Editor’s note: These thoughts were shared in a 2020 gathering of pastors from across China, encouraging them to press on with the mission of the church. The speaker reminded pastors that the church is always in the midst of hard times, and that God’s grace is richly poured out on his people, even as they walk in the barren desert.
“The woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.”
The woman in this verse is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and 1,260 days represents the entirety of the gospel era: the church era. This verse tells us three things about the church.
First, the wilderness is the context in which the church exists on the earth.
The gospel era is the time between Christ’s first coming and his return. Throughout this time, the church on earth is in the wilderness. We have not yet arrived at our heavenly home.
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As we study Scripture, we walk with Moses and Israel into the wilderness. Sometimes, this is the wilderness depicted in the Psalms. At other times, it is the ideological wilderness with which the New Testament believers struggled. At all times, the wilderness is the stage for God’s people on earth.
The wilderness is also the context through which the earthly church experiences grace. Throughout the gospel era, the gospel is in the wilderness, waiting to enter the eternal Canaan, the new heavens and the new earth. It is important that we understand that the church of this age will always be in the wilderness, not just when she experiences persecution and tribulations. The church is in the wilderness even when she has religious freedom. The church is in the wilderness even when the environment is friendly to the Christian faith. Different wildernesses present different challenges.
We are a community of the last days, living for an eternal kingdom. We, the church, are always on a journey to our glorious home.
Second, the wilderness is filled with war.
The church on earth is a church engaged in war. “The woman fled into the wilderness”: from the very beginning, the church has been at war with Satan, at war with sin, at war with the world, and at war with the flesh. There are dangers from both without and within. Outside, the church faces a lack of clothing and food, the threat of wild animals, the dangers of the mountaintop and of the valley. From within, the church must face suspicion, unbelief, spiritual valleys, brotherly betrayal, and more.
The glory of the church is that, although she is at war, it is through this very war that the church is purified. In war, the church continues to hold fast to the faith. In war, the church continues to pastor congregations, share the gospel, plant more churches, and to carry on the mission to expand the kingdom of Christ. In war, the church looks up to eternity.
To better understand the war and the strategies of fighting in this war, there is much to meditate on: the church’s identity, the war the church faces, and how to build up the church while she is in this wilderness. The church in the wilderness must be intentional as she shares the gospel in the midst of persecution, offers Christian education, and continues with pastoral care.
Third, the wilderness is where we experience God’s grace.
Throughout the 1,260 days – the gospel era, the time during which the church is in the wilderness – God will nourish his church.
The wilderness is the place God has prepared for his earthly church to experience his grace and faithfulness. In this wilderness, God’s grace is even more precious, and his faithfulness is even more marvelous. While the wilderness is barren, there are places of rest he has prepared for his people. While the wilderness is desolate, there are supplies of God’s grace.
The church is the Lord’s beloved. He tests, trains, and purifies her. God also faithfully protects and provides for her. The church is the bride of Christ; the Lord will make all preparations and bring his bride wholly to himself. The church in the wilderness must continue to live by grace, build her foundation on the gospel, and practice union with Christ. These practices all help us to better understand God’s provision, grace, and faithfulness.
Every church that confesses and proclaims the gospel is part of the universal church. Together with all the saints, this church has the power to comprehend the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ. God gives us the Bible and the Holy Spirit, both of whom continuously pour out grace on us. God provides for the needs of his church through all the channels of grace and the spiritual disciplines he has established.
This is the vision to which we cling. Before God’s people enter their eternal home, through the entirety of life on earth in the gospel era, God’s people are in the wilderness. They go through tests and trials, and experience war, as well as God’s faithfulness and provision. During this gospel era, God protects his church, prepares a dwelling place for her, and provides for her needs.
Does all this help you to love the Lord’s church more? Your mother, the Lord’s church, is at war on earth. But the Lord builds up the one he loves, purifies the one he treasures, and protects and provides for the one he cherishes. And the one the Lord loves, treasures, and cherishes is the church. May you and I also love, treasure, serve, commit, dedicate ourselves, and offer everything we have to the church.
I love my Lord’s kingdom, and I love my Lord’s church. May we go to every place, like a grain of wheat falling into the earth; if we die, we will bear much fruit. May we, like the dandelions, go with the wind; when the flowers bloom next spring, they will be in splendor all over the field.
May our Triune God bless our co-workers and all those who minister the gospel. May God be glorified in Christ and through his church, from generation to generation, forever and ever.
Paul Peng (a pseudonym) is a pastor and former publisher in one of China’s top cities. He has spent much of his career studying church history and creating theological resources for the church in China.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for God’s church in the wilderness to experience his lavish grace in dry places.