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. (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 begins with music to ears of Christians who have faith in what God does for us through water, bread and wine. Paul sees the sacraments of baptism and communion foreshadowed in the story of Moses and the exodus. The people of Israel, Paul says, were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink. Such language makes no sense at all from the “communion as an object lesson” point of view. All of Paul’s allusions point to God’s actions. God protected the Hebrews with a cloud. He parted the sea for them to cross. Those who came through the baptism (Paul’s word, not Moses’) were initiated into the covenant and became part of the covenant people. God sustained his people on the journey with manna and with water from the rock. As Brant Pitre relates, Paul was not the only early Common Era Jew to describe the manna as spiritual food. Paul goes on to say that it was Christ himself who was the font of Israel’s spiritual drink.
Both baptism and holy communion are something special. Elsewhere, Paul will describe baptism as union with Christ in a death like his, and communion as participation in his body and blood. If the pagans believe that their sacrifices united them with their deities, how much more do the sacraments unite the saints to Christ?
Nevertheless, even those who are baptized and share the table can go astray into the way that leads to destruction. “Nevertheless” (verse 5) may be the most important word in the passage.
Paul not only finds baptism and communion in the story of the exodus, he also finds idolatry, sexual immorality and a loveless arrogance that threatened to tear the community apart. These were the very things that Paul battled in the Corinthian church.
Near the end of Godfather II, Michael Corleone’s henchmen are seen murdering his enemies as Michael stands as a sponsor at the baptismal font. Even the baptized can do horrible things. It is possible to rise from the communion table – or to leave a Bible study or a prayer meeting – and do great evil. If God did not spare his people in Moses’ day, despite all that he did for them, will he spare those who trample upon his grace in Christ?
Paul’s words are a warning, not a final judgment. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”
Paul follows with a word of hope and grace. The members of the Corinthian church may have made quite a mess of things, but the God who saved them and who continues to nourish them will provide a way out. God is faithful, and he delivers those who turn to him.