which gave out that the rock smitten by Moses was a detached block or boulder, "globular, like a beehive," which rolled after the camp in its line of march, and was always at hand, with its unfailing water supply. This is altogether too grotesque an idea. The fact is that the Israelites did not die of thirst in the wilderness. It was quite likely they should; and but for the providential supply of water, so large a company could not have been sustained. And no doubt not only in the rock at Rephidim at the beginning of their journey and the rock of Kadesh at its close, but in many most unlikely places during the intervening years, water was found. So that in looking back on the entire journey. it might very naturally be said that the rock had followed them, not meaning that wherever they went they had the same source to draw from, but that throughout their journeyings they were supplied with water in places and ways as unexpected and unlikely.
Paul’s point is that in the wilderness the food and drink of the Israelites were "spiritual," or, as we should more naturally say, sacramental; that is to say, their sustenance continually spoke to them of God’s nearness and reminded them that they were His people. And as Christ Himself, when He lifted the bread at the Last Supper, said, "This is My body," so does Paul use analogous language and say, "That Rock was Christ," an expression which gives us considerable insight into the significance of the Israelitish types of Christ, and helps to rid our minds of some erroneous impressions we are apt to cherish regarding them.
The manna and the water from the rock were given to sustain the Israelites and carry them towards their promised land, but they were so given as to quicken faith in God. To every Israelite his daily nourishment might reasonably be called spiritual, because it reminded him that God was with him in the wilderness, and prompted him to think of that purpose and destiny for the sake of which God was sustaining the people. To the devout among them their daily food became a means of grace, deepening their faith in the unseen God and rooting their life in a true dependence upon Him. The manna and the water from the rock were sacramental, because they were continuous signs and seals of God’s favour and redeeming efficiency and promise. They were types of Christ, serving for Israel in the wilderness the purpose which Christ serves for us, enabling them to believe in a heavenly Father who cared for them and accomplishing the same spiritual union with the unseen God which Christ accomplishes for us.
It was in this sense that Paul could say that the rock was Christ. The Israelites in the wilderness did not know that the rock was a type of Christ. They did not, as they drank of the water, think of One who was to come and satisfy the whole thirst of men. The types of Christ in the old times did not enable men to forecast the future; it was not through the future they exercised an influence for good on the mind. They worked by exciting there and then in the Jewish mind the same faith in God which Christ excites in our mind. It was not knowledge that saved the Jew, but faith, attachment to the living God. It was not the fragmentary and disjointed picture of a Redeemer thrown on the screen of his hopes by the types, nor was it any thought of a future Deliverer, which saved him, but his belief in God as his Redeemer there and then. This belief was quickened by the various institutions, providences, and objects by which God convinced the Jews that He was their Friend and Lord. Sacrifice they accepted as an institution of God’s appointment intended to encourage them to believe in the forgiveness of sin and in God’s favour; and without any thought of the realised ideal of sacrifice in Christ, the believing and devout Israelite entered through sacrifice into fellowship with God. Every sacrifice was a type of Christ; it did foreshadow that which was to be: but it was a type, not because it revealed Christ to those who saw or offered it, but because for the time being it served the same purpose as Christ now serves, enabling men to believe in the forgiveness of sins.
But while in the mind of the Israelite there was no connection of the type with the Christ that was to come, there was in reality a connection between them. The redemption of men is one, whether accomplished in the days of the Exodus or in our own time. The idea or plan of salvation is one, resting always on the same reasons and principles. The Israelites were pardoned in view of the incarnation and atonement of Christ just as we are. If it was needful for our salvation that Christ should come and live and suffer in human nature, it was also needful for their salvation. The Lamb was slain "from the foundation of the world," and the virtue of the sacrifice of Calvary was efficacious for those who lived before as well as for those who lived after it. To the mind of God it was present, and in His purpose it was determined, from the beginning; and it is in view of Christ’s incarnation and work that sinners early or late have been restored to God. So that everything by which God instructed men and taught them to believe in His mercy and holiness was connected with Christ. It was to Christ it owed its existence, and really it was a shadow of the coming substance. And as the shadow is named from the substance, it may be truly said, "That Rock was Christ."
These outward blessings then of which St. Paul here speaks had very much the same nature as the Christian sacraments to which he tacitly compares them. They were intended to convey greater gifts and be the channels of a grace more valuable than themselves. But to most of the Israelites they remained mere manna and water, and brought no firmer assurance of God’s presence, no more fruitful acceptance of God’s purpose. The majority took the husk and threw away the kernel; were so delayed by the wrappings that they forgot to examine the gift they enclosed; accepted the physical nourishment, but rejected the spiritual strength it contained. Instead of learning from their wilderness experience the sufficiency of Jehovah and gathering courage to fulfil His purpose with them, they began to murmur and lust after evil things, and were destroyed by the destroyer. They had been baptised unto Moses, pledging themselves to his leadership and committing themselves to the new life he opened to them; they had been sustained by manna and water from the rock, which plainly told them that all nature would work for them if they pressed forward to their God-appointed destiny: but the most of them shrank from the hardships and hazards of the way, and could not lift their heart to the glory of being led by God and used to fulfil His greatest purposes.
And so, says Paul, it may be with you. It is possible that you may have been baptised and may have professedly, committed yourself to the Christian career, it is possible you may have partaken of that bread and wine which convey undying life and energy to believing recipients, and may yet have failed to use these as spiritual food, enabling you to fulfil all the duties of the life you are pledged to. Had it been enough merely to show a readiness to enter on the more arduous life, then all Israel would have been saved, for "all" without exception passed through the Red Sea and committed themselves to life under God’s leadership. Had it been enough outwardly to participate in that which actually links men to God, then all Israel would have been inspired by God’s Spirit and strength, for "all" without exception partook of the spiritual food and the spiritual drink. But the disastrous and undeniable result was that the great mass of the people were overthrown in the wilderness and did never set foot in the land of promise. And men have not yet outlived this same danger of committing themselves to a life they find too hard and full of risk. They see the advantages of a Christian career, and connect themselves with the Christian Church; they instinctively perceive that it is there God is most fully known, and that the purposes of God are there concentrated and running on to direct and perfect results; they are drawn by their better self to throw in their lot with the Church, to forget competing advantages, and spend themselves wholly on what is best: and yet the difficulty of standing alone and acting on individual conviction rather than on current understandings, the wearing depression of personal failure and insufficiency for high and spiritual attainment, the distraction of the haunting doubt that after all they are making sacrifices and suffering privations which are fruitless, unwise, unnecessary, gradually betray the spirit into virtual renunciation of all Christian hopes and into a practical willingness to return to the old life. And thus as the wilderness came to be spotted all over with the burial places of those who had left the Red Sea behind them with shouts of triumph and with hopes that broke out in song and dancing, as the route of that once jubilant host might at last have been traced, as the great slave routes of Africa are traceable, by the bones of men and the skeletons of children, so, alas! might the Church’s march through the centuries be recognised by the far more horrifying remains of those who once, with liveliest hope and unbroken sense of security, joined themselves to the people of Christ, but silently lost hold of the hope that once drew them on and either stole away on private enterprises of their own and were destroyed of the destroyer, or withered in helpless imbecility, murmuring at their lot and stone blind to its glory. As the retreat of Napoleon’s "grand army" from Moscow was marked by corpses wearing the French uniform, but bringing neither strength nor lustre to their cause, so must shame be reflected on the Church by the countless numbers of those who can be identified with Christ’s cause only by the uniform they wear, and not by any victories they have won. There were in the wilderness districts through which no Israelite would willingly pass, districts in which many thousands had fallen, and which were branded as vast "graves of lust," places whose very name stirred a deeper horror and raised a quicker blush on the Israelite’s cheek than is raised on the Englishman’s by the mention of Majuba Hill or Braddock’s defeat. And the Church’s territory also is spotted with those vast charnel houses and places of defeat where even her mighty have fallen, where the earth refuses to cover the disgrace and blot out the stain. These are not things of the past. While women and children are starved though they toil all day and half the night, with eagerest energy and the skill necessity gives; while life is to so many thousands in our land a joyless and hopeless misery; while trade not only panders to covetousness and selfishness, but directly contributes to what is immoral and destructive, we can scarcely speak of the "glorious marching" of the Church of Christ. We have our places of horror, which no right-hearted Christian can think of without a shudder.
But while the distinction between the life we naturally seek and that to which God calls us is felt by all from age to age, the forms in which this distinction makes itself felt vary as the world grows older. To all men living in a world of sense it is difficult to live by faith in the unseen. To every man it is the ultimate, severest test of character to determine for what ends he will live and to carry out this determination; but the temptations which avail to draw men aside from their reasonable decision are various as the men themselves. Paul names the temptations to which the Corinthians, in common with the Israelites, were exposed idolatry, fornication, murmuring, tempting Christ. He saw clearly how difficult it was for the Corinthians to discard all heathen customs, how much of what had been brightest in their life they must sacrifice if they were to renounce absolutely the religion of their parents and friends and all the joyous, if licentious, customs associated with that religion. Apparently some of them thought they might pass from the Christian communion to the heathen temple, and after partaking of Christ’s sacrament eat and drink in the idolatrous festival, entering into the entire service. They seemed to think that they might be both Christians and pagans.
Against this vain attempt to combine the incompatible Paul warns them. Do not tempt Christ, he says, by experimenting how far He will bear with your conformity to idolatry. Some of the Israelites did so and were destroyed by serpents. Do not murmur that you are hereby severed from all the enjoyments of life, dissociated from your heathen friends, blackballed in society and in business, excluded from all national festivals and from many private entertainments; do not count up your losses, but your gains. Your temptations are severe, but "there hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man." Every man must make up his mind to a certain kind of life and go through with it. No man can unite in his own life all advantages. He must deliberate and choose; and having made his choice, he must not lament what he loses or be tempted from striving to gain what he judges best by weakly and greedily craving for the second best also. He may win the first prize; he may win the second: he cannot win both, and if he tries, he will win neither.
The practical outcome of all that Paul has thus rapidly passed in review he utters in the haunting words, "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." In this life we are never beyond the reach of temptation. And these temptations to which all of us are exposed are real; they do sufficiently test character and show what it actually is. Our suppositions regarding ourselves are often untrue. There is no reality corresponding, Our state is actually not such as we conceive it to be. We are at ease and complacent when we ought not to be at ease. We think we stand secure when we are on the point of falling. We live as if we had reached the goal when the whole journey is yet before us. Our future may be very different from what we wish or expect. Mere satisfaction with our present condition is a very insecure foundation on which to build our hope for the future. Mere reliance on a profession we have made, or on the fact that we are within reach of means of grace, tends only to slacken our energies.
Heedlessness, taking things for granted, failure to sift matters thoroughly out, an indolent unwillingness to probe our spiritual condition to the quick-this is what has betrayed multitudes of Christians. "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."
If determined wickedness has slain its thousands, heedlessness has slain its tens of thousands. Through lack of watchfulness men fall into sin which entangles them for life and thwarts their best purposes. Through want of watchfulness men go on in sin which exceedingly provokes God, till at last His hand falls heavily upon them. Every man is apt to lay too much stress on the circumstance that he has joined himself to the number of those who own the leadership of Christ. The question remains, How far has he gone with his Leader? Many an Israelite compassionated the poor heathen whom he left behind in the land of Egypt, and yet found that, with all his own apparent nearness to God, his heart was heathen still. Whoever takes it for granted that things are welt with him, whoever "thinketh he standeth"-he is the man who has especial and urgent need to "take heed lest he fall."