“The Church in the Wilderness” (Acts 7. 38)

An important principle to remember in “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2. 15) is that, in the Old Testament, there is not a single reference to the Church of the New Testament. The Church was still future when referred to by that Church’s Lord in Matt. 16. 18; its genesis coinciding with the beginning of the first local church (the Lord referring to such a church or assembly in Matt. 18. 17-20) in Acts 2.

Thus, when Stephen - so evidently a man “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 6. 5) spoke of the church in the wilderness” he did not therefore imply that the camp of Israel was a Christian assembly, but that it was a true picture of such an assembly, according to the mind of God.

Therefore being guided by the teaching in the five books of the Pentateuch we may learn valuable lessons regarding a local assembly.

GENESIS tells of the dealings of God with individuals; how He chose them, called them, separated them, and prepared them, with a view to bringing them together into that which was to be a camp or church in the wilderness. Thus do the individual members of each local assembly remember the wondrous doings of God, in seeking them, calling them, bearing with them and forbearing, but bringing them at last to that condition of heart wherein they would be glad to accept all His counsels concerning them.

EXODUS illustrates for us how individuals are brought together, having been called out of some different state or condition. First there was the experience of life made bitter with hard bondage” (Ex. 1. 14) under the cruel oppression of the ruler of Egypt. There was the agonized cry coming up unto God, causing Him to look upon them in compassion and mercy and to have respect unto them.

And surely this is all the gospel to every poor, perishing, burdened sinner! God has in love and mercy already looked upon such and has had respect unto them, sending His only-begotten Son to bear that crushing .burden of sin, in His own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2. 24) of the curse. For there was to be no deliverance without the shedding of blood, and each individual with a view to deliverance must gladly appropriate the benefits of God’s way of salvation and glory “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6. 14) alone. Thus must each individual of the local assembly know his or her redemption “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1. 19).

Exodus further tells us of the baptism unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10. 2). In order to become a camp or a church in the wilderness each individual, delivered through the testimony of the blood, must be brought under a “ruler” (Acts 7. 35); their baptism in the cloud and in the sea bringing them irrevocably under the leadership of Moses. Thus also, in that one baptism of the Spirit, each individual is “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12. 13), of which Christ is the Head. Glad testimony in the waters of baptism, being the outward declaration of the intention to put oneself irrevocably under the leadership of the Christ “like unto” (Acts 7. 37) Moses.

How good to see the Tabernacle, so carefully constructed, that God might dwell among His people! And each local assembly may also know itself “the temple of God” (1 Cor. 3. 16), “the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (2 Cor. 6. 16). An immense privilege, with attendant and equivalent responsibilities!

In LEVITICUS is recounted the way in which the “church in the wilderness” was to draw near unto God in worship. In this connection we may note the detailed instructions given and that these instructions came wholly from God, for no other book of the Old Testament is so full of the very words of God. Neither Moses nor Aaron nor anyone else was at liberty to ‘evolve’ any forms of ‘worship’ which might seem right unto themselves. All was laid down very particularly and precisely by God Himself.

Similarly the instructions for behaviour “in the house of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3. 15) are most detailed and precise, coming from the mouth of God Himself and relayed to us by holy men of God speaking “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” Yet on every hand one hears that such matters are not amongst the ‘fundamentals’ they are ‘open to interpretation’ and ‘optional.’ It would seem that something of the sort was in the minds of Nadab and Abihu when they “offered strange fire before the Lord” (Lev. 10. 1), “strange” because wholly “the fruit of their thoughts, because they hearkened not unto My words, nor to My law, but rejected it” (Jer. 6. 19).

True, we are not now under Law, but under Grace, but we have, nevertheless, a Ruler, a Lord and Master, who has left us commandments (Matt. 28. 20) which we shall gladly keep if we truly love Him (Jn. 14. 15). “He that saith, ‘I know Him,’ and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in Him” (1 Jn. 2. 4).

Further, the camp before “mount Sinai” was most “fitly joined together and compacted” (Eph. 4. 16). This is the message of NUMBERS. There was to be no haphazard arrangement according to individual fancies. Rather was each individual expected to realize responsibility towards the other and towards God. Tents were to be pitched, and the allotted place taken in the order of march, in strict relation to the whole company. Rebellion against this godly order and ‘togetherness’ was most solemnly judged.

Similarly again, the local assembly is nothing unless it displays in this wilderness scene a unity which is the greatest proof to the ever-watching unbelievers, that Christ was indeed sent of God (see Jn. 17. 21,23). The assembly at Philippi was exhorted to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1. 27). And it is agreed that this is only possible as “this mind is in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2. 5), “with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love” (Eph. 4. 2). The Lord therefore wishes (and His honour and dignity is in it) that every member of the local assembly should bear some burden in relation to the whole company; not just existing together but “striving together” in the gospel, in the prayer meetings, in the ministry of the Word, around the Lord’s Table and in “bearing one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6. 2). Wisdom and tact will surely be forthcoming if all are individually submissive to the only Head and Ruler of the assembly.

The message of DEUTERONOMY is obedience. The “church” in the wilderness was repeatedly charged to “take heed” (Deut. 4. 9, 15, 23), to remember the necessity “to keep all My commandments always” (Deut. 5. 29) and this with a view to entrance into the land of promise and fulness. And this is the way in which we may show true love to “the children of God, when we love God, and keep His commandments” (1 Jn. 5. 2). Not the false ‘charity’ and ‘common-sense’ which often opposes the “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28. 20) and handed down to us as “the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2. 42). Nothing was to be added and nothing diminished from what was commanded these people (Deut. 4. 2; 12. 32). Nor must anything be added or taken away from God’s revelation to His people gathered together as a redeemed church (Rev. 22. 18, 19). Ours must not be a mere negative protest against evil doctrine and ways. There must be positive devotion towards the Word of God, and the Person of Christ, as found in the “church in Philadelphia” (Rev. 3. 7, 8), for which the Lord of the churches had no condemnation but only commendation. The local assembly of the present day, amidst truly wilderness conditions may have only “a little strength,” there may be only the two or three gathered together in the Name of their Lord, but at least let Him find faithfulness to His Word and to Himself!

For each local assembly is truly “a church in the wilderness.” To the Israelite the desert around was never less than a “waste howling wilderness” (Deut. 32. 10), threatening death to any who wandered therein. “The door of their tents” would face inwards, attracted to the Tabernacle and the visible sign of the presence of their God with them. Within the camp there was total sufficiency for their every need; their clothes did not wax old upon them, nor did their shoes wax old upon their feet (Deut. 29. 5). They “did all eat the same spiritual food; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10. 3, 4).

It is only thus as the attraction is inwards towards the One who promised to be in the midst of His people “gathered together” (Matt. 18. 20) in His Name, that spiritual sufficiency is found. It was the church in the wilderness” that received “lively (or living) oracles” (Acts 7. 38). How can it be that envious eyes should be turned outwards? The “church in the wilderness,” the assembly of the two or three gathered together in the Name of their risen Lord alone, acknowledging Him as Head and submissive to the living oracles received direct from Himself through His chosen apostles, finds its spiritual sufficiency. The individual whose eyes are turned in other directions is not likely to contribute much to the fellowship and testimony of the assembly.

Let us hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end (Heb. 3. 14)!


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