“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 2:2)
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20).
In comparing the teaching ministry of Jesus to the pillars of cloud and fire that guided the children of Israel, there are two things I have in view: the unmistakable clarity of the guidance and the probationary nature of its application.
The two pillars stayed in front of the people for as long as they were needed not just to guide them from Egypt to Canaan, but to train and transform them to inherit the land and live as God’s “treasured possession.”
It wasn’t like a moving lighthouse or the gliding arrow on Google Maps always pointing you in the right direction. To humble and to test the people, to find out what was in their hearts and to teach them that man does not live on bread alone but on “every word” from the Lord (Dt 8:2-5), God deliberately guided them into circumstances that served all those purposes.
He didn’t just punch in “Shortest Route.” That’s not the how of how he led the people through the wilderness in Dt 8:2-5. He was forging a people for himself. The way was also the truth and the life, all combined in one operation.
When the way is unfamiliar or unknown, when the surroundings don’t offer the amenities of Egypt (“leeks and onions!”), and there’s nothing but vape, tire and mattress stores in sight, if you want to facilitate obedience you make the guidance part as clear and unmistakable as possible. The pillars could be seen for miles.
The guidance problem the people had was of the will, not finding the way. When they were getting hungry and they filed past a rugged outcrop expecting to find food around the next bend and—Wait, more sand and scrub as far as the eye can see! How will we eat? —their hearts were sorely tested. They were hungry and this was the wilderness.
But there, directly in front of them was the pillar of cloud. This is where it led us. Do we obey and continue to follow the cloud? Or do we go looking elsewhere for food? This is how you’re tested to see “whether or not you would keep his commands.”
Why is that important? It was the essence of the OT covenants God made with his people. But also the kingdom of heaven inaugurated by Jesus. “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” not just teaching what he commanded, is the goal of discipleship.
When they stick with the cloud—wait, what is this stuff on the ground that everyone’s just noticed? They’re gathering it and eating it and there seems to be enough to go around. But what is it? (manna means “what is it?”). He caused them to hunger, then fed them with manna.
But what is it? After so many days of an absolutely reliable supply of it for all the people, does it really matter what it is? Isn’t it really more important that it’s a demonstration that God is Jehovah-Jireh (“provider”)? This is the lesson you want to write on your heart as you head toward the Promised Land, not whether Whole Foods in Canaan carries a non-GMO version of it. In fact, some of the manna ended up in the ark of the covenant as a memorial, that’s how important it was. God provides. (And we still don’t know what it is.)
I can look back on many “seasons” and dealings in my life and now see that something that was perplexing at the time was not only necessary but makes perfect sense in hindsight.
There’s a reason for that, and I’ve written about it. The sequence is (1) be transformed by the renewing of your mind; and then (2) “you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:1-2).
Yield to God rather than “be conformed to the pattern of this world,”—follow God rather than the world’s lead—be transformed through your obedience, and then your understanding of God’s ways will be enhanced. This is essentially what the pillars of cloud and fire did—lead into transformation which in turn leads to retained wisdom, that you can then teach others.
And then there’s still parts of my life that I can’t figure out. What was it? I’m not ashamed to say I still don’t know. But I do know that I am stronger and wiser in the Lord 15 years after the fact. So it was manna, that much I’m sure of.
Jesus himself was the pillar with his disciples, and they needed that kind of clear guidance. His kingdom made significant breaks with the existing religious system.
For starters, did the twelve ever wonder out loud why they were chosen? More than half of them were probably fishermen. There were more Pharisees and Sadducees in Judea than contemporary Christian musicians with ads in Relevant magazine. Why not grab a couple, if only for the “good look” of having members of two powerful religious parties on board?
Well, here’s one possibility: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do” (Mt 11:25-26).
Or this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt 16:17-18).
Later, after Jesus raised Lazarus, the Sanhedrin conferred together: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation” (Jn 11:48). New wine needs new wineskins, Jesus taught. These old wineskins weren’t about to yield an inch. (And never did, turning Jesus over to be crucified.)
Of course, as Jesus’ rebuke of Peter demonstrated, the disciples were probably dyed-in-the-wool believers in a restored kingdom on the order of David and Solomon’s. It was a popular view. But “the kingdom” had to be divested of those earthly ideas.
To do that, he had to be their full-time guide: “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach, and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mk 3:14). I highlighted that phrase because it’s easy to overlook its significance.
In keeping them close, he was always “in front” of them just as the pillars of cloud and fire were during the exodus. They heard him preach, watched him outwit religious leaders who tried to trick him, saw him heal, heard him describe a kingdom that was clearly a contrast to what they knew–day after day. “You have heard that it was said,” for example, became a common opening to Jesus’ teaching that followed, going further or deeper than conventional religious wisdom. “But I say to you . .”
There was nothing profound, mystical or, for that matter, supernatural going on here. You could find the same pattern today in the way an electrician, carpenter, clerk at the motor vehicle’s office, grill cook at Five Guys or mechanic doing winter maintenance on the company backhoe learns to do what he does:
It’s watch and learn. Then learn and do. Then do and keep doing to improve. Then keep improving until you master it. Then you, the master, are qualified to teach others. Make disciples who make disciples who make more disciples . . .
The disciples learned a lot just by “being with him”–their pillar of cloud and fire–before they were ever sent out to do anything on their own, though that day eventually arrived. But at the end of their probationary time with Jesus, these simple “fishers of men” went out and started to turn the world upside down.