KEY THOT: Paul here asserts that Israel’s experience is typical of the NT church: they were “under the cloud” (living under God’s protection), “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses” (experiencing a type of water baptism), and even "ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink." And the source of their spiritual food and drink was "the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ”. So, Christ was with Israel in the wilderness: they had the same source of life as the church has--Jesus Christ, though He was hidden from them. So, they were saved by grace through faith, just as the church is saved by grace through faith. But Israel was temporarily under the supervision of the Law until Christ was fully revealed. How else could they be saved except by grace? For Israel is the original olive tree, and the church is grafted onto that tree (Rom 11:17-18), drawing upon the same life. But the sad commentary is that “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
And Paul is quite emphatic that their experience was not irrelevant to us; in fact, “these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” So, Israel was like us new covenant believers: they were called out of the world to be God’s witnesses of His glory, were baptized and even ate and drank the same spiritual food and drink that we eat and drink, namely Christ. Yet they were “overthrown in the wilderness.” Further down a few verses, regarding God’s judgment on the Israelites who committed idolatry and sexual immorality, Paul gives us this warning: “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 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.” In other words, when Israel in the wilderness sinned, they were putting Christ to the test, not the Law of Moses.
Sometime, I wish the NT does not have such "negative" passages and warnings: it would make grace so beautiful—once saved, you can do as you please. God will not judge us anymore. But this idea did not originate from Paul. Paul is consistently warning believers against taking God’s grace for granted. To the Galatian believers, after spending 4 chapters arguing for grace against law, Paul concludes with this astounding warning: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21).
God’s grace is shown to Israel and to the church, so that Israel could live by the Law and the Church could walk by the Spirit and thereby escape the "works of the flesh." Grace is never an excuse to continue to indulge in these sins. As surely as God's judgment fell upon the old covenant people, so God's judgment will fall upon us new covenant people too: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).
As someone who loves to preach only Good News, I find this aspect of the Gospel challenging to preach. But it’s in the Scripture and therefore I cannot skip it. Or else I’ll be guilty of preaching half-truths, which will turn out to be half-lies--if I refuse to preach the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).
But the good news in the midst of this bad news is still grace. The bad news is idolatry and sexual immorality will lead to divine judgment--even for the Church. The good news is that God has given us power to overcome sin and temptation—if we avail ourselves to His power: “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” (1 Cor 10:13).
Grace is God’s response to sin—and it costs God a terrible price to deal with sin by offering his only Son to die on the Cross. But God’s grace is based on His holiness, for God’s judgment is his holy response to sin. But mercy triumphs over judgment and so God paid the price of our sin himself. However, the Cross does not change God’s inherent character, which is basically holy. When we indulge in flagrant violation of his moral law, we again stir up God’s holy response to sin—which is divine judgment. We can only receive God’s grace when we repent of our sin. The alternative to repentance is divine judgment.
Father, in revealing grace, You have shown that You are firstly holy, for grace is Your holy response to sin, for which Your Son paid a terrible price. May we never fall into sin again and grieve Your Holy Spirit. Amen.