A podcast listener named Ian writes in to ask, “Pastor John, like many Christians, a part of Scripture I have always struggled with is the Canaanite genocide. I feel like I understand why God commanded Israel to cleanse the land of pagan influence — to protect them from potential idolatry. My question is this: When we see ISIS and other terrorist organizations essentially doing the same thing — for what they consider to be the same reason (purging the land of “infidels” by the command of God) — how can Christians take the moral high ground and condemn this modern genocide?”
It is interesting. I have been thinking about that question recently and I’ve thought, I am going to write a blog post about this, because it seems not only relevant, but increasingly relevant on to the end of the age. I just think this kind of question is going to be imperative to answer. So, I am glad I have been pushed a little bit to think about it some more.
Two Similarities Between ISIS and Joshua
So first let’s clarify. There are similarities and dissimilarities between what ISIS is doing and what Joshua did as they entered the Promised Land. There are a couple of similarities.
1. Both killed people.
Both killed people, even in horrible ways — men, women and children. There is no sense in trying to whitewash what happened there. God told Joshua to clean house on the Canaanites.
2. Both believed they were sent by God.
Number two, both believed that they were killing people who ought to be killed and whom God had commanded them to kill. Now Ian said in his question that one reason God ordained this through Joshua was to protect them from idolatry. That is true. But that is not what made it just and right. What made it just was that these nations had sinned against God for so long and so deeply. God said to Abraham in Genesis 15:16 — a key verse — that the Jews would come back from Israel and they would perform his judgment. And here is what he said: “They shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
In other words, God was timing his judgment on the peoples of the land at a point where it would be perfectly right and just for him to work a horrific judgment because of the fullness of their sins. And God warned Israel not to think that God’s punishment was owing to Jewish righteousness, but rather was owing to pagan wickedness. And the key text there is Deuteronomy 9:4–5:
Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,” whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess the land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and to Jacob.
So today we look back and we approve of God’s right to punish the wicked and in those days, to use a human instrument in Joshua and his armies — the Jews — to carry out his kingship over the land and to carry out his right to punish. That was God’s way in that day. However, that is not his way today.
Two Differences Between ISIS and Joshua
We need to consider two massive differences between ISIS killing today and what Joshua did in that day and would not do today. So, this is my answer to the question: How do we take the moral high ground here?
1. Joshua served the living God, ISIS does not.
Here are two differences. Number one, ISIS does not serve the true God. Joshua did. We know that ISIS does not serve the true God because Jesus has come into the world from God as the Son of God and the Messiah and he has made himself the litmus test for who truly knows God and loves God and worships God.
John 5:42–43 says, “I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you don’t receive me.” Anybody who does not receive Jesus as the Son of God does not love God.
“Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). Therefore, ISIS — not honoring the Son of God — does not know and honor God.
“If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19). They didn’t know him. ISIS doesn’t know Jesus or who he really is. They reject him for who he really is. And therefore, they don’t know the Father.
“If God were your Father, you would love me” (John 8:42). ISIS does not have God as their Father because they don’t love the Jesus of the Bible.
“Whoever does not have the Son does not have life” (1 John 5:12). ISIS doesn’t have eternal life. They are lost. They are perishing, because they don’t have the Son of God.
All these texts mean that whoever does not love and honor and know and have the Son of God as their Savior, as their Lord, as God, does not love, does not know, does not worship, does not honor, and does not have the true God. Therefore, ISIS does not serve the true God, because they do not serve Jesus Christ as their Savior and their God. They do not have the moral high ground. They occupy the low ground of treason against the God of heaven. That is the first difference: Joshua served the true God. ISIS doesn’t serve the true God.
2. The coming of Christ changed how God works in the world.
Here’s the second difference, and the first one leads to it: Joshua was performing God’s will then in a way that would not be God’s will now. That was then. This is now.
And ISIS is failing to make that distinction as though the way Joshua acted before the coming of the Son of God is the way it is appropriate to act after the coming of the Son of God.
How Christ Changed the World
But the New Testament makes this crystal clear: With the coming of Christ, massive changes entered the world in the way God deals with the world. I will just mention two. There are a lot more, but these are the changes most relevant for ISIS and the difference that ISIS has from what God calls us to be and to do today. They don’t take either of these into account.
1. God no longer spreads his kingdom through a political state.
Number one, God no longer works through a people who are a political state or an ethnic entity to perform his kingdom-spreading, saving work. In the days of Joshua, God was the king over an ethnic people — Israel — who had a political identity as a state among other political states. That is not the way God works in the world since the coming of Jesus. And here is a key text: “I tell you” — Jesus is talking — “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” — Israel — “and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43).
In the context, that means God is no longer dealing with Israel as the embodiment — ethnically and politically — of his kingdom on the earth. He is giving it to a people who produce its fruits — namely, the church of Jesus Christ. And since God works through his Spirit by his word in a people called the church, they have no status as a political state, and they have no singular ethnic identity. That is the new way that has come about since the coming of Jesus. God no longer works as a King exerting immediate authority over a people gathered as a political state or as a single ethnic identity.
2. God’s kingdom spreads by sacrifice and gospel proclamation — not violence.
And here is the second big difference in the change — and this is probably the most decisive. Since Christ came, the kingdom of God is not now of this world and does not spread by the sword or the bullet or the bomb. And the key text is John 18:36: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’” Therefore, it is wrong, it is sinful today, to use violence and force and coercion to try to spread the faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
That is the mark: Faith is the mark of God’s people and it cannot be coerced by sword or bullet or bomb. No force will be used in establishing God’s kingdom on the earth until King Jesus steps out. When he appears on the clouds, he alone will have the right to bring the punishment that he now will give. And he will make clear that he has the sovereign rights, and he will destroy all his enemies. But until then, Christians die to spread the gospel. We do not kill to spread the gospel.
And if Obama orders a destructive strike against ISIS militarily with a bomb, it is not because they are Muslims and have a faith, a particular sign. It is because they are murderers. It is not in the service of compelling faith, like Western faith is going to be spread by the dropping of a bomb. That is not it at all. Christian faith is not Western. It is not spread by dropping bombs. The dropping of that bomb is not the spreading of a faith — it is the preventing of the destruction of life and the removal of the possibility of any faith, Muslim or Christian.
So we approve of God’s rights to punish sin the way he did through Joshua, but we do not approve of anything like that today, because the Messiah has come and put the advance of his kingdom on a different footing of gospel proclamation.