The summer after graduating high school, I headed out with a friend to cruise the Okefenokee Swamp of Southeast Georgia. We had a map outlining all the places we should expect to find alligators and 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 waters), 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 the exhortation to stay the course with the other boats, turned down one of the inlets, and passed a “Do Not Enter” sign 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. We were hopelessly stuck deep in the swamp.
There we sat, drinking our water and wondering what would happen to us. No one could see or hear us, we couldn’t turn around, and the heat was unbearable. I remember thinking: “What if we die here? We should have stayed with the other boats.” It was a midsummer day’s nightmare.
I have often imagined that one of the greatest dangers an Israelite faced was that of being drawn away from the gathered assembly and left to die in the scorching desert heat. One day of being stranded in the swamp now helps me better understand the warnings God gave Israel in the wilderness. This wilderness experience forms much of the background of the book of Hebrews. Early in the book, the writer draws a parallel between the experience of the first generation of Israel in the wilderness and the new covenant church (3:1–4:16). The experience of the first generation of Israel is a paradigm for every subsequent generation of the covenant people (Ps. 95; Heb. 3:7–11). The writer observes that new covenant people belong to the same “house” (Heb. 3:1–6) and have the same “gospel” (4:2), the same “promises” (11:13–16), and the same “warnings” as the first generation of Israel in the wilderness (3:1–7). All the promises and warnings given to old covenant Israel come — with equal force — to us today (3:7–11). Israel’s physical experience was typical of the spiritual experience of the new covenant church. Though not passing through a physical wilderness, we nevertheless 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 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 God’s Word is ministered. At Sinai, Israel received the Word of God. The Word was to be the sole guide for their wilderness journey. With the elders of Israel, Moses was entrusted with ministering the oracles of God to the assembly. In the same way, 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 the Word of God. If we neglect God’s Word, we will “fall in the wilderness” (3:17).
The elders are not, however, the only ones called to care for the assembly. All members of the church are given the command to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:23–24). These verses explain that the fifty-five “one-another passages” in the New Testament are to be carried out in the gathered assembly. Gathering to worship the Savior (12:18–24), we exhort one another to hold fast to Him (3:6; 4:14; 6:19; 10:23). The mutual exhortation of the saints keeps us on the safe path. There is a danger in neglecting this all-important grace. The writer alludes to this when he adds the sobering phrase, “as is the habit of some” (10:25).
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 (chap. 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 keep on “encouraging one another . . . as we see the Day drawing near.”