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God's Laws on Military Service--Part 1

Apr 28, 2008

God's law provides for two kinds of military service, one spiritual and the other physical or fleshly. There are also weapons for each kind of warfare.

Fleshly warfare, in which men kill each other physically, is not God's preference, but neither is it banned altogether. God recognizes that until men learn the art of using the spiritual sword, it may be necessary to engage in fleshly warfare. Yet the prophets speak of an age to come in which men will no longer learn the art of fleshly warfare. Isaiah 2:4 says,

"And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war."

Many have wondered why God told Joshua to conduct a war of extermination against the Canaanites when they came into the Promised Land in the book of Joshua. Did God really hate Canaanites? Shall we charge God with genocide? What was God thinking?

When we view the Bible as a progressive whole, we see that under the Old Covenant, fleshly warfare was a necessity, but under the New Covenant, spiritual warfare is the norm. The New Covenant gave the Church a spiritual sword, which the Israelites as a whole did not have under the Old Covenant. This spiritual sword was given to the Church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). It is defined in Ephesians 6:17,

"And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

The contrast between this spiritual sword of the Word and the fleshly sword is found in Heb. 4:12,

"For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

A fleshly sword has a very limited ability and is not nearly as sharp as the sword of the Spirit. Fleshly swords can only divide head from body and can cut apart bones to expose "joints and marrow." But the sword of the Spirit is sharp enough to divide soul and spirit and can "judge (or expose) the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

As New Covenant Christians, our weapon of choice should always be the sword of the Spirit. If we must revert to the fleshly sword, we ought to consider it to be the result of some failure on our part. Church history shows that in the first century they understood the nature of this Sword of the Spirit. John wrote about it often in the book of Revelation, picturing it as a sharp sword coming out of the mouth of Christ. This pictured the use of the spiritual sword as the Word of God.

The results are also very different from that which is obtained by carnal swords. A carnal sword can only kill or wound. A spiritual sword causes a different kind of death as men repent. The death of the "old man" and the death of "the flesh" is one of Paul's favorite themes. But it is a type of death that brings about a positive result--new life in Christ.

Unfortunately, many Christians do not have a clear understanding of the sword of the Spirit, and so when they read the book of Revelation, they picture Jesus killing people physically with the sharp sword that comes from His mouth. It is as if He is using the spiritual sword to obtain a carnal result. But Paul says in 2 Cor. 10:3-5,

" (3) For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, (4) for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. (5) We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, (6)and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever [until such time as] your obedience is complete."

The sword of the Spirit does not kill people physically, but rather it destroys all opposition to the knowledge of God. When the opposition is destroyed in the minds of men, then God's enemies become His friends. They are reconciled to God, not by force of arms, but by a change of heart.

This principle was well known to the prophets in the time of the Old Testament, who revealed the heart of God to the people. But the people did not really comprehend what they were saying. Hosea, for instance, tells the Israelites who were in rebellion against God (6:4-6, Young's Literal Translation),

" (4) What do I do to thee, O Ephraim? What do I do to thee, O Judah? Your goodness is as a cloud of the morning, and as dew rising early--going. [It evaporates quickly]. (5) Therefore I have hewed by prophets, I have slain them by sayings of My mouth, and My judgments to the light goeth. (6) for kindness [mercy] I desired, and not sacrifice; and a knowledge of God above burnt offerings."

Hosea understood God's mercy and the spiritual sword from the mouth of God. He "hewed" the people, not with a physical sword, but with the words of His mouth. Why? Because His desire was not to sacrifice the people, but to give them mercy and the knowledge of God.

Paul takes this statement and says that our warfare is against everything that opposes "the knowledge of God." The sword of the Spirit brings mercy; the physical sword kills people as if they were a sacrifice.

When Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, God came down as fire and spoke the Ten Commandments to them. This day came to be celebrated as the Feast of Weeks, known later by its Greek name, Pentecost. If the people had been willing to continue hearing the word of God, they would have received then what the disciples received in the upper room in Acts 2.

But Israel was afraid, and so they rejected this Sword of the Spirit that God was offering to them. Because of this, they were left only with the carnal sword by which to conquer Canaan. For this reason, the Canaanites were turned into a fleshly sacrifice, rather than conquering their hearts by the mercy of God through the sword of the Spirit.

Did God really hate the Canaanites? Were they somehow worse than we are today? We know from history that they worshipped false gods. So did most of the world. They practiced human sacrifice, which is terrible, but so did other people. In fact, so did the Israelites in later times. Yet God hewed them by the sword of the Spirit, because He desired mercy and not sacrifice. Do you not think that He would have done the same with the Canaanites? Why do you suppose He offered Israel a spiritual sword at Sinai, if not to use it on the Canaanites?

It has NEVER been the desire of God to destroy men. He gave commandment to Joshua to destroy the Canaanites, not because God desired sacrifice, but because Israel was not yet ready to hear the voice of God at Sinai. That failure on Israel's part had dire consequences in the conquest of Canaan, teaching us just how serious it is to reject the sword of the Spirit.

This is one of the great lessons for the Church today. The Church lost its spiritual sword quite early, and the Crusades and other wars were fought as a result of their failure. The Church reverted to the Old Covenant religion of Israel when they lost their New Covenant weapon of spiritual warfare. This is also the great underlying problem of America's current war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have placed our trust in the wrong sword. We have asked God to bless our physical sword, for that has become our weapon of choice.

In contrast, we engage in spiritual warfare.


This is the first part of a series titled "God's Laws on Military Service." To view all parts, click the link below.

God's Laws on Military Service


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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones


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