The Israelites journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan had both physical and spiritual elements to it. As the people traveled through the desert, they were focused on worshipping God and were given many opportunities to experience spiritual success and failure. After they rebelled against God (Numbers 14:1-4), the people of Israel were pardoned, but none of the men who had seen God’s glory and the signs that he did in Egypt and in the wilderness were allowed to enter the land that God had promised to give them (Numbers 14:20-23). The LORD told the Israelites, “According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure” (Numbers 14:34). At the end of the forty years, Moses recounted the Israelites’ journey. Moses wrote, “This is the route the Israelites followed as they marched out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. At the Lord’s direction, Moses kept a written record of their progress. These are the stages of their march, identified by the different places where they stopped along the way.” (Numbers 33:1-2, NLT). Moses indicated that the Israelites’ route was determined by the LORD and their progress was dependent upon their stops along the way. Deuteronomy 1:2 states that “it is eleven days journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea” and yet, the Israelites arrived in Kadesh-barnea “in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month” (Deuteronomy 1:3).
Moses told the people of Israel that the LORD had carried them, “’all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ Yet in spite of this word you did not believe in the LORD your God, who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go” (Deuteronomy 1:31-33). The Hebrew word that is translated place, mᵉqomah (mek-o-mahˊ) is properly translated as “a standing, i.e. a spot; but used widely of a locality (generally or specifically); also (figuratively) of a condition (of body or mind)” (H4725). Mᵉqomah appears in Genesis 28:11 where it says that Jacob “came to a certain place and stayed there that night.” Mᵉqomah is derived from the Hebrew word quwm (koom) which means “to arise, stand up, come about…It is also used to denote the inevitable occurrence of something predicted or prearranged” (H6965). When it says that the LORD carried the Israelites all the way that they went until they came to this place, it meant that the Israelites’ final destination was prearranged, but it also meant that the people were going to arrive at their destination at a particular time because of the way or route that they traveled. The Hebrew word that is translated way, derek (dehˊ-rek) “represents a ‘distance’ (how far or how long) between two points.” Derek is used figuratively of “a course of life or mode of action.” In Jeremiah 10:23, derek “signifies the overall course and fixed path of one’s life, or his ‘destiny’” (H1870).
Jesus told his followers, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). When Jesus said he was the way, he was speaking of himself as “the author and medium of access to God and eternal life” (G3598). In that sense, Jesus was the pathway, the route that people needed to follow in order to connect with God. When Jesus called his disciples, he commanded them to, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19, 9:9; John 1:43). Jesus talked about the pathway to heaven in the context of the Golden Rule. Jesus said:
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14, NLT)
Jesus referred to the pathway to hell as a highway because that’s the route that most people choose to take. The idea that Jesus conveyed was a paved road that had lots of traffic on it. By contrast, the pathway to heaven was very narrow and difficult, likely a single lane, dirt road that required a four-legged animal or today a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to your destination.
Psalm 95 provides insight into why the people of Israel were unsuccessful in the spiritual aspect of their journey to the Promised Land. It says of God, “For forty years I loathed that generation and said, ‘They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways’” (Psalm 95:10). The Israelites didn’t understand God’s way of doing things and also made the mistake of following the examples of other nations. Proverbs 12:26 says, “One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.” Korah, Dathan, and Abiram were referred to as wicked men in Numbers 16:26. Moses said, “These men have despised the LORD” (Numbers 16:30). Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rejected the LORD and were influencing other Israelites to rebel against Moses and Aaron’s leadership (Numbers 16:2-3). Numbers 16:25-33 states:
So Moses got up and rushed over to the tents of Dathan and Abiram, followed by the elders of Israel. “Quick!” he told the people. “Get away from the tents of these wicked men, and don’t touch anything that belongs to them. If you do, you will be destroyed for their sins.” So all the people stood back from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Then Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the entrances of their tents, together with their wives and children and little ones. And Moses said, “This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things that I have done—for I have not done them on my own. If these men die a natural death, or if nothing unusual happens, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord does something entirely new and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them and all their belongings, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have shown contempt for the Lord.” He had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel. (NLT)
Going astray in their heart meant that these wicked men’s will and God’s will were not aligned with each other. In Proverbs 4:23 we are told to guard our “heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (NLT). The Hebrew word that is translated heart, leb (labe) “includes not only the motives, feelings, affections, and desires, but also the will, the aims, the principles, the thoughts, and the intellect of man…the heart is also described as receptive to the influences both from the outer world and from God Himself” (H3820).
It says in Genesis 8:21 that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” and in Deuteronomy 29:4 that the LORD did not give the Israelites hearts that could understand what he was doing. The only way the people knew how to do what God wanted them to was to obey his commandments and follow Moses’ directions. It says in Proverbs 12:15, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” The Hebrew word that is translated listens, shama (shaw-mahˊ) “means to give undivided attention” and refers to hearing in both an intellectual and spiritual context. “The most famous use of this word is to introduce the Shema, ‘Hear, O, Israel,’ followed by the content of what the Israelites are to understand about the Lord their God and how they are to respond to him” (H8085). Deuteronomy 6:4-5 states, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The connection between loving God and listening to him had to do with the relationship that God wanted to have with his chosen people. It says in Deuteronomy 7:6 that the Israelites were chosen by God to be a people for his treasured possession. “Being ‘chosen’ by God brings people into an intimate relationship with Him” (H977).
God encouraged the Israelites to do what he commanded them to by promising to bless them if they were obedient and to curse them if they were not. Moses told the people, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 28:1-2). The Hebrew word that is translated high in Deuteronomy 28:1, ʿamad (aw-madˊ) is an epithet for God and means “to stand” and “can suggest ‘immovable,’ or not being able to be moved…another nuance appears in Psalm 102:26, which teaches the indestructibility and/or eternity of God—the creation perishes but He ‘shalt endure [will ever stand].’ This is not the changelessness of doing nothing or standing physically upright, but the changelessness of ever-existing being, a quality that only God has in Himself” (H5975).
God’s promise of an eternal kingdom provided a strong incentive for the people of Israel to follow the spiritual pathway that he had prepared from them, but knowing that they were unlikely to live up to his expectations, God established a strong deterrent against disobedience as well. Moses said, “But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field…The LORD will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me” (Deuteronomy 28:15-16, 20). The Hebrew word that is translated cursed in Deuteronomy 28:16, ʾarar (aw-rarˊ) generally denotes to inflict with a curse. “There are at least five other Hebrew words with the same general meaning. This verb, in a more specific sense, means to bind (with a spell); to hem in with obstacles; to render powerless to resist” (H779).
After Simon Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ, “the Son of the living God,” Jesus told Peter, “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19). Jesus told Peter that he was blessed because a spiritual truth had been revealed to him by God the Father. The Greek word that is translated revealed, apokalupto (ap-ok-al-oopˊ-to) means “to take off the cover, i.e. disclose…The subjective use of apokalupto is that in which something is presented to the mind directly as…the will of God for the conduct of his children (Philippians 3:15)” (G601). Jesus indicated that the spiritual truth that was revealed to Peter would be the rock on which his church was built “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). Jesus’ reference to the gates of hell not being able to prevail was likely intended to point out that a spiritual battle was taking place and that this particular spiritual truth could free a person from spiritual bondage. Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The Greek word that is translated loosed, luo (looˊ-o) speaks “of persons bound in sin and wickedness, who are loosed through the preaching of and a saving relationship with Jesus Christ” (G3089).
The fact that the Israelites who did not obey the voice of the LORD were cursed and therefore, rendered powerless to resist the temptation of sin suggests that they were forced to go down a spiritual pathway that was contrary to God’s will, but God used the Israelites’ disobedience to accomplish his ultimate purpose, the salvation of the world and unification of the Jews and Gentiles into a single body of believers. Paul discussed this in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul said:
Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us. (Ephesians 2:11-18, NLT)
The Book of Hebrews explains that God has provided a better way for us to know and do his will through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It says in Hebrews 10:14-22:
For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.
And the Holy Spirit also testifies that this is so. For he says,
“This is the new covenant I will make
with my people on that day, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
Then he says,
“I will never again remember
their sins and lawless deeds.”
And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. (NLT)
It says in Hebrews 10:20 that Jesus’ death opened up “a new and life-giving way.” In other words, Jesus created a spiritual pathway that takes us into the presence of God. The Greek word that is translated life-giving, zao (dzahˊ-o) appears in Matthew 16:16 where Peter identified Jesus as “the Son of the living God.” Jesus also used the Greek word zao when he told the woman at the well that he could give her “living water” (John 4:10). Zao is associated with the resurrection of believers, but more specifically with, “the recovery of physical life from the power of death” (G2198). The writer of Hebrews said that Jesus’ death opened the way or in Hebrew the hodos (hod-osˊ). The Greek word hodos is similar to the Hebrew word derek. It refers to the road or the route one takes on a journey, but metaphorically it represents “a course of conduct,” or “way of thinking” (G3598). Jesus’ death made the recovery of physical life from the power of death possible for us and now we can “go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him” (Hebrews 10:22, NLT).
Proverbs 12:28 states, “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death.” Basically, what this verse means is that if we travel through life on the pathway of righteousness, hell will not be a part of our route. Righteousness is the state that believers enter into when they accept Jesus’ death on the cross as the atonement for their sins. It says in Genesis 15:6 that Abraham believed the LORD, “and he counted it to him as righteousness.” The transaction that takes place when a person puts his or her trust in Jesus is called justification. Paul talked about Abraham’s justification in his letter to the Romans. Romans 4:18-25 states, “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”