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 Yahweh. 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 Yahweh’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 (Joshua 5:13–15).
One of the more profound points of disagreement between some Particular Baptists and the historic Christian and Reformed understanding of the history of redemption (historia salutis) centers on the question of the nature of the covenant of grace before the New Testament. There are more moderate Baptists who see the covenant of grace as actually present in the Old Testament (i.e., Gen-Malachi). The school of thought that concerns us here, however, is the more radical strain of Particular Baptist theology who reject the idea that the covenant of grace was actually, substantially present in the types and shadows of the Old Testament. In this view, the covenant of grace is only actually present in the New Covenant. In this view, there is a witness to the covenant of grace in the types and shadows and believers under the OT might be said to have apprehended Christ and the covenant of grace by faith but the covenant of grace itself remains wholly future relative to the types and shadows. Indeed, some proponents of this view have argued that all the covenants (including the Abrahamic) before the New Covenant were, in essence, covenants of works and that only the New Covenant is the covenant of grace.
One counter argument that I have been offering to the more radical Particular Baptist view is to say that such a view cannot account for significant events in the history of redemption nor does it account for the way the New Testament itself interprets the Old Testament. In other essays I have noted how much Paul’s appeal to the history of Israel (in 1 Cor 10:1–4) relies on a substantial continuity between Israel and the New Covenant church. I have also observed that in (the most likely textual variant of) Jude 5, it is Jesus who “saved the people out of the land.”1 For these discussions see the resources below.
To those passages I wish to add Joshua 5. The context, of course, is after the church has been delivered out of the wilderness and into Canaan. The first thing we see in Joshua 5:1–9 is the re-institution of the sign of admission to the visible covenant community. For forty years the church, as it existed under the types and shadows, had neglected admitting infants into the visible church by circumcising them. Thus, the Lord re-instituted circumcision in, if you will forgive the expression, a pointed way. The name of the place where this happened translates as “pile of foreskins.” There are some colorful place names in the USA but none would bring up short a traveler as quickly as that. By speaking of the church I am intentionally doing two things: 1) evoking the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) which regularly uses the Greek word, which we translate as “church,” to describe the covenant assembly in the OT (see the resources below); 2) highlighting the substantial continuity between the old administration of the covenant of grace and the new. Just as they had a sign and seal of admission to the covenant community so do we. Theirs was bloody and typological. Ours is unbloody and looks back to the work that Christ accomplished by his obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension.
In the second section, 5:10–12, we see the first Passover in Canaan, as the heading in the ESV has it. The Passover was the sign and seal of covenant renewal for those able to make profession of faith. It fulfilled the same function as the Lord’s Supper does in the New Covenant. Like circumcision, the Passover (and the other feasts) was a bloody sign pointing forward to fulfillment in Christ. The Lord’s Supper is an unbloody feast in the body and blood of Christ who is our Passover. So far Joshua 5 is leading us in the very same direction as Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4. There Paul appealed to the very same points of continuity with Israel. There is another point, however, that emerges in the third part of the chapter.
In vv. 13–15 Joshua meets a mysterious figure: the “Commander of Yahweh’s Army.” He looked up and saw an armed man, prepared for battle. His potential adversary had drawn his sword. Think of how soldiers enter a combat zone or cops approach a house with a violent criminal. The soldier takes his rifle in hand and the cop draws his weapon from his holster. This is not a benign move. Quite reasonably Joshua asks the intention of the stranger: “friend or foe?” The stranger identifies himself in a remarkable way: “No, but I am the commander of Yahweh’s army. Now I have come.”2 Joshua sensed that this was no ordinary figure: “What does my Lord say to his servant?” (NKJV) to which the figure replies, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (ESV). This is no mere angel. Only the Lord himself speaks this way (Ex 3:5). The Commander of Yahweh’s Army is Yahweh himself, the pre-incarnate Son of God. That this is a manifestation of God the Son to Joshua seems impossible to deny.
If so, it again raises the question: how is it possible for the the God the Son to appear in the midst of his people, in grace, but the covenant of grace be absent? This is not coherent. Where the Lord of grace is there his covenant and kingdom are also. The sign of admission is a gracious sign of the gracious, spiritual work that the Spirit will do in the hearts of his people even under the types and shadows. Circumcision signifies death, the putting off of the old man and the putting on of the new (Col 2:11–12). The Passover feast (like the others) signifies the gracious communion that God has with his people in his Son.
The grace of the covenant is present in, with, and under this shadowy manifestation of the Son himself. Thus, covenant of grace is not entirely future relative to Joshua 5 because the Son himself is not entire future. He was present then just as, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:4, he had been present with the people in the wilderness: “and that rock was Christ” and just as Jude says he had saved them out Egypt. Paul and Jude put a fine point on it by using the names of God the Son in his incarnate state (i.e., Jesus and Christ) so that there would be no confusion about who was present with his people under types and shadows. The very same Son who was to submit to the humiliation of incarnation, of gestation, of birth, of obedient suffering and death, who was to be raised for us and and who intercedes for us now at the right hand was with his church even before the incarnation because there is one covenant of grace in multiple administrations. Joshua, the son of nun, met Jesus, the only and eternally begotten Son of God and found favor with God for the sake of the Commander of Yahweh’s Army.3
1. The NA28 has “Ἰησοῦς⸃ λαὸν ἐκ ⸁γῆς Αἰγύπτου σώσας” but the NA27 has “κύριος ἅπαξ λαὸν ἐκ γῆς Αἰγύπτου σώσας” as does Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesllschaft/United Bible Societies, 1994), which nevertheless concedes two key facts: the external support for Ἰησοῦς is very strong and on text-critical principles it is the most likely reading because it is the more difficult. Metzger et al. plead only it is “too difficult.” That argument strikes this reader as special pleading. The variant Ἰησοῦς was much more likely to tempt copyists to correct the text to the generic κύριος.
2. Our Lord stands guard, sword in hand, over the land of Canaan. We should understand the signs and seals of the covenant of grace to be, in themselves, gracious but this seems to be a threat. This episode is like that of Exodus 4:24, when Yahweh met Moses and “sought to put him to death.” The sign of circumcision is a gracious sign of a gracious covenant but it contains a threat for unbelievers. If Moses will not apply the sign to his son, Yahweh will apply what the sign signifies to Moses. So here too, the Son stands ready, sword in hand, to execute judgment on an impenitent people. Implicitly, the unsheathed sword is a threat to circumcise, as it were, an uncircumcised people.
3. This essay is influenced by Chris Gordon’s recent sermon on Joshua 5, “Recovering Israel’s Covenant Children,” which will be available via Abounding Grace Radio.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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