Last week, we saw that the Old Testament stories can be read as “examples” for those of us on this side of the cross. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that these “examples” or “patterns” from the Old Testament are shadows cast by the New Testament reality. Since all of the Old Testament speaks about Christ (Luke 24:44), these shadows are actually cast by Jesus Christ himself. What this means is that the vague details of the Old Testament stories find clarity and vivid detail in the person and work of Jesus. However, because they are shadows of Christ, they still retain the broad outline of God’s redemptive plan. That is to say, when we read the Old Testament on this side of the cross, we do so expecting to see consistent patterns that find their end point in either Jesus himself or the work that he performs.
As we return to those words of Paul that seem difficult to understand, we are better equipped to see what Paul sees in the Old Testament stories. As a reminder, those difficult words were: “For [our fathers in the wilderness] drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). The primary difficulty is seeing how Paul can relate a rock in the desert to Christ. Using what has been said about reading the Old Testament on this side of the cross, we can make more sense of Paul’s words. What we will discover is that Paul has in mind a distinct pattern found in Scripture: divine self-sacrifice. But to see this, we need to begin with the Old Testament story that is the background to Paul’s words, Exod 17:1-7.
In Exod 17:1-7, we read that Israel “thirsted [at Rephidim] for water” (v3). There, the people quarreled with Moses and accused him of bringing them into the wilderness only to die (v3). They were so angry that Moses was afraid they would stone him (v4). As Moses cries out to God for help, God says, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink” (vv5-6). God thereby proves that he is among Israel (v7) and is also able to deliver them.
So, Exodus 17 is a picture of divine self-sacrifice. God is present on the rock when he “delivers” Israel from thirst. Moses is to “strike” the rock/God. The end result is a flow of water that quenches Israel’s thirst. In summary, God is personally present as he miraculously provides for his people through a violent (note that the verb “strike” is the same verb used to describe what Israel does to its enemies) act of deliverance. Said another way, this is a story about deliverance through divine self-sacrifice. Now, we know Paul has this pattern in mind because he speaks about spiritual food and drink in 1 Cor 10:3-4. The context of his equation of the rock with Christ is the Lord’s Supper, which itself is a picture of divine self-sacrifice.
Does this pattern repeat elsewhere? It certainly does. Tucked away in the Minor Prophets is another example of this pattern. In Zech 12:10-13:1, the good news of future salvation for Israel takes an unexpected turn toward divine self-sacrifice. God says that he will pour out “a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. But then, God says, “so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him” (v10). That is to say, God will be personally present in the salvation or the deliverance of Israel, but it will also include piercing him. This piercing will result in deliverance, for “on that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1). This passage in Zechariah is a picture of deliverance through divine self-sacrifice.
But there is one more passage worth noting in this pattern. In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abraham. As a part of the covenant ceremony, animals are cut in half (15:9-10), which would be customary, but then only God passes between the pieces (v17), which would have been unusual. By passing through the pieces on his own, God pledges that he will be faithful to his promises and only he will bear the curse of death for a breach in the covenant.
What does it look like for God to honor such a pledge? It looks like God being pierced for our transgressions (Isa 53:5; Zech 12:10). It looks like a fountain of cleansing (Zech 13:1). It looks like deliverance from thirst in the desert through the striking of God/the rock (Exod 17:1-7). It looks a soldier piercing the side of Jesus Christ, out of which flowed blood and water (John 19:34-37).
Paul can confidently say that “The Rock was Christ” because the rock in the wilderness was one instance of the pattern of divine self-sacrifice that found its fulfillment at the cross.