Dying in the Wilderness…

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“…For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown (laid low) in the wilderness.” (1 Corinthians 10:4-5)

The term, katastrónnumi (spread out, overthrown, laid low, mass death, kill), is a highly descriptive term. Today, we might say; “It was mass carnage, there were bodies everywhere.”

This passage has theological trajectory which can prevent belief as well as distort it. It prevents belief to the unbeliever by revealing God to be severe and unmerciful. It distorts belief to the believer because it is often taught as if it were speaking about modern believers and entry to heaven.

In order to understand Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, we need to understand the backstory to which he is referring. Essentially, it is the history of the Hebrew people on their journey out from their slavery in Egypt to the promised land in Canaan. This excursion took 40 years or essentially two generations in the wilderness: the first generation were those who came out of Egypt, and the second were those born along the way.

Now Paul’s message to the Corinthian church is an admonishment to avoid idolatry and sexual immorality and he references the Hebrew scripture as an example of how the “people of God” (Israel) were massacred for their immorality.

“While Israel lived in Shittim (I always laugh when I read that), the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.” (Numbers 25:1-4)

So is this passage talking about the modern believer and future heaven? Is the slaughter of the people for their sins depicting eternal Hell for those who sin in this way? Has God gone soft of idolatry and sexual immorality? I mean our world is infinitely worse now with regard to these sins and there are no massacres like the one described in scripture. Does God not care anymore? Is this proof there is no God? Or is God going to get even later? People live today with many idols and have no thought about their sexual immorality. Our worlds over-desire of the bad (epithumetás kakōn) so common, that the people who have sexual morals are very rare.

Upon reflection of these questions, we should see the trajectory on which our minds (believer and unbeliever) are carried away. Allow me to lay another consideration on this which I think allows the meaning to bubble to the surface, namely: Canaan was not heaven, it was their ideal life here on earth. The meta narrative of scripture reveals how this “other thing,” this gospel, liberates people from their lives in captivity (Egypt)(v.1), leads them toward healing and liberation (a land flowing with milk and honey) so they can live authentically (serving the one true God) and have life to the fullest. So, if the Heaven/Hell dichotomy is not explicitly written into this passage, perhaps it’s not intended to be.

This means this passage is not a threat, but an admonishment to those who seek real freedom on how not to become enslaved again. The biblical story is an example (v.6) given for our instruction. Like all Christ followers then and now, we all have a past in captivity and we seek to live our lives now in freedom and authenticity. Dying in the wilderness is then the description (indicative) of what our life becomes when we do not reign in our appetites, or turn good things into “god” things. The context of chapter ten is how we are to live and relate to God following our extraction from that which enslaved us. The reason we have no modern examples of the slaughter of sinners, is not that God has changed, nor that sin is allowed, but that so many are already dead. We are not so much a sleeping world in need of waking, but a dead world in need of resurrection.

Our modern world makes an idol out of everything. We idolize ourselves, our lifestyles, our sexuality, our possessions, our careers, houses, cars, vacations, and meals. Each is Demi-Deity to which we are enslaved, to which we labor, to which we look for satisfaction, validation, approval, and protection. Our culture has thrown out religion and exchanged our True Maker and Creator for that which is created or man made. The delusion is so great, our world calls this freedom, we give vent to our sexual and other appetites, and we exalt evil, corruption, and falsehood. The state of the world is an unsurvivable illusion. We are dead.

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:12-14)

“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:4-5)

Scripture clearly reveals that in God’s great love for the world, He has given each of us (v.13) all that we need to come forth from our tombs (systems of captivity) and into new life where we are free from the bondage of over desiring bad things, or from living a dead life. “Don’t be idolators… (v.7)”, “Do not indulge in sexual immorality…(v.8)”, “Do not put Christ to the test..(v.9)”, “Do not grumble and complain…(v.10)”. All of these things can “lay us low, or create mass carnage.” All of Paul’s warnings will allow us to see the story of the Hebrew people as an example of what life requires once we are freed from our state of death and while we await the promised land.

True life is the experience of being between the death from which we emerged, and the life we long to obtain.

The first generation of Hebrews died in the dessert. The second generation made it to Canaan…barely. Moses himself didn’t even get to go in, but only see it from afar.

The world all around us is wondering how things are getting so bad. Each person has their own idol and there is no restraint on our human appetites. When a world that has forsaken God cannot find the meaning or purpose of life, when we abandon hope that elected officials or government can rescue (save) us from our own living hell, when the pain of the delusion is so great, perhaps our deaf ears will open to hear the Good News again. It never was, nor ever will be an invitation to join a religion, that is yet another prison. It’s the voice within us that knows we need to make some serious changes and then it takes steps immediately to do so. That is the voice of faith, it’s the voice that resurrects our dead lives, its the voice that sustains us on our journey to the promised land…

…it’s the voice that prevents us from dying in the wilderness which we call life.

There are those who love their idols and who live to serve their appetites. These are the dead who hate life. Revelations 21:25 depicts a future heaven where the gates are never closed and outside the beautiful kingdom are those that are detestable and unclean. These are living dead who despise true life and prefer their pseudonym. They are NOT kept from going into the city by God, but by themselves…by their willful, prideful insistence on calling evil good. You may wonder, “How does a person get to such a hardened disposition? How does a person come to embrace such a delusion?”

The answer is that such a person has never journeyed toward life, and has died in the wilderness…and they are in good company.

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