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the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 10

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) Moreover, brethren,. . . .—Better, For I would not, brethren, that you should be ignorant. From the strong statement of personal self-distrust with which the previous chapter concludes, the Apostle now passes on to show that Jewish history contains solemn examples of the falling-away of those who seemed to stand strong in divine favour and privilege. The same kind of dangers still beset God’s people, but they will never be greater than the strength which God will give to bear them. These thoughts are then applied to the immediate subject in hand, viz., the partaking of meat which had been used in the heathen temples. The subject is, as it were, taken up from 1 Corinthians 8:13, where an expression of personal willingness to forego a right, led the writer aside to the subject which occupies 1 Corinthians 9:0. Uniting 1 Corinthians 11:1, with the last verse of this chapter, the general outline of the argument is as follows:—

1 Corinthians 10:1-11. The history of the Jewish Church contains examples which ought to be warnings against self-confidence.

1 Corinthians 10:12-14. These thoughts should make the Christians distrustful of themselves, but not hopeless.

1 Corinthians 10:15-17. The unity of the Christian body with Christ, as expressed and realised in the Holy Communion, renders impossible a communion of the same body with the objects of idolatrous worship.

1 Corinthians 10:18-22. Any partaking of idolatrous feasts would involve union to such extent as would compromise, just as Israel’s partaking of sacrifical offerings involved union with the altar of Jehovah.

1 Corinthians 10:23 -1 Corinthians 11:1. An enunciation of the principles deduced from the foregoing considerations which should guide the Corinthian Christians in their partaking of meat which might have been offered to idols.

That ye should be ignorant.—The thought here is not that his readers were at all likely to be ignorant of the mere historical fact which he now recalls, and with which they were doubtless quite familiar, but that they were probably unmindful of the spiritual lessons which are to be learnt from such a grouping of the facts as the Apostle now gives, and of the striking contrast between the enjoyment of great privileges by all (five times emphatically repeated) and the apostacy of the greater part of them. The Apostle assumes their familiarity with the facts referred to, and does not feel it needful to mention that of the “all,” literally only two (Joshua and Caleb) gained the ultimate approval of Jehovah.

Our fathers.—These words need not limit the reference of this teaching to the Jewish Christians only. It would include all Christians by right of spiritual descent.

Verse 2

(2) Were all baptized unto Moses.—The weight of evidence is in favour of the middle voice for the verb here used; signifying that they all voluntarily had themselves baptised to Moses. Moses was God’s representative under the Law, and so they were baptised unto him in their voluntarily joining with that “Church” of God which marched beneath the shadow of the cloud, and passed through the waters of the sea—as Christians, are baptised unto Jesus Christ,—He being (in a higher sense both in kind and in degree) God’s representative in the New Dispensation.

The “cloud” and the “sea” refer to the cloud that overshadowed the Israelites (Exodus 13:21, and see Numbers 14:14), and the passage through the Red Sea (Exodus 13:22; Numbers 35:8).

Verse 3

(3) Spiritual meat.—The manna (Exodus 16:13) was not natural food, for it was not produced in the natural way, but it was supplied by the Spirit and power of God. Bread from earth would be natural bread, but this was bread from heaven (John 6:31). Our Lord (John 6:50) had already made the Christian Church familiar with the “true bread,” of which that food had been the typical forecast.

Verse 4

(4) That spiritual Rock that followed them.—There was a Jewish tradition that the Rock—i.e., a fragment broken off from the rock smitten by Moses—followed the Israelites through their journey, and St. Paul, for the purpose of illustration, adopts that account instead of the statement in Numbers 20:11. The emphatic repetition of the word “spiritual” before “drink” and “rock” reminds the reader that it is the spiritual and not the historic aspect of the fact which is present to St. Paul’s mind. The traditional account of the Rock was a more complete illustration of the abiding presence of God, which was the point that the Apostle here desires to bring forward.

And that Rock was Christ.—As Christ was “God manifest in the flesh” in the New Dispensation, so God manifest in the Rock (the source of sustaining life) was the Christ of the Old Dispensation. The Jews had become familiar with the thought of God as a Rock. (See 1 Samuel 2:2; Psalms 91:12; Isaiah 32:2.) Though the Jews may have recognised the Rock poetically as God, they knew not that it was, as a manifestation of God’s presence, typical of the manifestation which was yet to be given in the Incarnation. Such seems to be the force of the statement and of the word “But” which emphatically introduces it. But though they thought it only a Rock, or applied the word poetically to Jehovah, that Rock was Christ.

Verse 5

(5) But with many of them.—Better, Nevertheless not with the greater part of them was God pleased. This introduces the point from which the Apostle seeks to draw the great lesson of self-distrust. All had all these privileges—privileges of a baptism and a spiritual meat and drink which correspond with the sacramental ordinances which are proofs and pledges of all the privileges of us Christians—and yet with the greater part—in fact, with all except two—of that vast multitude God was not pleased, as is proved by the fact that (Numbers 14:16) all except Caleb and Joshua perished in the wilderness.

Verse 6

(6) Now these things were our examples.—Better, Now these things were types of us. “Now” introduces the contrast between the physical Israel and the spiritual Israel, between the physical death which befell the majority of the former, and the spiritual death which, if privileges be neglected or abused, must befall the latter.

To the intent.—St. Paul regards everything that has happened in history as having a divine purpose of blessing for others. All this material suffering on their part will not be in vain if it teaches us the spiritual lesson which God would have us learn from it.

We should not lust after evil things.—The Apostle now sets forth the causes with which the majority of the Israelities neutralised the great advantages in which all had shared. The lusting after evil things must be taken as applying to their general conduct (evidenced especially in the circumstances mentioned in Numbers 11:4; Numbers 11:18). “As they also” directly connects the sins which the Corinthians were in danger of with the sins which led to the overthrow of the Israelites. The idolatry and eating and drinking and committing fornication all refer to kinds of sin which the Corinthians were liable to commit if they did not keep themselves perfectly distinct from the heathen. (See 1 Corinthians 6:12.)

Verse 8

(8) And fell in one day three and twenty thousand.—In Numbers 25:9 the statement is that twenty-four thousand perished. Various and ingenious attempts have been made to reconcile these two accounts of the actual numbers. The explanation most in harmony with the character of the writer, and the utterly unessential nature of the point historically, is, I venture to think, that either the Apostle quoted from memory a fact of no great importance, or else that he referred for his figures to some copy of the LXX., in which the numbers might be specified as here.

Verse 9

(9) Neither let us tempt Christ.—Better, Neither let us tempt the Lord, as some of them tempted, and perished by serpents. There is much controversy as to whether the word here is “God” or “Christ” or “the Lord,” each having a certain amount of MS. support. On the whole, the reading here adopted (the Lord) seems from internal evidence to have been most likely the true reading. It is possible that the word “God” crept into the text, having been put as a marginal explanation to get over the supposed difficulty involved in applying the words which follow, “they also tempted,” to Christ. For in what sense could it have been said that the Israelites tempted Christ? There is no reason, however, for connecting “some of them tempted” (the word “also” is not in the original) with the object of the previous clause: and it is noticeable that the second word translated “tempted” is not the same as the first. “Let us not tempt” is in the original an intensified form of the verb which is used in its simple form in “some of them tempted.” The reading “Christ” may have come into the text as being an explanation that by the word “Lord” St. Paul meant the Redeemer.

The real meaning of the passage, however, is evident. The Israelites had, by their longing after the things left behind in Egypt, tried God so that God had asserted Himself in visiting them with punishment, and so Christians must be on their guard, with such a warning before them, not to tempt their Lord by hankering after those worldly and physical pleasures from which He by His death has delivered them. (See Numbers 21:4-6.) Some of the Corinthian Christians seemed by their conduct, as regards eating and drinking and indulging in sensuality, to long for that liberty in reference to things which they had enjoyed before conversion, instead of enjoying these spiritual blessings and feeding on the spiritual sustenance which Christ had provided for them.

Were destroyed of serpents.—Better, and were destroyed by the serpents. The article before “serpents” indicates that the reference is to a particular and well known fact.

Verse 10

(10) Neither murmur ye.—The reference here is to Numbers 16:41-47, and the historical event alluded to—viz., the murmuring of the Israelites against their God-given leaders, Moses and Aaron—is analogous to the murmuring of the Corinthians against their Apostle, St. Paul. It is noticeable that St. Paul attributes the death of the people to the Destroyer—i.e., God’s messenger sent to destroy—while in Numbers they are said to have perished by the “plague.” Every pestilence that swept over nations to purify them was a messenger from God. Thus in Psalms 78:50 God is said to give “their life over to the pestilence,” which in Exodus 12:23 is spoken of as “the destroyer.”

Verse 11

(11) Happened unto them for ensamples.—Better, happened unto them typically; and it was written for our admonition. The verb “happened” is plural, referring to the multiplied occurrences which the Apostle has just mentioned; but “written” is singular, referring to the sacred record in which the historical facts are handed down. The Apostle does not state that the purpose which God had in view in allowing these sins and judgments was that they might serve “for ensamples” for after-generations, as may at first sight seem to be the meaning of the English, but the real point of the passage is—These things which occurred to them are to be looked upon by us, not merely as interesting historical events, but as having a typical significance. Their record remains as a standing warning that great privileges may be enjoyed by many, and used by them to their destruction. The temporal blessings of the Jewish nation foreshadow the greater spiritual blessings of the Christian Church.

The ends of the world.—Better, the ends of the ages (Matthew 13:39).

Verse 12

(12) Wherefore.—This is the practical conclusion of the whole matter. We are to look back on that strange record of splendid privilege and of terrible fall and learn from it the solemn lesson of self-distrust. Led forth by divinely appointed leaders, overshadowed by the Divine Presence, supported by divinely given food and drink, the vast hosts of Israel had passed from the bondage of Egypt into the glorious liberty of children of the living God; yet amid all those who seemed to stand so secure in their relation to God, but a few fell not. Christians, called forth from a more deadly bondage into a more glorious liberty, are in like peril. Let the one who thinks that he stands secure take great heed, lest he fall. The murmuring against their apostolic teachers, the longing to go so far as they could in indulgence without committing actual sin, were terribly significant indications in the Corinthian Church. When we feel ourselves beginning to dislike those who warn us against sin, and when we find ourselves measuring with minute casuistry what is the smallest distance that we can place between ourselves and some desired object of indulgence without actually sinning, then “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”

Verse 13

(13) There hath no temptation taken you.—What is meant by a “temptation common to man” (or rather, suited to man) is explained further on as a temptation which one is “able to bear.” From the warning and exhortation of the previous verse the Apostle passes on to words of encouragement, “You need not be hopeless or despairing.” God permits the temptation by allowing the circumstances which create temptation to arise, but He takes care that no Fate bars the path of retreat. With each temptation he makes a way to escape from it. And that is so, must be so, because God is faithful. The state of salvation to which God has called us would be a delusion if there were an insuperable difficulty to our continuing in it. We have in this verse, perhaps, the most practical and therefore the clearest exposition to be found of the doctrine of free-will in relation to God’s overruling power. God makes an open road, but then man himself must walk in it. God controls circumstances, but man uses them. That is where his responsibility lies.

Verse 14

(14) Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry.—These words show that through all the previous argument and warning the writer had in view the particular dangers arising from their contact with the heathen world, and especially the partaking in the sacrificial feasts. Not because they were enemies, but because they are his “beloved” he had written thus to them. Because God is a faithful God—because He makes it possible for you to escape these dangers and sins—flee from idolatry. Do not be trying how near you can get to it, but rather how far you can get from it.

Verse 15

(15) I speak as to wise men.—These words are not hypothetical; they imply the point of view from which the Apostle is now regarding his readers—viz., competent to recognise the force of his argument. Having warned them against any participation in idolatry, even such as would be involved in joining in the sacrificial feasts, as dangerous to themselves, he now proceeds to show that such a participation would be derogatory to, and incompatible with, their union with Christ. The identity and intimacy of that union is first established by a reference to the Holy Communion, in partaking of which both the unity of the Church and its union with Christ are vividly expressed.

Verse 16

(16) The cup of blessing which we bless.—In other passages the cup is mentioned after the bread, and not, as here, before it. The order in which they are placed here has been variously accounted for, as arising either (Stanley) from the analogy to the heathen feasts, in which the libation came before the food, or (Meyer) because the Apostle intends to dwell at greater length upon the bread. The use of the plural “we,” in reference to both the blessing of the cup and the breaking of the bread, clearly indicates that it was in virtue of his representing the entire company present, and not as individually possessed of some miraculous gift, that the one who presided at a Communion performed the act of consecration. On the whole subject of the Eucharistic feasts in Corinth, see Notes on 1 Corinthians 11:17. Communion with the body and blood of Christ is established and asserted in this partaking of the bread and of the cup.

Verse 17

(17) For we being many are one bread.—Better, For it is one bread, and we, the many, are one body, for we all take a portion of that one bread. This verse explains how “the breaking” of the bread was the significant act which expressed sacramentally the communion of the body of Christ. There is one bread, it is broken into many pieces, and as we all (though each receives only a fragment) partake of the one bread which unbroken consisted of these pieces, we though many individuals are one body, even the Body of Christ with whom, as well as with each other, we have communion in that act.

Verse 18

(18) Behold Israel after the fleshi.e., Israel in its merely human aspect, not the spiritual Israel (Romans 2:28; Galatians 4:29; Galatians 6:16). The sacrifice was divided—a portion offered upon the altar and a portion taken and eaten (Deuteronomy 12:18; Deuteronomy 16:11): so whoever ate a portion of the same sacrifice was a partaker in common with (not “of,” as in the English translation) the altar. This is another argument against partaking of the heathen feasts. You cannot do so without connection with the heathen altar. The example of Israel proves that.

Verse 19

(19) What say I then?—It might have been argued from the preceding verse that the Apostle admitted the heathen offerings and the idols to which they were offered to be as real as were the offerings and Being to whom the altar was erected by Israel, whereas in 1 Corinthians 8:4 he had asserted the contrary.

Verse 20

(20) But I say.—Better, No; but that the things which they sacrifice they sacrifice to devils, and not to God.

The word “devils” means evil spirits. The heathen world is regarded by the Christian Church as under the dominion of the Evil Spirit and his emissaries (Ephesians 2:2; Ephesians 6:12), and in reminding the Corinthians that in Israel an eater of the sacrificial meat became a partaker with the altar of God, the Apostle meant to warn them that they would, if they partook of sacrificial meats offered on an altar of devils, become a sharer with that altar and the beings to whom the altar appertained.

Verses 21-22

(21, 22) Ye cannot . . .—Here follows the special reason why the Apostle desires them not to partake of the wine poured forth in libation to devils, or the table on which meat sacrificed to these devils was spread out as food. Such would deprive them of their participation in the cup of the Lord and the table on which the Lord’s Supper was placed. Of course the impossibility was moral, not physical. So the Apostle adds the warning question, Do you in fact do so? Do you do that which is morally impossible, and so provoke the jealousy of our jealous God, who will have no divided allegiance? Surely we are not stronger than He? To such a question there can be but one answer. These words, which are the climax of the argument, are naturally suggested by the passage in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 32:15-18), which was evidently in the Apostle’s mind all through this argument, containing as it does the striking words, “Rock of his salvation.” “They sacrifice unto devils and not to God,” and “they provoked Him to jealousy.”

Verse 23

(23) All things are lawful for me.—The Apostle now proceeds to conclude, with some practical direction and advice, the question of the eating of meat offered to idols, from which immediate subject the strong expression of personal feeling in 1 Corinthians 8:13 had led him to branch off into the various aspects of collateral matters which have occupied him since, and to which the subject treated of in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 of this chapter naturally lead back the thoughts of the writer. He repeats here the great principle of Christian liberty, “All things are lawful for me” (see 1 Corinthians 6:12), but insists, as before, that its application must be limited by a regard (1) to the effect which each action has upon ourselves, and (2) its influence on the Church at large. “Does this act tend to my own spiritual profit? Does it tend to build up others?” should be the practical rules of Christian life.

Verse 24

(24) But every man another’s wealth.—Better, but each one another’s good. The English word “wealth” has, in process of time, come to bear a limited significance, such as did not originally belong to it. By “wealth” we now mean temporal possessions or advantage; it originally meant “good,” including more especially “moral welfare,” as in the collect for the Queen in the Prayer Book, “Grant her in health and wealth long to live.”

Verse 25

(25) Whatsoever is sold in the shambles.—Here is the practical application of the principle laid down. When a Christian sees meat exposed for sale in the public market let him buy it and eat it; he need not ask any question to satisfy his conscience on the subject. Some of the meat which had been used for sacrificial purposes was afterwards sold in the markets. The weaker Christians feared lest if they unconsciously bought and ate some of that meat they would become thereby defiled. The Apostle’s view is that when once sent into the public market it becomes simply meat, and its previous use gives it no significance. You buy it as meat, and not as part of a sacrifice. Thus the advice here is not at variance with the previous argument in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21. The act which is there condemned as a “partaking of the table of devils” is the eating of sacrificial meat at one of the feasts given in the court of the heathen temple, when the meat was avowedly and significantly a portion of the sacrifice. The words “for conscience sake” have been variously interpreted as meaning, (1) Enter into no inquiry, so that your conscience may not be troubled, as it would be if you learned that the meat had been used for sacrifice; or, (2) Ask no question, lest some weak person’s conscience be defiled if they hear that it is sacrificial meat and yet see you eat it. This latter interpretation must be rejected, as the Apostle clearly points out in 1 Corinthians 10:28 that he has been here speaking of the person’s own conscience, and only there proceeds to speak of a brother’s conscience.

Verse 26

(26) The earth is the Lord’s. . . .—All food that earth brings forth or nourishes is God’s gift, and therefore good. It was merely when regarded as an actual sacrifice that any meat could be considered that “of devils.” This great truth, recognised in the Old Testament as well as in the New, is the reason of the previous statement that conscience need not come into the matter at all.

Verse 27

(27) If any of them that believe not. . . .—How should a Christian act if a heathen friend invited him to a feast? Should he inquire whether there was any sacrificial meat at the feast, and so avoid eating it? No. The same principle applies here—no question need be asked.

Verse 28

(28) But if any man. . . .—If, however, some weak brother present points out that it is sacrificial meat, do not eat for his sake and for conscience sake (see 1 Corinthians 10:29). Here your personal liberty is to be modified by the principle mentioned in 1 Corinthians 10:24. If the weak brother see you eat the flesh which he has just informed you was used as a sacrifice, he may be led by your example to eat it himself, though the very fact of his having called your attention to it showed that he thinks it wrong, and so his conscience is defiled.

The word (hierothuton) here used (according to the best MSS.) for “offered to an idol” is different from the condemnatory word (eidolothuton) elsewhere used; as natural courtesy would lead a Christian at the table of a heathen to use an epithet which would not be offensive to his host. A lesson in controversy—Don’t conceal your conscientious convictions, but don’t express them in language unnecessarily painful to your opponent.

The repetition of the words “The earth is the Lord’s,” &c., in this verse is an interpolation not found in the best MSS., and tends to interrupt the thought which is carried on in 1 Corinthians 10:29.

Verse 29

(29) Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other.—In the previous verse there is nothing to indicate that the obligation not to eat the meat under such circumstances arises from a consideration of the tenderness of the other’s conscience. Here any danger of mistake as to whose conscience is meant is removed. Of course (says St. Paul) I mean his conscience, not yours. For no other man’s scruples are to bind my conscience. While the opinion or weakness of another is never to make my conscience waver from what it knows to be true, it may often be a reason for our sacrificing in act some personal indulgence.

Verse 30

(30) For if I by grace be a partaker.—Better, If I thankfully partake, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks? Such a question might be asked by some who object to the restriction on their liberty which the advice just given implies. To the querulous objector the Apostle gives no definitely limited reply. He lays down in the following verses the great principles which should guide all Christian life, and by which therefore every detail of it should be regulated.

Verse 31

(31) Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do.—These words embrace all life. The definite acts of eating and drinking are mentioned expressly as they are the subject immediately under consideration. They are, however, to be regulated by the same principle which guides all true life. The modern idea of some acts being religious and some secular is neither here nor elsewhere recognised by St. Paul. No act of life is in itself either religious or secular. The quality of each act depends on the spirit which guides it, and the motive from which it springs. The commonest thing may be done in a high Christian spirit. The greatest deed may spring from a low and selfish motive. A religious act done in a secular spirit is secular. A secular thing done in a religious spirit is religious. This is “the great first principle” of Christian life.

Verse 32

(32) Give none offence.—A practical test of whether any course of conduct is to the glory of God. If it cause any human being to offend then it is not to God’s glory. Heretofore St. Paul had spoken only of the edification of the Christian Church, and the avoidance of any offence to a Christian brother. Here the sphere of moral obligation is enlarged. Jew and Greek, as well as the Christian Church, are to be objects of our Christian solicitude.

Verse 33

(33) Even as I please all men . . .—Better, even as I in all things am seeking to please all men, not seeking my own profit, but that of the manyi.e., the whole great mass of men, and not, as the English seems to imply, merely “a great number.” This is the same idea as “I am made all things to all men.” (See 1 Corinthians 9:22.)

With the last verse of this chapter we must connect the first verse of 1 Corinthians 11:0, “Become imitators of me, even as I am of Christ.” This is the completion of the exhortation. The Apostle refers to his own example, but only to lead his readers up to Christ as the great example of One “who pleased not Himself” (Romans 15:3). His own example is valuable inasmuch as it is the example of one who is striving to conform to the image of his Lord. With the mention of the holiest Example and the most sacred Name, the whole of this argument and exhortation reaches its natural climax and conclusion.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 10". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-corinthians-10.html. 1905.
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