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.
In their circumcision, the Jewish people surrendered themselves physically to God. They chose to trust him for military protection, yielding themselves to an act which rendered them defenseless against their enemies. They accepted significant physical pain as a way of committing themselves to their God. In the same way, our Lord calls his people today to physical surrender as a means to spiritual victory. Our bodies must be yielded to God as “living sacrifices” before we can know his “good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1, 2). Only when we belong fully to God can he use us fully.
Is your body yielded to the Father? Does he have control of that which you consume? The ways you use your physical resources? Your appearance and public witness? Such surrender always comes at a price. But Jim Elliott, the martyred missionary, was right: he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
Trust your future to his providence (v. 10)
From physical sacrifice, the Lord next called his people to spiritual sacrifice. For the first time in a generation, they would observe their most holy tradition: the Passover.
Israel crossed the Jordan on the 10th day of the month Abib, the first month in the Jewish calendar. On that very day, 40 years earlier, the people had selected their first Passover lambs (Ex 12:1-5; cf. NavPress 60). On the 11th of Abib the men were circumcised, and rested until the 14th. Then came the day of Passover, 14th Abib.
As you will recall, this was the climactic event which created the Jewish nation. God’s death angel “passed over” the Jewish households who had painted the blood of a sacrificial lamb over their doorposts. By this act, the Lord freed his people from Pharaoh and began their history as a people. The Passover feast would forever be observed for seven days, concluding with the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23.5-6).
But the disobedient generation failed to observe this celebration, or were refused by God. Now, for the first time since Egypt, God’s people would again remember his Passover grace. On twilight of the 14th day of Abib, the lamb was slaughtered and eaten in accordance with Passover regulations (Exodus 12.5-8). Their celebration marked the fact that they were once again the covenant people of God.
The circumcision ritual just performed made personal the people’s commitment to God; this Passover observance made the same commitment on a communal level. The entire nation could participate in Passover on a level only males could share in circumcision. In so doing, the nation remembered all God had done for them, and claimed his promises for all he would do in leading them to their Promised Land. They renewed their spiritual commitment to their Creator and Redeemer.
Jesus is now “our Passover lamb” sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5.7). He was “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13.8). The Lord’s Supper now represents Passover for the followers of Jesus, as we remember his death on our behalf. One day we will celebrate this Supper with the Lord Jesus himself (Revelation 19.9), taking bread and cup from crucified hands. In the meanwhile, we use the Supper as they used the Passover meal: to look back so we can look forward.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was right: “We live life forward, but only understand it backward.” When we remember all God has done to prove his love for us, we are encouraged to trust him for the future we cannot see. And we prepare spiritually to trust him as he leads us into that future by faith.
Before we can walk fully in the will of God, we must believe this will to be for our best. God needs a “blank check” from us. He will not reveal his purpose as an option for our consideration, but a command for our obedience. Only when we yield ourselves spiritually to him can we follow him to victory. When you cannot see what lies ahead, trust the One who can. Has he failed you yet?
Trust your needs to his provision (vs. 11-12)
The people faced one last preparation before they could take the land promised them by their Lord. They have surrendered their bodies as living sacrifices; they have remembered God’s grace so they could trust his providence. Now they must learn to yield their needs to his provision. They would enter a land which would resist them at every turn. Only when they believed that God would meet their daily needs, could they step into this war with faithful confidence.
“Manna” was provided by God for his people during their wilderness wanderings (Exodus 16.13-36). This frost-like substance met their physical needs during those years when they had no means of material sustenance. The wilderness through which they traveled was and is a dry, arid environment which could never have supported the millions who comprised the nation.
Why did the manna stop now?
The day after their first Passover in a generation, they ate grain from the land rather than manna from heaven, and the manna stopped. The spiritual lesson of the manna was simple: “to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3). Now they were in that position addressed by Moses before his death: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). Now they would learn to trust God to meet their needs from the land which was theirs.
Imagine living each day by sustenance provided miraculously from God for that day. You cannot store ahead for the future (Ex 16.20), except as the Lord directs (v. 23). You can own no guaranteed investments, have no promised salary and benefits, receive no assured monetary support. Your only provision is manna from heaven. Actually, this is your exact position today. Not one of us is promised tomorrow. No economy is immune from catastrophe, no job beyond crisis, no investments safe from loss. In a very real sense we all live on manna from the hand of God. Whether this provision comes from the earth below or the heavens above, all we have is the gift of our Father.
And our Father promises that he will continue to meet our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). We can do all things through the One who sustains and strengths us (v. 13). We can be content in every circumstance, confident of his provision (vs. 11-12).
Sometimes God heals us medically, and sometimes miraculously. But both come from our Great Physician. Sometimes God provides for our financial needs through our work, and sometimes by the grace of others. But both are his gifts to us. Sometimes God guides us through our reason and study, and sometimes through providential events. But both are his hand in our lives. Sometimes we live on grain grown from the earth, and sometimes on manna fallen from the skies. But both are his grace.
To step into the spiritual battle which is before you this day, decide now that you will trust the provision of your General and Father. Know that he will meet your every need as you walk in his will. Because he will.
When did you last experience a true victory in your spiritual life? A lost soul won to faith in Christ, a discouraged believer brought back to trust in the Father, temptation defeated, God glorified? When last did the Holy Spirit use and empower you in a life-transforming way? It was because you made the preparations required of Joshua’s people in this study’s text. When we do not see such victory, it is because we have not made such preparations. God can only bestow his gifts to those in position to receive them.
This study requires sacrifice and consistent commitment of us. But the favor and power of God are worth all they cost us in preparation. C. S. Lewis was right: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
We can have the slum or the sea. The choice is ours.