The summer after graduating high school, I headed out with a friend to cruise the Okefenokee Swamp of Southeast Georgia. We had a map that outlined all the places we should expect to find alligators. We also had a very small amount of water to keep us hydrated in the agonizing heat and humidity.
When we rented our boat, which sat frightfully low on the murky brown, alligator-infested water, we were given strict warnings to stay the course: “Stay with the other boats; don’t wander down the trails.”
We soon became discontent tagging along with the other boats that drifted slowly down the swamp. In typical less-than-wise fashion, we disregarded our instructions and turned down the inlets, past a “Do not enter” sign and into a large lily pad field. It was beautiful. We were free.
The excitement was mounting – until the motor stalled. As we steered the boat through the narrow waterway, seeking to avoid the huge lily pad fields on either side of us, we tangled up the motor. Deep in the swamp, we were hopelessly stuck. No one could see or hear us, we couldn’t turn around, and the heat was unbearable. I remember thinking, “What if this is it? What if we die here? We should have stayed with the other boats.” It was a midsummer day’s nightmare.
One day of being stranded in the swamp helps me better understand something of the importance God’s warnings to Israel in the wilderness so they would not wander.
Israel’s wilderness experience forms much of the background of the book of Hebrews. The writer drew a parallel between the experience of the first generation of Israel in the wilderness and the New Covenant church (Ps. 95; Heb. 3:1-4:16). The New Covenant people belong to the same “house” (Heb. 3:1-6), have the same “Gospel” (4:2), the same “promises” (11:13-16) and the same “warnings” as the first generation of Israel (3:1-7).
Israel’s physical experience was typical of the spiritual experience of the New Covenant church. Though not passing through a physical wilderness, we pass through the wilderness of the world. We, too, are heading to a promised land (11:16).
Israel was delivered from the bondage of Egypt and brought to Sinai to be a worshipping community. The New Covenant church has been delivered from the bondage of sin and Satan and brought to Mount Zion (12:18-24).
When we come together in public worship, we join with all the saints on Earth and in heaven. The gathered assembly is a primary means by which Christ’s people advance in their pilgrimage because it is the primary place where the word of God is ministered.
At Sinai, Israel received the word of God. With the elders of Israel, Moses was entrusted with ministering the oracles of God to the assembly. The elders of the New Covenant church have been entrusted with the ministry of God’s word (13:7; 17).
If we neglect the assembly, we neglect the elders. If we neglect the elders, we neglect God’s word. If we neglect God’s word, we will “fall in the wilderness” (3:17).
If we neglect the assembly, we also fail to obey the command to exhort one another while it is called “today.” (Heb. 10:23-24).
This is one of the greatest privileges and responsibilities we have as believers. One of the surest ways to press on in our spiritual pilgrimage is to stay with the assembly. One of the surest ways to forfeit the promised rest (Heb. 4) is to wander from the assembly. If we do, we will wander into the wilderness to die the spiritual death of unbelief.
So, let us encourage one another as we see the day drawing near.