When looked at in a very macro way, the spring holy day season pictures the journey of God’s firstfruits from start to finish, Passover to Pentecost.
That sounds simple, but in reality the time from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (at the Passover) all the way until Pentecost (picturing the acceptance of God’s elect before His throne in heaven at the Marriage Supper)…that’s a LONG time.
And in seeing the bigger prophetic pictures and focusing on the end point, we can sometimes forget to look at the more personal applications—separation from sin, being called out of the world to a different life.
Within that timeframe, the Days of Unleavened Bread signify the journey out of the bondage of sin for God’s firstfruits, picturing how we move through this physical life learning to rely on God and undergo the process of conversion. It’s a time of spiritual challenges, doing our best to navigate our lives in a carnal world.
A constant theme in the bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that of wilderness. It is a place, an idea, and a feeling. And what the bible shows us about the wilderness tells us a lot about how we should view our personal spiritual (and physical) journey through life.
How do we see the idea of wilderness in the bible?
The word “wilderness” is used hundreds of times in the bible, particularly in the Old Testament. It’s almost exclusively the word midbar (H4057), which evokes a pasture, an open field where cattle are driven, and can imply a desert.
In our modern world we often equate it with a barren, harsh desert where nothing can survive, but really it just means an uninhabited or uncultivated place, and the origins of the word actually seem to indicate good grassland or choice pasture.
And this is where the other implication of the word midbar comes in, which gives the sense of pushing out or driving (as in driving cattle forward to graze). There is a sense of forward momentum, of being spurred forward…not simply plopping down and staying, but rather moving FROM something TO something else.
And it’s when we start to combine the sense of wilderness as a tangible place, with that idea of momentum and a journey with purpose, that we begin to gain a better understanding of how the wilderness factors into our spiritual and physical lives.
How should we think about the wilderness, spiritually?
As I mentioned above, today most of us probably have a somewhat negative association with the idea of wilderness, and particularly a spiritual wilderness. We might conjure images of physical and emotional desolation, feeling alone through trials, maybe of a barren place that can’t sustain life.
And in focusing only on those aspects, we’d be missing a very important truth—that the way to the Promised Land lies through the wilderness.
As we reflect on the entirety of God’s spring holy day season and how it pictures our physical lives, we should meditate on how it is also our own personal journey into—and through—the wilderness.
For the ancient Israelites, the wilderness was a physical place with a divine purpose. And this remains true for God’s chosen people today, even though we’re not (usually) tramping through a physical desert.
A few key themes we’ll explore below are the wilderness as a place of…
- Separation, being called out and set apart from the world
- Preparation, through testing and trials to make us ready for the future God has planned
- Surrender, learning to rely on God and fully put ourselves in His hands
“Come out from among them and be separate”…called out of the world into the wilderness
The Israelites were required to walk into the actual wilderness, away from the civilization of Egypt and the influence that society had on them. Similarly, our spiritual journey through the wilderness requires us to separate ourselves from this carnal world—to consciously leave behind the norms and pulls of society, and the influence it has on us.
Once the Israelites passed through the Red Sea (a symbolic baptism), they were officially out of Egypt and in the wilderness. But though they were physically free, they still carried the stamp of Egypt on their minds. And their frequent rebellions against God and desire to turn back to Egypt (representing sin and the world) led to an extra 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
Israel’s situation is a good analogy for our journey through the wilderness of this physical life, and we must be careful not to fall prey to the same tendencies. They saw how God had destroyed the Egyptians and brought them out of slavery, and were probably high-fiving each other and thinking how easy it would be from now on. But they were blind to how much of Egypt they were carrying out with them.
When we respond to God’s calling and enter into covenant with Him through baptism (commemorated each year at the Passover), we sever those emotional and spiritual ties to the world. But unfortunately this isn’t just a one-time thing, and then everything’s hunky dory.
Just like with Israel and Egypt, this world is constantly trying to lure us back. The Days of Unleavened Bread picture how we strive to take in Jesus Christ and keep sin out on every single day of our journey through this life. But if we’re not careful, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that simply knowing God’s truth and committing to His way of life is enough.
Because just like Israel, whether we realize it or not we are carrying pieces of this carnal world in our hearts and minds—what John calls the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:15-17).
As we reflect on our journey through the wilderness and toward the eternal Promised Land, we must ask ourselves—where am I letting the world pull me back in?
And notice that’s not “am I?” but “where am I”? Whether through compromise, justification, human reasoning, being too busy, intellectualism, the lures of convenience, conventional wisdom, societal pressure, or outright rebellion, the list is endless and none of us are immune.
This is why God clearly tells us to “come out from among them and be separate” (II Cor. 6:17). Separating ourselves from the world (mentally and spiritually, not physically) is a key requirement of firstfruits.
We should have the same mentality as the faithful described in Hebrews 11 who “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth…and declare plainly that they seek a homeland” (Heb. 11:13). We, too, have to be constantly reminded that this world is not our ultimate destination.
That passage in Hebrews continues on, saying:
“And truly if they had called to mind [remembered, given mental real estate to] that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return [turn back]” (Heb. 11:13-16)
Egypt is always trying to call us back, and we must spend every day of our journey in the wilderness fighting that pull. The apostle Paul gave the Corinthians a sobering reminder of this, using the Israelites as his example:
“[The Israelites] all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses…all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink…but with most of them God was not well pleased…
Now these things became our examples, that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted…therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:1-12)
We also know that we absolutely cannot do this on our own—fighting the pull of the world requires help, from God’s spirit working in us. Paul exhorted the Romans to “not be conformed to [fashioned like, shaped by] this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2).
We are called out of the world and set apart by God to be prepared for something special…which brings us to the next wilderness theme.
“To humble you and test you”…building godly character & preparing for eternal life
So let’s get back to our story of Israel in the wilderness. At the end of the 40 years’ wandering, as Moses reminded them of what they’d been through and where they were going, he told the Israelites:
“And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not” (Deut. 8:2)
The wilderness is a place of testing and trial for God’s people, intended to develop humility and perseverance and teach us to fully rely on Him to provide.
It’s where God reveals more of Himself, developing a deeper and more intimate relationship with us over the years.
Away from civilization, worldly distractions, and the noise of society, it is where God’s “still small voice” can be heard (I Kings 19:12).
It’s where God works with us to build and pressure-test the spiritual character necessary to be in His eternal spiritual family.
In other words, the wilderness is this physical life. We are—all of us—in the wilderness right now.
And while our focus is on reaching the Promised Land of God’s kingdom, we must remember that the experiences we have on the way are critical to us being able to reach the destination itself.
“Now no chastening [training, correction] seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it…therefore strengthen the hands which hang down…and make straight paths for your feet” (Heb. 12:11-13)
We can know with certainty that God does not let us have trials or testing beyond what we can bear, and that He provides the way out or forward (I Cor. 10:13). And this leads us to our final theme…
Related post: Eyes on the Horizon: Tips For Navigating This Life
“As many as are led by the Spirit”…learning to totally rely on God
When Israel left Egypt and entered the wilderness, they had to completely rely on God.
There’s a really important distinction in Deuteronomy 8:2 above that we can’t miss. God led them through the wilderness. Only God knows the path to get to the Promised Land.
Later in the same passage, Moses
“The Lord your God…who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were fiery serpents…who brought water for you out of the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers did not know, that He might humble you and that He might test you, to do you good in the end” (Deut. 8:15-16)
God purposefully put the Israelites in a position where they had no choice but to rely on Him—there was nothing their own skill, strength, or smarts could do to defeat the might of Egypt.
And only He could bring them into the land He had promised them, just as it is only by God’s strength and mercy that we can have our sins forgiven, live a life of overcoming the world, and enter His kingdom (Ex. 13:6, Eph. 2:8).
It’s interesting to note that Pharaoh (as a symbol for society and the world) thought that the Israelites were confused and lost, even though they were being led by God (Ex. 14:3). That’s true for us today as well…society looks at us with bewilderment or even outright hostility when they see us heading away from civilization into the wilderness, following God and not man.
God even chose a specific route out of Egypt to avoid the land of the Philistines—not because He couldn’t protect them, but because He knew the Israelites were weak-hearted and that the prospect of war would make them turn tail back to Egypt in an instant (Ex. 13:17).
God knew the Israelites’ hearts and minds, how they would react to trials. It’s the same for us…God knows us and what we’re capable of, and we’re told that He won’t allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear (I Cor. 10:13).
For the 40 years that the Israelites were forced to wander through the wilderness, God knew exactly where they were and what they needed at all times. He had a path in mind, led them along it, and cared for them physically.
After telling the Israelites that the past 40 years were intended to humble and test them, Moses continued in Deuteronomy 8:
“…So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know…that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3)
God provided for every physical need that the Israelites had on their journey through the wilderness. He was the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, providing protection, shade, and light wherever they went (Neh. 9:5-15). His presence was visibly with them every second of the day.
He gave them manna, symbolizing the “daily” bread of life (the Word in us) we’re told to ask for. He sustained them through the heat of the desert with water, and even their shoes did not wear out (Deut. 2, 8, 9).
And so it is with us. During the Days of Unleavened Bread, each of us partake of some unleavened bread every single day, picturing how we need the Bread of Life within us. We look to the spiritual Rock for the living water of God’s spirit. We’re not out here in this wilderness alone—God sustains us.
It says there in Deut. 8:3 that God “allowed them to hunger”. The word here certainly means physically hunger for food, but also to ache or long for something. Like us, the Israelites longed for comfort, for spiritual food, for something more.
There is such a tenderness in this idea, like when Moses tells the Israelites at one point “…in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son” (Deut. 1:31). Paul calls God the “God of comfort”, and we’re told that the holy spirit acts as a “comforter”.
We should ask ourselves whether we truly ache for something more than this life. Do we have our eyes fixed on the horizon, seeing God’s kingdom “afar off” and seeking after the eternal home He has promised us? Paul tells us that “as many as are led by the spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom 8:14).
Do we allow God to show us the path He has in mind? Or do we keep glancing back toward Egypt? So often we think we have things under control, but we’re actually fighting what God intends for us. The prophet Jeremiah lamented, “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jer 10:23).
Things fall apart when we ignore God’s intended path through the wilderness and try to figure it out ourselves. We somehow think that if we believe the right doctrines and do things in a certain way, that we can get to the final destination on our own.
But we forget that it took God’s supernatural intervention to lead the Israelites out of the world and into the wilderness (Red Sea), AND to bring them out of the wilderness into the Promised Land (Jordan, Jericho).
Similarly, only God can lead us through the wilderness of this life and into His kingdom. He must choose to call each and every one of us, opening our minds and giving us His spirit—supernatural intervention. And it will require Him to resurrect and change His firstfruits from corruptible physical people to incorruptible spirit beings at the last trumpet.
The wilderness is a physical place with a divine purpose
“’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God…
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord…
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed…His reward is with Him”
~ Is. 40:1-10
A journey through the wilderness is a requirement for the elect, the redeemed. For the Israelites it was a physical place, but for God’s people today it is symbolic (though God’s firstfruits will likely also go into a physical wilderness at the end time, Rev. 12:14).
We’ve seen here how this life is a wilderness that we’re journeying through. Sometimes it’s lush pasture and other times harsh desert. Regardless, it’s always a place where God is leading us…where He calls His people out to prepare them for the world to come, reveal to them His truth, and teach them how to rely on Him.
So when we’re having those times when the wilderness feels lonely or the path seems to have faded into the sand, we shouldn’t be looking for an escape route or trying to figure out how to get back to civilization. Rather, we should look at where God is trying to lead us.
He knows the way and He will guide our path.
“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return.
But now they desire a better, that is a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:13-16)
Update: I recently stumbled across this sermon message on Job and the wilderness, and the lens is a little different but I really liked it and it’s a nice complement to this study.