Dec 08

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 my 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 know 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 an 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 a 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. To the contrary, the spoiling of material goods along with society’s rejection that leads to a life out 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.

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2 Responses to “God’s People in the Wilderness”

  1. Uncle Dennis says:

    Regarding Wilkinson’s Truth Triumphant: The Church in the Wilderness, you write:

    “… careful observation would show to be a strictly non-biblical usage.”

    On the contrary, the wilderness metaphor is taken directly from Revelation, where the woman, symbolizing a church, is driven into the wilderness by the dragon (Satan). Wilkinson defines what he means by this wilderness church: it is the church of apostolic descent that does not recognize the authority of the Papacy. This church can indeed be seen historically to have been driven into the wilderness by the Papacy and threatened early by Rome’s 150 year war with the Christian and Druidic Britons.

    “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”.”

    Wilkinson, a Seventh-Day Adventist, correctly points out that the wilderness church, tracing back to the practice of Jesus himself, was to keep the Fourth Commandment. Nowadays, any scripture not to a church’s liking can be dispensed with by regarding it as obsolete and not applicable to God’s people of today. While the Sabbath issue pushes the hot-buttons of SDAs more than most other Christians (who essentially ignore or redefine the Fourth Commandment to their own satisfaction), the Fourth Commandment continues to be defended though not kept along with the other nine commandments by these “good Christians” in the public sphere. I am wondering when some brave and consistent Christian of this stripe will recognize that the Fourth has been dropped and start speaking instead of the Nine Commandments.

  2. Uncle Dennis says:

    A few additional comments –

    “While Christ often referred to the church as the “Kingdom of God”, ”
    “Subsequent chapters note the covenant that binds Israel (the church) in the wilderness, …”

    I know of nowhere in the Bible where Christ refers to the Kingdom of God as the church or the church as the Kingdom of God. The true church is a part of that Kingdom, but is not itself the Kingdom. All who are voluntarily subject to the rule of Christ are of the Kingdom. Today, we might consider that to be all true Christians. However, the OT Israelites were not Christians as such. While OT Israel was the church (assembly of God’s people) encamped, the NT church is not necessarily Israelite (as Weiland tends to think).

    Robertson seems to be trying to relate his study to the church of today in pointing out the current church’s preoccupation with narcissism and nihilism, and its loss of memory of what it means to be a people on the fringe of “civilization” – that is, the world-system. The holidays (holy days) God has given his people, starting with the nation of Israel, like the festival of RVs (wilderness camping festival) to remind them of their separation (holiness) from the world, are essentially forgotten, relegated to “the Jews” as though they are the rightful inheritors of God’s holidays. In their place, the Babylonian holidays are accepted as having some kind of Christian legitimacy: Easter (Ishtar) and Christmas in particular.

    The next step for Robertson is to consider that these festivals are given by God, not man, to his people and that maybe we ought to celebrate them instead of adorning the sacred trees on Saturnalia. A people who are distinct from the world and do not observe the world’s holidays would be a sign that the church is becoming holy and has moved back into its wilderness position.

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