The Sacraments in 1 Corinthians

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” 1 Corinthians 10:1-7

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul compares the Christian sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion to the experience of Israel in the wilderness. It seems to me that Paul’s writing here demands a rather high view of the sacraments.

Paul likens baptism to Israel’s passage through the sea and being overshadowed by the cloud. Paul says that in these events, the people were “baptized into Moses.” The Exodus is indeed the foundational event for the Old Testament people of God. The Exodus took the chosen people, cemented them into one in the experience of their deliverance and gave them their mission in the world.

In a similar manner, Paul compares eating and drinking Holy Communion to Israel’s experience of being fed with manna and drinking from the rock during its journey through the wilderness. Paul, in fact, takes two recorded experiences of water springing from a rock (Exodus 17:6 and Number 20:11) and describes it as an ongoing experience: the rock accompanied them. Paul may have been following a rabbinic tradition at this point. Israel’s food and drink, Paul says, were “spiritual,” not just bread and water. The heavenly food and drink were expressions of God’s loving and providing presence with Israel throughout its journeys.

Paul is presenting a “from lesser to greater” argument here in his allusions to the Exodus story. If passing through the sea baptized one “into Moses” (into the Mosaic covenant and the people of Israel), how much more do the waters of baptism unite one to the Lord (into a new covenant and the community of faith). If manna and water were “spiritual” food, how much more so are the body and blood of the Lord.

Together, these images draw a picture of baptism as the sacrament of beginning in Christ and communion as the sacrament of continuing in Christ. Baptism is the sacrament of initiation; communion is the sacrament of participation. Baptism is the sacrament of spiritual birth; communion is the sacrament of spiritual nurture.

Paul doesn’t seem to be concerned about the metaphysical processes involved in the sacraments, but his entire argument is based upon their efficacy. Some of his opponents argued that they could do as they please and participate in pagan rituals; as long as they had been baptized and communed, they lived above the world of sin. Paul did not respond, “Well, you know that’s just a symbol of what takes place in your heart.” He did not dispute the power that God had provided in the sacraments. In fact, in 10:16-18, Paul says,

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?

Paul makes this argument in the context of teaching about improper sexual behavior and idolatry. Paul’s assumption is that those who are united to Christ in baptism and the Lord’s table have more expected of them, not less. It is the fact that the sacraments truly unite one to Christ that make such sins unthinkable for Christians.

Similarly, in 11:20-34, Paul argues that Holy Communion demands respect because it is the body and blood of Christ. Paul transmits the tradition he received:

that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. (11:23-25)

Paul evidently takes the tradition to mean what it says – this is my body – this is the new covenant in my blood. A person can be guilty of a sin against the “body and blood of the Lord” (11:27) by not respecting the spiritual and communal nature of the Eucharistic celebration [i.e., “discerning the body” (11:29)] and treating it as just another opportunity to feed one’s face. Paul’s argument makes no sense without a high view of the sacrament.

In 1 Corinthians 10:1-7, then, Paul affirms his opponent’s premise but denies their conclusion. God’s grace is powerfully present in the sacraments that he provided the church. Paul reminds the Corinthians, however, that even those who have been baptized and who share the Lord’s table can still rebel against God. Even those who have been truly united to Christ can dishonor him by their behavior. The story of the Exodus was Paul’s proof of this.