Israel’s disobedience in the wilderness is used by the Apostles as a contrasting model for the Christian sojourn until the return of Jesus (1 Cor. 10:1-11, Heb. 3-4, Jude 5). God’s various judgments on Israel are “examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did… These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:6, 10).
Time and time again, Israel “rebelled against Him in the wilderness and grieved Him in the desert” (Ps. 78:40-41). Isaiah reiterates, “They rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned Himself to become their enemy, He fought against them” (Is. 63:10). Such language is plainly affirmed as a model for the New Testament believer when Paul states, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30). Thus, like Israel, we can grieve the Lord and, just as with Israel, He can turn against us to become our enemy.
But what were these things that “happened to them as examples” and “warnings for us” (1 Cor. 10:10)? In this very passage, Paul writes, “We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.” (1 Cor. 10:8-10) Jude says it was the Lord Jesus who “after saving a people out of the land of Egypt, subsequently destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5).
God’s past (and promise of future) retributive judgment is intended to warn, teach, and motivate us in obedience to the faith (Acts 6:7). In recounting God’s punishments on rebellious Israel in the wilderness, the Psalmist writes, “When He killed them (yes, God killed them), then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God” (Ps. 78:34, parenthesis mine). When Ananias and Sapphira “lied to the Holy Spirit“ (Acts 5:3) and died before Peter, “great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). Presumably, this was “the fear of the Lord” in which the church was continually “built up” (Acts 9:31). This principle is summed up in Isaiah: “When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness” (Is. 26:9).
Throughout Scripture, God has wisely determined to use both positive and negative motivation (“warnings”, 1 Cor. 10:10) to bring about faith and obedience. However unpopular this concept becomes in modern times, we are earnestly and soberly exhorted by the Apostles to follow Jesus with the promise of “great reward” (Heb. 10:35) and the warning of terrifying “destruction” (Heb. 10:39). May we heed these words today.