Whose side are you on?

By Jay Mātenga |
chess
Le Vu / Unsplash

Nga mihi ki te hunga e whai ana i to rātou whainga… (Greetings to everyone who is pursuing their purpose),

The text for this month is Joshua 5:13-15 (NLT),““When Joshua was near the town of Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and demanded, ‘Are you friend or foe?’ ‘Neither one,’ he replied. ‘I am the commander of the LORD’s army.’ At this, Joshua fell with his face to the ground in reverence. “I am at your command,” Joshua said. ‘What do you want your servant to do?’ The commander of the LORD’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did as he was told.” 

I love the way Peterson’s Message Bible renders the question and response: Joshua asks, “Whose side are you on—ours or our enemies’?” and the response was, “Neither. I’m commander of GOD’s army. I’ve just arrived.” I launched my 2023 World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission Leader’s Missions Forecast from this passage. You can read the full global analysis on the WEAMC website: https://weamc.global/leaders-forecast-2023/. For my January 2024 post, I’ll repeat the introduction of that essay in the hope that it encourages you to take the time to read the rest…

It was a new generation that entered Canaan by way of a dried river Jordan according to Joshua 5. A new generation in a new context, freshly consecrated to the Lord, in preparation for the mission ahead of them. A new era had begun. The past was (literally) cut away and the future lay before them for the taking. Even the old resources had ceased as promised new provision was gathered, prepared, and used. The land that the children of former slaves had just entered was promised by covenant to their forefathers and the Israelites had come to dwell there as freemen/women. The current inhabitants were seen as ‘the enemy’.

Presumably because of their idolatry, violence, and otherwise ungodly lifestyles, the people dwelling in the land were deemed unworthy of it and judgement fell upon them by way of the migrating Israelites. We have to concede, however, that the reasons for the conquering of Canaan are known only to the counsel of God. Even so, it is instructive to note that God did not show favour in this. As Peter realised in the house of Cornelius, “I see very clearly that God shows no favouritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35 NLT). Rahab was spared, Israel was successful, because they feared God and did what was right.

Approaching Jericho, Joshua was startled by a sword-wielding man suddenly standing in front of him. He asked, “Whose side are you on—ours or our enemies?” (Jos 5:13b MSG). “Whose side are you on?” is a question that is amplifying division in our world today—in ‘the world’, in the Church, and in missions.

We have been living in an ‘either/or’ era for quite some time. As social media became more prevalent in the mid-2010’s it became increasingly possible to bring broad-spectrum shame to bear on people whose behaviour was deemed unacceptable by a large number of like-minded accusers. Around late 2019, but certainly by 2020, this had become known as the “cancel culture” effect. This type of public accountability (and at times, abuse) has become part of a suite of tools used by protagonists to sway public opinion, spotlight unacceptable behaviour, or drive people into certain ideological camps. Before long, ‘cancelling’ was added to a pre-existing toolset of ‘doxxing’, ‘trolling’, and ‘gaslighting’, all relatively new terms IRL (in real life).

It is astounding that some people exist to create conflict on the internet, but the motivation to do so is potent. There is money and power to be gained. Especially by those who can attract and influence a large following or tribe. Q-Anon anyone? People are paid well to create division, to popularise ‘fake news’, sow the illusion of a zero-sum game (where there can be only one winner), and generate sufficient emotion so that their views depersonalise the proposed opposition as ‘the enemy’.

“Whose side are you on?” Joshua asked the man. “Neither” was the answer he got from the Commander of the Lord’s army. Neither. How can that be? Clearly Israel was the Lord’s chosen tool of judgement against Canaan. How could God not be on their side? It is too simple to argue that the moral of the story is that Joshua should have realised Israel was on God’s side. Too many of us act as if we are on God’s side, but the fruit of our actions prove the contrary.

Our actions, Jesus says, show our true selves (cf. Matthew 7:15-20). We need to be both self-aware and discerning. We who lead and those we follow can appear harmless as sheep but are revealed to be vicious wolves by the way people are treated. Are we really the Shepherd’s sheep, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in all our relationships, regardless of the context or hierarchy? Or are we, or those who lead us, deceptive, bullying, demanding, mean-spirited, blame-shifting, power-retaining, spiteful, demeaning, self-protective, angry, envious, divisive… or worse? In contrast to the fruit of the Spirit, Paul says that anyone exhibiting attributes like these “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21 NLT). So, why follow such leaders? Why believe them when they try to convince us that a certain group is “the enemy”? Such leaders are not building the Kingdom, their relationship-destroying behaviour is not co-creating Christ’s New Creation.

God has no sides. God only has true followers, those who fear God and do what is right (according to God’s righteousness). The Gospel writers refer to such people as disciples—followers and pupils of Jesus. Beyond Acts, however, the word we translate as “disciple” (μαθητής/mathētēsis) is no longer used. As it grew, the early Church seemed to prefer inclusive familial language (brothers/sisters), or descriptors (believers/saints). Although Matthew 20:18-20 remains prevalent in our missiology, the purposes of God would be better served in our new era if, as we went into all the world, we co-created and instructed family in the name of the Holy Three. ‘Disciple’ can too easily be interpreted through an individualist lens, and ‘make disciples’ as a type of production line. There is no such temptation with family. There is also no division inherent in family. There may be differences, but family is family. Beyond the Gospels, family is a dominant metaphor for Christ’s covenantal community.

If we ask one another “whose side are you on?” the appropriate response should be, “the Lord Jesus Christ’s”. He is not on our side or the side of our particular doctrinal or denominational tribe. If we are truly ‘saints’, our only allegiance is to Him. Every barrier of hostility is broken down between those of us who are one family in-Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:14). Including historic grievances, tribal affiliations, geographic boundaries, state patriotisms, even biblically faithful theological differences. That is not to say that justice is not sought when offense is received, but that we seek redress under a new law, the law of merciful loving-kindness as a people who know that we have received forgiveness in overwhelming measure thanks be to our Lord Jesus Christ, by the great grace of God.

Although the Apostle James was referring to interpersonal conflicts within the fellowship of believers, his encouragement to persevere in the faith equally applies in all situations. As we consider global events and other major changes that have occurred in 2023, we do well to heed his advice (cf. James 1:2-4). The testing of our faith matures us—if we hold fast in our trust in God and commitment to one another in-Christ. This promise of maturity (or completion/perfection/fulness) is cause for great rejoicing according to James.

It sounds perverse to a world hell-bent on avoiding suffering, but this fits with the ‘way of the cross’. Hear me now—I am not suggesting that God is orchestrating global events just for our maturity, but Scripture is clear that the appropriate response to external calamity is steadfast trust in God, finding meaning in the purposes of God, and responding with godly action.

May we all be granted great wisdom and discernment as we move into 2024, contributing our best as we participate in God’s purposes locally and globally. As I am framing my understanding of God’s mission now, may God guide us well to “collaborate to co-create New Creation”, as we seek to #stayonmission.

Arohanui ki a koutou e haere ana ki te ao (love to you all as you go into the world),

Jay


Originally published by Jay Matenga Blog