In elementary school, one of my teachers gave our class a mnemonic device to help us remember that “desert” is spelled with one “s” and “dessert” is spelled with two. She said, “Two people would rather eat “dessert” than live in a “desert.” Lost as her attempt may have been on some, in this case her method worked for me. To this day, anytime I have to write the words “desert” or “dessert” I replay that device in my mind. While I certainly did not have a full-orbed understanding of the symbolism of the desert (i.e. the wilderness) as a child, over the years I have come to value the wilderness theme in Scripture as being one of the most important devices God gives us to help us better understand the blessings of the New Covenant. Consider the biblical-theological way in which the Holy Spirit develops the wilderness symbolism in Scripture:
When Adam sinned, he lost communion with God and was exiled from the Garden-Paradise in which he was placed into the spiritually barren wasteland of the wilderness of this fallen world. Thorns and thistles came up and permeated the place out of which man had come and from which the blessings of God had been manifested. The storyline of Scripture is essentially that God would turn the wilderness of this world back into a Garden-Paradise through the saving work of the Last Adam, Jesus Christ.
There is an intimation of this reversal from wilderness to paradise seen in Israel’s typological progress from the wilderness to Canaan–a Garden-like land flowing with milk and honey. The wilderness denoted everything painful and trying, with all of the misery of this fallen world. Whether it was the Israelites’ being bitten by poisonous serpents or thirsting from lack of water, these served as reminders of the sin and misery that Adam brought into the world. The Israelites’ wilderness wandering also proved to be a painful reminder of the sinfulness of the human heart. While there was a shortage of water in the wilderness, there was no shortage of sin. Just about every kind of sin manifested itself in the 40 years that the Old Covenant Church spent wandering through the barrenness of the wilderness of Sinai and Paran (Num. 10:12).
Israel’s wandering in the wilderness serves as a typological picture of the New Covenant church’s wandering through the wilderness of this world on the way to the Heavenly Canaan. Hebrews 3-4 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 make the experience of Israel in the wilderness analogous to the New Covenant church’s experience in the world.
When we turn to the OT prophets, we find the blessings of the New Covenant foreshadowed by the figure of the wilderness turned into a Garden. For instance, Isaiah, made the following hopeful prophetic utterances about the blessings of the Gospel under the figure of God making the wilderness a place of fruitfulness and bounty:
[When] the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, And the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, And the fruitful field is counted as a forest (Isaiah 32:15).
For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert (Isaiah 35:6).
I will open rivers in desolate heights, And fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, And the dry land springs of water (Isaiah 41:18).
The Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, And her desert like the garden of the Lord; Joy and gladness will be found in it, Thanksgiving and the voice of melody (Isaiah 51:3).
Isaiah’s prophetic utterances are tied to his prophetic prediction about forerunner of Christ in a marvelous biblical-theological manner. In Isaiah 40:3, Isaiah predicted that, one day, God’s people would hear “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert.'” It is no arbitrary thing that Christ’s forerunner was said to have come out of the wilderness. John’s ministry began in the wilderness of Judea. In this way, the locale of his ministry was a symbolic marker of what God was about to do with the spiritual barrenness of His people. There could be no more fitting place from which Christ’s forerunner could come and proclaim the redemptive praises of God. There may be an allusion to the curse of the law being taken away in the description of what John ate in the wilderness (consider the development of Ex. 10:1-19; Deut. 28:38; 42 and Joel 1:4 to Joel 2:25 and Matthew 3:4).
When Christ began his ministry, he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus was recapitulating Israel’s time in the wilderness, doing what the typological son of God failed to do (Ex. 4:22). As He battled against the devil, Christ took up words from Deuteronomy–the words that God had given Israel in the wilderness. By His active obedience (i.e. law-keeping) and passive obedience (i.e. atoning death), Christ bound the Satan and merited the blessings that were promised to Israel in the wilderness if they would obey. When he hung on the cross, our Lord wore a crown of thorns (Matt. 27:29)–the symbol of the sin of man (Gen. 3:18) and the spiritually cursed wilderness (Judges 8:7; 16; Isaiah 5:6; 7:24-25; 32:13; 34:13; ) of this fallen world.
In order to turn the wilderness of this sin-laden and sin-cursed world into a Garden-Paradise, the Son of God had to be made a curse for us. He had to be sent into the no-man’s land of God the Father’s wrath. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “suffered outside the camp.” This is an evident allusion to the scapegoat that God appointed for the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:5-10). It was not enough that one goat be offered as a sin offering; the other goat had to be sent into the wilderness (Lev. 16:10). In this way, God was foreshadowing the removal of sin and the curse from His presence when His Son would be offered up on the cross. Jesus atoned for our sin on the cross, but he also satisfied the wrath of God by being sent into the wilderness of God’s wrath.
Whenever we think of this world, we ought to remember the wilderness producing sin of our first parents, of the Old Covenant people, of our own lives and of those around us. We should, in turn, think of barrenness and emptiness of the spiritual wilderness of this world. Then we must turn our minds to the One who, by His saving power and grace, has already begun to turn the wilderness of the lives of His people (i.e. His church) into a fruitful field, a pool of water and into the Garden of the Lord. When we fix our eyes on Christ crucified, we see how the wilderness of this world is already being restored to a Garden-Paradise and will one day gloriously manifest itself fully in the New Heavens and the New Earth wherein righteousness dwells–the Garden paradise of the Heavenly Jerusalem (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 12:4 and Rev. 2:7).