In the context of the book of Joshua we have the nation of Israel entering into the Promised Land, conquering her enemies and taking possession of the land (even though she never fully possesses her complete inheritance).
Now in Joshua 22 (go here to read the passage) the first hints of disunity and conflict begin to surface as they settle into the land and the conflict is centered on what appears to be very biblical reasons. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the text.
1: THE EASTSIDE TRIBES RETURN HOME (VSS. 1 – 9)
In verses 1 – 9 Joshua gathers the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh together and prepares to send them home (vs. 1). He affirms their commitment and their obedience to the Lord and to his own leadership of them; they didn’t sit at home on the east side of the Jordan on their thumbs while their brothers and sisters fought for their land on the west side of the Jordan (vss. 2 – 4). Before sending them off, Joshua blesses them after he instructs them to love God, to obey God’s commands, to cling to God and to serve him with their entire beings (vss. 5 – 6).
As Joshua sends off the two and a half Eastside tribes he also instructs them to divide the spoils of war among themselves as they resettle in the land they conquered earlier according to the command of the Lord under Moses’ leadership (vss. 7 – 9; Num. 32). This had to be an exciting moment for the Eastside tribes as they return home with instructions to love God, obey God, cling to God and serve God wholeheartedly (vss. 5 – 6). It seems like loving God by obeying him; clinging to him and serving him wholeheartedly is a very serious matter for God’s people.
2: THE CONFLICT BEGINS (VSS. 10 – 20)
In verses 10 – 20 the two and a half Eastside tribes build a massive alter on the west side of the Jordan river; it wasn’t built on their side (the east side) of the river; it was built on the other side (the west side) of the river in the land that belonged to the Westside tribes (vss. 10 – 11). When the Westside tribes heard the news they gathered together to make war against their brothers in the East (vs. 12).
Here we have an early account of the civil wars that will soon erupt among God’s people, albeit for much worse reasons. The nine and half Westside tribes send ten delegates under the leadership of Phinehas to confront the two and a half Eastside tribes (vss. 13 – 15). Personally I can feel the tension building as the eleven-leader war-council marches towards the Eastside tribes armed for confrontation. And at this point in the story we are still in the dark as to why these leaders from the Westside are so upset!
Then in verses 16 – 20 we begin to see things more clearly. We must remember that Phinehas is the leader of the eleven and most likely their spokesperson. Who is this Phinehas dude and why did the Westside tribes choose him to lead their war-council? Phinehas was a godly, passionate and fearless leader who took God’s commands about holiness and obedience very seriously; so much so, that back in the wilderness of wandering he used his spear to kill two professing believers (not unbelievers out there in the big bad old world; believers in the church) who were having sex next to the tabernacle (or inside depending on your perspective of the text [Num. 25]); the Tabernacle was a modern day mobile church building.
So Phinehas seems to be the right man to lead the war-council and his questions make it obvious that he believes (mistakenly as we’ll see in a moment) that the Eastside tribes are breaking God’s commands regarding worship (Deut. 12:13 – 14), committing the same sin that he confronted back in the wilderness with the professing believers who were having sex in or next to the church building (Num. 25), as well as the sin that was dealt with earlier in Joshua with Achan, who kept items that were designated for destruction (7:1). So the Westside tribes under Phinehas’ leadership are concerned about obedience to God and holiness at the personal level as well as the corporate level (vs. 20). It seems like personal/corporate holiness is a very serious matter for God’s people.
3: THE EASTSIDE TRIBES RESPOND TO THE CONFLICT (VSS. 21 – 29)
In verses 21 – 29 the people of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh respond to the Westside tribes’ accusation of disobedience, rebellion, unfaithfulness and sin by affirming that they love the Lord and that the Lord knows their hearts and that if the accusations are true then they should not be spared and the Lord should have his vengeance upon them (vss. 21 – 23).
So they essentially affirm that if their opponents’ accusations are true then their opponents are right in seeking Godly justice. They go on to explain that their opponents have judged them wrongfully; they aren’t rebelling (though it may appear that way); they merely want to make sure that future generations know that even though there’s a massive river in-between them, that they serve the Lord just as their brothers in the West do (vss. 24 – 29).
In other words, the massive alter they’ve built is not for literal sacrifices (it’s not meant to undermine the alter in the west) it’s only a copy that is meant to be a witness or a reminder of who they love, obey, cling to and serve. It seems like reputation is a very important matter for God’s people.
4: THE CONFLICT IS RESOLVED (30 – 34)
In verses 30 – 34 Phinehas and his ten leaders from the Westside tribes back down from their holy war because they realize that their previous accusations against their brothers (rightly founded as they may have seemed) were unjustified in light of the Eastside tribes’ explanation; they are not rebelling against the Lord, therefore they are not in danger of God’s judgment as it previously appeared (vss. 30 – 31).
So Phinehas leads his war-council back to the rest of Israel and they give an honest account of what the Eastside tribes explained and all of Israel found the report to be good so they stopped talking about making war (vss. 32 – 33).
The final note we see here is the two and a half Eastside tribes naming the alter “Witness, ‘For’, they said, ‘it is a witness between us that the Lord is God.’” In other words, the conflict is resolved and the massive alter is now a physical witness between the Eastside and the Westside declaring, “that the Lord is God” (vs. 34). It seems like lordship is a very important matter for God’s people.
HOW DOES THE GOSPEL APPLY TO WHAT WE’VE JUST READ?
We’ve just learned that loving God; Holiness; Reputation and Lordship are very important topics for God’s people to wrestle with. But we’ve also witnessed in this text how conflict can easily erupt with a group of people who are attempting to live out those four things.
Conflict is a very real thing. There isn’t a family or a nation that hasn’t been touched by conflict since the beginning. How can I help us to feel the same sense of conflict that the players in this text felt? In other words, how can I intentionally antagonize us to feel the urgency, the fear, the hatred and even the sweet release of this text?
Let’s talk about the church in America from my perspective for a minute. I would imagine that all of you will feel some kind of conflict with what I’m about to say; many of you probably already feel conflicted. Please try to hear my heart here and remember that my job is not to tickle our ears with modern day so-called evangelical easy messages of beliefism; my job is to help us as a church cry out in desperation for the power of the gospel.
When I survey the church (especially in America today) I see a subculture of people who are shackled in the chains of conflict on a bloody battlefield of war between the so-called conservative-right and the so-called liberal-left. I don’t understand how people who claim to be Christians, who claim to study the Scriptures, could, on one side of the battlefield protest abortion vehemently but not give the same amount of energy to protesting our president’s sinful words and behaviors; some of our leading Christian voices have hailed him as a Christian.
On the other side of the battlefield are people that I don’t understand either who claim to be Christians and claim to study the Scriptures, while protesting the president’s sinful words and actions but they give a pass to women who abort their babies and they openly accept just about any kind of sexual sin as though it is normal. I think all of this makes us look very foolish and very hypocritical.
Now, some people would argue that the reason this is all happening is because the postmodern mindset has infected our nation. Others would argue that this is happening because the modern mindset hasn’t completely been eradicated. Some people would argue that secularism has infiltrated our country while others will argue that millennials have ruined everything. And the funny thing is that I have heard all of this and more from what appear to be well-meaning, Bible-believing, self-proclaimed Christians who have proof texts to support all of their points.
If this is the state of the church today at the national or maybe even the global level, imagine how this has affected entire denominations, local churches, families and individuals. And we wonder why the divorce rates in the church mirror that of the world around us.
The picture I see of the church is an all-out ideological war that is oftentimes devoid of the gospel. I think the power of the gospel has been traded in for a political party on either side of the aisle along with a mindset that is ok with compromise so long as we are only compromising on our perspective of the lesser of two evils.
Heaven forbid if anyone else holds to a different interpretation of what the lesser of two evils actually is because when someone challenges our presuppositions of what the lesser of two evils is then we have the grounds for an all out assault.
I personally think we would do well if we just simply slowed down a little bit in all of our war against all things that appear to be unholy. I really believe we would do well if we began to get a gospel-centered worldview. I’m not talking about a biblical worldview that has been salt and peppered with conservative or liberal language. I’m talking about a biblical worldview that has been saturated in the gospel.
I’m talking about a gospel-centered worldview that is grounded at the foot of a bloody cross, in the doorway of an empty tomb with the hope of Heaven as our source of strength. I’m not a courageous man. I don’t think I would have done as well as Phinehas. If I was in the shoes of the two and half Eastside tribes, I probably would have felt very weak in the knees as I looked into the eyes of my brothers from across the river. I can’t imagine how it would have felt to be outnumbered nine and a half to two and a half. I don’t know how I would have reacted or responded to this conflict.
But I do know this, we serve a better Joshua who has promised us a better inheritance and has called us to a better obedience in the gospel. Jesus is a better Savior and he has promised us a better Heaven then we could ever experience here in any kingdom on this earth.
I don’t know what kingdom you are in today that is being tossed back and forth on the battlefield of conflict. It may be the kingdom of marriage or the kingdom of family or the kingdom of friendship or the kingdom of singleness or the kingdom or your workplace but either way the kingdom of Heaven has been manifested on this earth through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Because of Christ we can openly confess our own sins as well as the sins of our nation and we can beg him for forgiveness and restoration and fortitude and integrity as we submit our lives in faith-filled trust in his work at the cross and empty tomb.
We can trust the Spirit, our helper, our counselor and our advocate to lead us into the truth for it is through Jesus, our Lord who is God, that we can find any rest and assurance of a better kingdom than any kingdom on this earth. And finally, we can trust in the power of the Spirit to enable us to Love God and to love people who are on the other side of river from us.