Promises, Promises: Leaving the Wilderness

  • The Covenant did not simply change from Old to New over the weekend.
  • The New Covenant was inaugurated at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but would not be fully effective until the consummation of the Old Covenant, namely, at the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem.
  • Therefore, there was a transitional period during which both covenants coincided. During this time, Christians had a guarantee, a down payment, but would have to remain faithful and patient until all of the promises were delivered.
  • The apostles wrote their letters during the transitional time.


If these points are true, then

  • We would expect that the Christians of the time would have been eagerly awaiting the consummation of the Old Covenant and the fullness of the New Covenant.
  • The promises and hopes that the apostles were encouraging the Christians with would have pertained to the arrival of the New Covenant.
  • It would justify the clear sense of imminence portrayed by terms like ‘soon’, ‘at hand’, ‘these last days’ and ‘about to…’. It would also explain the consistent use of the first and second person, such as “as you see the day drawing near”, “He will confirm you till the end”, and “we who are alive and remain”.
  • It would make Jesus’ promise of same-generation occurrence of the end fulfilled, rather than to be explained away.

If these points are not true, then

  • The New Covenant was already complete at the time of the writing of the letters.
  • The Christians of the time had received all they would receive until they ‘died and went to heaven’ or until thousands of years later at the end of the world.
  • The Christians of the time should not have been looking for anything in their future, and needed no exhortation to remain patient. At best they could hope for escape from physical persecution (which would not come in their lifetime) or salvation by death.
  • ‘Soon’ , ‘at hand’, and ‘this generation’ meant ‘some time in the future’, and ‘not in your lifetime’.
  • ‘You’ and ‘we’ meant ‘Someone else’.

We believe the Scriptures are free from inconsistencies and translational problems if and only if it was the completion of the New Covenant that was being promised, and that the Christians from Christ’s death to AD70 were living in a period of transition between covenants.

Wandering in the wilderness

They had salvation, but before reaching the promised land of the New Covenant, they had first to go through ‘trials’ and ‘tribulations’ in a spiritual wilderness. They had received a down payment, a Helper, but were yet ‘groaning’ for full redemption.

This would not be the first time when ‘salvation’ was not the end of the salvation story.

Noah and family were saved from the destruction of the ‘old earth’, and brought to rest in what was for all intents and purposes a new creation. In the intervening time, they were, literally, all at sea.

Moses led his people from the slavery of Egypt, across the Red Sea and out of harm’s way. However they were to wander the wilderness for forty years before coming to their rest. Significantly, they had all the elements of the ‘new’ covenant: the Law, protection, providence, and the tabernacle. What they did not have was their home and their temple.

In the same way, although the disciples of Christ had salvation through the cross, they were left in a transition phase of spiritual wandering for, as it turned out, nearly forty years. They had all the elements of the new covenant: the Law of the Spirit, protection, providence, and the down payment of the Holy Spirit within their hearts. What they did not have was the completed redemption and salvation that was promised.

The use of the wilderness image to describe the times in which the pre-AD70 Christians lived is apt. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 10:

1 Corinthians 10:1-11 – For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; (2) and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; (3) and all ate the same spiritual food; (4) and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.

However, whereas most of them had sinned against God and perished in the wilderness, Paul exhorts the Christians to remain pure. Verse 11: Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

[Sorry – I must have dozed off. Let’s have that again. Who wrote Paul’s letter to the Corinthians? To whom did he write it? For whose instruction did “these things” happen? Upon whom have the ends of the ages come?]

The writer to the Hebrews also uses the allegory, comparing Moses with Jesus, and exhorting the Christians with words from Psalm 95:

Hebrews 3:7-19 – Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “Today if you hear His voice, (8) do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, (9) where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years. (10) Therefore I was angry with this generation… (11) as I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.'”… (14) For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end…

They were on trial. Entering His rest was conditional on their remaining firm until the end. The end of what? 1 Corinthians 10:11 – and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.

The Cross was not the end?

Although Jesus stated that His shed blood was the blood of the new covenant (Matthew 26:28, 1 Corinthians 11:25), shed blood, or the offering of the sacrifice, was no guarantee of acceptance by God. Otherwise, Cain’s sacrifice would have been accepted, however, “but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard.” (Genesis 4:5)

The Cross was the sacrifice, and that sacrifice was all-sufficient as a sacrifice for atonement (Hebrews 10:10). But remember, the sacrifice itself was not sufficient for atonement. When the priest offered a sacrifice, the people could not just get up and walk away. The blood of the sacrifice had to be presented to God (Hebrews 9ff). Moreover, the sacrifice had to be accepted by God, then the act of atonement would be complete. So yes, the sacrifice of the cross was sufficient, but only sufficient as a sacrifice.

When Jesus died, the veil of the temple, separating the holy place from the Holy of Holies, was torn in two. This signified the beginning of unveiled access to God Himself. Nevertheless, although Jesus entered the heavenly reality of that place, to offer His sacrifice to God, people were still denied access even well after the ascension:

Hebrews 9:8 – The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer (or first) tabernacle is still standing, (9) which is a symbol for the present time.

The first tabernacle, or outer tabernacle, had to be removed or torn down first before access would be given. The present time had to be destroyed.

Here now, but not yet

If something is hoped for in the future, then it is not for the present.

If it is for the present, then it is not hoped for in the future.

However, if something has been promised for the future, and a down payment has been made for it, then it is true to say that it is here now, and yet to be hoped for. The down payment is an assurance, a guarantee, but the fulfillment is yet eagerly awaited.

2 Corinthians 5:5 – Now He who prepared us for this very purpose (immortality) is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge (=down payment).

Ephesians 1:13-14 – … you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (14) who is given as a pledge (=down payment) of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.

The following are among those things which were promised to the disciples, spoken of as if they were present, and yet still eagerly awaited and hoped for in the future:

  • Salvation and redemption

Do we have salvation? Are we redeemed? Galatians 3:13 and Colossians 1:14 tell us plainly that Paul thought so.

Luke 2:30 – “For my eyes have seen Your salvation.”

Acts 4:12 – And there is salvation in no one else.

2 Corinthians 6:2 – … for He says, “At the acceptable time I listened to you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.” Behold, now is “the acceptable time”, behold, now is “the day of salvation.” (Paul is demonstrating that God was helping them and listening to them then, as it was now the time!)

Galatians 3:13 – Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.

Colossians 1:14 – (His beloved Son,) in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

However, look at the following. They were waiting for these things.

Hebrews 1:14 – … for the sake of those who will inherit salvation?

Hebrews 9:28 – so Christ … will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him. (1 Corinthians 1:7; Titus 2:13 – they were eagerly awaiting Him!)

Luke 21:27-28 – “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (28) But when these things begin to take place … your redemption is drawing near.

Romans 8:23 – …but also we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. (That is, “this body of death”, or the body that serves “the law of sin” – Romans 7:23-35ff. But look at 8:1-2, “… For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”)

Romans 13:11 – for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed.

Ephesians 4:30 – Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

1Peter 1:5-9 – (you,) who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (8) … and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him… (9) obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.

  • The righteousness of God

Do we now possess God’s righteousness? Righteousness is perfect innocence before God. According to Romans 3:21-26, faith in Jesus Christ gives righteousness, “for all who believe.”

Righteousness, is something that belongs to the new covenant. Without righteousness, our sins remain with us. But in the new covenant, God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” – Jeremiah 31:31-34. This is not just when we ‘die and go to heaven’, but it part and parcel of the new covenant. If we belong to the new covenant, then we are judged righteous.

Now look at Philippians 3:8-14. Paul is looking forward to gaining Christ, in order to receive His righteousness.

Philippians 3:8-14 – …in order that I may gain Christ, (9) and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith… (12) Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that… (13) Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet… (14) I press on toward the goal…

[Now before you jump on me and say that it was the resurrection that he had not yet obtained, I believe that verse 11 (in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead) is in relation to the result of obtaining God’s righteousness, and is not the subject of verse 12. Why? Because in verse 12 he talks about obtaining ‘it’. Even though the KJV uses the same word ‘attain’ as in verse 11 (attain to the resurrection…), the word is more correctly ‘obtain’. The Greek word in verse 12 is lambano, which means to take hold of, in other words to ‘obtain’.

In verse 9, Paul talks about ‘having’ righteousness. The Greek for ‘having’ means to hold or possess. On the other hand, the word ‘attain’ in verse 11, used in reference to the resurrection, is katantao, which means to arrive at, or reach.

So, the resurrection is something Paul wants to reach or arrive at, while righteousness is something he wants to lay hold of, or obtain.

Verse 12 says that he has not already obtained it, therefore he must be referring to his righteousness. This righteousness, then would make him perfect. “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on…” In fact, some manuscripts actually say, “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already been justified.]

Paul had not yet achieved righteousness, and yet righteousness was the gift “for all who believe”. Jeremiah 33 describes the new covenant this way:

Jeremiah 33:16 – In those days Judah shall be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she shall be called: the Lord is our righteousness. (Verses 19-21 show that it is the new covenant that Jeremiah is describing)

Christians now have the full righteousness of God. Paul in his day did not fully have it, but was hoping for it, striving for it.

Romans 11:26-27 – .. and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob (i.e. perfect His people)”. “This is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” (Is this covenant in place now, or in the future?)

Galatians 5:5 – For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. (Are we waiting for the hope of righteousness, or do we have it now? They were waiting for it.)

2 Timothy 4:8 – In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Hebrews 12:11 – All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

  • The resurrection and immortality

This is an important point, and a study unto itself. It has been dealt with in our study “Another look at the resurrection”. In it, we point to Scriptures which show that we have, as New Covenant holders, attained immortality at the point of our conversion (For the ‘Calvinist’, this means since the foundation of the world!). Although we today have immortality, this is something that is subsequent to the resurrection, and something the writers of the epistles were looking forward to.

Titus 1:2 – in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, (3) but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior.

  • Adoption as sons of God

Are we God’s children now, in the full sense of being heirs with Christ? According to Paul, yes… and no.

Galatians 4:4-6 – But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His son… (5) that we might receive the adoption as sons. (6) Because you are sons…

Romans 8:14-24 – For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. (15) For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (16) The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, (17) and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. (18) For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (19) For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. (20) For the creation was subjected to futility… in hope (21) that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God… (23) …but also we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. (24) For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? (25) But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

  • Transformation to the likeness of Christ and His glory

Many Christians conclude that there must be two types of Christ’s glory, but the Bible only speaks of one. It was a hope for the early Christians, and yet as reality. For us today, it is something that has been given to us.

John 17:22 – “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them…”

Romans 8:29 – For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.

2 Corinthians 5:17 – Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away, behold, new things have come.

2 Corinthians 3:6-18 – … who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit … (16) but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away… (18) But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (Not: “are going to be transformed”, but: “are being transformed”)

Philippians 3:20-21 – For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ; (21) who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.

Ephesians 4:17-24 – So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk… (22) that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay asid the old self… (23) and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, (24) and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

2 Peter 1:4 – For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.

1 John 3:2 – Beloved, now we are children of God, and has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.

  • Built up as God’s house

God’s house is the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). Christians in the New Covenant are the new temple of God, with God dwelling within. Are we that now, or are we still being built? As individuals, we are each of us temples:

John 14:23 – “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.”

1 Corinthians 6:19 – Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…

However, as a collection of bodily parts, the church (universal) is also clearly represented as the temple:

1 Corinthians 3:16 – Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (The context shows that ‘you’ = ‘brethren’ in verse 1. That is, ‘you’ collectively are a temple, not temples. Verse 9: For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.)

However, it is also clear that the temple of Christians was still in the process of being built, that this was also something they were looking forward to.

Ephesians 2:19-22 – So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, (20) having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, (21) in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, (22) in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

Hebrews 3:6 – but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house – whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.

  • Access to God in His Holy (Holiest) Place

Hebrews 10:19 – Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus… (23) Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful… (25) all the more as you se the day drawing near.

Hebrews 9:8 – The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer (or first) tabernacle is still standing, (9) which is a symbol for the present time.

Hebrews 10:23 – Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. (What hope? Our drawing near to God – Hebrews 7:19) From Hebrews 3 and 4, this is the equivalent of entering God’s rest.

Hebrews 4:11 – Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest.

What does it mean?

If they were looking forward to something, waiting eagerly for it, then they did not yet possess it in its fullness. And yet, there was always a sense in which they already owned it. They had the down payment. It was not that the New Covenant had not yet begun: It had, but it was not in full effect, until the Old Covenant was utterly destroyed. They were free of it’s burden of slavery, but until the first tabernacle was removed, the way into the Holy Place and complete access to God was not disclosed.

The Christians of the time were in a unique position: They were living not just between covenants, but in the end times of the Old Covenant which coincided with the beginning of the New.

Co-existing covenants?

Paul compared the old and new covenants with Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31). The children of the first covenant are represented by Ishmael, while the children of the new covenant are represented by Isaac, the first being in bondage and the second being free. For years, they existed in Abraham’s household together, but “he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now.” (v29)

Now read verse 30: “But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.'”

So, the two covenants were to exist together, in tension, until the first was cast out.

What were the pre-AD70 Christians waiting for? For the children of the covenant under bondage to be cast out, so that they could become full heirs!

Hebrews 8:13 – When He said, “A new covenant,” He made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready (near) to disappear.

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