It is natural, though altogether wrong, to think that somehow when we turn the pages that separate the Old and New Testaments that we are entering into more gentle times, that God in the interim somehow became kinder and gentler. We do not see in the New Testament, as we do in the Old, flaming mountains with flashing lightning and earth-shaking thunder. We do not see all the first born of a given nation wiped out in a single night, nor the earth’s whole population, save one family, suffer death by drowning. We do not see Uzzah struck dead for touching God’s ark, nor do we see the prophets of Baal struck down by God’s own prophets. Instead, we meet Jesus. Jesus, we are told, will not break a bruised reed, nor quench a smoldering wick (Matt. 12:20). He is gentle and mild, and utterly determined to bring all His enemies under subjection, to silence every pretender to His throne.
It was when Jesus interpreted law on the mount, at His sermon there, that He first commanded us that we should seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. But it was in Psalm 2 where we are told that Jesus will be given the nations for an inheritance, the ends of the earth for a possession, and where we are told that He will break the rebellious princes and potentates with a rod of iron.
These two perspectives are not at odds with each other. Indeed, they meet together in the book of Acts. Jesus is conquering the world, but the weapons of His warfare are not carnal. If you step back a bit from the book of Acts, you can discern a curious pattern. Just as the book of Joshua tells the story of God’s people conquering the land after a great deliverance, so too does the book of Acts. In both instances, the great leader, after leading the people out of slavery, has gone on to his reward. Moses is taken to heaven, and Jesus ascends to His throne. In both instances there is trouble from those outside the camp. The Canaanites fight against Joshua even as both Rome and the Jews fight the apostles. With Joshua, the walls come tumbling down. In Acts, angels rescue the apostles from the prison walls that keep them in. In Joshua, there is sin in the camp as Achan seizes the plunder of Jericho and is killed. In Acts, Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Spirit and die.
Both books are stories of conquest. In both instances it is Jesus Himself, the Captain of the Lord’s Host, who goes before His people in conquest. The difference is here — Joshua, at God’s command, fights with a literal sword. The apostles, at God’s command, fight with the Word of the Lord. Because we are worldly, we find the Joshua story more dramatic, the new covenant context a toning down of the war. The reality is far different. The warfare is intensifying rather than waning, the stakes growing more deadly. Now it is clear that it is not a question of dead bodies but of dead souls.
For all the parallels between the books of Joshua and Acts, there is this difference as well. Joshua finished his conquest. The land was subdued under his leadership. In the book of Acts, the war begins in Jerusalem, spreads to Judea, and from there to Samaria and the outermost parts of the world. Never, however, has this battle ended. Indeed, it will not end until the end. Jesus is bringing every enemy under subjection. He is conquering the whole of the promised land (the earth), not a narrow strip of land in the Middle East.
It is because the battle continues that we must continue to hear the battle call of our Lord. From that first mount He commanded all that were there that they would set aside all their worldly worries and set their hearts on the battle. He commands of us the same. He has drafted us into His army not as the war is cooling down but as it is heating up. And He has equipped us not with sword and spear but with that spirit of liberty that is ready to die. He has not called us to go out and kill the enemy but to die for the enemy that they might be won. He has called us to follow His supreme example.
The “bloodthirsty” God of the Old Testament, we would be wise to remember, wisely, rightly, executed the guilty. He never practiced an uncontrolled fury. He never punished the innocent with the guilty, for in the Old Testament there were no innocent. The next time we are tempted to fall for that folly that sees God getting soft in the New Testament, we need to remember this: Only once did God kill an innocent man. And that was in the New Testament.
In the new covenant, it is we who are called to be bloodthirsty. We do not subdue His enemies with carnal weapons but with spiritual. Joshua’s soldiers were sustained by the bread from heaven. So are we. Their thirsts were sated by the rock that was struck. Our thirsts too. We must hunger for His body and we must thirst for His blood. We must, if we would conquer in His name, conquer in His way — by dying to ourselves, by picking up our cross.