Trek Through the Wilderness
If you have read any of my blog posts, you know I love the types and shadows of the Old Testament. In the Bible God gives us stories to help us understand spiritual things. These narratives chronical historical events, but they also point to timeless truths. They say something about our relationship with God. The Lord wants us to gain more than just facts as we read about the men and women of the Old Testament. He wants us to encounter Him in the midst of their stories. When we do, their stories become our story, a picture of our journey with God. And there is no greater picture of our walk with God than the Bible’s account of the exodus and the journey to the Promised Land.
If you asked any of the ancient Hebrews to explain their God-given inheritance, they would have no trouble answering. The central promise of the Old Covenant was the land God swore to give Abraham’s descendants. It was a place you could see with your eyes, and if you somehow had a map in that day, it would be easy to find. Living in the promise came with qualifications. God’s chosen people had to keep the Law and do all God commanded them to do. If they obeyed, the Lord gave them abundant prosperity. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 list all the blessings that would come upon God’s people if they were obedient. God’s favor was tangible. His goodness came in the form of material things you could see with your eyes. Yet, these same chapters also list the curses that would come upon the disobedient. If His people’s rebellion became great enough, God said He would take away the land, and thus they would lose their inheritance. If you read the Old Testament, you will see that God was faithful to send blessings when Israel kept the Torah, and He was just as faithful to send the curses when they broke His commandments.
The Old Covenant people of God had a very clear understanding of what God wanted for them and what He wanted from them. Yet, if you ask Christians today what their inheritance is, how would they answer? We would probably receive all sorts of responses, everything from heaven in the afterlife to prosperity in this life. Some would say that the blessings have not changed from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. God still gives the very same material blessings to those who obey. Only the condition has changed from the Law to faith. However, if we read the New Testament enough, we will begin to see that the better promises of the New Covenant aren’t things you can see with your eyes. Like the Children of Israel, God has given us a dwelling, but you can’t find it on a map.
Jesus is the Lord’s Greek name. In Hebrew His name was Yeshua, and in English this, of course, is Joshua. The name conveys the idea that God saves His people. It is no accident that the Joshua of the Old Testament shares his name with the Savior of the World. Just as Joshua took the Old Covenant people into their promised dwelling, Jesus has taken us into our heavenly dwelling or what Paul called “the heavenly places.”
When we hear the world “heaven,” we usually think of the place we go when we die. However, when Paul speaks of the heavenlies he is talking about this life and the next. The heavenly place is God’s presence or the realm of God. It is possible Paul’s use of the term heavenly place or the heavenlies is a reference to the Holiest of Holies in the Old Covenant temple. If you recall, the temple in Jesus’s day had three courts. The outermost court was called the Court of the Gentiles. As the name implies, it was for the gentiles who came to visit the temple or to pay respects to Israel’s God. The second court or center court was divided into three sub-courts. The Court of the Women was first, and as the name implies, Jewish women could worship here (as could Jewish men and children). Beyond that was the Court of Israel, and only Jewish men could enter here. Finally, there was the Court of the Priesthood. This area was the closest to the Holiest of Holies, and a person had to have the high calling of a priest to enter a place so near to God. Beyond the second court was the Holiest of Holies, or God’s court.
While the Temple provided the Gentiles with their own court and the Jews with another, the third court was God’s dwelling alone. A thick veil surrounded this most holy place, and beyond the veil was the Shekinah—the outshining of the glory of God. The Jews considered the Holiest of Holies the place where heaven and earth met and became one. To them heaven was not just the place you went when you died, but the realm of God. Therefore, if you could enter beyond the veil, you literally would be in the heavenly place.
When Jesus, who is our Joshua, went to be with the Father, He took us with Him into the presence of God. The Joshua of old gave the people an earthly dwelling. Jesus has given us the heavenly dwelling which is the presence of God. In fact, we dwell there together with Him. Therefore, closeness to God is not our achievement, but something Christ has accomplished for us. How do you get into God’s presence? You go there together with Christ.
You may have noticed that Paul mentions the word “together” three times in Ephesians chapter two. This is an astonishingly important word in the New Covenant. Who we are, where we are, what we have, and what we do depend on that word. It is our togetherness with Christ that defines us, and our Christian journey is a journey to union with Christ. It is our promise, but sometimes before we come into the fullness of the promise, we have to go through a wilderness.
Before God’s people entered into the Promised Land, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The actual journey from Egypt to the Jordan River is only about twelve days on foot. After God delivered His people at the Red Sea, they went straight forward to the threshold of their new home. Moses sent twelve spies to see what awaited them. When they returned, ten of them gave a bad report, saying the land was good, but it was inhabited by people far too great to conquer. The people grumbled and complained against Moses and said that they should go back to Egypt. God, in His anger, threatened to destroy all who disobeyed, but Moses interceded. God answered his servant’s prayer, and instead of destroying the His stubborn children, He sent them into the wilderness for 40 years. There the wicked unbelieving generation died, and God raised up a generation that could believe God and inherit the promise.
Ever been in a wilderness in your life? I am not talking about literally wandering around in the desert. A wilderness can be a time of seemingly endless trials. Perhaps there is hardship in your life that never seems to go away. A wilderness can be a time when it seems like you are getting nowhere. It can be a place where you feel you are far from the promise of God. Or it can be a lonely place. If you have ever felt alone for a period of time, you know that is a wilderness, and a very difficult one. We have all been there, and while we are there, our wandering may seem to have no purpose. Yet, not one minute in such places is wasted. God is at work to bring us into the promise.
Some believe that we go through difficult and barren times in our lives to make us stronger. In such times we love sayings like “God will never give you anything you can’t handle,” and “If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.” I used to think the wildernesses of life had this purpose. In my wanderings, it was as if I was gathering more and more righteousness, getting more and more holy, and one day I would find rest. I would at last become a person God wanted to be around.
Many preachers take this view on our trials and times of lacking. They tell us God takes us through these things to test us, and when we pass the test, God arrives and defeats all our enemies. We hear messages telling us that we need to get closer to God, and of course, our teachers know exactly what we need to do to get there. They present the carrot and the stick as motivators, telling us how God will bless us if we do certain things or how we will miss out if we don’t obey. However, this framework has been tried before, and it failed. Remember the Old Covenant blessings and curses? This system we know as the Law fell short, and it still falls short. The carrot and stick might succeed in modifying our behavior, but it won’t get us to the Promise.
The wilderness is not the place we, by our own piety, achieve our goal. It is the place we reach the end. The wilderness is about death and resurrection, and it is the place we encounter both. Just as the unfaithful generation died in the wilderness, so we too reach the end of ourselves, and at that end the Promise becomes God’s accomplishment, not ours. It is the place where the death of the old creation is worked out in our lives that the new creation might be manifest. The wilderness is not the road to self-improvement. It is the road to togetherness with Christ.
I have always been someone with a great desire for God. Ever since I met the Lord at a young age, I have wanted to know Him. I identify with Moses when he prayed to see God. In response, God took Moses and put him in the cleft of a rock and allowed him a glimpse of His glory (Exodus 33:18-23). I have never seen the Lord with my eyes. It has never really been necessary, but my life’s ambition has been to see Him with the eyes of my heart. My life has always been more about knowing than doing.
Yet, how does one get to know the unseen God? I have been down many roads. There was a time when I thought holiness was the answer. Get the sin out, and God will come in. That is the way it works, right? Once a man came to the church I attended, preaching repentance. He said that we had offended a Holy God, and we needed to get right. He gave as a small book that listed all the sins of omission (what you should have done, but didn’t) and commission (what you weren’t supposed to do, but you did, anyway). He urged us to work through the entire book, and with God’s help, confess all the sins we had ever committed. This sounded good to me, so I spent hours going through each and every page. Finally, I got to the last few sins, and I thought certainly all heaven would break lose when I finished, but nothing happened. I might have felt a little less guilty, but God seemed no nearer.
I have been in praying and fasting movements. I prayed for hours, calling on God to work. My inspiration came from stories of revival and from teachings that said God does nothing except in answer to prayer. Surely, I would be one of those rare individuals who prayed heaven down. Every week I spent all day Saturday praying for God to show His power on Sunday. God felt so present on those days, but when I left the prayer room, He didn’t seem to go with me. The Lord never seemed as close when I preached on Sundays. Needless to say, I had a lot of depressing Mondays.
I sought God through ministry. I was always the one who took the jobs no one else wanted. I thought that would be pleasing to God. At a church I attended the leadership was looking for people to fill various ministries, but no one wanted to do jail ministry. I ended up taking the job along with a friend of mine. Once we started ministering in the local jail, I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to go there. It really was glorious, and some of the greatest works of God I have ever seen happened in that forsaken place.
I turned to learning and theology. I thought that maybe if I really understood the Bible, I would come to know God like I wanted. For a time I was known as a book snob. Normal books that everyone else was reading wouldn’t do. I had to have very deep theological works. The books I carried around could more easily be measured by the pound than the page. They were enormous.
There was a glory in all these things, but I would describe it as a fading glory. I got glimpses of God that came like manna in the wilderness, but I found no rest. At the time, I thought I was gathering more and more righteousness, more and more wisdom, more and more favor, and one day the glory would come. Yet, after years of pursuing God, I had a revelation. I now look back on all those years as wandering. I was not becoming more righteous. I was reaching the end of my righteousness, and it took years. The wilderness is the place we reach the end of our own righteousness that we gain Christ as our righteousness. It is a blow to the ego, but the way we gain in the kingdom of God is through loss. We see this clearly in the life of the Apostle Paul.
What loss did Paul suffer, and what was the resulting gain? He lost His own righteousness that he might obtain the righteousness of Christ, and this loss did not come easily. Paul, before he came to Christ, was very strong and zealous. No one pursued God like he did. He thought because he was of the tribe of Benjamin, he had greater favor with God. Recall that the tribes of Judah and Benjamin obeyed the Torah and kept their heritage intact better than the other ten tribes. All Jews were favored, but these two groups were especially favored, at least that is what they thought. Paul was a Pharisee. The average Pharisee fasted two days a week and paid his tithes to the penny (Luke 18:9-14), but Paul’s discipline excelled beyond his contemporaries. He was a Torah keeper, extraordinaire, so much so that carried the title, “blameless.” He was also zealous. When you see the word zeal or zealous, it often means that you are not beyond using violence to bring other people into obedience. Paul was such a man, a persecutor of those who sought to follow Christ.
Yet, the apostle suffered the loss of all these things that He might gain Christ. This is reminiscent of Jesus’s words, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake, will save it. (Luke 9:23). Paul denied himself and for him that meant denying his own righteousness. He lost who he was that he might find a new identity in Christ. Paul walked the way of the cross, and I believe his suffering was literal. God made this very strong man weak, but He did so that the power of God might be manifest in him. Consider his tribulations:
Astonishingly, this man who once boasted in all his strength came to boast in his weakness. He did so, because he knew that in his weakness, at the end of himself, he would know the power of God.
We meet weakness in the wilderness. We come face to face with our powerlessness, and our greatest inability is that we are unable to obtain God. This end comes the hardest. Dying to our own good is a far more difficult cross to bear than dying to our evil. To Paul it was a loss so great that he called it the loss of all things.
Yet, this is a journey we do not take alone; otherwise, it could never be accomplished. We walk in togetherness with the One who took the journey before us, Christ, the Lord. He too suffered the loss of all things at Calvary. Yet, through His loss He gained the glory of God, not only for Himself but for us as well. It is the power of His journey that gets us through, and there is glory on the other side of all of our losses.
We can look at life’s journey in one of two ways. We can see it as the process of becoming what we think God wants us to be, so God will be who we want Him to be. If we take this perspective, we will wander. God will be one who visits, someone we “catch,” but only for short periods of time. We have all had mountain top experiences where we feel so close to God. At such times we might promise the Lord that we will never leave Him again. We feel like we have finally “arrived.” Yet, when we leave that special place or stop doing special deeds, the glory invariably fades. Once more, God does not seem interested in helping us keep our promise! If you have ever promised God that you would change, you know what I am talking about.
Such thinking leaves us in a revival mentality. God is far away, and we need to do something to get Him back. There is a glory to such endeavors, but it is always a fading glory. If you study revivals, you will see that they are short-lived. They last only as long as the effort of man, and such effort always comes to an end. I believe the New Testament presents a different paradigm, one where Christ’s effort brought us to the heavenly place, and our only task is to see it.
A second option it is to see our lives as the journey to togetherness with Christ. Our wandering is due to our self-focus and in the fact that we are trying to live in our own glory rather than the glory of God. We are as much in the presence of God in our wilderness times as our mountain top times. We just can’t see it because of our focus on who we are and what we have or have not done. One way to describe coming to the end of ourselves is that God turns our head from self-focus to Christ-focus. We look from the finite to the infinite, from self to Christ.
This new vision changes our perspective on the wilderness times in our lives. We may have thought we were only wandering aimlessly, but really we are being led, just as the Children of Israel were led by the cloud by day and the fire by night. God is lovingly leading us to the end of ourselves, that we might meet Him there. Here in the barren places the Lord compels us to change our home from the glory of self to the glory of God. This is true New Covenant repentance. It is not going from evil to good but coming to Christ.
Hebrews chapters three and four tie God’s promised dwelling to God’s rest. God’s presence is a place of rest, rest from our wanderings, rest from all our efforts to bring heaven to us. This rest comes from seeing, not from doing, and our eyes are only open when we look away from the fading glory of self to the eternal glory of God. The wilderness is the place God lifts our heads to behold the infinite. So, if God has taken you to a lowly place or to a place that looks like the end, know you are not forsaken, but beloved. God has brought you to the end of the finite that you might behold the infinite. God has brought you there to show you Himself.