Purpose for Writing
My purpose for writing is twofold. First of all, those who wish to follow (or perhaps only profess) Christ need to have a solid understanding of the narrow road (Matthew 7:14) they are on. They need to understand how to finish their race. How do Christians enter the New Covenant rest spoken of in Hebrews 3 and 4? Following the type of Israel’s exodus in scripture and God’s plan for her, how do we as followers of Christ enter our Promised Land?
The second reason I’m writing is because many have shipwrecked their faith (1 Timothy 1:19), but many are not even aware of this fact. Continuing the metaphor, the vast majority of humanity is still in Egypt, of course. They want nothing to do with God. They are content living under the slavery of sin and enjoying the seasonal pleasures it dispenses. However, the frightening reality is that even in the ranks of Israel – the Church of Christ (Romans 9:6) – the vast majority of people are still in the desert (wilderness). When we take a closer look at what God has to say about Israel’s journey to the Promised Land, and how it relates to our journey there as Christians, the current state of many professing Christians is disconcerting. Scripture testifies to this, as we shall read.
God’s Call to Leave Egypt
God’s call to a person today echoes His initial call to the Israelite community in Egypt (Exodus 3:16-17). He calls us to believe in His power to deliver and to follow Him into a new way of living. He calls us to get up and leave the lifestyle of slavery and to come into a new place so we can worship Him. When Israel’s time came to be delivered from slavery in Egypt, one would think they would have been ready. Genesis 15:13-16 says:
And [God] said to Abram, Know for certain that your seed will be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them; and they will afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they will serve, I will judge: and afterward they will come out with great substance. (Genesis 15:13-14)
Even though God surely related this passage of scripture to Moses after Israel left Egypt, it’s still reasonable to assume that the length of Israel’s bondage in Egypt, which God had revealed to Abraham in this passage, would have been passed down orally. After all, they remembered to carry Joseph’s bones with them, as he had commanded. Why should they not also have understood that their time of deliverance was at hand before Moses ever even came on the scene announcing the promised emancipation? Could not and should not this 400-year-old promise from God have been the seed of faith for the Israelites’ expectation of freedom?
Regardless, whether the people were counting until the years of their slavery reached four hundred or not, to their credit, when Moses and Aaron delivered God’s message and His signs, they believed and worshiped (Exodus 4:31). Why did the Israelites believe so easily? The appointed signs were far less convincing at this stage (the staff changing into a snake, the leprous hand, and the river water turning into blood). Maybe they believed simply because they were desperate. Anything would sound better than slavery and brick-making. Or maybe they were aware of God’s promise to Abraham after all. Regardless, when things quickly went downhill with Pharaoh, even the Israelites’ complaining was done properly at this early stage. When Moses and Aaron began declaring God’s will to Pharaoh and the people began to suffer for it, they simply stated facts and asked God to judge; and there was no murmuring or complaining (Exodus 5:21). Through much fear and doubting – which is understandable for people who were multi-generational slaves – in the end, they showed enough faith to believe God, get up, and leave Egypt. In today’s terms, we might say that the Israelites displayed “saving faith.” They put their trust in God and set out to leave the old life behind, just as many do today.
Especially in this early stage, God showed His love, mercy, and compassion on His called people. He understood that their slavery was cruel and limited their ability to believe and obey (Exodus 6:9). Once they had left Egypt, He shielded them from war so they would not lose heart or lose faith (Exodus 13:17). And when they were hemmed in at the bank of the Red Sea and gave vent to their terror and unbelief, God tolerated it as the cries of a baby who has not yet learned to trust its loving parent (Exodus 14:10-12). As much of the Old Testament relates, God’s demonstration of power and deliverance at the Red Sea was supposed to have been an unforgettable event, a landmark foundation upon which their faith could be built and back to which they could always look and remind themselves Who was on their side and to what lengths He would go to meet their needs. One would certainly think that the Red Sea crossing had to be the first true high point of faith for Israel, even after all the miraculous signs in Egypt. The same can be said today of those who receive a revelation of what Jesus has done for them on the cross, accept His sacrifice as their own, repent of their sins, and pass through the narrow gate of salvation.
God’s Call to Enter the Desert
As Jesus was called into the desert to be tested after His baptism, God called Israel into the desert on the other side of the great miracle at the Red Sea. For Christians today, this is a picture of the call to leave the lingering mindsets of the old man and the life of slavery behind, to learn to deny and die to self, and to learn to trust in God and walk by faith, in the Spirit. And as it was for Jesus, the stay in the desert is supposed to be a fairly brief one. For the Christian, how long you stay in the desert is largely up to you; however, the essential part is making sure we do leave there. For Israel, what could have been around ten days became forty years. The reasons for, and circumstances surrounding, this “extension” are important for Christians today, so that we learn from Israel and prevent our own body from being scattered in the desert (I Corinthians 10:5), never to enter the Promised Land.
Unfortunately, it seems that in spite of the amazing power and care God showed toward His people in getting them not only out of Egypt but also beyond an impassable body of water, the people quickly lost faith and expressed their unbelief at Marah, where the water was undrinkable (Exodus 15:23). This time, the people did murmur against Moses and thus against the Lord as well (15:24). At this point, God chose to reveal Himself to the Israelites in a new way. He made the waters drinkable, but then He said:
If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee. (Exodus 15:26)
To sum up, God proved His power and faithfulness; then He said, “Listen to Me” and “Obey Me;” and He said both of these things twice, if you’ll notice in the text. This repetition carries strong emphasis in Hebrew. God expected more now. He had revealed Himself, and He had now given His first warning, saying between the lines that He would destroy them if they chose to disobey. The Israelites were accountable for the new revelation of God they had received. And as if to immediately demonstrate His kindness and provision and to reveal Himself even more, in the very next verse, we see God guiding the Israelites to the peaceful oasis at Elim (Exodus 15:27).
Unfortunately, after leaving Elim, complaining and unbelief reappeared immediately. The people murmured and complained of their cravings for food. They even spoke favorably of Egypt and the food they had supposedly enjoyed there (Exodus 16:2-3). This was a serious departure from faith. It illustrates that the Israelites were being led by their flesh and the appetites thereof and were not walking in trust. Again showing His grace, mercy, and compassion; God forgave their sin, promising manna to feed them (Exodus 16:4). However, once again, God revealed that there was purpose in these trials – He was testing His people again to see if they would listen and obey (16:4). In responding to this need, God proved and revealed His character even further, this time telling Israel in advance of the miracle He would bring about in order to feed them; but He again held them to account, saying:
…and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God. (Exodus 16:12b, emphasis mine)
God was saying to Israel, “Look, I’m not just doing these miracles for fun or for your entertainment. You are supposed to gain something from them. And what is that? Intimate, personal knowledge of Who I am, of My character. Faith – in my care for you. Trust – in my goodness.” God also specifically commanded the Israelites to rest on the Sabbath in an act of obedience and trust. Sadly, many people were unwilling to walk in this revelation, as they violated the Lord’s instructions by trying to store extra manna overnight and by trying to gather manna on the Sabbath. As a result, God asked a question that still rings powerfully today. He hinted at exasperation; He intimated that Israel was failing His testing; and He confronted the fruit of Israel’s main problem: determination to rule self, which was the fruit of unbelief:
And the LORD said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to keep My commandments and My laws? (Exodus 16:28, emphasis mine)
Massah & Meribah – The End Before The End
Immediately after this pointed question, scripture relates that Israel moved on to Rephidim, where there was again no water to drink (Exodus 17:1). By this time, God clearly expected Israel to have grown into some level of faith and trust. Unfortunately, the Israelites utterly failed at Rephidim – better known as Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:2-4). In the same way that the Red Sea crossing is presented in the Old Testament as being a landmark event which demonstrated God’s sovereign power and faithfulness to His called people, Massah and Meribah is pointed to throughout the Bible as a pivotal scene of unbelief and failure. It is heralded as an example and a warning to all would have ears to hear its lesson.
Exodus passes by this event rather quickly, portraying it as simply another episode in the chronic disobedience of the Israelites, as they made their way through the desert. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Massah and Meribah is the end before the end. It is a stark picture of Israel’s refusal to walk by faith and of their decision instead to cling to the flesh and the old man, in rebellion and unbelief toward all that God had done and revealed about Himself.
In Psalm 95
Psalm 95 speaks of this event. In the midst of proclaiming God’s greatness and calling all to worship Him, Massah and Meribah are brought up (Psalm 95:8), and the psalmist sheds some light on the Israelites’ fundamental problem:
…when your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw My work. Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known My ways: (Psalm 95:9-10)
Notice that Israel saw God’s work. Notice also that God states that Israel erred in their hearts and did not know His ways. They were certainly not ignorant of God’s power and ability to provide water – or anything else – for His people. Israel was accountable for this knowledge, and thus, they were supposed to know the Lord and His ways by this point. Yet the psalmist says, they “tempted” and “proved” (tested) God.
It’s worth briefly mentioning at this point that, during His desert temptation, Jesus specifically overcame this very temptation, declaring:
It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4)
It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (Matthew 4:7)
Jesus modeled for His followers the proper path of faith: trust that God will always meet our needs. Any contrary attitude, comment, or action amounts to tempting God and sinning against Him.
So what was the end result of this resurfacing unbelief at Massah and Meribah? As I already noted, the Exodus account would almost lead us to believe that the event was simply another out of many and not overly significant. However, continuing in Psalm 95, we come to an important statement from the Lord:
I swore in My wrath that they should not enter into My rest. (Psalm 95:11)
This is something which we’ve not yet heard in scripture. As Psalm 95 relates, God obviously did say this, though perhaps only to Himself or to the host of heaven; but for whatever reason, it was not recorded in scripture until Psalm 95. Regardless, we need to take notice of it and understand that at this seemingly unremarkable point in Israel’s early wanderings in the desert, God did something extremely serious. He swore something in His wrath. And that something was that this people, His called people, would not enter His rest. Obviously, God didn’t mean every single man, since Joshua and Caleb (and people under a certain age) still entered; but we mustn’t overlook the seriousness of this pronouncement by focusing on technicalities.
It’s a fairly simple matter in this case to follow the mind of God. He revealed Himself in power to His people for a certain period of time. He tolerated sin, unbelief, and disobedience for a certain period of time. He eventually commanded His people to listen and obey. And finally, He swore that they had failed and were disqualified. Game over – except it was certainly no game. This may sound overly harsh, especially to the modern believers in God who have eagerly taken up grace in Christ and left behind all of that nasty “swearing” and “wrath” business; but today, God is the same God He was then – the same God who means what He says and expects His people to respond in faith when He reveals His awesome nature, character, and power. I do not intend to undermine God’s grace, patience, and forgiveness with such a statement but rather to highlight His unchanging nature.
Returning to the history of the exodus, there were numerous other occasions during which the Israelites showed their unbelief, and we can even point to the rejection of the Promised Land as a high point (Numbers 14); however, God has pointed to Massah and Meribah in Psalm 95 as “the rebellion” and as “the day of temptation” (Hebrews 3:8, quoting Psalm 95), and God gives the incident even more attention in the New Testament. However, before we leave the Old behind, let’s look at Psalm 78, which has some important things to say about it as well.
In Psalm 78
Though Massah and Meribah is not specifically named in Psalm 78, it is easy to see where the event falls as the psalmist summarizes the Israelites’ trials in the desert. Verse 15 speaks of God’s answer to the people’s cry at Massah and Meribah, but read further on to see His displeasure with the incident:
And they sinned yet more against Him by provoking the most High in the wilderness. And they tempted God in their heart by asking meat for their lust. Yea, they spake against God; they said, Can God furnish a table in the wilderness? Behold, He smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed; can He give bread also? can He provide flesh for His people? Therefore the LORD heard this, and was wroth: so a fire was kindled against Jacob, and anger also came up against Israel; Because they believed not in God, and trusted not in His salvation: Though He had commanded the clouds from above, and opened the doors of heaven, And had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven. Man did eat angels’ food: He sent them meat to the full. He caused an east wind to blow in the heaven: and by His power He brought in the south wind. He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea: And He let it fall in the midst of their camp, round about their habitations. So they did eat, and were well filled: for He gave them their own desire; They were not estranged from their lust. But while their meat was yet in their mouths, The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel. For all this they sinned still, and believed not for His wondrous works. (Psalms 78:17-32)
Where do you start with this passage? Thankfully, it explains itself well. God gave ample testimony, and the people refused to believe it. However, make special note of the patterns of unbelief and God’s reaction to them. The people didn’t just refuse to believe. They actually accused God of being everything that He is not – a failure, inept, incapable, weak, etc. We haven’t the slightest understanding of God’s awesome power and might. Can you imagine how that kind of unbelief and ingratitude angered Him? We read about the results, and they were just. And amazingly, after all of this, God continued to work miracle after miracle, providing for His people in the face of their rejection, unbelief, and murmuring against Him! Such amazing grace the Lord displayed! Psalm 78 gives us this final insight into the Israelites’ hearts and minds:
Nevertheless they did flatter Him with their mouth, and they lied unto Him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with Him, neither were they steadfast in His covenant. (Psalm 78:36-37, emphasis mine)
Does this description remind you of anything? How about these words from Jesus:
This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me. (Matthew 15:8)
From the mouth of His own Son, God has reminded us that we must understand that the same heart problems that caused Israel to be unable to enter His rest in the days of the exodus are the same heart problems that can cause a Christian today to fail to enter into His rest. The book of Hebrews spends a great deal of time emphasizing this point in chapters 3 and 4.
First, we see a summary statement of the necessity of perseverance:
But Christ [was faithful] as a son over His own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end. (Hebrews 3:6, emphasis mine)
This verse informs us that if we wish to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” we must persevere in our faith all the way to our death. From there, the chapter goes directly into quoting Psalm 95, which we have already discussed, bringing the failure at Massah and Meribah to the center of attention. After quoting the relevant verses, the author delivers a jarring statement of warning, followed by some powerful exhortation:
Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end; (Hebrews 3:12-14)
We are told to beware, to take heed, so that we don’t allow ourselves to have an evil heart of unbelief that departs from God. We are also told that sin’s deceitfulness hardens our heart, causing us to depart from God, exactly as Israel did. Lastly, we are encouraged that we shall truly belong to Christ if we persevere to the very end. My intention is not to simply repeat what the scripture says, but this passage is so important and relevant to our day that I feel it necessary to do so.
From here, the author begins to emphasize the point that we must have ears to hear today. Every person who desires to follow Christ must heed these words of warning from this point through most of chapter 4. First, the author strenuously reminds us exactly who failed in the desert and did not enter their rest in the Promised Land (3:16-18). It was everyone who came out of Egypt (save Joshua, Caleb, and the unaccountable young people), who had been led by Moses. Then verse 19 sums up everything for us, so there is no chance for misunderstanding:
So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief. (Hebrews 3:19, emphasis mine)
It’s unfortunate that there’s a chapter break here, because the author continues straight on, issuing another clear warning:
Therefore, while the promise of entering His rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. (Hebrews 4:1)
Next we’re given a startling comparison to our time, as we read that the gospel was preached to the Israelites. However, the Word did not profit them because they had no faith (4:2). Israel left Egypt – the old man – behind; but their faith failed, and they were unable to enter the Sabbath rest of God, i.e. His salvation. This is of critical importance for us to grasp. We too can begin with Christ, leaving the country of the old man, beginning to walk with Him, even seeing Him work miracles of deliverance and provision on our behalf; and yet even after all of this, scripture is warning that if we do not persevere and believe, we will die in the desert, never entering the Promised Land. We will die displeasing to God (Hebrews 11:6) and separated from Him for eternity (Galatians 5:19-23).
Then the tone switches to hope and exhortation, as we are told to “be diligent to enter that rest” (4:11), so that we don’t meet the same fate as the Israelites because of unbelief and resultant disobedience. In verses 12 and 13, we are briefly shown the answer to unbelief: the Word of God, which divides and judges the heart’s deepest intentions. Further, nothing is hidden from God, who uses His Word to search us, so that we may know what is hidden therein. And of course, as Paul declared in his letter to the Romans, faith does indeed come by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). If we are to overcome unbelief, our course will consist of much sincere, devoted study of, and meditation upon, the Word of God.
In First Corinthians
I want to discuss one more New Testament passage related to this pivotal event in Israel’s history. Though Massah and Meribah are not specifically mentioned in this passage, they are nevertheless inescapably woven into the narrative. Paul is attempting to get the message across to the Corinthian church that how they live matters. Modern readers should take note of Paul’s message that making excuses for (or trying to justify) sinful living, whether in the name of “Christian liberty” or not, is foolish and inconsistent with the gospel of Christ. Paul decides to bring in the relevant example of Israel’s failure in the desert to help illustrate the foolishness of such thinking.
Paul drives home the point (as the author of Hebrews does) that these Israelites were like us (I Corinthians 10:1-4). They believed enough to worship and leave Egypt. They were baptized in the Sea, an image of baptism into Christ and His death. They ate the spiritual food (manna) which was like Christ. They drank from the rock which was also Christ. However, in essence, the Israelites rejected Christ through unbelief (as Hebrews tells us) and through surrendering to the lusts of the flesh, which is what unbelief produces. Paul is careful to tell us that in spite of the fact that these people (just like people today) were partaking of Christ,
with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (I Corinthians 10:5)
Paul then closes this section with some very strong warnings to us. Israel’s failure is supposed to warn us (10:11). They did not perish in Egypt; they went partway with God. Pride and overconfidence probably played a key part in their failure (10:12). Finally, Paul gives one last appeal from his heart, warning the Corinthians to flee from idolatry (10:14), which is obviously anything that removes your focus from Christ.
God’s Call to Take the Promised Land
God called Israel (and calls us) to enter, conquer, and possess the Promised Land. This process is a picture of life in Christ, overcoming the enemy, living and walking by faith under the Lord’s blessing, and (as Christ did) living only to do the will of the Father, which we call obedience. Yet (omitting the unaccountable youth) astonishingly, only two of the original men did this: Joshua and Caleb. Why were they different? What did they have that the million or so others lacked?
The record of Caleb’s words to the Israelite nation, after their covert exploratory mission into Canaan, tells us plenty about what endeared him to God (Numbers 14:8-9). Faith flows from his words, a strong confidence born and nurtured as the Lord had intended, through His revelation of Himself up to that point. However, Caleb’s words also reveal the fear of the rest of the people (14:9), which he obviously did not share. The Lord Himself commended Caleb and his faith, saying:
But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. (Numbers 14:24)
May Christians today take note of what set Caleb apart as a man with whom God was pleased, a man who would enter the Promised Land and possess it. May we also follow the Lord wholeheartedly and have the “different spirit” Caleb had!
The Christian’s Sabbath Rest
The Promised Land represents the Christian’s Sabbath rest, a life of living by and in faith, walking in the Spirit. The old man we used to be is dead, and we are alive in Christ (Galatians 2:20). Like Israel, we are instructed to kill and drive out all the “old” inhabitants of the land (Deuteronomy 9:3). For our understanding, the giants who oppose us there represent sin, fears, doubts, our troubling past, or anything else that is not of the Spirit of God. We are to conquer and vanquish these enemies of our faith and our God. Jude provides us with one last warning of the dire consequences of unbelief:
But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. (Jude 5)
Can the warning be any clearer for those who profess Christianity today, who claim the name of Jesus, who have taken the first steps of faith by leaving the land of their slavery? God is repeating this truth throughout His Word so that we do not miss His point. As with Israel, God will also hold us accountable to the abundantly revealed truth that He is a mighty God who is more than able to meet our needs and deliver us from every trial, affliction, and sin. Please heed the repeated, urgent warnings of scripture and do not be deceived into thinking that anything other than persevering faith will see you safely through the desert into the Promised Land – will see you safely through the gate into the New Jerusalem – will prevent you from reaping the corruption of hell.
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap. For he that sows to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption [destruction]; but he that sows to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. (Galatians 6:7-9)
One Final Warning
In concluding, I would like to revisit one point I have made a couple times during this study, lest its importance be overlooked. Don’t forget that Israel’s pivotal failure in the desert came before it appeared to come in the natural/physical. Remember that God declared that this took place at Massah and Meribah, and not later on (Psalm 95:11). To our eyes, it may appear that Israel’s ultimate failure occurred at the border of Canaan, where the Lord pronounced His judgment on the nation, declaring that they would not enter the land but would in fact die in the desert as they “requested” (Numbers 14:2). However, God was simply pronouncing the judgment that He had already decided earlier at Massah and Meribah. This fact should cause us to readily embrace the admonition to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) and to be extremely wary of trusting our own deceptive hearts (Proverbs 28:26, Jeremiah 17:9).
Frighteningly, many today believe that their unbelieving, murmuring, fleshly, worldly lifestyle is “good enough” to get them into the Promised Land of salvation. However, the Bible shows us that this is not true! Scripture has clearly warned all professing believers that, as James said, faith must be alive and not dead (James 2:17), distinguished by works authored by God’s Spirit and not by the flesh and man’s imaginations (James 1:22, 25). This style of living must continue all the way to our mortal end. God does not expect sinless perfection from us, but as the author of Hebrews said, we are to cast off every hindrance and the sin which so easily entangles, and run our race with perseverance (Hebrews 12:1)! The full testimony of scripture having silenced every mouth, those who are cast into hell (including professing Christians) will be without excuse (Matthew 7:21-23).