While it may not appear evident at first glance, the Holy War in which Israel was engaged in the Old Covenant (Ex. 34:11-16) and the Holy War in which Christians are engaged in the New Covenant (Eph. 6:10-19) are directly related to the saving work of Christ. A biblical theology of the Land and Temple enables us to make sense of Holy War in the Old and New Testament, by giving insight into the Holy War that God waged on Christ at the cross. This approach keeps us from dissecting the Bible into two unrelated books. The cross is the epicenter of God’s revelation in both Testaments. Its shadows and types are realized in the full light of the Person and work of Jesus. In order to understand the New Testament’s teaching on Holy War we must first understand the nature of Old Covenant Holy War, and how God declared Holy War on Christ at Calvary.
The idea of purification stands at the forefront of God’s command for Israel to destroy the nations in the land of Canaan. God promised to dwell with His people. The Land of Israel was a stepping-stone in the restoration of Eden. God’s purpose was to restore paradise lost in “new heavens and a new Earth in which righteousness dwells” (Rom. 4:13; 2 Pet. 3:13). The land of Israel was a temporary step in this process. The land was set apart by God to be a holy dwelling. In order for the Holy God to dwell in the land, the land had to be holy. The Canaanite inhabitants, and their practices, represented everything opposed to the holiness of God. As Meredith Kline observed, “Israel’s conquest and dispossession of the Canaanites was carried out in fulfillment of their status as a nation of priests…commissioned to cleanse the land claimed by Yahweh as holy to him.” The cleansing of the land of Israel through Holy War prefigured the cleansing of the Temple. Vern Poythress explains the connection between the land and the Temple when he writes:
The land is God’s own land; the people are only tenants (Lev. 25:23-24). Because the land is particularly associated with God, it is in a broad sense holy and will be defiled by gross sins (Lev. 18:24-28). The land is the land “where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites” (Num. 35:34). The land as the dwelling of God is analogous to the tabernacle and the temple, which are the dwelling of God in a more intensive sense. The small piece of land occupied by the temple is replicated on a large scale by the land as a whole. Thus we should not be surprised that the land is large-scale embodiment of the principles of the tabernacle. Defilement of the land corresponds to defilement of the tabernacle, and cleansing of the land, as in Num. 35:33-34, corresponds to cleansing the tabernacle. The people as a whole, who live on the land, are analogous to the priests who offer special service in the tabernacle.1
In redemptive history, the Temple became God’s dwelling place in the Land. The temple needed to be cleansed because of sin. The several acts of Temple cleansing in the Old Testament pointed back to the conquest of Canaan and forward to the work of Christ (2 Chron. 29:3-19; Neh. 13:4-31). In the days of Christ, the Lord cleansed the Temple (Jn. 2:15; and Matt. 21:12). These Temple cleansings showed the need for a final, spiritual cleansing of the worshipers. Both the conquest of the land and the cleansing of the Temple were to teach the Israelites their need for spiritual cleansing.
At the beginning of his ministry our Lord said, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up. (John 2:19); He “was speaking of the Temple of His body” (Jn 2:21). Jesus is the Temple because in His Person “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). When Christ was crucified, the Temple was cleansed in the greatest act of judgment. In the destruction of His flesh, the sin of His people was cleansed (2 Cor. 5:21). The Father declared Holy War on His people, and their sin, when He declared it on His Son. In the death of Jesus, the people of God were judged for their sins. When Jesus was crucified, we were crucified with Him (Gal. 2:20). The power of sin was destroyed (Gal. 5:24). When He rose, we rose with Him to newness of life (Rom. 6:5-10; Col. 3:3).
In the New Covenant, all who are united to Christ by faith form the Temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17). The Spirit of God no longer dwells in a building in Jerusalem; He dwells in the hearts of believers. The blood of Jesus cleanses the hearts of His people. Our sanctification is continually affected by His death. The Spirit of Christ resides in believers, and is committed to cleansing their hearts of remaining corruption.
Today, the Church is engaged in Holy War. It is a war against the spiritual enemies who lay behind the kingdoms of this world (Eph. 6:10-11). In this Holy War, we are not called to conquer the land of Israel—rather, we are called to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). We do not fight this war with physical weapons; we do so by proclaiming the Gospel and putting sin to death by the Spirit. At the cross, Jesus disarmed principalities and powers (Col. 2:13). In His ascension He plundered the enemy (Eph. 4:8), freeing His people from the power of sin and the devil. We participate in His victory by participating in the Church’s mission. When sinners are converted, they undergo a spiritual death and resurrection. Their hearts are cleansed through faith in the crucified Savior. Wherever the message of the cross is proclaimed—and whenever believers engage in hand-to-hand combat with their sin—Holy War is being fought. Whatever the circumstance, we must never forget that the battle is the LORD’s; He has determined its outcome. The war has been fought and won. Victory has been secured at Calvary. God declared Holy War on His Son at the cross. In doing so He conquered the world, the flesh and the devil.
Vern Poythress sums up a New Testament theology of Holy War by tying together all of the various biblical theological aspects of the Scriptures teaching on this subject:
In the crucifixion, Christ as penal substitute bore the penalty of destruction that should have come to us because we have rebelled and tried to pollute God’s holiness. Christ is not only our substitute but one through whom we experience spiritual death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-11; Col. 2:20-3:4).
Hence as Christians we ourselves are victims of holy war. We have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 5:24; 2:20) and we have died with Christ (Col. 2:20; Rom. 6:3-5). Our flesh has been subjected to destruction (Gal. 5:24). But since Christ was raised from the dead, we also enjoy new life (Rom. 6:4). The work of Christ represents a dramatic advance in the accomplishment of salvation, not only because reality supersedes symbol, but because the Old Testament symbols typically did not prominently include the note of resurrection. The animals who were sacrificed did not come to life again. As a rule, the law of Moses killed but did not bring to life (2 Cor. 3:6-18). It revealed God’s standard but did not produce in the hearts of Israelites genuine inward conformity (cf. Jer. 31:31-34).
We have established, then, that Israelites were subject to holy war through substitution, just as Christians are. But Israelites after their consecration were also active participants in holy war on God’s side. The same is true of Christians. The Book of Revelation depicts a holy war of cosmic proportions in which Christians are involved. In this war they must maintain their confession and their purity in the face of every kind of opposition springing from Satan. Revelation even presents us with specific parallels between Christ’s holy war and the holy war in the Old Testament. The seven trumpets of Rev. 8-11 are reminiscent of the trumpets sounded for the fall of Jericho in Joshua’s holy war. The effects of the seven trumpets and the seven bowls of Rev. 8-11 and 16 are similar to the plagues on Egypt, which was a different phase of Old Testament holy war waged by God himself. The conspiracy of kings inRev. 17:12 is reminiscent of the conspiracies in Josh. 10-11. The fall of Babylon in Rev. 17-18 is reminiscent of the fall of Jericho. And so on.
The process of holy war is described in less imagistic language in Eph. 6:10-20. Satan and his agents undertake to pollute and destroy the holiness of Christians; Christians in turn engage in war leading to the destruction of Satan (Rev. 12:11; 20:10).
What are we to conclude on the basis of these New Testament passages? Should Christians engage in holy war? Do passages such as Deut. 6:15-21 apply to us? Certainly the passages do apply to us. For one thing, we have the general principle that the Old Testament applies to us (2 Tim. 3:17; Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11; Matt. 5:17-20). We also have specific New Testament injunctions from Eph. 6:10-20 and from Rev. confirming the thrust of the Old Testament passages. We are not importing something alien to the Old Testament. Rather, the Old Testament all along pointed forward to Christ and spoke in symbolic form of just this holy war that we are called on to wage (Luke 24:25-27, 44-49).
But a fair understanding of the Old Testament requires that we take notice of its own indications of the preliminary and shadowy character of some of its institutions (cf. Heb. 9:8-14). Before Christ came to fulfill God’s plans of redemption and holy war, his purposes could be realized properly only in a preliminary way, through foreshadowing. This process of foreshadowing had several features. (1) A genuine analogy and continuity exists between the Old Testament institution and its fulfillment in Christ. (2) The continuity enables Old Testament saints to participate in the benefits of Christ’s work in a preliminary way, and so to be saved and to experience his justice and holiness. (3) The coming of Christ brings a reality and an accomplishment that supersedes Old Testament symbols in depth and finality. OT symbols are fulfilled in and replaced by reality. 2 (4) Old Testament symbols proclaim their own nonultimacy (e.g., the law brought death and not the promised life, 2 Cor. 3:6-7). (5) The resurrection of Christ introduces a new era where the Spirit is operative with heightened power, the power of the resurrection, in order to bring spiritual life.
Applying these principles to the case of holy war, we see the following. (1) New Testament holy war does continue the holy war of the Old Testament. (2) Old Testament holy war enabled the Israelites to enjoy a foreshadowment of the purificatory power of Christ. (3) Whereas Old Testament holy war was waged primarily against human opponents, on the level of symbol, New Testament holy war is waged against the ultimate opponents, Satan and his demonic assistants. In our age wicked human beings do become the agents of Satan in a limited way, but the fight is preeminently with superhuman forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12). Christ himself accomplished the definite victory in this holy war. Paul speaks of Christ’s triumph over the Satanic hosts when he says, “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col. 2:15). During Christ’s earthly life his actions of casting out demons proclaimed his authority and prefigured the great triumph over Satan through the cross.
(4) Old Testament holy war had a built-in insufficiency. The fight was primarily with human beings, the shadows of spiritual wickedness, rather than with the demonic sources of wickedness. Moreover, the fight did not result in ultimate cleansing. The offering of a city as a whole burnt offering, as in Deut 13:16, shared in the insufficiency of all Old Testament sacrifices (Heb. 10). (5) The power of Christ’s resurrection is able to raise the dead. In this fact there is a decisive advance over the Old Testament. To be sure, Abraham’s faith and the sacrifice of Isaac became an Old Testament symbolic basis for Israel’s redemption, but Old Testament acts of redemption never circumcised the hearts of the Israelites and never extended much beyond the bounds of Israel. Holy war waged against Israel brought redemptive results because of the substitutes, but holy war against the Canaanites brought only disaster to the Canaanites. But now during the New Testament era there is an advance. Holy war is waged through baptism and union with Christ. The flesh is crucified (Gal. 5:24). Human beings are not simply destroyed as were the Canaanites, but raised to life because of Christ’s resurrection. This situation is the foundation for wide-spread evangelism. Now the whole inhabited earth has become the new land that is to be conquered in God’s name (Matt. 28:18-20). We are to wage holy war. But the nature of that holy war is redefined because of Christ. In particular, there is hope for modern wicked people in a way that there was no hope for the Canaanites. When wicked people repent and are baptized into Christ, they undergo destruction and resurrection. They are consecrated to destruction in a way analogous to what happened to the Canaanites. But they do not stay dead and destroyed because Christ raises them. When they come to Christ in faith, they experience both death to the old life and resurrection to the new life.2
*This post is a modified form of an article that appeared as a weekend devotional in the August 2011 Tabletalk Magazine.
1. Vern Poythress The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses
2. Ibid., p. http://www.frame-poythress.org/ebooks/the-shadow-of-christ-in-the-law-of-moses-part-2/