Place in the Canon

Joshua has much the same place in the Old Testament as Acts has in the New Testament. Both come after the foundational books at the beginning, Joshua after the five books of Moses and Acts after the four gospels. The five books of Moses tell the beginnings of Israel, while the four Gospels tell the beginnings of the church. Joshua and Acts then show how these people of God successfully carried out the mission that God laid upon them when He set them apart for Himself. For the people of Israel, the mission was conquest and occupation of Canaan. For the church, the mission was to begin evangelizing the world.

Spiritual Meaning

Two themes

Joshua has two themes. One looks backward, the other forward.

  1. In relation to all that preceded it in God's program, Joshua is the book of fulfilled promise. For centuries, God had predicted that Israel would possess the land of Canaan. He revealed the nation's future occupation of the land to Abraham (Gen. 13:14-18; 15:13-21), Isaac (Gen. 26:1-5), Jacob (Gen. 35:10-12), and Moses (Exod. 3:7-10). In Joshua we have the record of how God brought this ancient promise to pass.
  2. Joshua also pictures how another promise would be fulfilled in the remote future. Much older than anything God told Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob is His decree known as the Protevangelium (Gen. 3:15), issued not long after the creation of the world and made more specific when He again declared it to Abraham (Gen. 22:16-18). God said that someday a man would be born who would defeat Satan and the works of Satan and thus bring blessing to the whole world. That man has come, and His name is Jesus Christ. Several Old Testament characters anticipate Christ in their character and deeds. We refer to them as types of Christ. The most important is Moses' successor, Joshua.

Joshua as a type of Christ

What is the evidence that this Joshua should be viewed as a prophetic picture of Jesus, the future victor over Satan?

1. Important evidence lies in his very name. In Hebrew, Joshua is Yehoshua, or Yeshua, the same name that appears in English as Jesus. Joshua was given this name by Moses (Num. 13:17).

2. Joshua is identified as a type of Christ in the New Testament. Of special relevance is the teaching in Hebrews 3-4. In reviewing Israel's experience as remembered in Psalm 95, the author treats it as a picture of unresponsiveness to the gospel (3:7–11; 4:1–3a). Many Israelites died in the wilderness because their hearts were hardened against God. Though they saw His works, they did not put their trust in Him and follow His commandments. Through unbelief they failed to enter the land of promise and gain rest from all their wanderings. The author of Hebrews likens their case to the case of those who, through unbelief, reject the gospel and fail to gain rest in salvation (4:11).

Why does the author speak of salvation as rest? It is rest from the attempt to be saved by our own works of righteousness, which are worthless for obtaining forgiveness of sin (4:10). Salvation is not by works, but by faith, and the result of faith is rest.

It follows that the man who led Israel into the rest of Canaan did a work parallel to that accomplished by the man who provides us with rest in salvation. The first man is therefore a picture and forerunner of the second. That is, Joshua is a type of Jesus. By way of summary, we might say that just as Joshua gave Israel rest from all their wanderings by guiding them into the land of blessing, Canaan, so Jesus gives us rest from the futility of self-generated righteousness by guiding us into the life of blessing, the Christian life.

This parallelism treats the crossing of the Jordan as comparable to the transition from being lost to being saved. It follows that Israel’s entrance into the land is a picture of spiritual rebirth.

Someone might protest that in Christian hymnody, crossing the Jordan always has another meaning. Consider these familiar lines: "On Jordan's stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye to Canaan's fair and happy land where my possessions lie." Or, "Deep river. My home is over Jordan. Oh, deep river, Lord. I wants to cross over into campground." Or these: "Roll, Jordan, roll. Roll, Jordan, roll. I wants to go to heaven when I die to see old Jordan roll."

The ultimate source of these hymns and spirituals is probably John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Pilgrim's last obstacle before he could enter the heavenly city was the deep and turbulent Jordan River. It is obvious in all these uses of the Jordan in Christian imagery that the river symbolizes death and Canaan symbolizes heaven, which we attain because we are trusting in Jesus. He is our leader across Jordan in the sense that He, by His death, has secured for us an eternal inheritance.

But this way of viewing Jordan and Canaan has no basis in the Bible, and it entails a serious difficulty. What did Israel do after they entered Canaan? Did they find it a paradise free of earthly care and trouble? No, with enemies on every side they had to go to war. It is therefore obvious that the Bible wants us to see the crossing of Jordan not as death, but as conversion leading to all the struggles of Christian experience.

Getting Practical

Notice that God gave the land to Israel, yet Israel had to cross the river and take possession of it. So it is with salvation. It is a free gift, but we cannot enjoy its benefits unless we accept it. We must reach out and take what God desires to give us.

The same is true of many other blessings. We must reach out and take them by faith. Does a man get a wife by waiting for her to knock on the door? Does a man find a job by waiting for an invitation to arrive in the mail? No, we must exercise initiative under God’s leading, in faith that He is leading us.

Getting Practical

The path through the Jordan River did not usher Israel into an easy life. For years they were at war against stubborn enemies. The life of a Christian is not easy either. It is a battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Sometimes our enemies inflict painful blows on us. But because we belong to Christ, we need never suffer defeat. In Christ, we can always have the victory. We have the victory if our faith does not falter, but gets stronger. "For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith" (1 John 5:4).

When Paul pictures a believer’s armor against the devil’s fiery darts, what is the shield? Faith (Eph. 6:16). There is no attack that we cannot turn aside by choosing to trust and believe God.

The difference between Israel in the wilderness and Israel in Canaan demonstrates that crossing the Jordan represents salvation.

  1. In the wilderness, Israel was a defeated nation. After refusing to go into the land and hearing the severe penalty that God imposed on them, they changed their minds and rushed to fight against the Canaanites. But the enemy easily repulsed and overcame them. In Canaan, Israel handily overcame all foes. Only once did they lose a battle, and the reason was unconfessed sin in the camp. Clearly, the wilderness experience of Israel shows the defeated state of unregenerate man, while the nation's experience when they followed Joshua shows the victorious state of a Christian.
  2. In the wilderness, all the adults that left Egypt, except Joshua and Caleb, fell under condemnation and died. Many fell into grievous sins, forcing God to snuff out their lives by a direct act of judgment. The rest died also, because God viewed even the best of them, including Moses himself, as too flawed to enter the land beyond Jordan. Yet after Joshua led Israel into the land, God ceased punishing the nation with plagues and calamities taking a large toll of lives. The wilderness therefore corresponds to life apart from God—a life of sin whose wages are death. But Canaan corresponds to the Christian life, where there is escape from divine wrath. A Christian need not fear death as condemnation, for he will know death only as victory.
         Just once after Israel crossed Jordan did God need to remove a rebel. He ordered the execution of Achan and his family when they took booty from Jericho for themselves, contrary to a divine command. Likewise a saint can commit a sin unto death (1 John 5:16), but it is a rare occurrence. The story of Achan has been given to us as a warning that even believers secure in their salvation from hell are not exempt from punishment by death in this world if they persist in challenging divine authority.

If Joshua is a type of Jesus, what does Moses represent? Moses pictures the law, for he was the law-giver. The people under his leadership could not enter Canaan. In other words, you cannot be saved by the law. You can be saved only by accepting Jesus and following Him. Thus, Israel entered the land under the leadership of the man who represents Jesus.

Just as Moses could not conduct Israel into Canaan, so also his two sons could not do it. Neither was capable of succeeding him. His eldest son, Gershom, is mentioned but four times in the Bible, and his second son, Eliezer, is mentioned but twice (Exod. 2:22; 4:24-26; 18:1-5; 1 Chron. 23:15ff). In these references we see no suggestion that either could be charged with any moral lapse. Evidently they worked as Levites in the tabernacle. Yet neither was outstanding enough in character and ability to take his father's place. Neither the law-giver nor his sons could lead Israel to their rest.

3. Joshua is a fitting type of Christ in that he is one of the few major Bible characters with a largely unblemished record. The Bible does not altogether spare him from criticism. Once in his youth, his zeal for righteousness carried him too far, to the point of being judgmental, for he objected when two of the seventy elders began to prophesy under the influence of the Spirit although they had failed to join the others beside the tabernacle. Joshua evidently thought them unworthy, but Moses assured him that it would good even if all the people were prophets of God (Num. 11:27-29). Once as a leader, Joshua acted rashly, when he made a treaty with the Canaanites who lived in Gibeon, but his motives were not dishonorable. He took pity on their ambassadors because they appeared to be non-Canaanites who had undergone great hardship in a long journey to meet him. In fact, they were deceivers who had come only a short distance (Josh. 9:3-15).

Joshua's near perfection contrasts sharply with Moses' glaring imperfection. As a young prince Moses committed murder. As a forgotten fugitive he resisted God's call in his life. And as a leader in the twilight of his career he was guilty of conduct that disqualified him from entering the Promised Land.

4. In his virtues that especially qualified him for leadership, Joshua again showed that he mirrored Christ.

Getting Practical

The Book of Joshua may be viewed as a primer of leadership. It states and illustrates many of the principles a leader must observe if he wishes to be a success in God’s estimation. We should know these principles because even though all of us are not leaders, all of us choose leaders. A woman chooses her husband. A church member chooses his pastor. We as Americans choose our leaders of government.

  1. He first distinguished himself as the valued subordinate of another man, the leader Moses. Moses regarded Joshua so highly that he entrusted him with weighty responsibility (Exod. 17:8-16). Shortly after leaving Egypt, the straggling multitudes of Israel were attacked by bands of Amalekites. Moses instructed Joshua to organize a force of soldiers and engage the marauders. This he did, and after a hard fight he achieved victory. He was diligent and faithful in carrying out the will of his master. Similarly, Jesus was devoted to the will of His Father and fulfilled it in every detail. He could say that He never did anything but the Father's will (John 6:38).

    Getting Practical

    Likewise today, the first trait that sets apart a man qualified for leadership is the ability to follow another good leader. God does not expect people in the church to follow the leadership of Pharisees, for they are the blind leading the blind (Matt. 15:14), or the leadership of fools. Read Paul's rebuke of the Corinthians who received false apostles (2 Cor. 11:19-21; in other words, he did not mean to imply that he was weak by comparison). You must be careful when choosing a leader. If you let someone lead you astray, you will not be held guiltless. There is no absolute principle of submission in Christianity. Most of the godly martyrs throughout history suffered death because they refused to bow the knee to an emperor or pope.

    But a man who cannot submit to godly leadership is incompetent to be a leader himself. God exalted Joshua to power over the people of God only after he had served faithfully as Moses' apprentice. Elisha attended to the needs of Elijah before God elevated him. We can think also of Samuel working for Levi, and of the entire group of twelve disciples starting their careers as followers of Jesus.

  2. He was willing to take an unpopular stand in line with the will of God. Of the twelve spies who traveled to Canaan and brought back reports to the nation, only he and Caleb recommended that the people obey the command of God to enter the land (Num. 13:17-14:10). The other ten feared the Canaanites and counseled the people of Israel that they could not prevail against them. And the whole assembly of people believed the ten spies and rejected the reports of Joshua and Caleb. It was not easy for these two to stand alone against a whole nation of more than a million adults. Imagine the uproar surrounding them when they remained firm in giving hated advice. Imagine the bloodcurdling noise of a million angry people. The multitude would have stoned them except the glory of the Lord suddenly appeared in the Temple (14:10).
         In his steadfastness for truth, Joshua was like Jesus Himself. For the sake of winning salvation for us, Jesus made Himself despised and rejected (Isa. 53:3). At the nadir of His career, He was forsaken even by His few close disciples (Mark 14:50).

    Getting Practical

    Still today, a willingness to stand alone is a virtue greatly to be prized and admired in a Christian leader. Without it, he will not have the moral courage to stay off the path of convenience and compromise.

    A leader is always tempted to pursue success by following the example of other successful men. But how do you measure success? It is possible to build a big church by using carnal methods, substituting entertainment for worship, humor and story time for preaching, pointless discussion for teaching, programs for prayer. But a church built on such a foundation is empty spiritually. When tested by fire on the Day of Judgment, it will burn up like wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:11-15).

    The formula for true success is to serve God first and only, regardless of what other men may do.

  3. He thrived on fellowship with God. He took every opportunity to be near God's presence. He ascended the mount of God with Moses (Ex. 24:13). He lingered as long as possible in the tabernacle (Ex. 33:11). Likewise, Jesus Himself frequently absented Himself from the crowds and sought a place of solitude so that He might pray and commune with the Father (Mark 1:35; 6:46-47; Luke 5:15–16; 6:12; 9:18; 22:41-42).

    Getting Practical

    So today, it is essential that a Christian leader nourish himself with the very presence of God. This last virtue is really the foundation of the first two. Unless a man has a personal knowledge of God and an intimate acquaintance with the Word of God, he cannot have the selflessness necessary to gladly carry out the will of a higher authority, nor, when he exercises leadership himself, can he have the wisdom and spiritual fiber necessary to stand alone for what is right.