When reading through the Old Testament, Christians often shake our heads at the ancient people of Israel. How could they be so disobedient? They gave in to idolatry, sexual immorality, testing God, and grumbling against the Lord. Why did God put up with them? Why did he let them keep going?
Interestingly, the New Testament answers those questions for us, and in a way that I think many of us would find to be a surprise. You see, God has always been working out one plan. And we see evidence of that one plan in what Paul says to the Corinthians even as he warns them against committing the same sins as did Israel in the desert.
1 Corinthians 10:6-13 – 6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Take note of the repetition in verses 6 and 11. God let these people sin as they wanted and then recorded the outcome for our instruction. These things happened as examples for us to teach us. Or, as Paul says, “They were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
Before even looking at the sins, stop and think. God says that the things we read in the Old Testament are recorded for our example and our instruction. Israel in the desert with their unfaithfulness is there for us to learn from. Their bad example is a warning for us.
Again, do not see this as a coincidence. God is not saying that, since that stuff happened anyway, it should at least be useful as an example for us. No, God allowed the nation to follow their sinful heart for the purpose of warning the people of God in the latter days. Paul does not say that these things took place for no reason, but we can learn from them. Paul says that these things took place for us to learn from them. God was working out his purpose for his church more than a millennium before Jesus walked the earth.
What are we to learn? Briefly, we see that idolatry, sexual immorality, testing the limits of God’s patience, and grumbling against the Lord are all temptations that we too will face. Notice especially that the idolatry is tied to the people rising up to play, to party around a golden calf. Our temptation toward idolatry is not likely to be to bow down before a statue so much as it will be to worship our pleasure, our autonomy, our sexual liberty. Sexual immorality has been a human temptation since early on. Pushing our limits and grumbling that God does not do what we want is a normal failure. And all of these are destructive.
God tells us to look at Israel, see her failures, and learn. Learn to be guarded against sin. Learn to take sin seriously. Learn to take heed lest we fall. Learn that God offers us a way to battle every temptation. Learn from the example that God gave us through years of Hebrew unfaithfulness.
This passage should cause us to take heed and guard against sin. It should cause us to watch out especially for the sins listed. But it should also cause us to praise God and be in awe of his ways. This stuff happened for our edification, our instruction, our example. May we praise the God who was preparing lessons for us more than three millennia ago.