The Passover was a meal that commemorated the ‘passing over’ of the Angel of Death – preserving the faithful Israelites whilst destroying the firstborn sons of Egypt. It symbolised redemption, rescue, and re-birth. It marked the birth of the Nation of Israel.
It was held on a normal working day – not a Special Sabbath – and was prepared for with great care and commitment. The following evening (from 6pm) was the start of a new day and it marked the beginning of the week-long feast of Unleavened Bread; that day was the Special Sabbath (not the normal weekly one).
Jesus ate with his disciples – we know the story so well – in a way that many rabbis would have met with theirs across that city. The main differences were that, in Jesus’ case, the venue had to be kept secret, to avoid the reprisals of the Jewish leaders who were looking to arrest Jesus privately at all costs. The other difference was that Jesus knew that this was to be his last ever Passover meal. All the emotive symbolism of that simple love-feast that would normally have involved looking backwards into history, was now turned 180 degrees and faced forward to point to the sacrifice of that Lamb that God had promised Abraham two thousand years earlier. God may demand patience of us in waiting for the fulfilment of his promises, but he is never slow or late!
We know from reading John’s Gospel account that the main emphasis of this Passover Supper was ‘service’ – as shown by Jesus himself. Discipleship is entirely about service (from both perspectives) and its purpose is to train up an effective servant for God. His other emphasis was to prepare his followers for the trauma that was to hit them like an express train the following day! He warned them that they would experience personal failure, but not to give up, despite the pressure and the pain. Just as He wouldn’t. Up until now, they had been well-provided for, by Jesus himself, by wealthy individuals, and by the innate hospitality of the local population. Now, however, all these would desert them, and their Lord would be taken from them. They had to fall back on their own resources for a while.
“Pray that you will not fall into temptation”, he told them, twice (vv40, 46). Prayer becomes more critical when the going gets tough and the battle fierce. It helps provide us with spiritual ‘body armour’ against the attacks of our Enemy. Jesus himself prayed so hard that the blood vessels in his skin may have burst, colouring his sweat with the first blood he had to shed on our behalf.
Only in Luke’s Gospel is Jesus described as healing the severed ear of the Servant of the High Priest. Luke gives particular emphasis to the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, and to healing; he was a doctor himself, in any case.
At daybreak, in an illegal trial, Jesus willingly acknowledges that he is the Son of God – so signing his death warrant in the process.
JOSHUA 5, 6, 7 and 8
The other group of people ‘impressed’ with the Lord’s miracle of drying up the Jordan were the existing kings and peoples of Canaan – who were filled with fear and dared not attack Israel. One of the main purposes of the miraculous is to have an impact for good upon the unbelieving world – and, in our case, to help unbelievers to develop faith in the gospel.
Before Israel could invade the Promised Land every man had first to be circumcised – since this current generation had missed out on the initial circumcision when Israel came out of Egypt. The location for this surgical extravaganza was at the aptly-named ‘Hill of Foreskins’ (what a coincidence!) and involved flint knives that were sharper and cleaner than metal ones. Not the best way to prepare an army of young men to fight – you might say! From God’s point of view, the purpose of this was to include all Israel fully in the covenant – of which circumcision was the outward ceremony – and therefore to open up all the blessings of the covenant to every Israelite. For New Covenant believers, ‘Baptism’ plays a similar role (for women as well, of course) and we need to make a bigger emphasis today, both in the crucial importance of being baptized, and in claiming the covenant promises that go with having been baptized.
Israel celebrated their first Passover in the Promised Land – one that really should have been celebrated 38 years previously! – and started to harvest and eat from the produce of Canaan. Immediately the God-given manna stopped, and never re-started. This is an excellent example of how the Lord uses the miraculous: He does not over-use miraculous means when normal means already exist, but generally introduces miracles when all normal means have been exhausted. The same applies to healing, for example, since, where medical intervention is appropriate, a miracle is very unlikely to occur.
At the end of chapter five, Joshua has a similar meeting with God that Moses had at the burning bush. He sees a warrior and asks: “Who’s side are you on?” the Lord – in human appearance – quickly corrects Joshua and says: “On neither side, but you can be on mine if you wish”! Joshua, realizing the identity of this greatest of warriors, falls facedown and removes his sandals out of respect for the presence of God. A lesson to us: God is not on our side, but we are on his. He is prepared to fully equip us to fight his battles but will not normally intervene in our private disputes.
‘Jericho’ means ‘moon city’ and was historically a centre of worship of the moon god. Cities had been on the site since 7000 BC, and archaeological evidence shows that more than twenty levels of remains were buried one above the other, even before Joshua arrived at the current fortress. Giant double walls made it a fearsome prospect to attempt to capture. God had different plans, though. “See, I have delivered it into your hands”, so march the Ark around it once a day for six days, then seven times on the seventh day, with seven priests blowing seven trumpets (rams’ horns). This was not an outing for Israel’s ‘Worship Team’, but a symbolic marking out of the territory by God himself – like Ark in the middle of the Jordan. God was declaring to all the gods and spiritual forces in the world: ‘this is my land, and I am now claiming this city’. After the six days of this, on the seventh, God created an entrance into the city by demolishing its walls and allowing the army in.
Jericho was a kind of ‘first-fruits’ city, to be completely devoted to the Lord. Everything in it was to be either destroyed or completely given over to God’s purposes (e.g., the silver and gold). Unfortunately, a man called Achan stole some of the plunder and hid it for himself. The consequences were huge! At the next battle, Israel showed some complacency and God did not fight for them. The scripture says that they were “routed” by the men of Ai and lost 36 men. Normally, losing 36 men from a battalion of 3,000 would not under any circumstances by regarded as a “rout”, but such was now the level of Israel’s faith that even that that small number of casualties was unacceptable. Joshua sought the Lord and learned that Israel – as an entire nation – had broken the covenant and so had lost God’s immediate favour.
Interesting that one man’s sin had infected the entire nation! But it did. There is a message for us today about church unity and the need for us all to be pure and to be committed fully to God. The remedy in Israel’s case was for Achan to be executed, along with his family. Duly done, the covenant favour of God returned to the nation. Twenty-first century readers may think this unjust – both the punishment and the way that innocent men were slain – but it is not for us to decide how the Lord chooses to operate, for we are not his judges! When the Holy Spirit is moving in power, it is significant that the price of rebellion is so much higher; for example, in Acts 5:1-11, Ananias and Sapphira simply lied to God’s church about the price of some property that they had sold; as a consequence, they were put to death by the Lord. At a time of extreme power, extreme holiness is called for!
The rebellion dealt with, covenant blessings were restored, and God told Joshua that Ai was now theirs. Two interesting differences arose: God did not require any first-fruits offering of the plunder this time but allowed Israel to keep it all. Also, its capture was not a miraculous event (not in the same way), but the result of superior forces and tactics. God rarely does two things in the same way. Often a new initiative will begin with blatant miraculous power, and then continue more normally.
Finally, at the end of chapter 8, the much-promised blessings and curses are read out on the twin mountains of Ebal and Gerizim.
There are many lessons to be learned from these chapters about the miraculous and the need for holiness in God’s people. We would do well to take them to heart!