Wilderness is where God places His people in order to prepare them for mission.
It is the mission of those belonging to the House of Israel to become Kings and Priests so that the Kingdom of God is manifested on the earth.
This concept that wilderness is a place where one is prepared for mission is illustrated by the geography of the land of Israel, giving us a yearly reminder of our destiny.
What is the wilderness?
In our modern day we think of wilderness as lush, green, and often rugged terrain which is well watered by rivers and streams. It is often to these wilderness areas that we go to find recreation – hiking, whitewater rafting, abseiling… it is all just fun!
However, the wilderness of the Bible is something quite different.
Jerusalem is situated high in the hills just to the west of the Judean Wilderness, it receives a fair amount of rain annually which allows for farming in the terraced gardens that can be found on the western slope. However, when one travels eastwards from Jerusalem, descending into the Rift Valley and into the land known as the Judean Wilderness you find yourself in the rain shadow, and the landscape is completely different. The greenness of the area around Jerusalem is replaced with a seemingly barren wasteland, dotted here and there with some spindly looking shrubs… this is the Wilderness of the Bible.
How the wilderness illustrates our purpose
Whilst for most of the year the Wilderness is dry and seemingly barren, it is completely transformed by the spring rains. The 5 inches of rain that falls on this thirsty land results in the dusty ground being covered in a cloak of beautiful purple flowers.
Now there are some interesting points about this annual phenomena.
- Rain represents the Word of God, or His Spirit.
- 5 is a number which represents grace, and
- Purple is the colour of royalty.
When we bring these points together we can see how the wilderness illustrates our mission as Israelites. In the wilderness we receive His Word and Spirit, by grace, for the express purpose of being transformed into His Kings and Priests.
Wilderness prepares for mission
In both the Old and New Testaments we see many examples of people who were sent into the Wilderness in order to prepare them for their God given mission.
It was here, in the Wilderness, that they received the Word of God and this transformed them, just as the rain falling from heaven. Let us look at a few examples:
- After His baptism, Jesus spent 40 days in the Wilderness, after which He proclaimed that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It was after this time in the Wilderness that Jesus commenced His ministry boldly proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand.
- Paul, after his conversion, did not go up to the apostles in Jerusalem, but rather spent time in the wilderness of Arabia… one wonders if he went to Mount Sinai in Arabia, to meditate on the Living Word? He then returned to Jerusalem and spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus.
- David sought refuge in the wilderness prior to ascending to the throne of Israel. In his 63rd Psalm David reveals that it was in the wilderness that he sought the power and glory of God.
- The nation of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness before entering into and possessing the Promised Land… the wilderness was a time in which the people were humbled into realising that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD”.
The lesson of the wilderness
The Biblical Wilderness is really not a very pleasant place to be in. Anyone in their right mind would avoid living in, or even being in, this inhospitable environment… and yet, it was to this place that God sent many of the Biblical heroes of the faith. So what was it that they had to learn there and how did it prepare them for mission?
The Biblical Wilderness is the home of the shepherds and their flocks. Even in our modern day it is common to see Bedouin tending to their sheep and goats in this area. To survive in this harsh landscape requires an intimate relationship between the Shepherd and his flock.
The Wilderness is a place where we, as sheep, learn to hear the voice of our Shepherd and to trust in it fully. It is where we learn to follow Him by faith. It is the Shepherd who guides and protects his flock with his rod, he knows where the safe watering places are and where to find nourishing food.
If left without a Shepherd in this barren land, the sheep would be dead in no time… so when we read in the Bible of people being sent into the wilderness this is what they needed to learn… to listen to and explicitly trust in the voice of the Shepherd.
Learning to trust in the LORD fully is quite difficult to do. As humans, we like to feel in control of our lives, yet in the inhospitable wilderness we soon start to realise that it is only by listening to and following the Shepherd that we are able to live.
The modern day wilderness
So what is the wilderness in our day? Are we all to travel to a desert place and live like Lawrence of Arabia? Whilst that could possibly be a great adventure I think we can see wilderness illustrated in other ways as well.
One of these is the society in which we live. As our society continues to move away from God we see it being transformed into a barren wasteland. Yet it is through this condition of chaos that God leads people back to Himself. It is in this chaos, this wilderness, that we will come to a point where we look to the world we have created and realise it is just impossible, how can we go on living when all around us is falling into the shadows? As we then turn to our Shepherd King, by His grace, we will soak up His life giving Spirit. Being transformed we can then go out boldly proclaiming His name – transforming our society into that which it is destined to be… a blessing to all the nations of the world.
You see, we will not stay in the wilderness forever… the purpose of the wilderness experience is to humble and transform us so that we can, by His grace, go forth and fulfil our mission, just as the biblical examples we looked at did so many years ago.
Let this be an encouragement for us as we each encounter our own wilderness. God will put you in some impossible and inhospitable places, but take courage knowing that the Shepherd is near. Listen for His voice and trust in Him as He leads you into Life. As you learn to trust in Him fully, and experience His faithfulness towards you, He will bring you to that point of transformation… and you will then boldly proclaim His Kingdom.