God’s People in the Wilderness

God’s People in the Wilderness; The Church in Hebrews, by O. Palmer Robertson ★★★★★
This is a rather short book, 149 pages, and easy to read in several evenings. Robertson writes in an efficient style without wasted verbiage, yet is not challenging to read. He writes in an academic style and manifests the art of exegesis of Scriptures at its best. In sum, he is a joy to read. This is the second book that I’ve read by him, and you should be seeing a number of further reviews of this author, as he merits our full attention. Robertson now teaches in Africa at Malawi Bible College but lives as one of the veritable giants among living theologians today. Robertson is best known for his book “Christ of the Covenants”, showing that the Covenants throughout Scripture are indeed one, though progressively contributing to or fulfilling prior “versions” of the covenant.
The introduction to this text provides the theme. While Christ often referred to the church as the “Kingdom of God”, and Paul referred similarly to the church as the “body of Christ”, these metaphors for the church are never used within Hebrews. Rather, the author of Hebrews develops the likeness of the church as Israel during the time of the Exodus, living in the wilderness. The first chapter develops the thesis of the living church today as being the church in the wilderness. Subsequent chapters note the covenant that binds Israel (the church) in the wilderness, the unity of people within the wilderness sojourn, and the tensions encountered in the wilderness such as the temptation to rebel or the failure to heed the instructions of the law, the worship of the church in the wilderness, and the ultimate goal of eternal rest of God’s people in the wilderness. Indeed, throughout the book of Hebrews, the theme of the church, like Israel, living in the wilderness is used, and the cautions, admonitions, and exhortations for the church remain the same as God gave the Israelites in the wilderness until their goal of rest for God’s people is found. That rest is symbolized by the arrival in the promised land but represents our final rest in Christ after death. Until then, the tensions and struggles of the wilderness will remain.
Perhaps the best summary of the book might be given by a brief quote from the book. “If the church of today could grasp the eschatological nature of its present pilgrimage, it could be saved from many current disillusionments. Bodily health and material wealth, an abundance of creaturely comforts, should not be the promise held out to believers today. Escape from troubles and troublous times should not be the church’s expectation. On the contrary, the spoiling of material goods along with society’s rejection that leads to a life out of the camp should be openly presented as the norm for the disciples of Jesus. At the same time, a simplified philosophy of pie in the sky bye and bye cannot properly represent the Christian’s perspective on the present life. Instead, currently living out life within the inner chamber of God’s Most Holy Place, constantly communing intimately with the three persons of the one true triune God, fellowshipping in daily life and worship with the loving brotherhood, while all the time anticipating the final rest, perfection and realization of consummate hope – these are only a few of the elements that describe the eschatological lifestyle of believers in Jesus as the Christ. As the church of today discovers its true identity as God’s People in the Wilderness, she may find the fullness of life that only the Christ of God can give”.
As an aside, there is a book titled “Truth Triumphant-the Church in the Wilderness” where the church in the wilderness metaphor is used in what a careful observation would show to be a strictly non-biblical usage. In this text by B. Wilkinson, the argument goes that the wilderness church remains a small remnant of the church that has separated from the mainline church to remain Saturday-Sabbath observers and maintain the purity of the “true church”. A reading of Robertson’s text, or a simple reading of Hebrews, would demonstrate the error of using the wilderness church metaphor in the fashion of Wilkinson.