In this paper I will show the importance and necessity of persevering in faithfulness in order to achieve salvation. Paul in 1 Corinthians and Hebrews (I understand there is a dispute to authorship of Hebrews, and it is not settled but for reference I will point to Paul as the Hebrews author) points to the example of the Israelites who left the slavery of sin with the goal of reaching the promised land as examples to us. In the context of the issue of salvation, the issue of the Israelites, and their faithfulness/unfaithfulness, Paul points to them for us not to be like them. We see people of Israel going into phases of belief/disbelief, faithfulness/faithlessness, and Paul sees the Israelites as examples we can draw from in reference to our own salvation. I will show in this paper how the example of the Israelites is pointed to by Paul as showing us a real possibility of losing salvation. I will first briefly look at the Old Testament references to the Israelites in Exodus, Numbers, and the Psalms, then look at 1st Corinthians 10:1-13, and Hebrews 3:7-4:11.
This of course is about how the Israelites, with Mosesí leadership, and through Godís power, left the slavery of the Egyptians. Most everybody knows the story, but I will just highlight a few things that are relevant to this study. Of course the Israelites were in bondage for 400 years to the Egyptians. Moses was called to be the instrument of Godís deliverance of his people. Now the part I want to focus on is the exodus of the Israelites, out of Egypt. The Lord told Moses to instruct all of Israel to take unblemished lambs, and the whole assembly would kill their lambs, Ex. 12:3-8, and they were to eat the flesh. They were to get that blood and put it on the doorposts (Heb. 12:7). Then all the sons of Israel obeyed the Lordís command, worshiped the Lord, Ex. 12:28. The Lord struck all the first-born of Egypt, but passed over all of the people of Israel. They left Egypt. The Lord promised to lead them to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, Amorites, Hivises, and Jebusites, a land of milk and honey, Ex. 3:8, 13:5. To avoid war, God led the people by the way of the wilderness to go to the Red Sea. Then the Lord told Moses to tell the people to encamp in front of the sea, and they did exactly as they were told, Ex. 14:1-4. God successfully delivered them across the Red Sea, Ex. 14:10-30, and the Israelites faithfully obeyed Godís command through Moses. They sang praises to God and break out in song about Godís wonders, Ex. 15.
As we know, beginning in Exodus 16, we see a long set of grumblings by the people of Israel. In the wilderness of Sin, 16:1-3, they desired to go back to the slavery that earlier they had just asked for deliverance from. This happens on many occasions. One occasion already is at the wilderness of Sin, chapter 17, when they complained about no water. Moses faithfully struck the rock once, and provided water. God called the waters there Meribah and Massah, because they demanded proof from God and contended with Him. This was an instance where they really doubted that God was with them, even though He had delivered them from slavery. We know that they had done such things as worshipping the golden calf, and the Levites killed the idolaters, Ex. 32. Because of their constant disobedience God promised to destroy the disobedient in the wilderness, Numbers 14:32. They rebelled against Moses and Aaron in Numbers 16, attempted to do their own worship, and made sacrifices outside of Moses and Aaronís authority. They offered illegitimate sacrifice and were either swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 16:32-33), or consumed by fire (16:35), or struck by a plague (46-48), that was only stopped by Moses and Aaronís own intercession for them before the Lord. They grumbled again in Numbers 20, in the wilderness of Zin, they stayed at Kadesh. The waters that came were also called that of Meribah, because of the unbelief, contention, of the people (Numbers 20:13). Because of the grumblings, Moses went to the Lord and asked him to strike the rock, but Moses himself, upset at the constant grumbling, in a sense lost faith, and struck twice. God provided water, but the Lord said because of his lack of faith, Moses would not bring the assembly into the promised land, Numbers 20:2-13. Only Joshua, Caleb, and the children who were too young to commit the sins were to make it to the promised land, Numbers 26:62-63. The Israelites also committed immorality with the daughters of Moab and worshiped their gods, 24,000 killed by a plague, sent by the Lord, Numbers 25:9. We see throughout the Israelites journey a constant complaining and unbelief in the Lord.
We see in Psalm 95, a reference to the hardness of heart of the grumblers who had forgotten about being freed from slavery:
1: O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2: Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! 3: For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. 4: In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. 5: The sea is his, for he made it; for his hands formed the dry land. 6: O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! 7: For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would hearken to his voice! 8: Harden not your hearts, as at Mer'ibah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, 9: when your fathers tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. 10: For forty years I loathed that generation and said, "They are a people who err in heart, and they do not regard my ways."
11: Therefore I swore in my anger that they should not enter my rest.
The Psalm starts off as a wonderful Hymn about praise to God, vv. 1-7. Yet, we see in the midst of praise of God, about worshipping Him, a reference to the hardness of hearts of the people of Israel who had experienced Godís work, but rebelled against Him, vv. 8-9. The Psalmist is speaking to believers who should be in the business of worshiping God with our whole hearts. Believers should not harden the hearts, such as they did in Exodus 17, and Numbers 20 when they complained, contended, and tested the Lord. This hardening of heart, of course is a play of words, on the constant hardening of heart that the Pharoah constantly displayed (Ex. 7:13, 22, 10:20, 11:10, 14:8, 17) when he contended against the Lordís plan to free His people from slavery. The Psalmist, who starts off this song how we should worship Him, and are the people of his pasture, warns believers against becoming like Pharoah, and the unbelieving Israelites. The Lord actually loathed that generation, v. 10. That is why they never entered His rest, v. 11. These are the same people who faithfully followed the Lordís commands to leave Egypt and as believers, and had wholeheartedly sung their praise to Him in Exodus 15.
Next we shall see how this experience of the Israelites, is played out in the New Testament, and its reference to our own salvation.
As a background to 1 Corinthians 10, Paul addresses the issue of his own salvation in 1 Cor. 9:19-27. He says that he will become all things to all men so that he can save some (v. 19). He discusses how he can bring others to salvation. Then in verses 24-27 he writes how he himself must run the race, or how he can become rejected, adokimas which is a word for that is used for unbelievers. So the context is salvation. Then he writes the following, which directly ties into the Israelites who had escaped slavery, 1 Corinthians 10:1-14.
1 I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same supernatural food 4 and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil 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 rose up to dance." 8 We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 14 Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols.
Just as warning himself not to be overly confident of his salvation, in 1 Cor. 9:24-27, in 1 Cor. 10, Paul warns all against taking their salvation for granted. He specifically cites the Israelites as having passed through the waters, and he shows them as having saving waters (v. 4). All were under the cloud, all passed through the sea. They were baptized. They ate the supernatural food and drink. They all drank from the supernatural rock and that Rock was Christ.. Thus, they were not only physically free from the slavery to sin, but these believers, as reflected in the Exodus 15 Psalm of praise, were in communion with Christ himself, even if they did not personally know who He was.
The crowd consisted of believers. However, because of the constant grumbling they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now, this experience of the Israelites is by Paul relayed to us as an example to us. We are not to take our own salvation for granted. He next notes that these believers became unbelievers. In v. 7 he quotes from Exodus 32:4, 6, when they drank and ate and went into idolatry of the golden calf. Then he warns us not to fall into immorality. The people of Israel in Numbers 25 committed adultery/fornication/idolatry with the daughters of Moab, and 23,000 were killed by the Lord, vv. 1-9. It was only stopped when Phinehas slayed an Israelite and his Midianite woman, when the culprit brought her to their house, vv. 10-13. Paul warns Christians not to fall into such sexual sin and idolatry. He had warned in 1 Cor. 6:9-11, 15-18, that those who committed such sexual and idolatrous sins would not inherit the kingdom of heaven. Then just as he warned that those who committed such sins and thought that they would inherit Godís kingdom are deceived (1 Cor. 6:9), to take heed of this warning. No one should think they are guaranteed such salvation, because we must Therefore Ďtake heed lest he fallí, v. 12. When he writes Ďthereforeí, he is concluding his thought on the section of the Israelite example. That is his conclusion to take heed, because if you do not, you can fall. God gives you the grace to avoid such sins, and provides the way of escape (v 13), but he finally notes not to fall into the worship of idolatry (v. 14) on top of the sexual sins that can separate us from God.
Before I get to Hebrews 3 and 4, I want to see Paulís understanding of whether these people, when they crossed the Red Sea, were a people of faith. Hebrews 11:29 reports:
By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.
Now, Hebrews 11 is the chapter of faith. Paul sees the people of Israel as people of faith. Hebrews 11 is not a chapter about unbelievers, but believers. These are people, who are thus in Godís grace. It is By Faith the people crossed the Red Sea. It was the Egyptians who were unbelievers who were drowned. Hebrews 11 shows examples of what men of faith did, from the likes of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, etc, he does not list the likes of Pharoah. These Israelites in Chapter 11 are put on the same level as these heroes of faith. They could not be unbelievers at the time they by faith crossed the Red Sea. In fact after mentioning these people, in Heb. 11:39, Paul writes íAnd all these, though well attested by their faith.í That specifically applies to the Israelites who obeyed Moses, who obeyed the Lord, to leave Egypt, in Exodus. Next, let us look at Hebrews 3.
7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, when you hear his voice, 8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, 9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. 10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.' 11 As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall never enter my rest.'" 12 Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end, 15 while it is said, "Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion." 16 Who were they that heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they should never enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
Paul in Hebrews 3, makes a reference to Psalm 95, which talked of how believers who worshipped God, were not to be like those who unbelieved in Massah and Meribah. We are not to harden our hearts. Paul is writing this to fellow believers (calls them brethren, v. 12). As he is speaking to believers, he twice warns against hardening our hearts as the Israelites did, but that specific term refers also to the unbelieving Pharaoh. Us believers can become like Pharoah!!! As he related in 1 Cor. 10, Paul writes that if we have an unbelieving heart, we can fall away from the living God (v. 12). We only share Christ if we hold unto the end, v. 14, unlike those Israelites who rebelled against God.
Their disobedience was the cause of their separation from God, even though they were shining examples of faith, according to Paul (Heb. 11:29, 38). Though they believed at first, they were not able to enter the rest of God, because they let unbelief in God enter their souls.
He goes on to make the same point in Hebrews 4.
1 Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, "As I swore in my wrath, 'They shall never enter my rest,'" although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, "And God rested on the seventh day from all his works." 5 And again in this place he said, "They shall never enter my rest." 6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he sets a certain day, "Today," saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, "Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts." 8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. 9 So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; 10 for whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his. 11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.
Here in chapter 4, Paul continues to stress on entering the rest. The rest of course, which we will attain, is when we reach heaven with Him. The promise is there, but we must respond to that promise. We must fear that we might not reach it, v. 1. Then he again quotes Psalm 95:11, which points towards how believers who worship God are warned to not have a stubbornness of heart like the grumblers of Massah and Meribah. We are again warned against hardening our hearts, (Pharoah and unbelieving Israelites) Heb. 4:8. Just as the Israelites never entered their rest, we will not enter the rest of eternal salvation with God, if we do not persevere in faith. This echoes Paul sentiments in Philippians 2:12-16 that we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, before we can reach that rest. The hearers first had faith, as shown in Exodus 14, and as explicated in Heb. 11:29, 39. It is possible not reach it, Psalm 95:11, Hebrews 4:1. Those who enter the rest are those who continue in faith towards God, and believe. Some failed to enter because of disobedience. We must strive to enter that rest of eternal communion with God, or we can fall if we act with that same kind of disobedience, Heb. 4:11.
The sum of the Biblical writings in reference to the Israelites who left Egypt, whether in Exodus, Numbers, Psalms, 1 Corinthians or Hebrews, teaches the following: We who believe must persevere in belief. The Israelites set an example for us to follow, in that they obeyed, by faith, the command to leave the slavery of Egypt. They tasted heavenly manna, they experienced saving water, which only foreshadowed the fullness found in Jesus Christ. Likewise we have experienced the deliverance from slavery to sin. Christ came to make us free from sin indeed, John 8:32-36. We have the saving waters of baptism (1 Cor. 10:4, 12:13, Gal. 3:27, Rom. 6:3-4, 1 Pet. 3:21, Acts 22:16). He has given to us the great gift of the Eucharist which is the true flesh and blood of Christ. It is interesting that right after this in 1 Cor. 10:1-13, he mentions participating in the true body of Christ 1 Cor. 10:16. Of course the Israelites experienced sacrificing the unblemished lamb, whose blood on the doorposts protected them from harm. In Christ we have a relationship with the Unblemished Lamb of God, whose blood takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29, Rom. 5:9, Heb. 9:12-14) that the Israelites were not aware of, though as Paul attests to, did experience, 1 Cor. 10:4. Jesus mentions that we have the true manna from heaven beyond that fleshly manna that was given to the Israelites in Exodus. He gives us his true flesh and blood, John 6:51-58. So in the New Covenant we experience the Rock himself, 1 Cor. 10:4, which the Israelites only had a glimpse of. We must continue to strive in the obedience from which belief stems. Otherwise we can fall as the many Israelites who fled slavery into Egypt, but grumbled and fell into slavery to sin, immorality and idolatry.
They failed to reach the promised land because of those sins. Paul uses those examples to show that though blessed in His grace, if we do not take heed, we can fail to reach the promised land of heaven, and ultimate communion with God Himself. However, God does give us the way of escape from evil, He gives us grace, 1 Cor. 10:13, but we must cooperate with Him, and take that way. These Scriptures warn of the true possibility of falling away, but thanks be to God He gives us the grace to keep us in Him, so we can achieve that day of rest in Him.