A Friday Reflection: Wilderness

Oh that wilderness, desert place. A place of such history and ambivalence. The wilderness is “vast and dreadful… a thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions”(Deut 8:15). It is a “barren and howling waste” (Deut 32:10), an uninhabitable place, a dangerous place, a place of death. The Israelites said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?”

The Israelites were expecting to die in the wilderness, but it was into the wilderness that God delivered them from the bondage of Egyptian slavery. The Israelites met their God in the wilderness, and God showed his power and compassion by providing food, water, clothing and healing. The Israelites received God’s greatest gifts–his statutes, commandments and holy sabbaths. God promised to be with them in the wilderness and to bring them into “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In the wilderness, God wooed the Israelites into a loving covenant relationship, and later through the prophet Jeremiah, God recalls this time in the wilderness by saying, “I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jer 2:2).

However, it was in the wilderness that the Israelites lost their vision and grumbled, protested and rebelled against God. Due to the Israelite’s unfaithfulness, the wilderness became a place of wandering, testing, judgement and punishment. This wilderness experience was not terminal because God remained faithful and did not allow his divine anger to erase his love for his people.

God allowed the Israelites to continue into the land, but the wilderness wandering became a prophetic reminder throughout history of the potential judgement of God upon the Israelites if they were disobedient and unrepentant. God speaking through the prophet Jeremiah says,

Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord. That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes. They will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives (Jer 17:5-6).

Through the prophet Hosea, God explains that Israel must repent, lest he “turn her into a wilderness, and make her like a dry land” (Hos 2:3).

But God juxtaposes these wilderness statements with eschatological pronouncements that with the future outpouring of the Spirit, the wilderness will become a fruitful field (Is 32:15) and Zion’s wilderness will be made like Eden (Isa 51:3).

The Psalmist sums up God’s sovereignty and actions regarding the wilderness,  

He turned rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, and fruitful land into a salt waste, because of the wickedness of those who lived there. He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs; there he brought the hungry to live, and they founded a city where they could settle (Ps 107:33-36).

The wilderness is an important place used by God for his purposes, but the people of God must heed the words of Psalm 95:8,9

Today, if only you would hear his voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did.

But there is more wilderness juxtaposition that should be considered.

Throughout biblical history, the wilderness was viewed as a place marked by uncleanness, defilement and evil. People were relegated to “outside the camp” if they were determined ceremonial unclean (Lev 13:46; Num 5:1-4) or if they had blasphemed (Lev 24:14). The wilderness was the “cut off” place where the scapegoat was sent after the sins of the people were transferred to it on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:10, 21-22). Moreover, it was believed that Satan and evil spirits were in the wilderness. Jesus is confronted and tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1-13). In Luke 8:29, the Gerasene demoniac was driven into the desert by a demon. In Matthew 12:43-45 and its parallel in Luke 11:24-26, the unclean spirit who had been cast out “passes through arid places.”

In contrast, the wilderness was also viewed as a place of refuge, a place to get away to meet with God and a place where kingdom work took place. David escaped to a stronghold in the wilderness during his flight from Saul (1 Sam 23:14; 26:2-3). Jeremiah wished he had a wilderness hut to get a respite from the sinful people (Jer 9:2). Jesus often withdrew into the wilderness in order to pray (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). Jesus fed the multitudes in the wilderness (Mt 14:21; 15:32-39). The wilderness was a place of revelation and proclamation of the good news. As prophesied by Isaiah (Isa 40:3), John the Baptist lived in the wilderness (Luke 1:80) where the word of God came to him (Luke 3:2), and he preached and baptized (Mark 1:3-5). Philip’s missionary outreach to the Ethiopian takes place in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza (Acts 8).

Today, we also may experience the wilderness in these ways by seeking God in solitude, silence and prayer. We can choose to get away with God, and we can experience his rest and refuge. God may lead us into the wilderness for his kingdom ministry. We may find ourselves in the wilderness not by our own choice but because God has led us there. Take Elijah for example, God led him to the wilderness for a season where he was fed by ravens before he continued on in ministry (1 Kgs 17). The Apostle Paul spent a season in the desert being taught by the Holy Spirit before starting his ministry (Gal 1:16-17). Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness before his ministry.  

These examples teach us about depending on God and not giving up while in the difficult places. God cares for us and is watching over us. As we cry out, “O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water” (Ps 63:1), God is preparing us for future things that are greater than we could imagine. He is leading us to things that we could not fathom doing if it were not for being formed in the wilderness.

As we have seen, there is a lot to this wilderness place, but no matter why we are in the wilderness, God loves us and is faithful to us. He has a perfect, sovereign plan that he is accomplishing, and we can trust him and look to him.

Law of Christ

The phrase “law of Christ” is a notoriously troublesome genitive qualifier and is difficult to interpret considering it only appears twice in Paul’s writings (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21). In this post,  I will only focus on the phrase used in Galatians 6:2.

“Law of Christ” used in Galatians 6:2 occurs within a larger section where Paul is discussing life in the Spirit and love (Gal 5:13-6:10). He writes that Christians are to “walk in the Spirit” (Gal 5:18), “be led by the Spirit” (Gal 5:18), exhibit “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23), “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25), “keep in step with the Spirit” and “sow to the Spirit’ (Gal 6:8).  Throughout the section, Paul delineates between what is not loving (Gal 5:15, 19-21, 26) and what is loving (Gal 5:22-23, 6:1-2, 6-10).

The key link for this discussion on the “law of Christ” is between Galatians 5:13-14 and 6:2. These verses have shared terminology which includes ‘fulfillment,” “law” and “one another.”[1] In Galatians 5:13-14, Paul explains that believers through love should serve one another, and then he cites Leviticus 19:18 which explains that the whole law is fulfilled in the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Law. This is what Paul has in mind when he writes in Galatians 6:2 “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” For Paul, the “law of Christ” is another way of describing the law of love which is enunciated in Galatians 5:13-14. The law of Christ is the law of love. With this view, the “law of Christ” includes the moral norms of the Old Testament Law, focusing particularly on the command to love one’s neighbor. Love is at the center of the law of Christ, and Paul argues, throughout the section, that it can only be fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit.    


[1]Gal 5:14  πεπλήρωται, peplērōtai, “fulfilled”  5:14 νόμος, nomos, “law” 5:13 ἀλλήλοις, allēlois “one another” Gal 6:2 ἀναπληρώσετε, anaplērōsete, “will fulfill;” ἀλλήλων, allēlōn, “one another’s;” νόμον, nomon, “law” 

The Old Testament Law for Christians

God said to the Israelites, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God (Exod 6:7). Then God gave the Law which set apart Israel from the nations as God’s special people. Obedience to the Law was to be the distinguishing mark of the people of God and it was to be what sustained them in their relationship with God. However, this was a temporary covenant with a new covenant on the horizon which was prophesied by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The new covenant to come was to be written on the heart and could be kept by those who walk in the power of the Spirit.

The Law pointed to the coming of Christ and with his coming, the Law is fulfilled. After Christ’s coming, the Law is no longer the distinguishing mark of the people of God. Rather, the people of God are distinguished by their faith in Jesus and by their participation in the Spirit within the new humanity where there is no distinguishing between Jew and Gentile. Thus, the specifics of the Law that separated Israel from the nations are no longer binding for the believer in Christ. There is a discontinuity of the Law, but there is continuity of the principles, values and morality that governed them. In this sense, the Law is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). The NT believer is not obliged to carry out all the demands of the Law, but there are many lessons that can be drawn for Christian living from the Law.

New Testament Eschatology: Part 7 of 7 Johannine Writings

Johannine Epistles

The Johannine Epistles reference the presence of the last days by repeatedly mentioning the presence of the antichrist. 1 John 2:18 states, “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.” Also, 1 John 2:28 mentions Christ’s future second coming which may happen at any moment, and so Christians should persevere until his coming so that at Christ’s coming they may be confident that they “shall be like him, for [they] shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Revelation

The book of Revelation opens by explaining that Christ through his resurrection has taken the position of “ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5) and has in his possession the “keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). Christ is the eschatological messianic king, and he has established his messianic kingdom. Christ is the “firstborn from among the dead,” (1:5) and so his resurrection has inaugurated the fulfillment of the resurrection of the saints who will rule with him in his kingdom. Revelation expects the imminent return of Christ where he will judge the ungodly (6:12-17) and reward and bless his people (11:18). Christ will establish his kingdom in its final, complete, and eternal form (11:15-17).

New Testament Eschatology: Part 6 of 7 General Epistles

Hebrews

In the first few verses of the book of Hebrews, the writer explains that God “in these last days” (Gr. ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων) has spoken to us by his son whom he appointed heir of all things” (Heb 1:2). This refers to the eschatological messianic kingship that started its fulfillment in the first advent of God-the Son, Jesus. Moreover, the writer of Hebrews exhorts the Jewish Christians to preserve “until the end” (Gr. μέχρι τέλους) (3:14), where they will receive full salvation (9:28) and the promised reward (10:35) and inheritance (6:11-12). The author of Hebrews explains that the Israelites failed at entering the “rest” of the promised land after its wilderness sojourn, but the Jewish Christians “are exhorted to preserve in their earthly sojourn so that they will enter the “rest” of the antitypical “heavenly country”…. Only then will the intended Sabbath rest of the new creation be enjoyed.”[1] Lastly, the book of Hebrews mentions the coming judgment of unbelievers and apostates at the end of the age (6:2, 9:27); therefore, the writer explains that the readers should not be lax and should take all the exhortations seriously because “the Day is approaching” (Gr. ἐγγίζουσαν τὴν ἡμέραν) (10:25).[2]

James, 1-2 Peter, Jude

The epistle of James rebukes its readers for living ungodly lives and neglecting to do acts of righteousness “in the last days” (Gr. ἐν ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις) (5:3). Also, James encourages Christians to “be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near” (5:8).

1 Peter explains that Christ’s first coming and his resurrection took place “in these last times” (Gr. ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν χρόνων) (1:20-21), and Christians participate in Christ’s resurrection, and so they have a living hope of future resurrection (1:3).

2 Peter and Jude address false teachers that have infiltrated the Christian community, and these false teachers are identified as those whom Jesus foretold would come “in the last days” (Gr. ἐπ’ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν) (2 Pet 3:3 cf. Jude 18). Thus, Peter and Jude explain that the expected latter-day tribulation of apostate teaching has begun.[3] Final judgement is mentioned in 2 Peter 2:3,9 and Jude 6, 14-15, and Peter states that at the time of this judgement, “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (2 Pet 3:10).[4]


[1] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 144. [2] Beale, A New Testament, 145. [3] Beale, A New Testament, 146 [4] Beale, A New Testament, 146.

New Testament Eschatology: Part 5 of 7 Pauline Epistles

The Apostle Paul clearly states, in 1 Corinthians 10:11, that “the ends of the ages have come” (Gr. τὰ τέλη τῶν αἰώνων κατήντηκεν). Also, he refers to Jesus’ incarnation as taking place “when the fullness of time had come” (Gr. ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου) in fulfillment of Jewish messianic prophecies (Gal 4:4). In Ephesians 1:7-10, Paul uses the phrase “the fullness of time” (Gr. τοῦ πληρώματος τῶν καιρῶν) referring to when believers were redeemed and forgiven through Jesus’ death and resurrection.[1]

Paul alludes to the latter-day new creation prophesied by Isaiah when he writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17 cf. Isa 43; 65-66). The letters of 1-2 Timothy depict a present “understanding of a latter-day tribulation characterized by false teaching and unbelief”[2] which is described in Daniel 7-12 and in other early Jewish literature.[3]

Furthermore, Paul gives instructions concerning the future fulfillment of the latter days. In 1 Corinthians 1:7-8, he writes, “as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 15:24 states, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.”[4] With this perspective, Paul addresses practical questions regarding the end and the future second coming Jesus when he writes to the church at Thessalonica (ex. questions about the dead in Christ in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11 ) and the church at Corinth (ex. questions about marriage if the end is imminent in 1 Cor 7).


[1] Beale, A New Testament, 140-141. [2] Beale, A New Testament, 141. [3] Beale, A New Testament, 141. [4] Beale, A New Testament, 141.

New Testament Eschatology: Part 4 of 7 Acts

According to Acts, Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated his messianic reign, and his giving of the Holy Spirit inaugurated his rule through the Christian church (Acts 1:8; 2:1-43). The events at Pentecost (Acts 2) were understood by Peter as a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy concerning the last days where God’s Spirit would ascend upon all of God’s people (Joel 2:28 cf. Acts 2:15-17).[1] G.K. Beale writes,

The reason why the coming of the Spirit is perceived in such a highlighted eschatological manner is that one of its purposes was to demonstrate the exalted, heavenly messianic kingship of Jesus, as a result of the resurrection from the dead. This was natural because the spirit was linked with the future hope of resurrection life in the OT and in Judaism.[2]

Moreover, Acts portrays a future expectation and fulfillment of the “latter days.” Acts 1:6-7 depicts Jesus’ disciples asking “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6), and Jesus responded, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (v.7). Acts 3:21 refers to Jesus’ ascension and return by stating, “Heaven must receive him [Jesus] until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Lastly, the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:30-31 and 26:6-7 refers to a future day of judgement at the end of history and to “a hope of the promise of a final resurrection for the nation of Israel.”[3]


[1] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 136-137. [2] Beale, A New Testament, 137. [3] Beale, A New Testament, 138.