Sometimes reading Scripture can catch you off guard. You can be reading along, thinking you have a solid handle on the text when – BOOM – a single word will send you spinning. I was once sent spinning thusly.
I was reading Joshua chapter five. It seemed pretty straight forward, when a single word blew apart my erroneous understanding and set me to thinking. Perhaps you remember the story. Moses has died and Joshua is now the leader of the Israelites. God has promised them the land in Canaan and has led them to the city of Jericho. Let’s pick up the text here (verses 13 through 15)…
“Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’
‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’ Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’
The commander of the Lord's army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”
Did you see the word over which I once tumbled?
I’ll give you a hint: It’s “neither.”
When Joshua asks the commander of the Lord’s army “are you for us or for our enemies?” the commander replies “neither.”
Based on the rest of this story – you know, how the commander gives Joshua instructions on how to capture Jericho and how those instructions work in miraculous fashion – I had always felt safe in assuming this commander was from God.
In fact, if you examine this commander closely you find some very striking characteristics:
First, earthly armies have chains of command – from the commander-in-chief to the generals, senior officers, junior officers, non-commissioned officers all the way down to the privates. This is necessary because the commanders can’t be everywhere at once. Aha, but God can. God needs no such chain of command. He alone commands his army.
Second: Joshua falls down and worships this commander – and the commander accepts the worship. Angels don’t do that because there is only One worthy of worship and that is God, Himself.
Third: This commander tells Joshua to take off his sandals because the ground on which he is standing is holy. Now, what makes a patch of ground holy? Geography? No. It is the presence of God. Remember this happened before when Moses was addressed by God in the burning bush. God’s presence makes a place holy.
This commander is a Christophany
, a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ.
Okay. So, the messenger is beyond reproach. What He says can be safely taken as authoritative. But, what of the message? He said “neither.” This indicates that he is not for
the Israelites. God is not
for the Israelites? How can this be?
Aren’t these the very people with whom God established His covenants? Didn’t He dwell in their midst in the tabernacle? He delivered them from slavery in Egypt by parting the Red Sea. He fed them in the wilderness. He piled up the waters of the Jordan River so they could cross into the Promised Land. And, because we have the benefit of Scripture, we know He leads them to victory in Canaan, and ultimately blesses all nations through them by sending the Messiah as the perfect sacrifice for sin.
And yet Christ tells Joshua that He is not for the Israelites. I thought perhaps there was some textual anomaly, some matter of semantics that would clear this up. I found none.
The answer is found in adopting a foundational principle for studying Scripture and it is this…
It ain’t about us.
None of it. God’s Word, His divine plan – none of it is about us. Oh, His Word is for
us and His plan certainly benefits us, but it is not about us. It’s about Him. All of it.
All of God’s creation exists to bring Him glory. This is a foundational principle of Christianity. We are created for His glory. We are saved for His glory. We preach and teach and live for His glory.
This is the lesson Joshua needed to learn. While the Israelites had benefited from God’s plan they were not the focus of it. God was the focus of it.
This is a lesson we sorely need to relearn in the 21st century church. So many of our beliefs are rooted in the notion that God’s plan is somehow about us. This is a horrible mistake. It takes the focus off of God and puts it on us. It makes us think there is something about us worthy of being saved. And nothing could be further from the truth.