The Conquering of the Nations and the Presence of God

As his time as Israel’s leader came to an end, Moses commissioned his successor Joshua:

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”[1]

The Lord gave this same encouragement to the new leader before and after Moses’ death [2]. Various elements converge in these statements which form the narrative framework for the book of Joshua. Joshua’s mission is clarified: he is to bring the people into the land and conquer the nations. He is emboldened by the command to carry out this mission with courage and strength. The Lord promises victory over the nations, bringing the fulfillment of his promise to Abraham [3].

The dimensions of this campaign are enormous (and Joshua no doubt felt it). The moment is pregnant with anticipation. This generation will soon embark on a mission over 400 years in the making. On the heels of their predecessor’s failure there was, no doubt, an element of anxiety among the people. The land is theirs for the taking, but will they have the faith their forefathers lacked? The difference between the corpses in the wilderness and the two remaining spies (Joshua and Caleb) forty years later was their trust in the character and power of God [4]. Would they trust in God’s promise, or would they fall back into faithlessness?

We now come to the hub of Joshua’s commission. How can this newly minted leader, standing in the shadow of the most prominent Israelite prophet and lawgiver, possibly hope to accomplish such an undertaking? The answer is the same as it was forty years prior: “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” [5]. Joshua was guaranteed success, not because of his expertise in military procedure, but because God would go before him into the land. In other words, this wasn’t Israel’s mission but God’s; thus, the victory depended on God’s ability and faithfulness to His covenant and people. This is further highlighted later when Joshua encounters the commander of the Lord’s army. When the Israelite leader asks the man whether he is an ally or an enemy he responds, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord” [6]. The question wasn’t whether God was on Israel’s side, but whether Israel was on God’s.

Such language of God’s conquering presence partnering with his covenant people to accomplish a grand mission has a certain hint of Genesis. In the beginning we see the Lord commission the new viceroys of his creation to subdue the land and animal life [7]. As they did, they would declare the image of God—his provision, love, and justice—reflecting his glory throughout the entire earth. We see this similarly paralleled in the giving of the Law to Israel: as they lived out God’s commands, they partook in his holiness and became a witness of His glory to the nations which surrounded them [8]. It is when they chose self-autonomy that they are thrust from the presence of God, sin enters the world, and creation rebels against man’s rule [9].

Yet, there is another commission given much later which we are reminded of as well:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [10]

In this instance the newly resurrected Jesus commands his disciples to spread his authority and reign over the nations. Their means of conquering aren’t militaristic in the traditional sense, but they are still called to wage war against the power of darkness through the victorious message of the gospel. While they are the ones who will fulfill this mission after the ascension of Jesus, the book of Acts highlights how the church is actually partnering with God in his campaign [11]. All of this is bolstered by the same promise Joshua was given so long ago: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The similarity of language creates parallels for the church that we simply can’t ignore.

As is the case with much of the gospel’s narrative, the life of Jesus is seen as a retelling of the story of Israel: the murder of innocent children under a tyrant; the calling out from Egypt; the baptism (of Israel in the Red Sea and Jesus in the Jordan); the time of temptation (40 years for Israel and 40 days for Jesus); and the declaring of the law from the mountain (Moses at Sinai and Jesus Mount of Beatitudes). These parallels and many others show us that, within Jesus, we are seeing the embodiment of Israel as the obedient son that God so often desired. Yet, we also witness Jesus fulfilling the mission that Israel never could: to be a light to the nations—a kingdom of priest—spreading God’s reign and rule through their holy living [12]. Unfortunately, Israel failed at this time and time again. In response, God promised a coming time of new covenant in which He would give Israel a new heart by which they could serve him [13].

When Jesus came onto the scene—speaking of new birth and a coming kingdom—he caught the attention of many because such language was imbedded deeply into the story of Israel. Of course, the reign of God looked quite different than they imagined: instead of running the Romans out of town, he was crucified by them; instead of destroying the nations surrounding them, he wanted to save them. Thus, the new covenant demanded a new commission: to bring the nations under the reign of God by the transformative power of the gospel. All kingdoms would be reborn into one new, universal holy nation [14].

This concept of a new covenant mission for the New Israel challenges the church. We are commanded to engage all nations—all races, ethnicities, and cultures—with the saving good news of King Jesus. As we do so, we are commanded to go out with courage, strength, love, and grace. By doing such, we are bringing the world into submission to God, as we look forward to a time when every knee will bow, and “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever”[15]. If we fail in this mission, or if we prioritize minor excursions at the expense of this, can we really call ourselves disciples of Jesus? Our hearts should beat with the commission of Christ as we spread God’s good reign through evangelism, benevolence, and good works.

What an incredibly weighty responsibility we have as God’s people. As we look at our local congregation and think of our limited resources in the face of such insurmountable odds, how can we possibly hope for victory? Thankfully, the promise that was given to Israel so long ago abides with us as well: I will never leave you, nor forsake you [16]. With this confidence, we boldly engage in the mission to which we are called, knowing that God’s presence goes before us as we partner with him. We are confident that, just as the walls of Jericho fell by the power of faith, so too will the walls of Satan’s kingdom crumble before the hand of our conquering Christ.

 

[1] Deut. 31:7-8.

[2] Deut. 31:23; Jos. 1:1-9.

[3] Deut. 34:4.

[4] Num. 14:6-9.

[5] Deut. 31:8

[6] Jos. 5:14

[7] Gen. 1:26-28

[8] Lev. 11:44-45.

[9] Gen. 3:17-24.

[10] Mat. 28:18-20.

[11] Acts 2:47.

[12] Ex. 19:5-6.

[13] Jer. 31:31-34.

[14] Eph. 2:14-16.

[15] Rev. 11:15

[16] Heb. 13:5.

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