While I was the first guy in my family to graduate college, the other men in my family are still smarter than I am in most subjects. And they like to remind me of it! From trivia games to skills in building million dollar homes, the men in my family have reminded me that there are some things that I could not learn in the university. But as Christians, there is a school that we all attend. God trains us, disciplines us, and sanctifies us in “Wilderness University.” Spurgeon called the wilderness “the Oxford and Cambridge for God’s students” (“Marah”).
It was sacred (16:31-36). God told Moses to save a bit of the manna (v. 34). Eventually it was placed in the ark, along with the “testimony,” which refers to the two tablets with the Ten Commandments (Heb 9:4). The ark had not been built yet (Exod 25:10-22; 37:1-9). It served as a way of reminding the people about God’s mighty salvation and His provision. Throughout the exodus, they were told to do several things to “remember.” God did not want His people to forget His blessings. He cared for them with manna throughout the exodus until they entered the promised land. We read in Joshua,
It was sanctifying (Deut 8:3). In Deuteronomy, Moses reflected on the manna, and he said that the miracle bread was not intended to just sustain them physically. It was also intended to teach them a deeply spiritual lesson:
God was not just filling their bellies, He was trying to shepherd their hearts. He said that this experience was intended to humble them and teach them to depend on God’s word. God was disciplining them, shaping them. We need God’s word every day just as the Israelites needed manna every day. The God who was worthy to be trusted for bread is the God who is worth listening to everyday. He sanctifies us through His word (John 17:17).
As the Israelites moved on, this time in “Rephidim,” they had no water. Instead of trusting God and seeking God, once again they do something100 else. They “complained to Moses” (v. 2). They demanded water and “grumbled against Moses” (v. 3).
At the end of this event, we read how they were also asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (v. 7). This is awful. Therefore, they named the place “Massah and Meribah,” which means testing and arguing (see Ps 95). Instead of trusting God, they were testing God. Let us learn from their example and not imitate them. What were they doing? Notice three failures.
They demanded God’s provision (17:2a). They demanded water to drink. We do this when we make demands on God at home or in the church, insisting that He work on our terms. There are times we must wait on the Lord patiently.
They questioned God’s protection (17:3). They asked why God brought them out of Egypt. Was it to watch them die? We do this when we accuse God of trying to harm us in our trial. We should remember that He has brought us through a greater exodus; He is worthy of total trust.
They doubted God’s presence (17:7). They doubted if God was with them as He had promised. We do this when we think God has abandoned us in our wilderness. Yet God always remains faithful.
None of these accusations were true. Israel’s great problem was that they refused to remember who God is and what He had done (see Pss 95:9; 106:13). One obvious remedy to our own discontent and unbelief is to remember what God has done for us in Christ.
Then see what God did (Exod 17:4-6). After Moses prayed, God provided water from the rock. God appeared at Horeb where He first met with Moses in the burning bush. Notice the scene described in Psalm 105:41: “He opened a rock, and water gushed out; it flowed like a stream in the desert.” The text does not say how God appeared specifically, but God appeared and the people were saved through the miraculous provision of water when Moses struck the rock with his staff. This miracle demonstrated that God did not bring them out to the wilderness to kill them and that He was indeed with them.
Later, Moses was told to speak to a rock, but he instead struck it twice. God was so angry that Moses was prohibited from entering the promised land because of this failure (Num 20:10-12).
We can see three connections between Christ’s wilderness experience and the Israelites’ wilderness experience.
We desperately needed Jesus because no one could pass the test. We get a picture of Jesus succeeding where Israel failed in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. After Jesus went through the waters of Jordan, He was tested for 40 days in the wilderness, corresponding to Israel’s 40 years of testing in the wilderness. His first temptation or test concerned bread. The tempter said, “If You are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Matt 4:3). What did Jesus quote? He quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” He went on to quote Deuteronomy 6:16 and 6:13 (Matt 4:7, 10). Thus Jesus identified with Israel’s wilderness experience, but instead of failing, He did not yield to temptation but triumphed obediently and victoriously.
Often what we think Jesus was doing in the wilderness for 40 days was showing us why we should do Bible memorization. Bible memorization is valuable, but more was happening there. The authors are showing us that there is a truer and better Israel who passed the test in the wilderness triumphantly. And He went on to pass every test, fulfilling God’s law perfectly. Unlike Israel and us, Jesus did not yield to temptation and He did not grumble in His obedience. He lived the life we could not live.
After Jesus did the miracle of bread in John 6, everyone wanted to follow Him. But Jesus knew their hearts. He said, “Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal of approval on Him” (v. 27).
The people did not fully understand, and they said, “What sign then are You going to do so we may see and believe You?” (v. 30). Then they brought up manna: “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (v. 31). Jesus had actually already given them a sign. He had fed the multitude. He was the true and better Moses. But what was most important to Jesus was spiritual life. So He turned the discussion:
Jesus said He could do more than supply bread. We need Him more than bread. He was saying, “I am the bread of life, and without Me you cannot live forever.”
Notice what they did in verses 41-42. They did exactly as the Israelites: they grumbled.
They wanted salvation on their own terms. God has given us salvation in Christ, the bread of life, and people still grumble at the thought of a crucified Savior or at the idea that there’s only one way. They should instead fall on their knees and say, “Yes, I will take Christ and live forever.” Jesus went on to say that some would come to Him (v. 37). He said that those who came would come by faith and they would “eat His flesh,” meaning they would receive Him by faith.
Notice how He said that they ate and they died, but if you take Christ, you never die!
Obviously, Jesus was not speaking about literally eating Him. He was speaking about believing in Him (notice the repetition of “believe”). Believe in Him and find satisfaction for your soul, and live forever. The religious leaders were looking for a list of things to do to have this bread. They had their pad and paper. Jesus said you simply need to believe.
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul said that the rock was Christ. I take this to mean that the rock was a type or foreshadowing of Christ. Moses struck the rock instead of the striking the people, and water flowed to save people. Jesus, the rock, was struck for our salvation. Instead of striking us, God struck the Son.
Moses is told not to strike the rock again. The second time he is told to speak to the rock. Like this rock, Jesus was struck only one time! After that, He is to be spoken to. Like the rock, when He was struck water flowed from His side (John 19:34). He died the death we deserved to die. Now, by believing in Jesus, we drink from the water of life for eternal life (John 7:37-38). So Jesus gave us the water we desperately needed, and that water could only come through striking. One time. You do not strike the rock after that. Think back to what Isaiah said:
He was wounded, struck, pierced, crushed for our iniquity. He refrained from opening His mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter. He submitted to God’s will. He did not grumble. He took our judgment that we may know God’s salvation. Praise the Rock!
How should we respond to the wilderness story? First, trust in God’s providence for your daily needs. Israel’s wilderness experience shows us that God is with His people and God provides for His people. Will you trust Him, or grumble and worry? Second, trust in God’s Son for your deepest needs. Trust in the One who lived the life you could not live. He passed the test we could not pass. Trust in the One who is the bread you cannot live without. Receive Him and live. Trust in the One who was struck for your salvation. Drink and live.