“Unbelief is exposed in the desert.”- Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics at Westminister Theological Seminary
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.- Hebrews 3:16-19
In a recent lecture, Scott Oliphint of Westminster Theological Seminary recounted this passage in Hebrews. The section is a warning to the Hebrew believers not to relive the horrible past events of their own history. After being led from the slavery of Egypt into the wilderness, God’s people developed rapid amnesia. They forgot the faithfulness of their God. They forgot the might of His arm and the dominion of His kingdom. They grew tired and restless, and their faith diminished. Unbelief crept again into their hearts, discouraging them and causing them to stumble. The unbelief of the ancient Hebrews actually prevented them from entering the promised land. The author of Hebrews calls his people not to lose hope and die in unbelief, but to “hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope,” (Hebrews 3:6).
We suffer in similar ways to the Hebrews in that the human theme of unbelief is the darker theme of the New Testament believer. In our functioning faith, the faith we exercise on a daily, moment-by-moment basis, we fluctuate between the poles of uncompromising belief and hopeless unbelief. It is true that within believers is the new man, alive and thriving by the Spirit, believing with joyful hope in the promises of Jesus. But it is also true that the battle for belief still wages in the dark crevices of our being. It is this battle for belief that causes us, in the face of the hot sun of persecution and the dryness of our own sin, to question the very existence of God. Sometimes we look around in life and see no sign of life, no sign of greenery. We wonder why our love for Christ doesn’t prompt us to speak boldly for Him. We are discouraged at our lack of holiness and sometimes conclude that it must mean that there is no God, that, in fact, we have been fooled by a hopeless mirage. Sometimes the habitual sins we have made bosom friends tempt us to believe that God isn’t working in our hearts, that He really isn’t faithful or worth living for. Any sign of desert usually causes us weak people to abandon hope. The harsh dryness of the desert often reveals the harsh dryness of our beings.
But there is another desert story.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.- Matthew 4:1
At the beginning of His earthly ministry, Jesus, as the representative of His people, as the New Adam, walked into the wilderness for the explicit purpose of facing human unbelief head on. The first, real task for Jesus was to battle it out with the enemy that had haunted humanity’s footsteps since Genesis 3. For forty days and forty nights the Son of God suffered as humanity suffers. He was hungry, thirsty, tired, and weak. And at the end, unbelief came for Him. In the moment of greatest possible despair, the Tempter approached Jesus with multiple offers to distrust in the plan and purposes of the Father. And in His weakness and frailty, Jesus did what the first Adam failed to do. He believed. He believed completely and victoriously for three rounds. Adam and Eve failed in just one round. Jesus succeeded in not just one round, but three. What is going on here?! What cosmic implications are there for this victory in the wilderness?
Jesus bore His people through their failures by His belief. Jesus, however, not only carried His people through the wilderness in His belief; He secured for them something greater than what was lost in the Garden. What existed pre-fall for Adam in the Garden was possibility, possibility of life and possibility of death. What exists now for the people of God in Jesus is not possibility, but certainty. Believers possess certain victory in the victory of Jesus. The New Adam was tempted for the sake of His people, so that through His belief and firmness of faith His people might find firmness of faith and belief in Him even in the midst of their unbelief. Our certainty in life and hope in Him do not come from our ability to persevere, although the implications of the letter to the Hebrews certainly remind us of the importance of our perseverance and confidence. Ultimately though, the author of Hebrews is pointing us back to the victory and strength of Jesus. Because Jesus believed, we will persevere. Because Jesus succeeded, we will succeed.
So when all around us seems dry, when no life can be discerned and our thirst for water seems unquenchable, let us remember our Savior. He suffered in the desert and passed through. He was tempted and believed. Even in the face of our unbelief and frailty, in the fear of falling away, let us, by the Spirit, look once more to His victory, knowing that His victory secured for us safe passage through the pain, scorching heat, bitter darkness, and temptation of the desert to the land of abundance and life. We will suffer. We will experience unbelief. We will be tempted, and we will fail, but Jesus has passed through the greatest darkness to prepare the road for us. It is certain because He has made it certain. Our unbelief is put to death and transformed into glorious belief when we grasp anew by faith the wonder, beauty, and victory of our Savior. His Person and work stir us up to take one more step.
If this passage causes us to dwell on anything, it should be this: unbelief is exposed in the desert, but it is also conquered there.