Theme: Who is the Commander Fighting for?
This week’s lessons describe the mysterious encounter Joshua has with a man who identifies himself as the commander of the Lord’s army.
When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped and said to him, “What does my lord say to his servant?” And the commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.
But now we need to say something else. All of that in a certain sense is preliminary, at least in my thinking, because the part of the story that really interests me is not so much the identity of this heavenly commander or the identity of the heavenly commander’s troops. What really interests me is what the commander said when Joshua issued his challenge. Joshua asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” That’s like saying, if you’re thinking of the history of England in the Middle Ages, are you for Lancaster or York? Or if you’re in Northern Ireland today, are you Protestant or Catholic? Joshua’s question was a challenging, provocative, and necessary one in times of war.
Yet notice what the commander replied: “Neither, but as commander of the army of the Lord, I have now come.” Isn’t that fascinating? “Neither,” he said. That’s not what you’d expect, is it? After all, this is Jehovah—at least we have reason to believe so. This is the God the Jewish people worship. The Canaanites certainly don’t worship Jehovah. And it was at the direction of Jehovah that the armies of Israel had actually come now to the point of having entered the Promised Land. Jehovah had stopped the river so they could get across. They were about to begin the battle. Joshua said, “Who are you for? Are you for us or for our enemies?” Wouldn’t you expect God to say in circumstances like that, “Why, I’m for you, of course. Why do you think I brought you in here? It’s time to attack Jericho. And it’s for that reason that I’ve come. I want to tell you how to go about the ordering of the battle.”
Although the commander does not give the answer we would expect, we do find out from the story that Joshua and the commander fought on the same side. And it was through the power of the heavenly commander that Joshua won his victory. But when the question was put this way, “Are you for me or are you for my enemies?” the heavenly commander said, “Neither.” And the point would seem to be that it is not for us to enlist God on our side or for our cause, however righteous our cause may be. Rather, we need to be enlisted by God and to fight in His cause.
Many years ago I read an interesting book by the Englishman J. B. Phillips, called Your God Is Too Small. The first half of it analyzes the limited views of God that most of us have. And it’s very piercing because you see yourself in these chapters. There’s a chapter on God as the heavenly policeman. He’s out to “get you” when you do something wrong. There’s also God, the parental hangover, which describes God as the dad who gets after you.
One of these chapters is entitled, “God-in-a-Box.” In it, Phillips analyzes quite wisely the kind of partisan approach to God that sees Him as being on our side rather than we being on His. I want to read a little bit of what J. B. Phillips says because I think it strikes home in a remarkable way. Writing from a British religious context, Phillips writes:
All Christians, whatever their Church, would of course instantly repudiate
the idea that their god was a super-example of their own denomination.
And it is not suggested that the worship is conscious. Nevertheless, beneath
the conscious critical level of the mind, it is perfectly possible for the Anglo-
Catholic, for example, to conceive God as particularly pleased with Anglo-
Catholicism, doubtful about Evangelicalism, and frankly displeased by all
forms of Nonconformity. The Roman Catholic who asserts positively that
ordination in the Anglican Church is “invalid,” and that no “grace” is
receivable through the Anglican sacraments, is plainly worshipping a god
who is a Roman Catholic, and who operates reluctantly, if at all, through
non-Roman channels. The ultra-low Churchman on the other hand must admit,
if he is honest, that the god whom he worships disapproves most strongly of
vestments, incense, and candles on the altar. The tragedy of these examples,
which could be reproduced ad nauseum any day of the week, is not difference
of opinion, which will probably be with us till the Day of Judgement, but the
outrageous folly and damnable sin of trying to regard God as the Party Leader
of a particular point of view.
And then Phillips begins to reflect on how all of this appears to the non-Christian who’s looking at it from the outside. He continues:
The thoughtful man outside the Churches is not offended so much by the
differences of denominations. To him, in his happy ignorance, these are
merely the normal psychological variations of human taste and temperament
being expressed in the religious sphere. What he cannot stomach is the exclusive
claim made by each to be the “right one.” His judgement is rightly empirical—
did not Christ say, “By their fruits ye shall know them”? If he were to observe
that the Church which makes the boldest and most exclusive claim to be constituted
and maintained according to Almighty God’s own ideas was obviously producing
the finest Christian character, obviously wielding the highest Christian influence,
and obviously most filled by the living Spirit of God—he could perhaps forgive
the exclusive claim. But he finds nothing of the kind. No denomination has a
monopoly of God’s grace, and none has an exclusive recipe for producing Christian
character. It is quite plain to the disinterested observer that the real God takes no
notice whatever of the boxes; “the Spirit bloweth where it listeth” and is subject to no
regulation of man.
What important truth does Joshua come to learn through the commander’s answer?
Dr. Boice quoted from Your God Is Too Small, by J. B. Phillips, who describes some limited views of God that people have. Phillips writes that some people think of God as a policeman, parent, as well as one who can be put in an ecclesiastical box. What does God look like in those three views?
What are some ways you might be putting God in a box without even realizing it? How might an unbeliever come to misunderstand who God really is because of this?