It must have been a startling apparition to Joshua when he saw standing over against him a man with a sword in his hand, unsheathed and ready for use (Joshua 5:13). It was the time of war.
But Joshua, too, was ready. He went to him and said, “Art thou for us or for our adversaries?”
Notice the moment chosen for this appearance. It was not just when the people had crossed the river whose proud waters had been stayed by the power of God, nor immediately on planting their feet on the soil of the promised land. It was only after the rite of circumcision (neglected throughout the forty years of journeying in the wilderness) had been observed, and when the reproach of Egypt had been rolled away at Gilgal; when the manna had ceased; and when they had eaten of the old corn of the land. This was the moment selected by the mysterious warrior to present himself to Joshua.
Now, Canaan does not typify to us that aspect of heaven where there is absolute rest and glory. It speaks rather of the heavenly places mentioned in the Epistle to the Ephesians—places distinct, indeed, from earth, but not exactly heaven itself, into which no enemy of course can intrude, and where the sword of conflict is sheathed for ever.
In the heavenly places there is conflict, dire, terrible, Satanic. Every inch of ground is contested by the subtle foe, and “the whole armour of God” is necessary, that the invader, “having done all,” may “stand.”
Do we Christians know anything of this kind of conflict?
It is not that of Romans 7, where deliverance from bondage is earnestly desired, and where the renewed soul is learning its utter impotence, apart from the Spirit of God, to accomplish His will; discovering not what Satan is, so much as what the flesh is, in its incurable vileness and opposition to God.
Neither is it the struggle of Galatians 5, where, if “the flesh lusts against the Spirit,” “the Spirit lusts against the flesh,” in order that there should be power to overcome its workings and produce fruit exquisite with the beauties of the life of Christ. “Love, joy, long-suffering, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance”—this is the fruit,
The conflict of Ephesians 6 is different from both of these. For this conflict it is not enough to know that we are sheltered from judgment by the blood of the Paschal Lamb, and that, in crossing the Red Sea, we have died with Christ (as in Rom. 6). Nor is it sufficient to know that we are pilgrims, bound for glory, sustained on our journey thither by daily food from heaven.
We need also to know that we have crossed the Jordan in the resurrection power of a risen Christ, and are “risen with Him,” and “seated in Him” in these very heavenly places, which are now to be our theatre of war, and place of conflict with Satan. Now, then (to use typical language), we are circumcised with Christ, are in the land, Egypt’s reproach is gone and we feed on the old corn. But the question is, Are we in the conscious power of this divine deliverance? Have we understood spiritually the truth of Romans 6 and Galatians 5? Are we now in the living power of Ephesians 6?
Behold these six hundred thousand men under Joshua possessing all the outward equipment of a conquering host, and regarded as such by their commander. See them ready, externally, to take the field under him and march to victory. He appears to have been proud of his followers. Hence he asks, “Art thou for us?
Alas! how large that “us” appears at times! How much we are inclined to make of the vessel, the mere instrument which may or may not be used by the hand of God. It is only when the vessel is deemed as nothing that “the power of Christ” rests on it.
“For us or for our adversaries?” is a question which betrays a measure of self-occupation, however true the facts themselves.
It remains unanswered. “Nay, but as Captain of the Lord’s host am I now come,” was the reply. Wherever that host can be found, here is the Leader!
Joshua falls on his face, acknowledging the supreme authority of Him who thus replied. Here was One who soared far above such distinctions as “us” and “our adversaries.” The eye of Joshua was turned from them to the glorious Captain. The “we” and the “they” sank under this all-absorbing vision. The led are nothing to the Leader. “What says my Lord unto His servant?” said the now prostrate Joshua. How comely!
What followed? “Loose thy shoe from off thy foot,” said the Leader. “for the place whereon thou standest is holy.” That place was neither the land of Egypt nor the sand of the desert. It was the Lord’s land, and therefore holy ground. Hence Joshua had to walk with unshod foot and in a spirit of dependence and humility. What a preparation he here received for the struggle which lay before him. He saw, face to face, the Captain of the Lord’s host, and hearing His voice, and receiving His command.
And for how long did this host retain that character? It was led of the Lord in great triumph all the days of Joshua. Then, alas! it lost all the moral features of such an army, and soon broke up into the chaos of the book of Judges, and fell under the heel of the oppressor. The mighty host of Gilgal became the impotent, weeping crowd of Bochim! Dark has been the history of that people ever since in spite of repeated revivals and restorations, and dark it will continue to be until the glorious day shall come when (as we read in Isaiah 55:4), “I have given Him … for a leader and commander to the people.” Here, again, when the Jordan (so to speak) is once more crossed by the nation and their heart is circumcised, we find the Captain of the Lord’s host in His proper place as leader.
That which is true of Israel is in measure true of Christians. Think of these six score disciples in Acts 2 filled with the Holy Ghost. How unitedly they bore witness to the great foundation truth of Christianity—a risen Christ and a present Spirit.
Possessed of this, in living power, they were assuredly the Lord’s host. They carried all the moral insignia, all the spiritual features: holy separation from the world, profane or religions, and mutual love, as followers of Christ.
How long did such a triumph continue? Alas! we have only to read the second and third chapters of the Revelation to find Church history given in brief from Ephesian activity to the Laodicean confusion of the present day. The failure is lamentable. We may bow our beads and shed our tears. But let us remember the word in Hebrews 2, “It became Him, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”
That Captain is on high, and the many sons of God shall be brought safely to glory, spite of all failure and the power of the enemy, through the atoning sufferings of the Son of God and His unfailing intercession for them in heaven.
How well for us to see in this blessed One the Captain of the Lord’s host, and, while thinking nothing of ourselves, to cherish exalted thoughts of the grace that has made us the sons of God, who once were dead in sins and alienated from Him.
May this vision lead us, in like manner, to fall on our faces as we behold His glory. That glory can ever be seen, whether the day be bright or dark. It remains untarnished in its splendour, be the host what it may, and sure it is that the only power of recovery and of steadfastness is a true heartfelt apprehension of the “Captain” who is so faithfully leading all the sons of God to glory.
May He evermore fill our vision.