In writing to the Corinthians, Paul had a number of problems to deal with. Although the church held to the gospel teaching of the apostles, it was nevertheless out of control in serious ways.
By the time the tenth chapter is reached, Paul had addressed their divisions, spiritual pride, open approval of sexual immorality, their willingness to sue one another and their unwillingness to deny themselves for the sake of weaker fellow Christians.
At the tenth chapter, Paul brings a warning: don’t presume that you are a Christian simply because you are a church member and enjoy the outward benefits of a gospel ministry.
To illustrate his point, Paul refers to the church in the wilderness — the church that was established when God saved the children of Abraham from Egyptian slavery by the Passover event, and He then brought them through the Red Sea by miracle. God then kept them alive in the desert by means of ‘manna’ and water produced from a rock, which also were saving miracles.
All these events, though real and historical, point those who read of them to that great rescue that Jesus provided when he came as a human being to live for his people, die for his people and rise again for his people.
Paul indicates this by referring to some of these Old Testament events in New Testament terms. The crossing of the Red Sea he likened to baptism. The eating of the manna and drinking the rock-water Paul likened to the Lord’s supper. These Old Testament events, implies Paul, were Covenant affirming events. Further, the implication is that the Old Testament and the New Testament churches were in fact one church whose shared hope was the covenant of God.
In Genesis 3 God promised fallen Adam and Eve a saviour who would re-establish a right relationship between God and human beings, which relationship Adam had messed up by his sin. God’s covenant was that He would act to reclaim a people for Himself, and that the people whom He saves would acknowledge Him as their God and live as His people.
Back to the church in the desert. They had been saved from the Angel of Death by the blood of a lamb, they had been brought safely through the Red Sea, and they heard God’s law that was for his people. They were publicly associated with God by several outward ties, but many of them were not pleasing to Him.
Many were not pleasing to God because they rejected Christ, whom Paul says ‘followed them’. Only Jesus Christ lived a human life that was pleasing to God. Those who trust Jesus Christ are associated with him by the new birth. These people become pleasing to God when they trust Christ.
How did these Old Testament people reject Christ? Many took the outward benefits without the inward change of regeneration. They did not see themselves as lost sinners. They did not believe God’s word. They did not look beyond the outward ritual of the sacrifices that they brought to God. They were playing ‘church’ rather than trusting the saviour who was represented to them in the sacrifices that God had instituted.
Paul’s warning to the Corinthians was that they too might possess all the outward benefits of a church (gospel preaching, the sacraments, fellowship, prayer) and yet not really be trusting the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel. They too might be playing church while rejecting Christ.
Paul then gives a number of negative examples from the church in the desert that the church in Corinth would do well to avoid. He refers to them all as exhibiting the reality of evil desires. The first evil desire was Idolatry. I’ll just talk about this one today.
To illustrate the danger of idolatry, Paul refers to the Old Testament incident of the golden calf. Moses was away receiving the law that was to guide the church to Christ. Aaron had a crowd pressing him to give them gods (Exodus 32:1 and Acts 7:40) to lead them because Moses, to their mind, had abandoned them. So Aaron causes a golden calf to be made.
Two separate things seem to be happening here. The people wanted ‘gods’ (elohim), which might imply gods other than the covenant God of Israel. This was contrary to the First Commandment that the people had already heard from the God who had rescued them from Egypt.
Aaron, however, was aiming to bring the people to focus on Yahweh, the true God by means of the calf. When the calf was finished, Aaron said, ‘This is your God (Elohim) who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ and he appointed a feast to Yahweh for the following day. This broke the Second Commandment which forbids the worship of the true God by idols.
The Hebrew language uses the same plural word to mean ‘gods’ or ‘God’ depending on the context. The people wanted ‘gods’, and Aaron used the same word to point them to ‘God’ who revealed Himself to Moses as Yahweh.
Idolatry is a two-edged sword. It can be the worship of false gods. It can also be the worship of the true God by inappropriate means.
Aaron’s aim in using a golden calf was perhaps ‘noble’, but making a calf to direct people to Yahweh was utterly wrong. We could say that Aaron was trying to be ‘seeker-sensitive’, and he thought that the calf would be an aid to worship. But, to introduce matter into the worship of God contrary to His word simply because it is appealing to people in the church (to keep them there) and might be attractive to people outside, is wrong.
We are not to be inventive in managing the public worship of God. God’s worship is His. It is His word, not our changing preferences, that ought to determine the content and means of worship. The golden calf incident was a failure of leadership on Aaron’s part. It is a failure that the New Testament church needs to avoid if things are not to end badly.