Written by Paul J. Bucknell on April, 11, 2019
The True Nature of Repentance (Joshua 5:13-15)
Behind the act of repentance lies an important spiritual discipline pointing to the need of our hearts’ full recognition of the Lord’s holy presence as the birth and sustenance of spiritual life and the fruit produced from it.
Confusion on the meaning of repentance causes many problems for the Christian who wants to go forward in his or her walk with the Lord. Unfortunately, those wanting to remain behind can gladly skirt away under the sham of half-repentance. Outwardly, we have seen our sin and sensed its shame and guilt, but a murky perspective of this process more than often lands us right back in the hole from which we crawled. This is because we have neglected seeking full repentance.
Our primary biblical text to frame our thoughts is found in Joshua 5 when the General approaches Joshua who probably was crying out to God on how he would lead God’s people against the great double-walled city of Jericho. How was he was going to proceed and conquer? How was he going to overcome that city without many calamities? How could he ever step into Moses’ shoes? Lots of good questions, each being rather intimidating, leaving Joshua desperate, bewildered, and perplexed on how to proceed. I am not stating that Joshua was in sin here. Confusion on how to move forward is not wrongdoing, but we can learn from this testing period when God confronted Joshua and use this extra clarity to move forward through the trials of our lives.
The text reveals a two-step approach to God (or God to us) while we engage in our daily work, ministry, and other involvements. The first stage of repentance, if not rightly handled, is the preoccupation on how we are going to overcome the obstacle before us. The focus is on us whether it be our resources and giftedness, or perhaps otherwise—our lack of resources, giftedness, and ability. This learning lesson abruptly came about when the General came up with sword drawn before Joshua.
The First Stage of Repentance (Joshua 5:13-14)
13 Now it came about when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing opposite him with his sword drawn in his hand, and Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No, rather I indeed come now as captain of the host of the LORD.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and bowed down, and said to him, “What has my lord to say to his servant?” (Joshua 5:13-14)
At some point, the insistence on working through our challenges our way will lead us into the area of sin (eg., Battle of Ai or Gideonites’ deception). Sometimes it is initiated by pride in our abilities but equally can be handled in a spirit of rejection, holding to the belief that God left us all alone to handle this matter. In this case, God intercepted these doubts and false judgments by manifesting His glorious person and plans. He did not allow Joshua to enter into either of those paths because of at least two reasons. (1) God does not tempt us beyond what we are able. With this understanding, God considered Joshua incapable of properly handling this task on his own, and so, God came to fortify Joshua’s faith. (2) God trains us like any good parent. The former point coordinates well with this one for in observing one’s proneness to failure, we often supply extra knowledge and experience to help our loved ones succeed. At the beginning of His ministry, God would give Joshua extra training so He could succeed. But afterward, in the following chapters, we see Joshua still tumbling like a toddler in not fully integrating his lesson with his new leadership role.
God uses this two-staged revelation to bring Joshua to where he needed to be. This first revelation, the humbling, brought Joshua to where each of us needs to be when preoccupied with our ways, whether when first being tempted or when we have indulged the evil one’s subtle whispers. Our danger largely enters through a limited assessment of our situation which the Tempter and temptation ensnare us. How we respond to our situation can blur God’s bright purposes. This blurring is what I am calling “half repentance,” the willingness to take knowledge of some wrong but not to specifically identify and turn from the wrong ways. Though willing to acknowledge God’s general purpose, by not specifically identifying our wrong we leave the door wide open for pride or doubt to remain. Half-repentance is not genuine repentance but a show of religious pride. “Yeah, I should have done better trusting you.” Repentance occurs when we acknowledge a full turnaround, that is, a 180° flip response towards the Lord.
This humbled response is what we see with Joshua: “What has my lord to say to his servant?” He is not preoccupied with his success, troubles, or defeat, but what the Lord has to say. There is instant alertness to what God had for him and the Israelites which God had appointed Joshua to lead. Again, we do not see Joshua’s response as repentance from sin but the clarity of God’s person and purpose revealing his natural confusion, the lack of direction, and possibility commitment. (How does one commit to what he doesn’t know what to do?) The Messiah’s incarnational appearance, however, brought about a stark reminder that the battle rested not with Joshua but with the Lord of the armies. Joshua affirmed the Lord as the general and wisely began to get behind His leadership.
The first step of repentance, then, acknowledges our desire, whether in thought or task, to accomplish something—whether it be good and right as in this case (for the Lord instructed Joshua to take Jericho), or very wrong like in King Saul’s pursuit of David. The problem is that our response looks good and right on the outward so it can easily disguise our pride or lack of self-confidence. Again, the Lord’s appearance intercepted those problems by meeting Joshua on the plain with His sword drawn. Joshua was not anymore able to consider the challenge of conquering Jericho apart from God’s purpose, ways, timing, and instruction. And so, Joshua appropriately responded, “What has my lord to say to his servant?” This response primed his reasoning and emotions with God and His purposes. No longer is he only thinking of the largeness or impossibility of the task ahead of him but the Lord Himself.
The first part of repentance realigns oneself with God’s person and will. We should note a willingness and desire to hear from the Lord rather than a fixed eye on the challenges which would then be fed by our pride and worries. Half-repentance continues to focus on our situations, emotions, plans, loneliness, etc., while full repentance turns our eyes on the Lord, resulting in a certain preoccupation with the Lord Himself. We still face our problems and troubling situations—Jericho was still to be taken. We will also still need to remember this lesson to diligently apply it to future challenges. But now, if careful, we can look at them in light of the Lord’s presence and with His wisdom.
So the first stage of repentance is turning our eyes from our situation (sight or what we see) to God and His will (faith or what we believe). If we find ourselves in sin or like Joshua in a most challenging situation tempted to focus on our situation, we can boldly admit our inabilities, weaknesses, and wrongdoing but focus on God’s delightful ways and purposes. I sense this is what Joshua meant by his words, “What has my lord to say to his servant?”
The Second Stage of Repentance (Joshua 5:15)
This second stage of repentance is intriguing as the Lord draws Joshua before Him in a very noteworthy way, clearly indicating the time when Yahweh first confronted Moses back at the burning bush. The Lord affirmed to Joshua through this that he might know without a doubt that it was the same Yahweh that liberated God’s people that was now with Joshua, even though he faced impossible tasks leading Israel against the armies that held Canaan.
And the captain of the LORD’S host said to Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so. (Joshua 5:15)
The two stages together present a powerful lesson. The first, which we are much more familiar with, is when we sense God’s presence and begin to analyze our own thoughts and ways in light of who He is and what He is saying to us. But this does not always penetrate deep enough in our hearts.
In the first stage, there is a step back from the pressure to immediately handle our difficulties. We are willing to acknowledge His presence, but it does not mean there is an instant relinquishing of our problems and situations (even joys and hopes) to the Lord.
Here in this second stage, however, we see a full surrender of one’s heart and transfer all of one’s goals, life, and plans into God’s own hands. He no longer claims or reserves anything for himself but only to live for God’s glorious purposes. There is no will but to accomplish God’s good and perfect will (Romans 12:2) and so one lays himself as a living sacrifice on God’s altar (Romans 12:1). The backdrop for the teaching of repentance lies in the spiritual discipline of “dying to self and rising with Christ.”
In practicality, stages one and two often combine as one event where we find ourselves dropped to the Lord to our knees (the bowing at least referring to the humbling of our hearts before God’s almighty person). But the Lord in this passage highlights this second aspect, almost as a second event, to pinpoint what fully needs to happen for complete repentance to occur.
Joshua might still have had his sword in his hand while bowing before the Lord or wondering about his Jericho predicament. One wonders if many people come to the altar before God to gain a solution for their problems or reward for their faithfulness. But God’s second statement shakes off any self-awareness by magnifying His holiness, and at least for the moment, enabled Joshua to respond by putting aside his sword and taking off his sandals. Again, there are no questions asked but a further de-robing of one’s worldly concerns there before God’s holy presence. Holy ground demands a holy heart. The holy ground is God’s holy calling to completely put one’s wishes and concerns aside in light of God’s purposes. This is where God becomes all, and we, humbly wonder why He might graciously call us into His magnificent presence.
Full repentance, then, leaves nothing to claim for our own. Our challenges become the Lord’s opportunities to manifest His glory. Our problems are transformed into ways God’s strategic ways of accomplishing His mission can be boldly seen. Our needs and vulnerabilities become dynamic gaps and holes needing to be filled by the Holy Spirit so that God can secure His full glory. The following incident of the valley of trenches reminds us how God, at times, has us dig holes so He can fill them.
14 And Elisha said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look at you nor see you. 15 “But now bring me a minstrel.” And it came about, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the LORD came upon him. 16 And he said, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Make this valley full of trenches.’ 17 “For thus says the LORD, ‘You shall not see wind nor shall you see rain; yet that valley shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, both you and your cattle and your beasts. 18 ‘And this is but a slight thing in the sight of the LORD; He shall also give the Moabites into your hand. (2 Kings 3:14-18)
My suggestion is not to make this rare meeting with God something that regularly occurs. It is true, we might not commonly observe a bright revelation of Jesus as Joshua did at the outstart, but we are still challenged on how to integrate the truth seen in this meeting into our lives, just as Joshua did. Our lives can live in light of those truths and thus greatly benefit, or we can suffer from stepping back into our old ways of confronting the pressures around us. By regularly living in His presence, we are all the time taking up a “repentant” mind and heart, that is, one which we are absorbed with God more than our circumstances.
Problems begin when we live by sight rather than by faith. Our sight either has us worry about our problems and our lack of resources, or, with a tinge of pride, causes us to smugly look with confidence upon what we do have and how our plans will work. Faith, however, stems from being in God’s holy presence. His holy presence requires a 100% surrender of ourselves to abide in His glorious presence. “Set apart” is what the word holiness means and here easily understood. When we are preoccupied with God and His will, then we are little concerned about our own pressures and challenges of life. It is not that they are not important, but they become for us means to see God working.
Living in His presence becomes a check for our lives, enabling us with great courage and excitement to carry out his purposes from His strength, faith, love, hope, etc. The valiant soldier of God does not boast of his capabilities but his dependence on God. Joshua and the Israelites were totally helpless before Jericho, but God had a way of overcoming the city in a unique way to bring glory to his name. And it is only when we are fully committed to and dependent upon Him, can we rightly accomplish these things for His glorious Name.
“Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor 16:13).
Let me provide an example of how this might work out in our early morning prayers. First, don’t get caught off guard and become preoccupied with one’s worries and concerns but learn from how the Lord trained Joshua, which would enable him to rightly carry out his lifelong mission. This revelation, similar for us, was not just to pump up Joshua to fight Jericho but how we are to regularly position our hearts before the Lord.
Start by acknowledging one’s weaknesses and the impossibility of completing the tasks ahead of us without His help. Don’t cover up one’s holes but boldly state them to Him. “I have a hard time kindly responding to my husband when….” Look at worries and fears as opportunities for God to reveal His glory.
Tell the Lord how you are going to look to him on how He might direct your life. By stepping into a conscious appraisal of our situations, we can always discover our vulnerabilities and sometimes sin. This approach invites the Lord to step into our lives so that we get a glimpse of Himself. First, confess any sins like worry to Him and find cleansing at the cross (1 John 1:9), but go deeper and look to Him for His strategy, timing, and plans. I was thinking before the Lord of four to five substantial house repairs, some being expensive. I told him how this overwhelms me, and I need Him to lead me to get them done rightly. We turn our tasks over to Him and watch what and when He moves.
Be ready to wait as long as you need. Instead of blaming Him or fretting about your situation, we are in faith waiting on Him. We don’t need to move ahead of Him but instead affirm our commitment to His plans. He, in time, will give us faith, encouragement, and direction to complete His will, perhaps with or without us. That is up to Him. While frets or fears admit a preoccupation with our solutions and problems, living in His holy appearance makes us His watchful servants. Be preoccupied with His presence and the glory of His holiness so that His streams of holiness penetrate the deepest hidden coves of our lives, spiritually nurturing us so that we can see God work on the earth. My house repairs become spiritual matters because I turn them over to the Lord. I am not overwhelmed but watch how He gives me leading, faith, money, etc. to accomplish His purposes. Caring for our house is a big way to “love your wives.” Our suggested approach is founded on a deeper belief that our Great Shepherd cares not just for big threatening crises but all the situations of our lives. When we welcome Him into our lives, He becomes all important, and we work with Him to work through our circumstances. Our lives become holy because we live in His holy presence.
Behind the meaning of repentance is the ongoing call of
These two steps of repentance are in fact two meeting points with the Lord, assuring significant advances into His presence to maintain close working relationships with Him. We must move from humility to surrender. Admittedly, we tend to focus on the outward, that is, the duty and the challenges looming before us. Like Joshua, we are thinking about the cities to fight and the victories to win. But it is very easy to forget the more substantial and foundational relationship with God from which those works need to be carried out.
After all, these are God’s projects (Eph 2:10). And so Jehovah, at the beginning of Joshua’s ministry, carefully instructs Joshua of the need to keep this relationship with Him firmly in place—a holy place that calls us to let go of all of our plans and ways. Our fruit, that is our works that please Him, will all issue from meeting the Fount of Life and The Vine (John 15). Our generation is known for forgetting God’s General, subtly veiled by a thick screen of secularism, but each of us is called to persistently live in a full state of repentance, acknowledging our full and unreserved commitment to knowing and doing His will by His strength for His glory.