Worship and the Great Commission
If asked, most Christians would say that evangelism and worship are two quite different things. The Great Commission requires us to address man, while in worship we address God. In that sense, of course, evangelism and worship are indeed distinct. But at a different level there is a close connection – to evangelise effectively we need to be worshipping people.
I do not mean that worship itself is an evangelistic exercise, although the church at worship can play an evangelistic role (see 1 Corinthians 14:23-25). We all know people who came to faith in Christ during a normal worship service.
But when I speak of a close connection between worship and evangelism, my contention is that only members of a worshipping community are adequately equipped (individually and corporately) to further the Great Commission.
Let me try to demonstrate this by a meditation on Joshua 5:13 – 6:5, followed (next month) by an application to ourselves.
Like all Old Testament Scripture, Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land is full of instruction for the New Testament church (Romans 15:4). Thus I assume at the outset that the church of Christ is engaged in a war of conquest over the powers of darkness – a war in which ‘the gates of hell’ must surely give way (Matthew 16:18). Our weapons of attack are spiritual, not carnal, and consist in so preaching the gospel as to bring ‘every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Having entered Canaan, the Israelites found their way barred by the mighty walled city of Jericho. Although the city was in ‘siege mode’ Joshua could not simply pass it by, for that would leave a powerful enemy behind his lines. Jericho stood in their way and must be overthrown.
But how? The city seemed impregnable, walled up to heaven. Joshua surveyed it from afar and mused on his options. Should they use ladders to scale those lofty walls? Or seek to batter down the gates? Or accept months of delay and starve the defendants out?
None of the alternatives was attractive. A heavy responsibility rested on his shoulders as the newly appointed leader of God’s people.
Suddenly he became aware of a figure standing nearby with a drawn sword. No coward, Joshua approached him demanding to know his allegiance: ‘Are you for us or for our adversaries?’ (5:13). The reply must have come as a shock. ‘No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come’.
How could this be? Wasn’t Joshua himself the head of the Lord’s army? How could there be another such commander? Joshua immediately knew the answer; this was JAHWEH himself, the pre-incarnate Christ in theophany.
Joshua ‘fell on his face to the earth and worshipped’.
The first lesson Joshua needed to learn was this – although he was the human leader of God’s people, he was not ultimately in charge. God reserves that privilege to himself. It is all too easy for Christian leaders, evangelists and missionaries to take control of evangelistic endeavour and forget that without Christ they can do nothing (John 15:5).
This is especially true for those whose ministries are successful in men’s eyes and attribute this to their own abilities (God-given though they are). But God’s work can only prosper when we realise that beyond human leaders, however gifted, stands a greater ‘commander of the Lord’s armies’ – Christ himself.
But what of those who labour without obvious fruit? They should be encouraged. Ultimately they are not in charge, for ‘the battle is the Lord’s’ and his sovereign purpose will surely be fulfilled through their labours (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).
‘Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshipped and said to him, “What does my Lord say to his servant?”.’ Notice three things about Joshua’s response. Firstly, he recognised this stranger as God and offered worship. He was not dealing with some angelic messenger but directly with God himself. Similarly, when Jesus sent his disciples out to fulfil the Great Commission, he did not promise them the help of angelic legions but rather that his own personal presence would be with them throughout the gospel age.
When we worship we stand in the presence of God. When we evangelise we do the same. To preach the gospel is not to go out from the presence of the Lord but to go out with his presence.
Secondly, Joshua submitted to the lordship of his God. True worship begins with the recognition of God, but must also involve submission to the divine will – and that’s not always easy!
If Christ is really in charge we shall submit to his direction, not follow our own headstrong plans and ambitions. Many in Christ’s own day appeared to worship but did not submit to him in obedience: ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, but do not do the things which I say?’ (Luke 6:46).
Thirdly, and as a consequence of submission, he was ready to listen: ‘What does my Lord say to his servant?’ Full-orbed worship involves far more than singing praise to God; it also involves listening carefully to his Word.
We cannot worship truly unless we hear and receive ‘what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Revelation 2:7, etc.). We are too quick to propose our own ideas and too slow to hear what God is saying to us, and this applies equally in worship and in evangelism.
But exactly what did the Lord have to say? I have no doubt that Joshua expected to receive instructions about the battle. He was seeking practical help and advice from his Commander. How should he approach the fortress and dispose his men? What equipment should he requisition (ladders, battering rams, or what)?
But no such instructions were forthcoming – there was a greater priority than Joshua’s action plan! ‘Then the Commander of the Lord’s army said to Joshua, “Take your sandal off your foot, for the place where you stand is holy”. And Joshua did so’.
This was surely unexpected, for Joshua had already adopted an attitude of worship – with all it entailed in terms of submission, obedience and listening. What more could God expect of him?
The answer is that in his eagerness to do battle and serve his God, Joshua was in danger of worshipping superficially. He had fallen on his face and acknowledged the divine presence, but more was needed before he could serve appropriately.
While we shall never render perfect worship in our fallen condition, there are degrees of worship just as there are degrees of faith. Like Moses at the burning bush, Joshua needed to be reminded of the holiness of God, not just his greatness. When we enter the presence of God we stand on holy ground and must respond accordingly.
The Lord would not let Joshua go to battle without a deeper understanding of his ineffable purity, glory and transcendence. In the same way, the Lord wouldn’t let Moses deliver Israel from the land of bondage until he too had recognised the true nature of the God who called him to this service (Exodus 3:5‑6).
Now at last Joshua was ready to be shown the divine strategy for defeating Jericho (6:1-5). This consisted of three stages, none of which would have been obvious to Joshua had he not learned to esteem and worship God aright.
Firstly and basically, Joshua was shown that human weapons alone would never defeat Jericho – only divine power could deal with those towering walls.
Even a complete armoury of ladders, battering rams, catapults and ramps would have proved ineffectual against the defences of so strong an enemy. So also we must ultimately look to God’s sovereign power if the gates of hell are to be breached and its captives released.
Secondly, however, this did not mean that Joshua and his army were to do nothing! They were to march around the city day after day displaying the Ark of the Covenant and trumpeting its presence by their sounding horns.
Here is a picture of the patient and repeated proclamation of ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ – for the Ark pictures Christ in all his attributes; the priests represent his heralds; and the trumpets are his gospel declared. The number seven speaks of the perfection of God’s strategy.
Thirdly, once God had, without Joshua’s help, reduced those seemingly impregnable walls to rubble, each soldier had an energetic role to play. Jericho and its inhabitants were to be destroyed utterly, with the exception of Rahab and her family.
Happily, today we are not called to destroy men’s lives, but to save them – using the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God – and Joshua’s warfare is for us just a picture of the spiritual conflict in which ‘we do not wrestle against flesh and blood…’ (Ephesians 6:12).
Based on a paper given at the
Verax Conference, Germany, 8 May 2010
(To be concluded)