As I was preparing to speak to the Adult Sunday school group at my church on the subject of obedience as it can be found in the Book of Joshua, I feared this would be a difficult task. When I think of the Book of Joshua, I think of the Israelites going into Canaan and taking over the place and all its inhabitants, and then dividing their new promised land (present day Israel) among all the tribes. That’s what this book is about in a nutshell, so where will I find stuff about obedience? In the few chapters (5–7) assigned to me to speak about, I was surprised to find at least 5 ways we can extrapolate practical lessons on obedience.
Here is a copy of the presentation for you to download if you’d like: https://app.box.com/s/911v1owyko8v24hf5geg
1. Obedience Is Painful (Joshua 5:1–9)
You can go ahead and start laughing now. Why? Well, you will soon see. After Moses parted the Red Sea and most of the Israelites who sinned died off as they wandered around for forty years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land, Moses dies before stepping foot there, and then Joshua takes over and leads the remaining Israelites into Canaan. But they are confronted with an issue: there’s a big river—the Jordan—that’s in the way. So what happens? If Moses parted the sea, why not Joshua part the river? That’s what happened. Think about this: most of the Israelites who were still alive at that time never actually witnessed the great miracle of God by Moses, so to see the river part was an astonishing, captivating sight.
They knew their God was powerful, and they probably also had a bit of fear in them of their God, as this event of parting the Jordan struck terrible fear in the non-Israelite inhabitants all around: when they “heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan from before the children of Israel until we had crossed over, … their heart melted; and there was no spirit in them any longer because of the children of Israel” (Joshua 5:1).
After this triumph, I would imagine the Israelites would be willing to do anything God asked of them. And ask He would. He told Joshua that all the males need to take a flint knife and cut themselves, in a very sensitive area. Yup. Circumcision.
Yes. Obedience is painful. Go ahead and laugh.
See, circumcision was a manner to signify to God that you belonged to Him. Today, we have Baptism, which is not just a sign of one’s allegiance to God, but is in fact the manner that we are adopted by the Father and become His son or daughter, and the Bride of Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
“In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:11–12).
While baptism isn’t painful like circumcision, striving to maintain a life in accordance with our baptism is, “Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life” (Matthew 7:14). We have to do everything to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” by enduring “a great struggle with sufferings … knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven” (Hebrews 10:23, 32, 34).
Think of all the ways obedience is painful. Yes, there are the easy answers, like martyrdom or physical torture. But there’s also that difficult inner struggle to refrain from some sin, like getting angry at that driver who just cut you off, that person who just told you off, that customer service representative from your cable provider (*cough*.. COMCAST …).
While it won’t be as painful as it was getting circumcised, after which “all the people … stayed in their places in the camp till they were healed” (Joshua 5:8), there are lots of things in life that hurt us so badly that it feels like we too need to get some time healing. But no matter what, forgiveness on our ends must be immediate, no matter how painful.
2. Obedience Is Remembering (Joshua 5:10–12)
After expressing their obedience in getting circumcised, the Israelites then obeyed another of God’s commandments, which was to always remember the day when an angel went throughout the land of Egypt killing all the firstborn of any household, except for those who the angel would pass over if they marked their doors with the blood of a lamb. In the promised land, they celebrated the Passover on the day appointed by God, eating the sacrificial lamb. And all the bread that was miraculously appearing to feed everyone while they were wandering in the wilderness—the “manna”—ceased.
In the New Testament, we have the Sacrifice which replaced all sacrifices, God Himself, who instituted the Mystical Supper, commanding His disciples, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). And just as the manna no longer was present but the commandment to celebrate Passover persisted, so too the Lord Christ, who said He is the manna, “the bread of God … who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33), ascended back to heaven and left us with the continual requirement to partake of His Body and Blood forever.
This is the core, most ancient remnant of all apostolic liturgical worship services, and is known by its Greek name as “anamnesis” (which means remembrance, or reminiscence). All liturgies, since the time of St. Paul, to the present, all included the institution narrative and the words of Christ in commanding us to remember the Mystical Supper He instituted.
In the first century you have St. Paul telling us:
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
In the second century St. Justin Martyr furnishes us with a description of the liturgical worship of the church, and it includes the same.
In the third century, St. Hippolytus of Rome recounts for us the exact words used:
“He took bread, gave you thanks and said: ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you.’ In like manner for the cup, he said: ‘This is my blood which is poured out for you. When you do this, do it in memory of me.’ Remembering, therefore, your death and your resurrection, we offer you the bread and the wine, we thank you for having judged us worthy to stand before you and serve you.”
And that has continued in all apostolic churches (that I’m aware of) today.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
“Remembering, therefore, this command of the Savior and all that came to pass for our sake, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father and the second, glorious coming…”
In the Roman Catholic Church we have the following:
“Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the blessed Passion, the Resurrection from the dead, and the glorious Ascension into heaven of Christ, your Son, our Lord…”
In the Coptic Church we say,
“For every time you eat of this bread and drink of this cup, you proclaim My Death, confess My Resurrection, and remember Me till I come.”
But the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not the only feast we should remember. How much do we really care about all the joyous occasions of the church? The word “feast” in the Old testament is used several times, but there are three Hebrew words that amount to that singular English translation, and each word has its own meaning. How do we view our feasts?
- In English the word connotes a joyous occasion.
- In Hebrew, one word for feast—”Moed”—means “appointed time”; do we pay attention to the appointed times of our own feasts, or do they pass us by like nothing happened?
- There is also the Hebrew word for feast—”Hag”—which, if you are familiar with Arabic, makes you think of the required pilgrimage of Islam to Mecca. Well, that’s what this word means, pilgrimage; do we spend the effort to come to church for our feasts?
- Then there is the word that I am afraid is the most common meaning we associate with our feasts, the Hebrew word “Mishteh,” which specifically refers to a banquet or family gathering with food and drink involved (cf., Gen. 21:8); after fasting for long periods of time, is our feast simply a break of the fast and enjoyment of the food we are now allowed to eat? How does that really help us remember the feast? If anything, after our food comma we forget what it was we were fasting for in the first place.
3. Obedience To God’s Servants (Joshua 5:13–15)
After the Israelits remembered the Lord their God, an angel, the “Commander of the Army of the Lord” (believed to be the Archangel Michael), commanded Joshua to heed the Lord’s words that he was about to declare.
Today the closest parallel of messengers of God to us are our clergy, and we must be obedient to them, as St. Clement of Rome (the immediate successor of St. Peter, or whoever else may have started the church in Rome) commends the Corinthians for such obedience in his letter to them:
“For you … walked in the commandments of God, being obedient to those who had the rule over you, and giving all fitting honor to the presbyters among you” (Letter to the Corinthians, Ch. 1, p. 5).
Even St. Paul tested the people of that same city to see if they could be obedient to him, their bishop:
“For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things” (2 Corinthians 2:9).
He tells us elsewhere that the clergy have particular accountability to God for our souls, and thus we should obey them without complaining:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls and will give an account for their work. Let them do this with joy and not with complaints, for this would be no advantage for you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Obedience is the pinnacle virtue upon which rest the others. As the Arabic saying goes, “Upon the son of obedience is bestowed blessings,” for it is even said this of Christ: “Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, called by God as High Priest ‘according to the order of Melchizedek'” (Hebrews 5:8–9).
4. Obedience Is Complying Even When It Makes No Sense (Joshua Chapter 6)
Joshua and the Israelites were on a mission from God to rid the land promised to them of all who opposed their control over it. Jericho stood in their way, and most of us know what God commanded as the tactic to overcome the city’s walled fortification. “March around the city” once a day for “six days” while blowing “trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark” and then on the “seventh day … march around the city seven times,” followed by another blow of trumpets and finally “all the people shall shout with a great shout.”
Really? Think about it. It doesn’t make sense. How many times on T.V. have I seen people try to explain how this is possible by the laws of science. It was a miracle folks! But why God all the pomp and circumstance?
Who knows, just do it. That’s the attitude we have to take sometimes.
Think of how nonsensical it is to truly apply God’s commandments today. He tells us, for example, that instead of Christian brothers taking Christian brothers to court, why not just let yourself be cheated? “Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated” (1 Corinthians 6:8).
For any enemy (terrible co-worker, difficult spouse, cheating husband, rude customer service representative, someone out to terrorize or kill you, etc.), we must love them and pray for them?
But what if I suffer wrongfully? God says, “For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully…. But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God” (1 Peter 2:19, 20).
One story from the life of the Egyptian desert father St. John the Short (or Dwarf) touches upon this. When he began his monastic life, his spiritual father Abba Pemwah decided to test him. They occupied the same cell together, but then one day Abba Pemwah expelled him saying, “I cannot live with you.” In humility and obedience, St John stayed outside by the entrance of the cell for seven days without grumbling. Each of those seven days, Abba Pemwah would exit and strike him firmly with a palm branch. St John’s response was simply to prostrate before him and say, “I have sinned.” Finally, on the seventh day, as Abba Pemwah left the cell to go to church, he saw seven angels each holding one crown, placing them on the head of Abba John.
5. Obedience Is Humility (Joshua 7:1–26)
In this portion of the Book of Joshua we have one of the most difficult stories (for many) to understand, as it seems to be inconsistent with God’s love. The children of Israel went to a city named Ai, which was beyond Jericho. But one of the men, Achan, violated God’s strict commandment not to take anything from the city, items which were considered “accursed.” After spying out the city and realizing it should be easy to defeat with just a few men, the Hebrews were actually unexpectedly overcome. God clarified that this was because someone violated His commandments. What happened next may shock you.
First, Joshua got on his knees and put his head down to the ground in prayer and remorse until God spoke to him saying, “Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face?”
Then, after Joshua explained the reason for his situation, he is told by God to sanctify the people by finding the person who transgressed God’s covenant and that “he and all that he has” must be “burned with fire.”
Even though Achan admitted what he did, telling Joshua, “Indeed I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel,” and explained in detail what he did, he, his children, his livestock, and all that he had were stoned, burned, and a heap of stones was piled over them.
I’ll get to the big elephant in the room and deal with the question, “Why would a good God do this?”
But first, let me discuss the obedience aspects of this story.
We learn of three actions of humility that can all be related to the practice of confession:
- Humility in understanding that you need God to defeat your sin (think of what Joshua did, falling on his knees and putting his face to the ground, asking God to help resolve the people’s weakness in defeating Ai; notice this posture is what we refer to as a prostration known as metanoia [a Greek word meaning change of mind], which sadly I’m finding few people actually do on a regular basis during prayer)
- Humility in admitting your mistakes (regardless of everything that happened, what Achan did when he was confronted by Joshua was remarkably humble)
- Accepting natural consequences / punishment / rebuke / discipline of our sins (this one is clear from the story, and in our own lives we have to be willing to accept the consequences of our sins; for example, if you hurt someone and have to apologize, even if their reaction will hurt when they find out what you’ve done, you must accept the reaction anyways.)
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Why would a good God do this to Achan?
Let’s now turn to the giant elephant in the room: Why would a good God command that Achan be killed in this way, even after confessing his sins?
There are a variety of answers, but it comes down to this summary of what you’ll find explained below: God is the author of love, and the author of justice, and He may dispense His justice as He wishes, showing mercy in this life or in the next as He wishes; and what happened here was out of love to deter everyone else from falling into similar sin and being subject to worse punishment in the hereafter.
This is not the first time God did this sort of thing—teaching a lesson for the purpose of deterrence by using a particular situation to leave a shocking example for all. It happened at the time of Noah with the flood. It happened at the time of Moses when his nephews (sons of Aaron) Nadab and Abihu offered profane fire and were killed when a “fire went out from the Lord” came and “devoured them” (Leviticus 10:1). It happened in this instance with Achan as the Israelites were setting out to live a new life with God in the promised land.
You might be thinking: yeah, that was the God of the Old Testament. Tsk tsk to such a thought! For God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and when the New Testament church began we have the example of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11) who immediately died after lying to the Holy Spirit in the presence of the apostles and the bishop Peter.
What’s the purpose of all of this? Acts 5:11 is telling: “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” St. John Chrysostom speaks on this instance and says, “Look, in every case, how men are converted not so much in consequence of good things as of things fearful” (Homily 41 on Acts). The idea there is that this is God’s way of deterring further sin.
St. Jerome’s view of the whole matter provides the perspective of “God can do what He wants”: “Leave to God His power over what is His own; He does not need you to justify His actions” (Letter 133). He cites St. Paul’s comments in Romans regarding God as the potter who has power to do as He wishes over His clay (Romans 9:20–21).
What about God’s love? St. John Chrysostom tells us, yes God loves us, but if the real eternal consequences of sin remained seeming like simply a threat rather than reality, it would not deter people adequately. He says,
Nay, you say, but God is full of love to man, and none of these things will happen! Then it is written in vain! No, you say, but only as a threat, that we may become wise! If then we are not wise, but continue evil, will He not, tell me, inflict the punishment? Will He not then recompense the good either with rewards? Yes, you say, for that is becoming to Him, to do good even beyond desert. So that those things indeed are true and will certainly be, while the punishments will not be at all, but are only for the purpose of a threat, and of terror! By what means I shall persuade you, I know not….
He goes on to explain that if some people’s sins were punished harshly by God here, yet others who commit the same sins go untouched, then we learn that certainly God will give them their due in the afterlife:
Whence then shall I persuade you? For this is a Satanic reasoning, indulging you with a favor that will not profit, and causing you to be slothful.
How then can we banish it? Whatever things we say from Scripture, you will say, are for the purpose of threatening. But with respect to future things this indeed might be said, but not so concerning things that have happened, and have had an end. You have heard of the deluge. ….
Again, another, [Achan, the son of] Charmi, having stolen a devoted thing, was stoned with all his family. What then? Has no one from that time committed sacrilege?
… Again, the sons of Eli, because they ate before the incense was offered, suffered the most severe punishment together with their father. Has no father then been neglectful with respect to his children? And are there no wicked sons? But no one has suffered punishment. Where will they suffer it then, if there be no hell?
Again, numberless instances one might enumerate. What? Ananias and Sapphira were immediately punished, because they stole part of what they had offered. Has no one then since that time been guilty of this? How was it then that they did not suffer the same punishment?
Do we then persuade you that there is a hell, or do you need more examples? ….
In the end, just remember to be obedient, and remember Christ’s words: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).