The Church in the Wilderness
K.C. Tsai―Toronto, Canada
HEAR, O ISRAEL!
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel) is the centerpiece of the morning and evening prayers of Jews today. This prayer phrase, often shortened to Shema (or Sh'ma), is integral to Jewish lives. The first thing that a devout Jew does each morning and again at the end of the day before he sleeps is to recite the Shema—in keeping with the Mosaic instruction to “talk about them when they lie down and when they rise up” (Deut 6:7). In Jewish homes, a small, slanted case is affixed to the doorframe of the front door as well as on every doorway which is more than forty inches high and sixteen inches wide. This small case, known as Mezuzah, contains a piece of parchment on which the Shema is written. When members of the household pass through these doors, they would be able to touch and kiss the Mezuzah—in keeping with the Mosaic instruction to “write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:9). After a Jewish boy turns thirteen, he must strap two small boxes – the tefillin – to himself, one on his forehead and the other on his left arm, during his daily morning prayer. The Shema is written on parchment and placed within the boxes—in keeping with the Mosaic instruction to “bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deut 6:8).
Determined to hold fast to the oracles that had been entrusted to them, Jews today adhere to God’s instructions conveyed through Moses with extra caution. They constantly remind themselves of their status as the elect through every minor detail of their lives, restraining themselves with various regulations. Such reverence for God is indeed admirable, possibly resulting from their remorse at having failed the God who exclusively loved them (Deut 7:7) and at forsaking His covenant (Deut 31:16). Unfortunately, despite their religious activities and strict ceremonial abidance of the laws and rites, they could not find Lord Jesus to whom the Law testifies (Jn 5:39–40); nor were they able to serve the Lord in the newness of the Spirit (Rom 7:6).
Forty years after the Israelite exodus from Egypt, on the first day of the eleventh month, on the plains of Moab east of River Jordan, Moses instructed the people according to God’s command. These words became the last book of the Pentateuch—Deuteronomy. Moses was well aware that he would not be able to cross River Jordan to enter the promised land (Deut 3:25–27). As decreed by God, in another two and a half months, the Israelites' forty years of wandering in the wilderness would end (Num 14:33–35). Moses knew his time on earth would not exceed seventy-five days. In fact, if the thirty days of mourning by the people following his demise were excluded, Moses’ remaining days on earth were indeed few.
Therefore, Deuteronomy comprises Moses’ parting instructions. He repeatedly urged the people, “Listen to the statutes and the judgments that I teach you to observe.” Moses also listed each mistake made by the Israelites. They had continually gone against God’s teachings despite enjoying His continual mercy and forgiveness. This is an enduring reminder of God’s endless love despite man’s irrepressible stubbornness.
Moses’ final instructions pertain to men’s choices in life (Deut 30:15–20): if the people obeyed the word of God and abided by His commandments, they would be blessed; otherwise calamities would befall them. Moses clearly set out the choices that the people had—life or death, calamities or blessings—and implored them to select life.
The Hebrew name of the book of Deuteronomy is ’elleh haddebarim (These are the words), which are the first few words in the book of Deuteronomy. This book is said to be Moses’ reiteration of the Law as he neared the end of his life. When the Lord Jesus faced the temptations of Satan (Mt 4:1–11), He cited phrases from Deuteronomy on three occasions to overcome them (Deut 8:3, 6:16, 6:13). These citations by the Lord Jesus reinforces the importance of the book of Deuteronomy.
CONGREGATION IN THE WILDERNESS
“This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us.” (Acts 7:38)
In his address to the Sanhedrin, Stephen referred to the people led by Moses as the congregation in the wilderness. During their forty years in the wilderness, the Israelites continually received the words of God—the living oracles.
Stephen used the word “congregation,” which is translated as “church” in the King James Version. In Greek, the word is ekklēsia (called out). The same word is translated as “church” in Ephesians 1:23 (“the church is the body of Christ”), Ephesians 3:10 (“now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places”) and Hebrews 12:23 (“to the general assembly and church of the firstborn”). They are the people of God whom He has called out from the land of Egypt (the bondage of sins) (Ex 19:3–6).
“I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” (Ex 29:45-46)
The importance of being called out
must never be underestimated. God reiterated that He brought the Israelites out
of the land of Egypt so that He may dwell among them. In other words, when the
Israelites were still residing amongst the Egyptians and were still slaves of
the Pharaoh, God would not dwell among them. Similarly today, the church has
been called out of the bondage of sin (cf.
God referred to the Israelites who came out of Egypt as “My son, my firstborn” (Ex 4:22). The firstborn refers to those who have been consecrated and who belong to God (Ex 13:2; Num 3:11–13, 40–51). From a spiritual perspective, the biblical true church was called out by God from the world. She belongs to Him and is the assembly of the firstborn (Heb 12:22–24). She is in the world but not of the world (Jn 17:15–16, 18:36). She has the guidance and instruction of God; she knows how to worship and give praise to God, walking on the path as desired by God.
When Moses said, “Hear O Israel!”, he was obviously referring to the Israelites standing before him. However, in the last portion of Deuteronomy, when he was going to establish a covenant with the people, he said, “I make this covenant and this oath, not with you alone, but with him who stands here with us today before the Lord our God, as well as with him who is not here with us today”(Deut 29:14–15). He emphasized that he was establishing the covenant not only with the Israelites then, but also with those who were standing before God, i.e., those who earnestly serve Him (1 Kgs 17:1), as well as with those who were not present then. The latter comprise people who truly serve God: the descendants of the Israelites as well as the biblical spiritual true church. This true church is the spiritual firstborn to whom God referred. They become the sons of God through believing in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:26), making them also the descendants of Abraham (Gal 3:27–29). They are also the Israel referred to in “Hear O Israel!”, the firstborn of God (Heb 12:23).
The covenant that God had instructed Moses to establish with the Israelites in the land of Moab was also to be inherited by the biblical true church. This is a covenant pertaining to blessing and curse. Moses had called on heaven and earth as witnesses, setting before the people life or death, blessing or curse; urging them to choose life (Deut 30:15–20). In other words, the gospel message preached by the true church is not the doctrine of eternal security (i.e., once saved, always saved). The believer must consciously choose life and work out his salvation (Phil 2:12). He cannot only be a listener of the word, but he must be a doer (Jas 1:21–25), obeying God’s word and keeping all His commandments.
Hebrews 11 lists the extraordinary acts of faith of the ancient saints. Moses was commended for looking to Christ by faith and for seeing that which cannot be seen (Heb 11:27). When Moses was giving instructions to Israel, the church in the wilderness, he might have seen indistinctly that this church did not just exist during the forty-year journey in the wilderness, but transcended time and space. She—the true church—is the heavenly Jerusalem, the holy mountain of God, the oft-cited Zion of the Bible (Heb 12:22).
FORTY YEARS OF TRAINING
The Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for forty years as punishment for their disbelief in God's promise: all those who were numbered, twenty years old and above at the time of the exodus, were not allowed to enter the promised land (Num 14:26–35). However, viewed from a macro perspective, this was actually God's exclusive love (Deut 7:7–8) and His wonderful arrangement. The exodus would have been quite meaningless had the Israelites departed pagan-worshipping Egypt only to directly enter pagan-worshipping Canaan. What God wanted His elect to do was to depart from the surrounding evil! Although departing from Egypt was difficult, it was accomplished within a night, and just by crossing the Red Sea. However, breaking away from Egyptian pagan worship, morality and way of life, and learning anew how to discern between the sacred and the secular would require time and guidance. In Canaan—the land that the Israelites would be entering—the locals were idol-worshippers who practiced child sacrifice (Deut 12:31), an abomination to God. The Canaanites were no better than the Egyptians. They made their children pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft, and called up the dead; they were soothsayers, interpreters of omens, sorcerers, conjurers of spells, mediums, and spiritists (Deut 18:10–14). It would have been a calamity in faith for the people of God to depart from Egypt in order to enter an even filthier place. Therefore the purpose of those forty years in the wilderness was not only to punish, but to let them dwell alone, to depart from secular lifestyles, to devote themselves to learning the laws and commandments of God, and to learn to fear Him. Indeed these forty years were a manifestation of God’s deeper love.
Moses said that the forty years in the wilderness was God’s trial and test for His people (Deut 8:2), training them to abide by His teachings and commandments and to fear Him (Deut 8:6). God chastised them in those forty years just as a man would chasten his son (Deut 8:5). In the original text, “chastise” connotes instruct, teach, and transform. God used forty years to mould His people so that His laws and commandments would become part of their lives making them ready to serve Him.
GOD THE ONLY LORD
“The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (Mk 12:28–31)
This was the Lord Jesus’ reply when He was asked about the most important commandment. The Lord our God is one! This concept—oft-repeated throughout Deuteronomy—is also the most important belief in the new covenant, which the Lord Jesus had established with His blood (Lk 22:20). Moses’ declaration (cf. Deut 6:4) was a timely warning to the Israelites who were about to cross River Jordan and enter the land where multiple pagan gods were worshipped. It is also a critical warning to the biblical true church to ascertain that the Lord they serve is the one and only God.
“The Lord our God, the Lord
is one” was not just a teaching given to the Israelites then; it is an
inviolable part of present Jewish faith and, even more so, the core faith of
the biblical true church. The God served by the biblical true church is not the
“Trinity” God. In fact, Scripture does not contain the word Trinity. Nor was
this concept ever a belief taught to the people of God. The God in whom the
biblical true church believes is the only God; He is Spirit (Jn 4:24);
He fills all in all (Jer 23:24; Eph 1:23, 4:10); He
descended from heaven and is still in heaven (Jn 3:13)―the only God Who
was manifested in the flesh (
THE TABERNACLE OF MEETING IN THE CENTER
Everyone of the children of Israel shall camp by his own standard, beside the emblems of his father’s house; they shall camp some distance from the tabernacle of meeting. (Deut 2:2)
After the Exodus, on the first day of the second month of the second year, God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. In the tabernacle of meeting, God instructed Moses to take a census of all the males amongst the Israelites (Num 1:1–18). God also instructed that the tabernacle of meeting be set up in the center of the camp, with three tribes each camping on the east, west, south, and north sides of the tabernacle respectively. The ark of the covenant was placed in the tabernacle of meeting. From above the mercy seat, between the two cherubim on the ark of the testimony, God would tell Moses what He wanted conveyed to the children of Israel (Ex 25:22).
The tabernacle of meeting was the center of the Israelites’ life in the wilderness. God gave them manna from heaven so that they did not need to “toil all the days of their lives in order to obtain food from the ground” or to “eat bread in the sweat of their face” (Gen 3:17–19). With such providence from God, daily food was not the focus of their lives. Instead, they could devote themselves to worshipping before the tabernacle, to the offering of sacrifices, as well as the teachings of God that Moses brought out from the tabernacle.
God intended His church in the wilderness to concentrate on learning all His instructions in those forty years. Similarly, the biblical true church must give priority to learning His word and will. Just as the tabernacle of meeting was in the camp center, the true church has God’s word as the center of her life. Besides serving the Lord daily, believers learn to take spiritual principles from the Bible as the guide to making important decisions in life. Thus, religious education emphasizes the memorization of key scriptural passages (Deut 6:7) to equip children with the Bible’s abundant teachings, enabling them to make decisions based on God’s word and to lead victorious lives.
After the Exodus, on the first day of the fifth month of the fortieth year, Aaron the priest went up to Mount Hor at the command of the Lord, and died there (Num 33:38). Following the demise of Aaron, the people came to the plains of Moab east of River Jordan. These were the last few months of the forty-year journey in the wilderness. God provided a conclusion to the Israelites’ journey in the wilderness through Balaam the son of Beor. At that point in time, Balak, the king of Moab, had summoned Balaam to curse the Israelites. However, when Balaam looked at the Israelite camps from the top of the rocks, he took up his oracles and said:
How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?
And how shall I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
For from the top of the rocks I see him,
And from the hills I behold him;
There! A people dwelling alone, not reckoning itself among the nations.
Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number one-fourth of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous,
And let my end be like his!
Balaam’s oracles show that God does not allow anyone to curse (or slander) those whom He has chosen. The church in the wilderness consists of people who dwell alone; they are not to be reckoned amongst the nations, for they are the special chosen people of God. Even Balaam wished to be one of them and was willing to die with them!
In the wilderness, there was no mixed multitude living amongst the people. The people were alone with the word of God that Moses had brought out of the tabernacle of meeting. The people were reformed and purified in morality, ethics, values, and in their worship and service to the Lord; they could differentiate between the sacred and secular.
God used the pillar of fire and pillar of cloud to indicate when they were to move and when to stop (Num 9:15–23). With the ark of the covenant, He directed their path (Num 10:33–36). He bestowed manna upon them daily and gave them water from the rock to quench their thirst, so that they would understand that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3). God’s word was the source of life that sustained them through their journey in the wilderness.
And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
In the Old Testament, God revealed
His will through Balaam. He wanted the people on earth who belonged to Him to
dwell alone and not be reckoned amongst the nations. However, after they
entered Canaan and experienced the period of the Judges, they demanded a king
from Samuel, for they wanted to be “like all the nations” (
Today, the true church on earth is as in the worldly wilderness; she must consecrate herself and be determined to dwell alone in the way of the Lord. She is not reckoned amongst the nations, meaning that she does not allow herself to be swept away by society’s tides nor would she indiscriminately borrow from the system and activities of the world.
Believers of the true church have the words of God as the basis of their thoughts and behavior, leading a life free of the strange customs of the world. They measure their church life, worship, and service against the yardstick of biblical teachings, discern between the secular and sacred, adopt values which are pleasing to God, and uphold deeds and virtues based on the truth.
Like Moses who entered the tabernacle of meeting to faithfully bring out the word of God (Heb 3:5), the pulpit of the true church serves to convey God’s message. What is spoken on the pulpit must thus be the word of God, not the words of man (1 Thess 2:13). The pulpit is not meant for the exposition of human ideology. Instead, it is a place where biblical teachings are conveyed faithfully, presenting every man perfect in Christ Jesus (Col 1:28).
TRANSCEND THE WILDERNESS
Yet He had commanded the clouds above,
And opened the doors of heaven,
Had rained down manna on them to eat,
And given them of the bread of heaven.
Men ate angels’ food; He sent them food to the full.
Manna and bread of heaven refer to
spiritual food, which can satisfy one’s spiritual hunger. Paul said the people
ate the same spiritual food (“spiritual meat” in King James Version. In the
original text, this phrase refers to meat that has been cleansed in accordance
to the purification laws) (
For they drank of that spiritual
Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (
On the last day of the Festival of Booths, the Lord Jesus extended a sincere invitation: “ ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive” (Jn 7:37–39), which is the spiritual drink spoken of by Paul.
The biblical true church has the spiritual drink given by the Lord—the Holy Spirit—as well as the bread of heaven —the words and life of the Lord. Amongst a perverse generation, it will be impossible for man to rely on his own strength to live in the way prescribed by God. Only God’s Spirit and God’s word can enable man to truly transcend the wilderness in the world.
THE ORACLES OF GOD
This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers, the one who received the living oracles to give to us. (Acts 7:38)
In his testimony, Stephen said that Moses’ work was to convey the oracles of God to [us]—the Jews (Acts 7:38). The Israelites had a very important task in the wilderness, i.e., they were to receive the oracles of God. Paul said that the Jews have the advantage of being entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom 3:1–2). “To entrust” literally means “to put in trust with.” From this we infer that there must have been a rightful recipient for the objects placed in trust. In other words, the Jews had been entrusted with the oracles of God and it was mandatory of them to pass these to the rightful recipients. Therefore, Paul went on to explain:
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith … (Rom 16:25–26)
This mystery refers to the mystery of Christ, i.e., in Christ Jesus and through the gospel, the Gentiles would be fellow heirs of the same body and partakers of His promise (Eph 3:4–6). When the mystery is revealed, which is also the appointed time of God, the oracles that have been entrusted to the Jews shall also instruct people of all nations. They would then be able to receive the gospel and enter the truth of salvation.
The church in the wilderness—the Israelites—was chosen from amongst the nations to become the people of God, a priestly nation, a holy nation (Ex 19:5), enjoying the privilege of receiving the oracles of God (Acts 7:38). God set His tabernacle amongst them to walk in the midst of their camps (Lev 26:11–12)—to abide with them and to talk to them (Ex 25:22, 29:43–44). But the Israelite race is not the ultimate recipient. These oracles were entrusted to them to pave the way for all nations to know God.
Similarly, the biblical true
church is a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own
special people (