I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud…” Ah! The good old days! Onward Hebrew soldiers, marching to the Promised Land, nourished with the bread of heaven, baptised by the celestial cloud and refreshed by the crystal fountain springing from the eternal rock! Moses at the front, Aaron bringing up the rear. Moses constantly urging them on, or telling them to pull their socks up (presumably to hide their golden calves). Those were the days! But not for 23,000 of them (1 Cor 10.8), or was it 24,000 (Num 25.9)? They were the backsliders and they all perished. Like the rest, they had tasted water from the rock, eaten the heavenly manna, which Paul likened to the Sacraments, but they had gone wrong and they perished as a consequence. Paul warns his readers in Corinth, where they knew a thing or two about immorality, that the same could happen to them. He uses the typology of Baptism and Communion to compare the experience of the desert to celebration of the Sacraments in order to show that mere observance of the forms is not enough. You have to be a true believer, with deeds that match the symbols, to be a valiant pilgrim. As Dodd puts it “No sacramental act achieves anything unless it is an outward symbol of what really happens inwardly in experience.” Bad news for the naughty Corinthians. But good news for the faithful, for there is an accompanying promise: “God is faithful. And he will not let you be tested beyond your strength”. When the testing hour comes, he is at our side. What more can we ask?
“Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same Everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”
St Francis de Sales
The Rev’d Peter Moth, retired minister, St Andrew’s URC Kenton, Newcastle upon Tyne
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