SERIES: Exodus: Moses, God’s Man for the Hour
Privilege Does Not Equal Success, or A Heavenly Diet for an Earthly Appetite
SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus
Introduction: All of us have known of individuals who started out with nothing and became great successes. On the other hand, we have also known people who had everything—family, friends, wealth, intelligence, social privilege, you name it—and yet turned out to be miserable failures. The ancient Israelites, whom we have been studying for several months, are a poignant illustration of the latter, particularly in the spiritual realm. Last Lord’s Day we saw an overview of their desert experience; today we want to examine some of the details. In the process we will learn that spiritual privileges do not necessarily equal spiritual success.
When the text of Exodus 16 and 17 was read a few moments ago did any of you wonder, “What possible relevance do these stories have for us today? I’ve never seen bread come down from heaven. I’ve never seen water come out of a rock in response to someone hitting it with a stick. What am I supposed to do with all of this?” I’m glad you asked, because someone more skilled in the interpretation and application of the OT has already answered your questions, and I have decided to preach his sermon on Ex. 16 & 17 instead of writing one of my own. His is found in 1 Cor. 10:1-13. Please turn there with me and let’s read.
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. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things 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 got up to indulge in revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Did you notice those two statements in verses 6 and 11? “These things occurred as examples to keep us from doing certain things,” and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” So, there’s no question but that the experiences of the ancient Israelites are directly applicable to our lives. My goal for us this morning is to learn one specific truth from Israel, namely that a humble, teachable, and obedient spirit is worth more than all the spiritual privileges one can accumulate. We want to do this by establishing three propositions from I Cor. 10:
God’s people all enjoyed significant privileges from God.
Nevertheless, God’s people were guilty of significant sins against God.
Therefore, God’s people experienced significant discipline by God.
Let’s begin with the first:
God’s people, the Israelites, all enjoyed significant privileges from God. (1 Cor. 10:1-5)
I want you to notice the amazing parallel between the privileges of ancient Israel and the privileges we enjoy as believers today.
Continual providence (1). We noted last week that the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, which Israel enjoyed for 40 years, performed at least three major functions: it protected them from the elements, it reminded them of God’s presence, and it guided them through the wilderness. In other words, God’s providence was constantly their portion. Is that true for us today? It certainly is. God’s providence doesn’t always operate the same way, but the Scriptures clearly promise us protection, God’s presence, and His guidance through the Holy Spirit. Then Paul says, “they all passed through the sea”, giving us a second parallel, redemption from slavery.
Redemption from slavery (1). The crossing of the Red Sea is the incident to which the Jews always look as the time of their redemption from bondage, not the time when they decided to follow Moses, nor the time when God gave them the Law at Sinai, nor the time when they finally entered the Promised Land. Does the believer today have a point to which he can look as his redemption from slavery to sin? Sure, it’s the time of his conversion, when he first put his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. I grant you there are some people who can’t remember the date when that happened, but that doesn’t argue against the fact that there was a point in time when in fact they did begin to believe. No one is born a Christian; the only way to become a Christian is to be born again. A third parallel is seen in the fact that Israel experienced a kind of baptism.
“Baptism” (2). I put this in quotes because even though Paul uses the word baptism, it is a very unusual baptism. He says, “They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” A Presbyterian may approve calling this a baptism because the cloud likely sprinkled on the people from time to time, but a Baptist would have a real problem with it, especially with the second part, for Israel was not only not immersed in the sea–they didn’t even get their feet wet. So why does Paul call this a baptism? Because the key concept behind baptism is not water; water is just the method by which the concept is conveyed. The key concept is thorough identification with a leader. Moses was the leader, and the people were all identified with him when they followed him through the Red Sea, just as the Christian is irreversibly identified with Jesus Christ and His Body when he submits to Christian baptism.
The fourth and fifth parallels that Israel enjoyed are the privilege of spiritual food and spiritual drink, according to verses 3 & 4.
Spiritual food and spiritual drink (3-4). This is an obvious reference to the 16th and 17th chapters of Exodus, read earlier, where God gave the hungry and thirsty Israelites manna from Heaven and water from the rock. The term “spiritual” here does not imply that the food and drink were not physical; rather it implies that they were supernatural in origin. Now, think hard—does the believer in Christ today experience any spiritual food and drink? I suppose one might go to passages that speak of God’s Word as the bread of life or of the sincere milk of the Word. But since the reference to spiritual food and drink in I Cor. 10:3 follows so closely on the heals of a reference to baptism, what else might Paul be referring to? Sure, the Lord’s Supper, especially since he goes on to discuss the Lord’s Supper in detail later in this chapter and in greater detail in the next.
By the way, Paul says something very unusual about the rock from which Israel received water. Verse 3 reads, “they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” The fact of the matter is that Moses struck a rock for water twice—once near the beginning of the desert wanderings and once near the end. A legend grew up among the Jews that the rock must have followed them through the desert for the entire 40 years. Paul acknowledges the existence of that legend and sees a certain truth behind it. “You know,” he says, “the rock really did follow them, but it was not a physical rock. The Rock that followed them was the preincarnate Christ, the Solid Rock,” about whom we sang earlier this morning.
So, I would suggest to you that Paul has chosen five great spiritual privileges which the ancient Israelites enjoyed—all five of which were also enjoyed by true believers in his day (and in ours!). Paul wants us to identify with Israel so we will learn the lessons he is about to drive home. But before moving on, please note a very important word in these first four verses—the word “all.” These were not selective privileges; all the people enjoyed all of them. You might want to underline the word “all” in your Bible to highlight that fact. The point is that the cloud didn’t protect just someof the Israelites; when the people passed through the Red Sea there weren’t any stragglers that drowned with the Egyptians. Furthermore, the manna and the water were available to every one of them. In other words, the blessings of God extended to every member of the covenant family.
That’s true also of the privileges of the believer today. God’s providence, His redemption, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are universal privileges in the family of God; they are not reserved for the clergy or for the unusually mature. Not every believer has the same gifts or the same intelligence or the same ministry, but every believer does experience the protection, presence and guidance of God and redemption from sin, and every one of them has the right and the privilege of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Now the second section of I Cor. 10 moves on from the fact that God’s people all enjoyed significant privileges from God to tell us that …
Nevertheless, God’s people were guilty of significant sins against God. (1 Cor. 10:6-11)
Look at the strong contrast at the beginning of verse 5: “Nevertheless, despite these great privileges, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.” There are two monumental understatements here. The first is the phrase, “God was not pleased.” The fact is God was tremendously angry with them on one occasion after another to the point that on several occasions He threatened to wipe them off the face of the earth. The other understatement is the phrase “most of them.” With how many was He not pleased? 99.9999%! In fact, He sentenced all but two—Joshua and Caleb—to die in the desert. Paul says, “their bodies were scattered over the desert.” Isn’t the picture here full of pathos—the wilderness strewn with corpses bloated with supernatural food and drink?
Well, why was God so angry with most of them when all of them had enjoyed such significant privileges? The next four verses go on to tell us it was because these same Israelites were guilty of five significant crimes against God. Each is marked out by the phrase “as some of them did.” The first sin delineated is that of
Greed for what God hadn’t provided (6, Num. 11). Look at verse 6: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” We can find the incident to which Paul is referring if we turn to Numbers 11:4. It reads,
“The rabble with them began to crave other food (besides the manna God provided), and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost (they fail to note that the reason they received it at no cost is the same reason prisoners aren’t charged for their meals)—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!'”
Please note that Paul says they sinned by craving evil things, but Numbers says all they craved were meat and fish and cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. Now I had leeks once and I flat don’t understand how anyone can crave them, but I wouldn’t call them evil. In what sense can Paul say they craved evil things? Let me suggest that anytime we become greedy for something God has not provided to the point that we crave it and even begin to complain against God because He hasn’t let us have it, that thing becomes evil to us. If that is true, then almost anything can qualify—from a fancy car to a new house to a better job to financial security. What we need to learn is the contentment that characterized Paul’s life: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Phil. 4:11)
Participation in religious compromise (7, Ex. 32). Here’s what the text says in verse 7: “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people say down to eat and drink and got up to play.” The NIV interprets “play” as “indulging in pagan revelry,” which helps answer the obvious question, “What’s idolatrous about eating, drinking, and playing?” Well, it all depends upon the circumstances. The reference here is to Ex. 32, where the children of Israel urged Aaron to make them a golden calf while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. Sadly, Aaron did so and when finished he announced, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” Then he announced a festival and the next day the people rose early and sacrificed offerings. Afterward, according to Ex. 32:6, they sat down to eat and drink and indulged in revelry.
The people were obviously participating in spiritual compromise. The golden calf, the festival, and everything associated with it was evil because it violated the most basic principle of Israel’s faith, namely there is only one God, Lord of heaven and earth. The only appropriate thing for any individual Israelite was to stay as far away as possible from these activities.
Now, let me ask, is there any temptation for believers today to involve themselves in spiritual compromise? There are probably many applications but allow me to make just a couple. What about the believer involved in a church where homosexual clergy are ordained or where adultery and fornication are openly condoned? What about the believer who attends a psychic party? I suggest that even eating, drinking, and playing in such circumstances is idolatry and spiritual compromise.
Participation in moral compromise (8, Num. 25). Verse 8: “We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did.” The reference here is to an incident late in Israel’s wilderness wanderings found in Numbers 25:1: “While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices of their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them.” What started out to be social contact, perhaps even religious contact, quickly deteriorated into immorality because of the loose standards of the Moabite women.
Any chance of believers getting caught in this trap today? I have counseled many a Christian businessman or woman whose life was in shambles because of adultery. In most cases the story is the same—all they had wanted at first was social contact, friendship, and conversation, and it seemed harmless to go to lunch with a fellow worker or a salesman of the opposite sex. Yet that social contact over time became an emotional attachment and eventually a destructive physical relationship. Friends, we must be extremely careful in this amoral society we live in if we don’t want to lose the purity that is an essential quality of the Christian walk. Moral compromise is everywhere around us.
Disdain for what God had provided (9, Num. 21). Notice the contrast with the first sin we mentioned. That was greed for what God had not provided. This is disdain for what He hadprovided. In verse 9 it says, “We should not test the Lord as some of them did.” In Numbers 21, which records the only major incident during the 38 years of wandering between Kadesh Barnea and their preparation for entering the Promised Land, we are told in verse 4 that “the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!'”
Do you ever get so tired of your lot in life that you say to God, “I detest this miserable job, or I detest the husband you gave me, or I detest my poverty, or I can’t stand the health problems I have, etc.?” Have you stopped to think about the fact that your complaint is ultimately a complaint against God, since He could have given you a different job or different husband or different station in life if He thought that was best for you? You may be tempting the Lord by expressing disdain for what He has provided.
Rejection of divinely appointed leadership (10, Num. 16). Verse 10: “And do not grumble as some of them did.” In the passage our readers presented this morning the word “grumble” or “quarrel with” appears no fewer than ten times. But the reference Paul had in mind is to Korah’s rebellion as recorded in Numbers 16. There Korah recruited a group of unhappy community leaders, and verse 3 says, “They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?” In other words, they wanted democracy. They felt everyone should have a say in the decision-making process; there was nothing unique about Moses’ leadership. But they forgot that Moses hadn’t been elected, nor had he seized authority. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t even volunteered. He had been chosen by God to lead the nation and to provide godly leadership.
Are Christians ever tempted to reject divinely appointed leadership? The fact is many churches have been split by modern-day Korahs. I happen to be a spiritual leader and I don’t want my comments here to be self-serving. Nevertheless, I must be honest with the Word of God and say that God’s people should think twice before they reject the authority of those whom God has called to lead them. I don’t mean that pastors or elders are never wrong or that they shouldn’t be accountable. Godly and wise leaders welcome the checks and balances that a church constitution like ours establishes. But the notion that everyone has equal authority in the church is found nowhere in the Bible. On the contrary, Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be on no advantage to you.” And that shouldn’t be a problem so long as the leaders are like those described in the next verse: “Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.”
Well, so far, we have seen that all the Israelites enjoyed five great spiritual privileges that correspond to privileges that all true believers enjoy today. Nevertheless, those same Israelites—all but two—were guilty of five great sins against God, sins to which believers today are likewise susceptible.
Therefore, God’s people experienced significant discipline by God. (1 Cor. 10:5-11)
We don’t have the time to go back through these five passages in Exodus and Numbers again, but what I have done for you here is to summarize the discipline that God brought upon His people from each of the five sins we looked at.
When they demonstrated greed for what He had not provided, He struck them with a severe plague, an unspecified number dying, according to Num. 11:33.
When they participated in spiritual compromise, He ordered the Levites to execute 3,000 and then brought a plague upon the rest, according to Ex. 32:28,35.
When they participated in moral compromise, the leaders were executed and a plague killed 24,000 more, according to verse 8 and Num. 25:9. By the way, 1 Cor. 10:8 actually says 23,000 while Num. 25:9 says 24,000, but I Cor. 10:8 says 23,000 died in one day, while Numbers puts no time limit on the deaths. I would assume that another thousand died the next day from the effects of the plague.
When they showed disdain for what God had provided, many were killed by fiery serpents, according to verse 9 and Num. 21:6.
When Korah and his friends rebelled against God’s appointed leader, three families were swallowed by the earth, 250 were killed by fire, and 14,700 died in a plague, as noted in verse 10 and Num. 16:32ff.
This is all interesting ancient history, but what does it have to do with me today? I’ve tried to show how relevant this entire text is as we’ve gone along, but in the last two verses of his sermon, the Apostle Paul makes two very direct applications that we need to examine. (1 Cor. 10:12,13).
Those who have too much spiritual confidence must recognize the possibility of failure. (12). Verse 12 reads, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” Many of you memorized that from the KJV: “Let him who thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” The Israelites had taken their spiritual privileges for granted. Perhaps they thought, “A God who would grant His continuing providence, redeem us from bondage, baptize us into Moses, the greatest prophet in history, and then give us supernatural food and drink for nearly 40 years, must be pretty safe. He must be like a celestial Santa Claus to His people. We Israelites have it made in the shade.” But what they failed to grasp is that God is not only gracious; He is also holy. He is not only powerful; He also judges sin. He is not only good; He also demands truth. He is not a Celestial Santa Claus; He is our Father. Those who put too much stock in their privileges are in danger of slipping and sliding into spiritual oblivion.
Think about your privileges today: conversion, discipleship, baptism, communion, fellowship, edification, Christian friends, Christian family, etc. When we add them up, we have a lot more privileges than the Israelites, don’t we? Are we taking them for granted? Are we saying to ourselves. “I’m saved, sanctified, and satisfied. Just give me the doctrine of eternal security and don’t bug me about anything else!” Those who have too much spiritual confidence must recognize the possibility, no, even the probability, of tragic failure.
But then Paul has a word for another group of us:
Those who have too little spiritual confidence must recognize the possibility of success. (13) I suggest to you that there were some Israelites (and there are some Christians) who have the attitude, “Life is too hard and God expects too much. The rigors of the desert are impossible to handle. The Promised Land is just an unrealistic dream. I’ll never get my spiritual act together. Personal survival is all I have time for.” To such a person Paul says in verse 13, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
Three simple truths are offered here about the trials and temptations that Israel faced and that we face. First, they are not superhuman. Not one of us can justify failure in our walk with Christ because we faced a superhuman temptation. We haven’t faced any temptations different in intensity from that faced by anyone else. Our temptations are not all identical, but they are qualitatively common.
Secondly, God is faithful. Is that a truth about our trials and temptations? Well, not exactly, but it is a truth that puts our trials into a totally new perspective. Not once did God ever fail to meet the needs of the Israelites, and not once has He failed to meet ours. The specific evidence of God’s faithfulness is that He never allows us to be tried beyond our capacity. Never! It’s impossible for us to honestly say, “I couldn’t help myself.”
And thirdly, there’s always a way out. Whatever the temptation, God Himself provides an escape hatch. Of that I am absolutely convinced from personal experience. I haven’t always used it, but I’ve always been aware of it.
My family and I visited Dachau, the concentration camp outside Munich, Germany in 1980. There is a museum containing relics from the camp as well as grim photos depicting conditions in the camp during the war years. As you leave the museum, there is a sign next to the door which reads, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.” That same idea is in Paul’s mind in this passage. The mistakes the Israelites made were cited by the apostle to serve as a reminder and warning, much as the sign at Dachau was.
I said at the beginning this morning that my goal for us was to learn one specific truth from the experience of the Israelites, namely that a humble, teachable, and obedient spirit is worth more than all the spiritual privileges one can accumulate. That shouldn’t cause us to depreciate our conversion, our baptism, or any of the other significant milestones along our spiritual journey, but by the same token we must not put our faith in those milestones but rather in God. A simple, daily attitude of faith, trust, and obedience is what He desires from us.
DATE: July 21, 1991