Any mention of the wilderness generation almost immediately calls to mind the people's grumbling and lack of trust in the Lord. Indeed, as the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness" (1 Cor. 10:5). Delivered out of Egypt, but not yet brought into the Promised Land, Israel's life in the wilderness was not only about a place, but a time—a time characterized by transition and testing, a time demanding trust and perseverance.
Now when we realize that the New Testament rather consistently portrays the life of the church in this present age as being "in the wilderness," then the stark reality of a wilderness littered with the corpses of God's (albeit apostate) people becomes profoundly sobering. What went wrong that so many thousands of Israelites who had been delivered out of Egyptian bondage nevertheless failed to enter into the land flowing with milk and honey? That this question is relevant to us as the people of God in the new covenant is inescapable—the apostles, far from dismissing or diminishing the threat of a failure to persevere, press the possibility with urgency. In fact, Paul, just quoted, was warning the Corinthian church against presumption upon God's grace by explaining that the Israelites of old, much like them, had also been baptized and had also eaten spiritual bread, yet they still wound up strewn across the wilderness in judgment—and these "became our examples" (1 Cor. 10:1-6; see also Heb. 2:1-3; 4:11; 10:29). So, once more, what went wrong? How can we, by the grace of God, be diligent to persevere through this wilderness age?
Part of the answer, I believe, is found in Paul's amazing remark about the rock from which the Israelites were supplied water in the wilderness: "that Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4). In other words, all of God's provisions for the Israelites in the wilderness were mediated by Christ—tokens of Christ Himself. This means that any failure to progress into the Promised Land was due to the neglect of God's provision for the wilderness, namely, Christ. Thus understood, how tragic their grumbling sounds now: "our soul loathes this worthless bread" (Num. 21:5 NKJV; see John 6)—no wonder, then, Paul goes on to address the Lord's Supper so methodically in the chapters that follow.
The point for us is to regard God's "means of grace" as precious and vital. The preaching of the Word, baptism, the Lord's Supper, godly fellowship, these are "ordinary" means, to be sure, often despised and displaced in the life of the church—but make no mistake, they are utterly irreplaceable: these are the means God has provided for us to progress; these are the means by which God gives us more and more of Christ. And through Christ we will most certainly persevere into the Promised Land.
Dr. Michael L. Morales is chair of biblical studies at Reformation Bible College.