Two things spur on the call to imitation. The first, and more common, is a positive example. “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). Paul, being the spiritual father of the Philippians, shows them the way that they ought to walk. However, the second, and by no means less important, is a negative example. By showing where walking contrary to God will lead, a negative example pushes us in the opposite direction.
These things are “types” for us. Types, literally derived from “a hit” or “a blow,” can be impressions in a material, such as stamping a coin or an engraving. When applied in a moral sense, as it is here, they are examples provided for us that will shape us in a particular way. “Those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). Yet stamping a coin, for example, is not only a matter of creating a particular image. It also involves removing material, so that the image can be seen. Artistic relief in general is as much cutting away material as it is creating the desired image.
Therefore, the example which the Israelites of old provide is a negative one, but an important one, as Paul says. They are an example of how we must not desire evil, as they did, because God destroyed them. Even despite their many signs of God’s favor–passing through the Red Sea, food from heaven, water from the rock–they persisted in unbelief. Sin is not a joking matter or an indifferent thing. Idolatry and sexual immorality, no less sins in our day than in theirs, put Christ to the test. It is literally tempting God, because it turns His gracious promises into an opportunity for worse sins than before. God does not overlook sins because of Jesus. Being a Christian means walking in a different way than the Israelites did and not as enemies of God.
Christians should also remember that there is even less excuse for us who live in the end of the ages. God’s justice is not arbitrary, nor is His wrath random or easily excitable. God provides examples of His mercy and His wrath in order to teach us. There is no need for further lessons in God’s school. Scripture gives us sufficient warning by telling us what God did in the past. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-3). “But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:24). We should not imagine that God is less angry because He has not punished us in the same way. If, for example, we have not died for abusing the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:30), God is not less angry now, but has shown us clearly what awaits those who abuse His mercy.
Therefore, as Paul says, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Negative examples provide a clear warning to us so that we do not imagine that our situation is any different. “Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He” (1 Corinthians 10:22)? Shall we abuse His patience by sinning all the more? By no means! We are His new creation, called to walk in holiness. We do not become holy by being unholy. Holiness is formed by examples which conform us to Jesus, not by the works of the flesh.