Lessons from the Wilderness
Any time Scripture points us in the direction of Old Testament history, we are either learning something about Christ or salvation and it is often meant to sanctify us by giving us wisdom of past events. Paul uses the exact OT story (the Exodus) to keep the Corinthians from immorality and idolatry saying that these things “happened as examples for us” (1 Cor. 10.6), and pointing to the consequences of their sins as that which “happened to them as an example and they were written for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10.11) so that Paul concludes that one can “look at the nation Israel” (1 Cor. 10.18) for life lessons in wisdom and sanctification. Paul’s reason for using the OT stories in a new day is because the character of God does not change; He is still a jealous covenant God (1 Cor. 10.22). Thus, there are four things we too need to learn from the apostasy of the Exodus generation.
The Mixed Multitude Of Exodus And The Church
Verse 16 picks up the issue of provoking God quoted from Ps. 95 and mentioned in v.15 where the analogy is made between the potential of hardening the heart as in the wilderness generation. Thus, Hebrews takes us back into the history of the Exodus and the wilderness generation under Moses who failed to enter God’s rest in Canaan. But the two questions in verse 16 (the last being rhetorical) bring up a deeper theological issue that Scripture also addresses, that is, what do we make of apparent believers who end up falling away? For, those “who provoke Him” were all part of that great Exodus event and all participated in the redemption of the Exodus. It was “all those who came out of Egypt.” Just as in the Exodus, today, the church often sees those who have been identified with God’s people turn away their hearts from following the Lord and go away into apostasy.
We have all heard of preachers who have abandoned the faith, scholars at the seminary level who have adopted liberalism only to go in total heresy and unbelief. One painful example in recent times, and which has done great harm to the church is that of Bart Ehrman. He is currently professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman used to profess basic faith in Christ and in the gospel. He became a first rate scholar on the subject of textual criticism and was mentored by none other than Bruce Metzger (Princeton). Recently, Ehrman has gone on an all out crusade against the tenacity of the Bible and has written several books discrediting the reliability the Biblical Manuscripts. He now considers himself a happy agnostic who enjoys fine cigars and still considers the Bible “the most important book in the history of our form of civilization, without peer.” When asked, what will be his final thought in life, Ehrman replied, “Oh boy, I hope I was right…”
Scripture portrays many examples of apostasy as well. Peter had a moment of apostasy when he denied the Lord only to return (Lk. 22.32). But there are those who never return like Judas (Acts 1.25). After spending several years with Paul on the mission field, Demas returned back to the world abandoning Paul and the ministry for the fleeting pleasures of sin (2 Tim. 4.10). Individuals are mentioned in Paul’s letters for falling away and shipwrecking their faith (1 Tim. 1.20). The entire church of Galatia was threaten to apostatize by embracing a false gospel (Gal. 1.6; 3.1-3; 5.4). But the issue of a mixed multitude is clearly articulated in 2 Peter as Peter is warning His congregations about the danger of false teachers:
2 Peter 2:1–3 1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought (ἀγοράζω) them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; 3 and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
This is in reference to OT history where Israel was constantly plagued by false teachers (Dt. 13.1-5; 18.20; 1 Ki. 22.5-12). They were among the redeemed for they were “denying the Master who bought them” that is, in a redemptive-historical act such as in the Exodus where God’s people who came out of Egypt included false teachers and therefore those who were not actually regenerate with a circumcised heart (Dt. 10.16; 30.6; Jer. 4.4).
There are in fact many similarities between the wilderness church (Acts 7.38) and the church of the New Testament and by extension today. Like the New Covenant church, those who came out of Egypt had a covenant leader in Moses just as we do with Christ. Moses was their covenant mediator even Christ is ours (Ex. 32.11ff.). The wilderness generation also saw great signs and wonders accompanied with their physical and sociological redemption out of slavery (Dt. 6.22; Ps. 135.9). Jesus came with all manner signs and wonders in His redemptive work as well (Mt. 4.16; Acts 2.22). The Exodus generation was brought out of Egypt, redeemed out of bondage (Ex. 6.6) even as we are redeemed from the bondage of our sinful slavery (Rom. 6.20; 2 Tim. 2.25-26).
Finally, we have a further redemptive similarity with the Exodus generation in that we have been given promises of an inheritance which can never be taken away (Mt. 5.5; 2 Pet. 1.4; Heb. 1.14). The presence of God’s promises is precisely where the wilderness generation failed. This is the rationale behind the need for the exhortations found in Hebrews; promises remain (4.9)! The parallel passage in chapter 6 draws this out further:
Hebrews 6:9–12 9 But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. 11 And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Holiness To The Lord
Even though the people in the Exodus had the right leader in Moses (notwithstanding his own failures) they nevertheless lacked real holiness. The most basic identity of the people of God was that of otherness i.e. a holiness which showed that they were in fact God’s redeemed people who bore His name and possessed His glory. This is what would distinguish them from everyone else— orthopraxy confirming orthodoxy. This is why God was angry and they were ultimately laid low in wilderness, “And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?” (3.17). So then, another question followed up and answer with a rhetorical question.
Verse 17 presents something of a progression. Coming from verse 16, the people had “heard” the word of the Lord through the prophet Moses. Through the Exodus, the people had also seen the power of God displayed in signs and wonders which rendered the people without excuse on every level. This is why holiness was demanded and expected of them. The same holds true for us today. This is why God was angry with them for “forty years”, because they had failed to take heed to God’s word and God’s works of redemption. Because of their infidelity to Yahweh, God’s curses would ensue. This is captured in Numbers where God sees the unbelief of the people as a direct opposition to His redemptive wisdom:
Numbers 14:33–35 33 ‘Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness. 34 ‘According to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day you shall bear your guilt a year, even forty years, and you will know My opposition. 35 ‘I, the Lord, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they will die.’ ”
Another rhetorical question that magnifies who it is that relinquished God’s redemption, “And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient?” (3.18). What the author focuses on now is the nature of what it means to relinquish redemption. In the wilderness experience it was through the disobedience of a generation that had been eyewitnesses of God’s mighty deeds in Egypt. But the Exodus events are more than just God getting His people out of a rough spot. Ultimately, it should have been a declaration of the covenant faithfulness of God. That is, that more than just removing Israel from Egyptian oppression, it was God’s upholding His promises to the fathers. When we think “Exodus” do we think, “Moses”, “Pharaoh” or “the plagues?” From a redemptive-historical approach we should think, “Abraham”, for the Exodus is about God remembering His covenant oath to the fathers:
Exodus 2:23–25 23 Now it came about in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died. And the sons of Israel sighed because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry for help because of their bondage rose up to God. 24 So God heard their groaning; and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God saw the sons of Israel, and God took notice of them.
The reason that God delivered the children of Israel from the Egyptians is not primarily because God hates slavery, or because God is against social injustice, or because God is on a great humanitarian mission— His covenant promises are on the line and with God’s covenant oath is God’s covenant glory! That is why God chose to reveal himself to Moses not as the God of social justice but as the God of Abraham so that Moses would make the appropriate covenantal connection and stand in awe of God’s indestructible promise keeping power!:
Exodus 3:6 6 He said also, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
This is why He is going to take them to Canaan (Ex. 3.6). This why they will be known by His great name in all generations. The “I AM” statement is just as much about His covenant faithfulness as it is about God’s aseity:
Exodus 3:14–15 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.
Hundreds of years later when Israel finds herself in another captivity with Assyria and the threat of Babylon, God again comforts His people with the promises He made to Abraham (Is. 41.8). He shows up by going to war for Israel (Is. 41.12), removing all geographical barriers (Is. 41.15), triumphing over false gods (Is. 41.23), and blessings the nations (Is. 42.1). So much more is at stake in OT history. All of this is accomplished through Jesus of course (cf. Lk. 24.27; Acts 3.18). All of God’s promises are finally fulfilled in Him (2 Cor. 1.20). He makes good on all things Abrahamic (cf. Gal. 3.19). And like Israel if we fail to see God’s faithfulness in His Son for what it is, we relinquish His promises and forfeit the redemption He has brought in Jesus Christ.
Reaching The Promised Land
The context of Hebrews is bridged for us in two ways. First, with the universal threat of apostasy that remains for everyone who would enter God’s rest, “So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief” (3.19). The lesson is for us to take home, “we see” means that we would do well to learn from the lessons in the wilderness and the apostasy of the Exodus generation. The ultimate culprit here is and evil heart of “unbelief.” It was unbelief that led the Israelites to doubt all of Gods’ promises. They doubted His ability to take them out of Egypt by questioning Moses (Ex. 15.24), they doubted that God was able to provide sufficient food and water in the wilderness and their doubt left them longing for Egypt again (Ex. 16.3), and ultimately they doubted God’s ability to bring them to the land which He had promised to their fathers (cf. Josh. 24.1-4).
Second, context is also bridged in the exhortation that follows closely in chapter four launching us into the letter’s next main focus of understanding the connection between rest and salvation, “therefore let us fear” (4.1). In other words, today we have to fear because the stakes are even higher since God’s redemptive work in Christ has to do with a “heavenly calling” and not simply inheriting physical property. Now the rest that God promises is redemptive in nature. The land in Canaan was typological of just that, ultimate salvific rest in Christ. And if we remain committed to Christ by faith, He promises to bring us home, to our own place, through many dangers, and despite many adversaries; He will give us rest if we hold fast :
Matthew 11:28–30 28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
The book of Hebrews makes certain that we end all OT connections on the gospel. That is why we are exhorted to pay even closer attention to what we have heard in Jesus (2.1), because, He represents the last days (1.2), the final message of salvation which God confirmed through sings and wonders for our benefit (2.4). If we fail to listen to Him, we would have failed to learn the lessons of the wilderness generation and we too will provoke God’s wrath to our eternal destruction (3.15). Two key words in verse 19 are found in the phrase, “they were not able.” Their unbelief rendered them impotent to obtain God’s promise of rest.
Ironically, they did not even belief this. The Israelites attempted to enter the Promise Land on their own terms (Num. 14.39-45). The text of Numbers makes it a point to highlight a few things that took place as a result of all this. They ventured out “heedlessly”, and “neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses left the camp” (Num. 14.44).
In other words they did not heed God’s wisdom and therefore they did not possess God’s covenant presence or God’s covenant mediator. When a person will not come to terms with God through the gospel and tries another way of doing it; the result is always the same— they cannot enter God’s rest because they will have no mediator to represent them and therefore God’s presence, representing His glory and favor, will be for judgment and not blessing.