Dr. Jim Denison
Thesis: We can win spiritual battles only when we are prepared spiritually.
Goal: Identify disciplines by which we are prepared for spiritual warfare today.
In John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress, the main character is appropriately named Christian. Early in his pilgrimage, Christian arrives at the House Beautiful, where he is taken to the spiritual “armory.” Here “he saw all kinds of equipment for soldiers in the holy war: swords, shields, helmets, breastplates, effectual prayer, and shoes that would never wear out.” He was told that “the Ruler of the hill had enough of this equipment to furnish every person who desired to resist evil in his progress to the promised land. No matter how great the number who needed such equipment, there was enough for all.”
That’s good news, for every Christian needs this equipment to win the spiritual battle which comprises life on this fallen planet. The warfare for which Joshua and his people would prepare in this week’s text was no less real than the spiritual war your class will face on Monday. While the Israelites faced armies which knew of their presence and wanted to destroy them, our enemy is just as real, and even more deadly than theirs.
Satan is still a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Pt 5:8). If you knew an enemy were crouching, about to attack you as you read these words, would you want to be ready? What would you need to be prepared? The requirements God made of his people in Joshua 5 made no sense in military terms, but they were essential to spiritual victory. They still are.
Trust your body to his purpose (vs. 1-9)
Our text begins with good news: the Amorites and Canaanites in the Promised Land have heard about the miracle of the Jordan, and “their hearts melted and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites” (v. 1). Now is the perfect time to attack. Any military commander would seize such an advantage. In warfare, it is always best to strike first and immobilize the enemy.
So the Lord gave Joshua and his people a command to do exactly the opposite. God knew that military strength and human resolve would never be enough to defeat the enemies of his people. They must stay yielded to him in body, soul, and spirit. He began their final preparations with the physical surrender represented by the ancient rite of circumcision (vs. 2-3).
Circumcision was practiced by a variety of nations across the world. In biblical times it was a custom in Moab, Ammon, and Edom as well as Israel. Egyptians performed the rite either at puberty or in preparation for marriage. Scholars suggest several reasons for the widespread practice: sanitation, a tribal mark, and a kind of blood sacrifice which sealed a religious covenant.
Even though the events of our text occurred during the Bronze Age, when bronze implements were common, the Lord directed his people to use flint knives. In so doing, they preserved ancient customs and employed a safer medical procedure (cf. NavPress p. 58). But such an action would immobilize the fighting men of the army and render them subject to attack from their enemies.
So why would the Lord require such strange obedience?
Circumcision began as a covenant between God and Abraham, and was required of all his male descendants (Genesis 17:10-14). The practice served as a symbol for spiritual purity, so that sinful lips were considered “uncircumcised” (Exodus 6:12), as were forbidden fruit (Leviticus 19:23) and disobedient ears (Jeremiah 6:10). Foreigners were “uncircumcised in heart and flesh” and would thus “desecrate” God’s temple (Ezekiel 44:7, 9).
The “hearts” of the people must be circumcised (Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16), an action God must initiate: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live” (Deuteronomy 30.6). We must participate in this discipline as well: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it” (Jeremiah 4.4).
This rite was never a guarantee of relationship with God. Rather, it indicated the faith upon which such a relationship is based (Romans 4:9-12). For Christians, baptism is our circumcision (Colossians 2:11-15), the sign that we have entered into God’s covenant community. Today circumcision is performed for medical or family reasons, not spiritual. For believers, “circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2.29). Paul summarized: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (1 Corinthians 7.19; cf. Galatians 5.6).
Jewish males were to be circumcised when they were eight days old. However, none in Joshua’s army had been so initiated into the covenant community. God would not allow this ceremony while the disobedient generation wandered in the wilderness. They were no longer part of his covenant nation. But now their descendants had proven their faith in God at the Jordan, positioning themselves to receive God’s covenant of grace. Their circumcision sealed the nation’s renewed relationship with their Lord.
The men remained at camp until they were healed physically (v. 8). Then God made a strange statement: “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you” (v. 9). Perhaps the circumcised Egyptians saw their previously uncircumcised former slaves as reproachable. God’s words may also be interpreted as indicating that the Jewish nation would have been destroyed by God if they had refused this act of sacrificial faith, leading to reproach by the Egyptians.
Or this statement by the Lord may be intended to recall the reproach which began in Egypt, as the people eventually forsook the Lord and were forced into the wilderness. The crossing of the Jordan now symbolized their death and rebirth, and their circumcision constituted them as the children of God.