I suppose if I were asked to summarise today’s passage, I’d say it’s about living in the in-between time. Living in the in-between time. And I’ll explain in a minute what I mean by the in-between time. But while someone might look at this passage and the way the Israelites got on, and might conclude that living in the in-between time involves lots of grumbling and complaining — now I’m sure we don’t know anything about that; I’m sure in Immanuel we’ve never, ever heard anyone grumble or complain — but while someone might look at this passage and the way the Israelites got on and conclude that living in the in-between time involves lots of grumbling and complaining, it’s perhaps better to say that living in the in-between time is all about God’s patience and provision, because that’s what this passage is telling us about: God’s patience with his people; and God’s provision for what his people need while they live in the in-between time.
The In-between Time
What do I mean by the in-between time. Think about what we’ve already seen in the book of Exodus. First of all, we had the Israelites and their slavery and misery: they were in slavery to the Egyptians who were making their lives miserable by forcing them to do hard labour and by murdering their infant children. Secondly, on the night when the Passover Lamb was killed, the Israelites were set free from their slavery. On that very night, the Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and told them to leave immediately. Thirdly, they were able to pass through the waters of the Red Sea, leaving behind their old life as slaves in Egypt. And fourthly, and this is what we were thinking about last week, they were looking forward to the time when they could settle in the Promised Land; and when they could come to Jerusalem on Mount Zion; and when they could come into the the Temple which was the Lord’s holy dwelling place; and be with him. And when that time came, we would have the three Ps we’ve been talking about for so long now: all of God’s people in the place he has prepared for them, enjoying the presence of the Lord in their midst. That’s what they were looking forward to.
But they weren’t there yet. They weren’t there yet. They had been delivered from their slavery and misery; they were looking forward to coming into the Lord’s holy dwelling place. But they weren’t there yet. They were only pilgrims on the way. And so, I’m using this expression — the in-between time — to refer to this time of pilgrimage which began with their deliverance from slavery and which would end when at last they would come into the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem. The in-between time is the time between those two points.
And here’s the thing: Believers today are living in the in-between time as well. So, just as the Israelites were freed on the night when the Passover lambs were killed, so the Lord Jesus Christ — who is the true Passover Lamb — has been killed. And by his death on the cross, he has purchased our redemption: our freedom from the penalty we deserve for our sins; our freedom from the power of sin in our lives; our freedom from the tyranny of the Devil; our freedom from the fear of death. He purchased all these things for us by his death on the cross. So, our Passover Lamb has been killed; and he was killed to give us freedom.
And then, just as the Israelites crossed over the Red Sea, leaving behind their old life of slavery and misery to begin a new life, so we have crossed over from death to life, leaving behind our old life of unbelief and sin and hopelessness to begin a new life of faith and obedience and hope. God came into our lives by the Holy Spirit and he enabled us to believe the good news and to trust in the Saviour who died for us. And whoever believes the good news and trusts in the Saviour who died for us leaves behind that old life without Christ to begin a new life with Christ.
And now, now that we believe, we’re looking forward to the time when the Lord Jesus will come again, because when he comes he’ll bring all of his people — in body and soul — into the new heavens and the new earth and into the heavenly Jerusalem where we will be with the Lord for ever and for ever. That’s our final destination and it’s what we’re hoping for: all of God’s people in the place he has prepared for us, enjoying the presence of the Lord. That’s what we’re hoping for. That’s what we’re longing for.
But we’re not there yet. We’re only pilgrims on the way. And while we wait for the Lord to come again, we’re living in the in-between time just as the Israelites were living in the in-between time as they waited for the day when they would come into God’s holy dwelling place in Jerusalem. So, what’s it like, living in the in-between time? What does it consist in? How would we characterise it? Well, as we’ll see in a moment, it’s a time of testing. And while we might be tempted to grumble and complain, we should instead rejoice in God’s patience and trust in him for his provision. So, let’s look at the passage now and to the three tests the Israelites faced.
First of all, in verses 22 to 27 of chapter 15 we read how Moses led the Israelites from the Red Sea into the Desert of Shur. Now, let’s be clear. Yes, Moses was their leader; he was appointed by God to lead his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. However, the Lord was the one who was leading them in the way they should go. Remember what we read in chapter 13? Back in verse 21 of chapter 13 we read that by day the Lord went ahead of them in the pillar of cloud to guide them on their way; and by night he went ahead of them in the pillar of fire to give them light. Neither the pillar of cloud or fire left its place in front of the people. In other words, the Lord led them; he guided them; he showed them the way to go. And that means that in chapter 15 it was the Lord who led them away from the Red Sea and into the desert. And what happened? Look at verse 22 again: for three days they travelled in the desert without finding water. So, they were getting worried. Whatever water they had brought with them was probably used up. And remember as well that not only were there thousands and thousands of Israelites who needed water, but all their livestock also needed water. So, they’re getting worried, because their water was running out and there was no water nearby. What are they going to do?
And then they came to this place called Marah. And there was a pool there. And we can imagine their relief and their joy. At last! At last! There’s water for us and for our families and for our animals. But their relief doesn’t last long, because they soon discovered that they couldn’t drink this water because it was bitter. It wasn’t right; it wasn’t drinkable. And so, they’re thirsty. They need water for themselves and for their families and for their animals. The only water nearby is undrinkable. What are they going to do? How can they survive? And so, they began to grumble against Moses. They said to him:
What are we to drink?
And so Moses cried out to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; and Moses threw the piece of wood into the pool; and the water became sweet. Now, some of the commentators report all the different ways that people in the past have tried to explain how this might have happened. They’re able to suggest what might have been wrong with the water and what sort of minerals you might find in various kinds of wood which would cleanse the water. But I don’t think we need to go down that route; I’m perfectly happy to say it was a miracle which the Lord performed on behalf of his people in order to provide them with the water they needed.
And then the Lord made a decree and a law for them. Do you see that in verse 25? We’ll get to that in a moment. But it also says that there he tested them. Well, the test was bringing them to into a desert where there was no water. The test was seeing how they would react; and the test was to teach them that they could always count on him. And so, here now is the decree and the law:
If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all of his decrees, then I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.
In other words:
I sent all those plagues on the Egyptians because they didn’t believe in me or obey my word. So, don’t become like them. Trust in me. And do everything that I command you. And if you trust me and obey me, I’ll take care of you, just as I’ve taken care of you here in Marah.
And then we read how they came to Elim where they were twelve springs and seventy palm trees. In other words, there was plenty of water: an abundance of water for them and for their families and for their animals. And there was plenty of shade too from the hot sun.
The Lord was going to lead them through some dry and arid places. And he was going to lead them through some lush and pleasant places. But wherever he leads them, they’re to trust in him and they’re to obey him, because he will always take care of them.
In chapter 16 we read how the Israelites set out from Elim and came to another Desert, the Desert of Sin. We’re told that it’s now the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. They left on the fifteenth day of the first month. So, they’ve been travelling for a month now. And what happened? The whole of the community — and there were 600,000 men plus women and children — the whole of the community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. Well, who would want to be in their shoes — or their sandals I suppose — with all those thousands of people grumbling about you?
But what’s the problem this time? Well, it’s nothing to do with water. This time it’s to do with food. They’re starving. Whatever food they brought with them for themselves and their families and their animals has been used up. And they complain that they were better off in Egypt where they sat around pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted. And now it seems that Moses and Aaron have brought them into the desert to starve to death. Instead of trusting in the Lord and obeying his word, they grumbled and complained.
But the Lord is very patient with them. And once again he provided for them in a miraculous way by sending, first of all, quail — a type of bird — to eat. That’s in verse 13 where we read that the quail came and covered the camp which suggests there was an abundance of these birds for them, because the ground of their camp was just covered in these birds. My Dad tells me how — when he was a boy in Donegal — wood pigeons used to fly into the farmyard. And these birds were either so stupid or so lethargic that you could just walk up to them with a bucket and place it over them whenever you wanted wood pigeon for dinner. Well, perhaps it’s the same with quail and the people were able to catch these birds easily and cook them. But it seems the quail came into their camp just this once. But they were only needed this one time, but the next morning, the Lord provided them with something else to eat. He provided them with this food which they had never seen before and which they called ‘manna’ which is a word which means ‘What is it?’
And when, in verse 15, they asked what it is, Moses replied:
It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.
And so, they were able to gather it up and, according to verse 18, everyone got as much as they needed. No one needed to go hungry, because the Lord provided them with all they needed. And, if you look down to verse 31 you’ll see how it’s described. It was white like coriander seed and it tasted like wafers made with honey. Well, one of the commentators explains that in those days they didn’t know how to refine sugar. So, the only way to sweeten food was by using fruit or honey. Honey, of course, is much sweeter than fruit; and so, anything with honey in it was regarded as better than anything else. And they wouldn’t have been able to make wafers; all they could manage was loaves of bread. So, by saying the manna was like wafers made with honey, Moses is telling us that this was the most delicious food imaginable. This manna, this bread from heaven, tasted heavenly. And you’ll see in verses 32 to 36 that the Lord commanded them to keep some manna so that the generations to come would be able to see it and see how the Lord provided for them in the desert. And so, that’s what they did and eventually some of the manna was stored in the Ark of the Covenant which was kept in the Tabernacle and then the Temple.
Once again the Lord provided for them in the desert. And he continued to provide for them, because, according to verse 35, they continued to eat the manna during the forty years they remained in the wilderness and until they entered the Promised Land. So, for the whole of the time they lived in the in-between time the Lord provided them with manna to sustain them.
But there was a test, wasn’t there? In fact, there was a two-part test. First of all, in verse 19 Moses told them that none of them should keep any of it overnight. In other words: You need to trust that the Lord will provide for you every day; so you don’t need to store it up. And therefore you need to obey this command not to keep any of it overnight. You need to trust and obey. However, according to verse 20, some of them paid no attention to what Moses had said and they kept some of it until the morning. But look what happened: in the morning it was full of maggots and had begun to smell. Instead of trusting in the Lord to provide for them, and instead of obeying his word, they thought they knew better and it would be better for them to keep some for the next day.
And then the second part of the test came at the weekend. In verses 23 to 26 Moses explained that the Sabbath Day was to be a day of rest; and there wouldn’t be any manna on the Sabbath Day for them to collect. So, instead of having to leave their tents on the Sabbath to collect the manna, they could rest from that kind of work. But they wouldn’t go hungry, because on the day before the Sabbath, they can gather twice the amount they need and keep some overnight; and, this time, it won’t go bad. So, you need to trust the Lord that the manna will last overnight; and you need to obey what he said about resting on the Sabbath. But again, according to verse 27, some of them still went out on the Sabbath Day to look for the manna. Instead of trusting in the Lord to provide for them, and instead of obeying his word, they thought they knew better and it would be better for them to look for manna on the Sabbath Day.
Nevertheless, despite they fact that some of them doubted his word, and disobeyed his commandments, the Lord was still patient with them and he continued to provide for them all that they needed.
And now we come to verses 1 to 7 of chapter 17 and the third test. But this time, we’re told that it was the people who tested the Lord. Do you see that in verse 2 and in what we read in verse 7? They tested the Lord, which meant they were testing him and testing his ability to help them in order to decide whether or not they ought to trust in him and obey him. And, of course, that is a very wicked thing to do, because who are we, who are we to test Almighty God? And hadn’t the Lord demonstrated his faithfulness and his power many times before when he delivered them from their slavery and when he brought them through the Red Sea and when he destroyed the Egyptians and when he provided them with water at Marah and when he provided them with quail to eat and when, every day, every day, he provided them with manna to eat? Surely the Lord had demonstrated his faithfulness and his power and his commitment to them. And now they dare to test him?
He ought to have struck them down. But instead he was very patient with them. And he commanded Moses to take his staff and to strike the rock. And when Moses did so, wonderfully, miraculously, water flowed from the rock. And these people, whose hearts were often hard as rock, were given all the water they needed.
So then, living in the in-between time. What was it like for the Israelites? Well, it was a time of testing for them: would they trust in the Lord and obey his word? And while they — several times — failed the test, and grumbled and complained, and doubted him and disobeyed his word, nevertheless the Lord remained patient with them and continued to provide for them. And he continued to provide for them, because he was leading them to the Promised Land — the land he promised to give them — where they would come into his holy dwelling place and enjoy his presence in their midst.
What’s the significance of this for us? Well, just as the Lord provided for the Israelites, so we can trust in the Lord to provide for us. He knows our needs; and since he’s our loving, heavenly Father, we can count on him to supply us with what we need. Didn’t the Lord Jesus teach us to pray to him and ask him for our daily bread? Well, he taught us to pray for that to teach us to trust in him for these things. And right throughout the Bible we’re taught that the Lord is good and kind and generous so that we can always look to him for what we need.
However, if when we read this passage, we only think about what we’re going to eat and what we’re going to drink, and if we only think about our physical needs, then we’re missing the real point of this passage. We need to raise our thoughts upwards to heaven and to Jesus Christ the Saviour, because in John 6, after the Lord Jesus fed the 5,000 with the five loaves and the two fish, he went on to announce to the people that he is the Bread of Life who has come down from heaven to give life to the world. The Israelites, he said, ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. They died. However, here is bread that comes down from heaven — and we can imagine him pointing to himself — here is bread that comes down from heaven which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. He who comes to me will never go hungry; and he who believes in me will never go thirsty. So, just as the Israelites needed bread and water in order to reach the Promised Land of Canaan, so the Lord Jesus Christ is able to provide us with everything we need to reach the Heavenly Jerusalem and everlasting life in the presence of God. And the Lord Jesus went on to say: If anyone eats of this bread — and he means if anyone believes in him — he will live for ever.
So, when we read this passage about the Israelites in the wilderness, being supplied with manna and water, we’re not to think only of our stomachs, but we’re to lift our thoughts upwards to heaven and to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life who came down from heaven and who is able to supply us with all we need to reach God’s holy dwelling place in the life and world to come.
He’s what we need for the in-between time. If we believe in him, we’ve been delivered from sin and Satan and death just as the Israelites were delivered from their slavery in Egypt. And if we believe in him, then we’ve crossed over from death to life, just as the Israelites crossed over the Red Sea. We’ve crossed over from death to life, leaving behind that old life of unbelief and sin and hopelessness to live a new life of faith and obedience and of hope. And just as the Israelites were looking forward to coming to Jerusalem where they would enter God’s holy dwelling place, so we’re looking forward to the day when we come into God’s holy presence in the life and world to come.
But we’re not there yet. We’re not there yet. But while we wait for it, and while we’re pilgrims on the way, we need to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ who is able to give us all we need to persevere each day so that we will not grow weary or discouraged or fall away.
Our Shorter Catechism summarises for us all the good things Christ gives to us to help us on the way. And so, it teaches us that, when we’re united with Christ by faith, we receive from him justification so that our sins are pardoned and we have peace with God. Well, we need that, because we won’t get far if God is against us. And we receive from him adoption. And we need that, so that we can come with confidence to our Heavenly Father to ask for his help everyday. And he gives us sanctification. And we need that to be able to fight against sin and temptation every day. And he gives us assurance of God’s love and peace of conscience. And we need that every day, because every day our own guilty conscience will accuse us; and every day the Devil will try to get us to doubt God’s love for us. And he gives us joy in the Holy Spirit and we’ll need that every day to help us to overcome all the sorrow and sadness of this troubled life. And he gives us more and more grace to help us. And he gives us perseverance so that we’ll be able to keep going, and not give up, but to keep going along the narrow path that leads to everlasting life in his presence. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life and he’s able to provide us with all we need for living in the in-between time so that at last we’ll come into God’s holy dwelling place in the life and world to come.
But not only must we trust in him, but we must be careful to do what the Lord says. Instead of thinking we’re wiser than God and we know best what to do in our personal lives and in our church life, instead of following our instincts and our earthly wisdom about what seems good and right, we’re to confess our foolishness and our ignorance and we’re to turn to the Scriptures and we’re to do all that he commands.
That’s what living in the in-between times is like. That’s what it’s like to be a pilgrim on the way. We’re to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, because whoever trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Living Bread from heaven, will receive from him all we need for the way. We’re to trust in the Lord; and we’re to do all that he has commanded. And we’re to keep going along the way so that at last we’ll come into God’s holy dwelling place in the life and world to come.