Summary: It’s not enough to rely on our saved status as Christians. We need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in fleeing temptation, in battling temptation, in staying above reproach. We can learn from the mistakes of our ancestors, the ancient Israelites.
Standing Strong Against Evil
Last week we looked at how Jesus withstood temptation from Satan in the wilderness. Today we follow up with a related passage from the Apostle Paul, encouraging us to stand strong against evil.
Someone once wrote, “Learning from your own mistakes is smart; learning from others’ mistakes is wise. Not learning from either is foolish.” Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt made a similar comment. She said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”
That’s sage advice. I would much rather learn from someone else’s mistakes than have to learn from my own. And in today’s passage, Paul asks us to learn from the ancient Israelites. These were God’s people, much like we are today. They were looking forward to salvation from their Messiah. We look back to our salvation by our Messiah. The Bible describes us as being grafted into the family tree of Israel. Thus, the Israelites are our spiritual kin-folks, our ancestors.
Paul writes about a specific time in Israel’s history, the time in the desert following their deliverance from 400 years of Egyptian bondage. These people had been enslaved cruelly for generations. And now they have been freed by no less than God himself, who goes with them in the form of a cloud by day and a tongue of fire by night, who leads them across the parted waters of the Red Sea, who gives them food in the form of manna from heaven and water from a rock. This is a personal God—Paul calls him the pre-incarnate Christ—who works through Moses to meet their every need.
These Israelites should be on a spiritual high. Can you imagine what it would be like to see God work through miracles to bring about your release from slavery after some 400 years? You can’t even remember freedom, and now here it is, to touch, to taste, to feel, up close and personal. An entire nation is on the move, led by none less than Christ himself, guiding them to their Promised Land.
And yet, because of their lack of faith, only two of Israel’s original adult population will make it there. God will stretch a seven-day journey into forty years because of the disobedience of God’s own people. Verse 5 sums it up well: “Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.”
Paul tells us in verse 6 that “these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” We need to learn from their mistakes so we don’t make the same ones ourselves. Just because you’re saved, just because you belong to God, doesn’t mean you can just go and do what you want. No, if you belong to God, you have been bought at a price; you are not your own (1 Corinthians 6:19-20); you belong to him. And there are consequences for disobedience.
So Paul gives us four bad examples, four major areas the Israelites set their heart toward and away from God: He mentions their idolatry in verse 7, their sexual immorality in verse 8, their testing God in verse 9, and their complaining in verse 10. First, in verse 7, he talks of how the Israelites were barely out of Egypt when they fell into idol worship. While Moses was up on Mount Sinai with God crafting the Ten Commandments, Aaron was leading these impatient people into making a golden calf. Then, in verse 8 Paul refers to a wild orgy they had to celebrate their newfound freedom. You’ll find the story in Exodus 32. God allowed some 23,000 people to die that day, 3,000 from execution and another 20,000 from a plague.
I’m guessing you haven’t participated in a wild orgy, but could it be that you and I put up idols all the time? We find other things that are more important to us than God—it might be food, or status, or work accomplishments, or even health---and God is not pleased. We take good things and sometimes make them into our gods. Yet we should be praising the one true God for them all.
Verse 9 refers back to a story in Numbers 21 when people questioned the goodness and plan of the one leading them through the wilderness. Numbers 21:6 tells of the resulting snake bites that killed many in judgment. How often have we questioned God’s goodness and God’s plan in our lives? We need to trust God, even when we don’t understand what he is up to.
Well, if the first three didn’t relate to you, try the fourth. Paul talks in verse 10 of their grumbling. He says, “And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.” Rats! That one got us for sure. Do you ever grumble? The Israelites did. They grumbled so much and so often that Moses lost his temper with them. The incident Paul refers to is found in Numbers chapter 16, when the angel of death came to wipe out the grumblers. Grumbling indicates a lack of faith in God and a lack of thankfulness for what He has done. We grumble because we’re not trusting God’s provision.