When Joshua saw a soldier approaching, he instinctively asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” The answer, you probably know was, “No; rather I indeed come now as captain of the Host of the Lord.”.”
But He’s also “for us,” isn’t He? This is the God who said, “I will walk among you and be your God and you will be my people.” So, Why didn’t God just say, “I’m for you!” When God met Moses in the burning bush, God spent much time convincing Moses that he was for Moses. Why doesn’t God take this opportunity to simply assure Moses’ successor that God is for him too?
We’ll return to Joshua in a bit. But first, think about this question: what exactly do we know when we say that we know God? One answer might be, We know God’s revelation of Himself in the Bible and creation. True enough. But what is this revelation of Himself? Has God described his real character to us? Or, has he just told us how we can function in relationship to Him? If I read the instructions to my computer, I might say I know my computer. But all I really know about my computer is how to punch in certain commands and get certain results (usually). I don’t know the essence of what the computer is. I don’t really know the computer; I merely know how the computer works.
Is knowing God the same? The “instruction manual” says, “Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” I’ve done that. I’m saved. But do I know God, or do I just know how to be saved? Do I know God, or do I just know how God works?
Does our knowledge of God consist solely in how He acts to bring us salvation? One person said, “To know Christ is to know His benefits.” That’s good if it keeps us from speculating about things that God says we don’t need to know and have no means to know. Yet there’s a potential problem as well. You see, God didn’t have to create us. And having created us, He certainly didn’t have to save us after we sinned. If all we know about God are things that He didn’t have to do—in other words, things that aren’t essential to His nature—we might not have an accurate understanding who God really is. And, therefore, we might not really know Him. Who I am is a man who loves his wife and kids, struggles against sin, and enjoys God. If I ever were to stop doing one of those things, my identity as a person would change. That’s because loving my wife and kids, loving God and struggling against sin make up the core of my identity. We could say they are “essential attributes” of Mike. Occasionally, I’ve gone fishing. And once that I remember, I’ve caught a fish. Now, I’ve got to keep loving my family to be the man that I am. But I don’t have to go fishing, and I certainly don’t have to catch anything. If I never went fishing again, I would be no less happy or fulfilled than I am now. To understand me as a fisherman is a gross distortion of who I really am.
God does not have to be the creator and redeemer in order for Him to be God. If God had not chosen to be the creator or redeemer, He would be no less happy. Creating and redeeming does not constitute the essence of God’s nature. They are not part of His “essential attributes.” Does that mean that we are also guilty of gross distortion if we base our understanding of God as the creator and redeemer?
I’ve been reading a dissertation entitled “Covenant Knowledge” by Matthew Roberts. The thesis—of which I’m in hearty agreement—is that when God reveals himself to us in order to bring us into a relationship with Himself, he tells us information, not only of how to be part of the relationship—i.e., how to be saved—but also about himself. And what he reveals about Himself is that He is the God who can make and keep covenants with His people. That is the most important thing about him. In other words, God enters into a relationship with us, and this relationship not essential to Him. But what allows God to be the kind of God who can come into a relationship with us is essential to Him. Roberts writes,
God wants us to know him. The knowledge of God is specifically held up in Scripture as being the goal of the covenant, and particularly of its full manifestation in Christ. Jeremiah prophesied that the central blessing of the new covenant would be the knowledge of God (Jer 31:34), and that such knowledge is the highest blessing a man may have (Jer 9:24). Jesus says that the knowledge of God and of his Son Jesus Christ is eternal life (John 17:3). The knowledge of God includes, certainly, knowledge about his dealings with men, the history of his covenants. But it means more than that. It means that he wants us to know about who he is as he is independent of us, prior to his covenants, in himself. Thus the full Trinitarian revelation of the New Testament is of the economic working of the Trinity; yet it I also of the internal life of the Trinity. Indeed, it is only this which defends us form heresy. A pure focus on economy [that’s God’s dealing with us] will lead us into modalism or subordinationalism [two wrong ways of understanding the Trinity], and lead us back to misunderstanding the economy and finally abandonment of the gospel…It is only as we understand something of who the Triune God is quite apart from his actions in history that the true significance of those actions can emerge.
I was thinking about this the other night. I was lying in bed not sleeping. I got up several times and read Valley of Vision and prayed. I tried to make sure there wasn’t anything spiritually amiss. The best I could tell, there wasn’t. I was enjoying God and appreciating the gospel afresh. But I still wasn’t sleeping. In retrospect, I realized it was probably the extra Panera coffee too late in the day. However, it was one of those nights where I really needed to be asleep because I had to leave the house at 5:30 AM to beat Philadelphia’s rush hour so I could meet with a teacher who graciously agreed to give me some of his time. I’ve learned that a bright idea in a hyper caffeinated, sleep deprived state doesn’t still look like a bright idea the next morning. Yet, something of what I thought about in the night still stuck with me. Isn’t it awesome that in knowing God through the gospel, I am knowing God! I am knowing the God of the universe, the God, even, behind the universe and above the universe. That’s the God I know. I know the most important thing about Him. I know He is an eternal relationship of three persons who have one substance and relate lovingly to each other for all time. I know He depends on no one outside of Himself. I know all that God as I am laying in bed wishing I were asleep. As I lay in bed thinking I had an appointment with a teacher the next day, so I had to get up and go, yet I didn’t know how I would do that on lack of sleep. The nagging feeling of, “how can I possible do this” is part of what kept me awake. Doesn’t that reveal the epitome of our finite condition? The inability to solve a problem exasperates the problem. But God never has that problem. And I know that because of the way that He saves me.
I think that’s why He answers Joshua’s question by saying, “Neither. I am the captain of the Lord’s Army.” Yes, God is “for us.” And we see that in Joshua’s encounter with God in that God gives Joshua plan and promise of how he will lead the nation into the promise land. But God wants us to realize that Him being “for us” is based upon Him first being “for Himself.” That is, He is the all-powerful God who depends on no one to accomplish his will. Leading the people into the promised land is not an “essential attribute.” Yet, things that he reveals about Himself in the process—things like keeping His promise, being the God who no one can stop, being a God of love and holiness—are all part of His essential nature.