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Covenant restored

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Joshua 8:1-35

Thesis: We must seek God’s will for each battle we fight.

Goal: Learn why and how to seek God’s will daily.

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked in 20 years of pastoral ministry has been: how can I know the will of God? We need his will for specific decisions—vocational opportunities or problems, family issues, financial commitments. We need his will for our relationships. We need his will for the use of our time, talent, and treasure. Nothing is more important to the follower of Jesus than that we know and follow the will of God for our lives. So how can we find this will each day?

Frederick Buechner was right: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” He has an overarching will for our lives, a purpose for our existence. Stephen Covey distinguishes between the compass (our values, vision, principles and mission) and the clock (our commitments, appointments, activities). We want God’s will for both.

When we find and fulfill that will, we can follow Jim Elliot’s advice: “Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” You and I will live with purpose, fulfillment, and significance only to the degree that we live in the will of God. So again we ask: how can we find this daily will?

Review all the ways God has led his people to this point. At the Red Sea, Moses held up his shepherd’s rod and the waters parted. At the flooded Jordan, the priests stepped into the water before it stopped. At Jericho, the army marched around the city walls. Now they would embark on yet another strategy, one of the most ingenious in war literature.

What’s the point? We must seek God’s will each day, for that day. His plans for yesterday may not be his plans for today. The way we cross the Red Sea may not be the way we cross the Jordan. We will defeat Ai differently than we defeated Jericho. Only when we live in this day, seeking God’s will for this moment, can we find and fulfill that will.

Norman Vincent Peale used to illustrate the point this way. He and his wife had a summer house, to which they would often arrive at night. A rough path of stepping stones led from the parking area to the house. Their flashlight would not illumine the entire path, just the stones directly before them. But when they stepped on each stone as the light revealed it to them, they reached their house safely. Let’s learn how to find that next stone.

Seek God’s will for this moment (vs. 1-2)

Francis Schaeffer was right: God is there and he is not silent. Hundreds of times the Bible records the words, “the Lord said to….” He speaks through his creation, his word, our worship, his Spirit. Just because we do not hear him does not mean he is not speaking. Radio and television waves fill the room where you are reading these words. You will not hear them unless you are “tuned in” to their frequency. The problem is not with them but with you.

In our text, the Lord began with yet another word of personal, direct encouragement to his general: “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” He repeated the message for emphasis, an early example of Jewish parallelism. Three times already he has given Joshua such verbal support (1:3-5; 3:11-13; 6:2-5). But never was this encouragement more needed than now.

When we sin, we often feel shame and discouragement more than courage and hope. After the first military defeat in their history, Joshua and his people needed to know that the Lord was still with them, that they were his covenant people and heirs to his promises and provision.

His word not only encouraged their spirit, but also guided their next step: “Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai.” Not the 3,000 dictated earlier by human wisdom (7:3). Not led by the priests, as at the Jordan. In a moment he will show Joshua how to use this army victoriously.

They would march with this assurance: “I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land” (v. 1b). It is already done—the battle is won. Now that Joshua and his people are walking in the covenant will of God, their victory is assured. They could have won this victory earlier, but their sin hindered the power of God. Now the king, his people, his city and his land would be theirs.

With this change from the Jericho strategy: “you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves” (v. 2a). If only Achan had waited! God’s will is always determined by the need of the moment. Now they would need this sustenance as they proceeded further into the land.

They would go with this military gambit: “Set an ambush behind the city” (v. 2b). God has a will not only for our needs, but also for our service. We must ever remain flexible to his purposes. We never change the message, but we must always examine the means.

Martin Luther set Protestant theology to familiar melodies, including barroom tunes, creating what we now sing as “traditional” hymns. The organ was divisive when first introduced to sacred worship, as it did not use human breath and was not sanctioned by the New Testament. The Sunday school was a novelty in the early 18th century. Many of us remember when churches did not have a “youth ministry.”

90% of the changes in human history occurred in the 20th century, 90% of those in the last decade. We currently possess 3% of the information which will be available to us by the year 2025. And so we must seek God’s will for this moment.

Carlyle’s advice is worth following: “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly in the future, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” Augustine added: “God will not suffer man to have a knowledge of things to come; for if he had prescience of his prosperity, he would be careless; and if understanding of his adversity, he would be despairing and senseless.” I know I would.

We want to avoid the “paralysis of analysis.” George MacDonald speaks for us all: “Doing the will of God leaves me no time for disputing about his plans.” Even God cannot help me with that which does not exist, and “tomorrow” does not exist. It is not a reality but an expectation nowhere promised by the word of God. So seek God’s will for this moment, and he will reveal it to you. He wants you to know his will more than you do. If you’re unclear as to the next step to take, don’t step until you know his will. In his time, in his ways, he will light your path. One step at a time.

Prepare for the battles to come (vs. 3-13)

Now we find the paradox of God’s will: we do not live in the future, but we prepare for it. We are to be sure that we are in his sovereign will and purpose with this day. And we are to seek his will as regards the preparations we are to make for the future. We need his guidance, for each day and each event of our lives is a spiritual conflict. There are no exceptions.

The apostle Peter knew whereof he spoke: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). We are to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power,” because “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:10, 12).

Joshua’s coming war was no more real than ours. The God who guided his preparations will guide ours as well. In this case, Joshua was led to select the right people: 30,000 of his “best fighting men.” They were shown the right timing: at night, when they would not be detected by their enemy. They were directed to the right location: behind the city, not far from its walls (v. 4).

They were given the right strategy: advance on the city, drawing the army of Ai out to battle with a feigned retreat. Then those stationed behind the city would be free to attack it. The resulting fire would signal Joshua’s troops to begin their own offensive against the surrounded and ambushed army. When all was ready, “Joshua spent the night with the people” (v. 9). They were in danger in this valley. But in every valley, their Lord and ours is with his people (Psalm 23:4).

Now came Joshua’s advance. The army marched 15 miles from Gilgal to the front of Ai, setting up camp to the north. 5,000 lay in ambush to the west of the city, between Bethel and Ai. The rest of the 30,000 who had been chosen earlier were probably stationed still further back, to prevent retreat when Joshua’s forces reversed and attacked. And the rest of the army was likely stationed further north of the city, where the king of Ai could not see them. This rough sketch may help to visualize the theater of war:

N

The remainder of the Israeli army

Bethel

Joshua and his men

The remainder of The 5,000Ai

the 30,000 troopstroops

Joshua would begin the attack with the small contingent which had camped with him in sight of the king of Ai. The king would send his men to repel what he thought was an assault identical to the one they had defeated earlier. All was in place.

Once we know the will of God, we must do whatever that will requires of us in preparation for its fulfillment. Noah was told to build an Ark when it likely had never rained, and spent 100 years in preparation for that day. Moses and his people made their preparations for the Passover before the death angel visited Egypt. Elijah prepared the altar before God sent the fire (1 Kings 18). Solomon built the Temple before the glory of the Lord would fill it. Jesus blessed the small lunch provided by the boy before he used it to feed the multitude.

James warned us: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).

Before you step into the battle which is before you, be sure your heart and plans are prepared in the will of God. Is there a place where you are disobedient to his word? Grieving his Spirit? Unprepared for his next step in your life? To know the will of God, first we seek it for this day. Then we seek it for the preparations we must make for tomorrow.

The victory goes to those who saw it before it ever transpired. At the opening of Disneyworld in Orlando, Walt Disney’s widow was told, “It’s a shame Walt never saw this day.” She quietly replied, “He did.”

Stay obedient to the plan of God (vs. 14-29)

We are right with the Father for today. We are prepared for the next step as he has revealed it to us. Now we must take that step, always a decision of faith. Spiritual obedience always transcends the empirical evidence at hand. Always.

Joshua has divided his army, so that the 30,000 cannot help their general if he is overrun in battle. The Ai army has defeated them before; will they lose to them again? Their leader is in personal jeopardy; will he be defeated or worse?

Joshua and his contingent attacked, then retreated according to God’s plan. Then he held high his javelin, signaling the attack from the ambush. As with Moses’ rod of old, God used a stick in the hand of his man to bring himself glory. As the text makes clear, the ambush was successful beyond all expectations: all of Ai was captured, without a single recorded Israeli casualty. Such perfection is impossible in human strategy. But it can be the gift of God.

The people killed the pagan, idolatrous inhabitants of Ai, kept the plunder for themselves, burned the city, and executed the king publicly. They likely stoned him to death, as the Jews did not execute people by hanging them from ropes. They then impaled his corpse on a tree or pole as a public example. Finally they buried his corpse beneath a large pile of rocks (v. 29), in obedience to the word of God which forbade leaving a body hanging overnight (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Note that if any part of the army had disobeyed this plan, all would have been lost. If Joshua and his contingent had not retreated, the Ai army would have been in the city when the ambush occurred. If the ambush had not been effected, Joshua’s troops could not have trapped their enemy. Total, consistent obedience is essential to the victory God intends to give his people.

Said the poet:

For want of a nail, a horse was lost;

For want of a horse, a rider was lost;

For want of a rider, a message was lost;

For want of a message, a battle was lost;

For want of a battle, a war was lost.

Every follower of Jesus is crucial to his body, whether we are his hands or feet, his eyes or ears (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Which part of your body are you ready to sacrifice today? What don’t you need?

I was invited to church by two men who asked me to ride their bus to church the following Sunday morning. If that bus had broken down in August of 1973, I might not be writing these words today. A mechanic had as must to do with my conversion as a minister. Your obedience to God’s plan for your life is crucial to the spiritual growth of those you teach. And to your own soul as well.

Stand on the word of God (vs. 30-35)

Joshua knew that guidance is first of all a relationship with the Guide. And so he concluded the battle of Ai with another altar, built to the glory of the One who had given them the victory.

He built the altar of stones of uncut stones according to the word of God (Exodus 20:25).

Then he gathered the people according to earlier instructions given by Moses to the people (Deuteronomy 11:26-30), stationing half before Mount Gerazim and the other half before Mount Ebal. It has been noted that these mountains comprised land not yet subdued by Israel, at least in the recorded history of their conquest. Some suggest that the Gibeonite treaty described in chapter 9 led to the peace made apparent by the narrative of 8:30-35, so that the present text actually follows chronologically the events about to be narrated. Nothing in the text forbids such an interpretation, as the writer nowhere indicated that he would be bound by strict chronology in telling the story.

It is also possible that events not recorded in the book of Joshua led to the conquest required by the nation’s peaceful stance before Gerazim and Ebal. And it is entirely possible that the peoples in this part of the land, seeing the conquest of Ai and Jericho before, chose to join Israel rather than fight them. They would then be part of the “aliens” referenced as part of “all Israel” (v. 33).

Here Joshua led the assembled people in burnt offerings in atonement for their sins (see Leviticus 1:1-17) and fellowship offerings as voluntary acts of worship and community (see Leviticus 3:1-17; 7:11-18). He knew that their military victory did not guarantee their spiritual health. They must stay obedient to the word of God for their souls as well as their nation.

Now he copied the “law of Moses” on stones covered with plaster, according to the regulation of Moses (v. 32, cf. Deuteronomy 27:2-4; the syntax indicates that the stones were specially prepared earlier). From these words Joshua then read: “There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the aliens who lived among them” (v. 35).

We don’t know if Joshua read only the Ten Commandments, a section of Deuteronomy, or the entire book. But the entire nation heard every word he read. The mountains formed a kind of natural amphitheater where his voice carried to every person in the family of Israel.

The point was clear: the nation would stand on the word of God. They would follow that word into their future, together. Every member of the children of Israel was equally obligated to this word, equally privileged to obey its truth, equally charged with its obedience.

It is of course the same with us. God’s will never contradicts his revealed truth. You will never be led by God into a course of action which is contrary to Holy Scripture. To walk in his will, you must stand on his word.

Conclusion

What battle is before you this week? Have you consulted the Lord to find his plan for waging it? Or are you planning to do what you have always done? Someone has defined “insanity” as doing the same thing while expecting a different result. The “seven last words of the church” are always the same: we never did it that way before. What if this were the motto of Israel in Joshua 8?

So how do we determine God’s will for the present moment? We begin by seeking it; even God cannot give us what we will not receive. We have not because we ask not (James 4:2). But when we lack wisdom and ask for it from God, he will give “generously to all without finding fault” (1:5). We prepare for the steps before us, as the Father leads us. We stay obedient to his plan, no matter who opposes it. And we stand continually on his word, for it is the armament which always win spiritual victory.

Along with these steps from Joshua 8, some practical guidelines may help you. Jim Pleitz, former pastor of Park Cities Baptist Church, suggested these questions years ago; I’ve kept them in my “God’s will” file, and share them with gratitude.

Personality test: will doing this make me a better or worse Christian?

Social test: will it influence others for better or worse?

Practical test: will the results of my doing it be desirable?

Universal test: if everyone did it, would society be improved or degraded?

Scriptural test: does the Bible endorse or condemn it?

Stewardship test: will this constitute a waste of talent or goods?

Missionary test: will it enhance or harm my influence?

Character test: will it harm or help my moral stamina?

Publicity test: would I be willing to have my fellow Christians know it?

Family test: will it bring dishonor or embarrassment to my family?

Common sense test: does it agree with ordinary common sense?

Financial test: will it rob me of my ability to do my part in supporting the financial needs of God’s kingdom?

Fairness test: is it honest? Is it a demonstration of the Golden Rule?

Know that God wants you to know his will more than you do. Seek it for this day, this moment, this battle. Ask him to guide you through scripture, prayer, worship, circumstances, and the influence of others. Ask him to open and close doors of opportunity. Determine beforehand to do whatever he reveals. As you seek his will for today, preparing for tomorrow, obeying all he reveals through his word, the victory will come. And it will exceed any expectation you had any right to hold.

Fred Rogers was interviewed near the end of his life and remarkable career. He closed this way: “I think God is at the junction of every choice we make, and knows the consequences before we do, and is with us as they unfold. You know, when I decided to look for work in television, I couldn’t possibly have known how I would be used. I’ve simply tried to be open to the possibilities God has made available to me.”

When we stay open in this way, God is able to move us into his plan. As we seek him in prayer, he molds us to his purpose. Henrietta Mears, the education director at First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, California, was enormously influential in the lives of Billy Graham and Bill Bright. She once said, “If I throw out a boat-hook from the boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to the will of God.” And only he knows the full significance of that will for us.

The most popular biblical commentary in the English language is undoubtedly William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible series. While preachers the world over own its volumes and read them with great appreciation, myself included, few know how they came to be.

The Church of Scotland’s Publications Committee had been tentatively experimenting with the idea of commentaries on selected books of the Bible. One or two had already appeared in print. Then William Barclay received a call from the Committee’s Publishing Manager, Rev. Andrew McCosh, a long-standing friend and former fellow student of Dr. Barclay. “We’ve been rather let down in our planning,” said McCosh. “Could you help us out, Willie, and do a commentary in a hurry on one of the books of the Bible? That will fill the gap and give us time to look around for someone really good.”

In response to the need of the moment, Barclay wrote his Daily Study Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. It was an immediately, tremendous success. He was invited to follow it with another volume, then another. And so the 17 volumes were written. I’m looking at my copy as I write these words, with great gratitude.

What “books” does God have in mind for you?