From the beginning to the end of the book of Joshua, the formula is repeated: God gives and Israel inherits. The spotlight is not on Joshua’s moral example or on timeless principles of conduct but on Yahweh’s fulfillment of a historical promise. Even Joshua’s name (“Yahweh Saves!”) points away from himself to the real hero of the story. Joshua is a story of grace.
God’s gracious covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 involved key promises, including a temporal land and nation (the “type,” or beginning of a pattern) and an everlasting inheritance for all nations through his descendant—Jesus Christ (the reality to which the type pointed; see Gal. 3:16). Though entering land is a gracious gift (Deut. 7:6–9; 9:4–8), remaining God’s holy nation did depend on Israel’s obedience to the covenant. This echoes Adam’s testing in Eden, with the consequent promise of life or death, blessing or curse, enjoyment of God or exile (Ex. 19:4–8; 24:3, 8; Deut. 11:17, 26; 28:1–68). Even after heeding the voice of the serpent, Adam and Eve received God’s gracious promise of a Savior, the seed (or “offspring”) of the woman, who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Would this seed be Israel? Was Israel the fulfillment of God’s promise? In spite of much genuine faith and obedience under Joshua, already this book hints at the tragic verdict: “But like Adam they [Israel] transgressed the covenant” (Hos. 6:7). The nation of Israel was not the ultimate seed of God’s promise but rather was God’s instrument for providing it (that is, for providing him).
Jesus Christ, the true Seed of promise descending from Israel, secured the everlasting promise through an obedience and triumph not displayed in the nation of Israel. God’s people remain secure from the consequences of all their transgressions and Satan’s power by trust in this righteous Seed alone. Jesus is the final conqueror of Satan; he does what Adam and then Israel failed to do (Col. 2:15). This is the point of Paul’s contrast in Galatians 3–4 between “two covenants”—the law and the promise, the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem. It is also a familiar contrast throughout the book of Hebrews (e.g., Heb. 11:16; 12:18–24). With Christ as the faithful servant and mediator, the new covenant “is enacted on better promises” (Heb. 8:6).
Overlooking these distinctions of Christ’s role in contrast to Israel, the conquest recounted in Joshua has been mistakenly invoked by Christian empires and nations to justify Christian holy war. Others, in reaction to these errors, have criticized this portion of God’s Word as being incompatible with the God of peace whom we meet in Jesus Christ. How do we respond to such misunderstandings?
First, we should recognize that the accounts of Joshua are not the whole story of God’s covenant purposes. There is a progression in God’s plan that we can perceive only this side of the cross. In fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of a worldwide family in Christ, the new covenant church is distinct from all geopolitical states. God is not now funneling his redemptive activity through a single nation such as was needed during the time of Old Testament Israel. God’s common grace (not saving grace) is now more apparent in its encompassing of believers and unbelievers alike (Matt. 5:43–48), and the nation of Israel is no longer uniquely designed to exhibit the sole rule of God. Even Jesus affirms Caesar’s political authority over Judea (Mark 12:17; cf. Rom. 13:1–7). In this New Testament phase of his kingdom, Christ conquers the earth (not just a small territory like Canaan) in saving grace by his Word and Spirit, rather than in military exploit (Eph. 6:12–17). Thus, in this era, reflecting our Savior before us, believers spread the gospel not by violence but through faithful witness that involves enduring the opposition—and perhaps even violence—of the world.
Like the spies Joshua sent into Jericho, the apostles were an advance force for the conquering purposes of God. But the means of their conquest were quite different. Jesus rebuked James and John for wanting to execute holy war on Samaritans that had rejected the gospel (Luke 9:51–56). Their mission was to preach the gospel of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus similarly instructed the 72 to fulfill their mission not by force but by preaching (Luke 10–12), giving them “authority to tread on serpents” (Luke 10:19). However, it is Satan—the real Enemy behind the earthly enemies—whose head is finally being crushed (Luke 10:17–20; cf. Rom. 16:20).
Our God yet retains the physical and spiritual authority to do as he wishes for the whole world. When Christ returns, he will judge the whole earth, together with his saints (1 Cor. 6:2). His victory will be more powerful and forceful than anything that we read about in the book of Joshua; it will mark the final destruction of evil and the establishment of everlasting righteousness and peace. Through Joshua’s conquest we discern the power of God’s might through an incredibly flawed nation, but only in the Seed that would come through Joshua’s people do we see the true purpose and end of God’s conquering promises. Unlike the wars of old that led only to more bloodshed and misery, Christ’s global judgment and victory when he comes again will truly be the war to end all wars (Matt. 3:11–12; 24:27–25:46; Rev. 17:1–20:15).