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Finding True Freedom Through Covenantal Representation

The covenant idea is nothing but the expression of the representative principle consistently applied to all reality. —Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (1969)

The Story of Ai

Jericho had fallen.  Israel’s next military target was the small fortress-town of Ai several miles to the west.  Scouts found the city and its defenses unimpressive and told Joshua that a small strike force of two or three thousand could deal effectively with the town.  Joshua went with the higher number.  Israel was riding high on the exhilaration of victory.  Israel was also sure that God was on her side and that that her armies were invincible.  She saw no need to check with God about the assault on Ai.

But there was a problem.  During the destruction of Jericho, one man had violated Yahweh’s ban on the city.  Achan the son of Carmi had discovered a cache of treasure in the ruins of Jericho and taken it away to his own tent.  He stole from God.  Interestingly, scripture reckons his guilt to all Israel:  “But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing” (Josh. 7:1).

When Joshua’s strike force engaged Ai’s army before the city gate, things went badly.  Israel faltered and then fled.  The battle became a rout.  Israel’s army lost thirty-six men.  The blow to Israel’s morale was heavy.  “The hearts of the people melted, and became as water” (Josh. 7:5).  Joshua and the elders of Israel rent their clothes and fell down before the Ark of the Covenant.  With dust on their heads, they bewailed the outcome of the battle.  Joshua interceded for Israel and pleaded that God would defend His own honor in this matter.

God answered Joshua bluntly and brusquely:  “Get up! Why are you lying on your face?  Israel has sinned.”  God told him that someone had violated the ban and committed sacrilege.  In consequence, God had removed His favor from Israel’s armies, and He would not restore it until Israel dealt decisively with the offender.

Joshua brought the representatives of Israel before God, tribe by tribe.  God, by lot or priestly Urim, pointed out the tribe of Judah. Then a particular family. Then a household.  At last God put His finger on Achan.  Joshua confronted him gently:  “My son, give glory to the LORD God of Israel and make confession to Him” (Josh. 7:19).

Achan made confession.  Amidst the treasures of the city, he had seen a beautiful mantle from Shinar (Babylon), a bar of gold, and two hundred pieces of silver.  “I coveted them and took them,” he confessed.

Joshua’s men found the banned treasures buried under the floor of Achan’s tent.  With the confession confirmed by circumstantial evidence, Achan was taken to a nearby valley and executed by stoning.  All that he had was destroyed with him, including his family, who were apparently complicit.  (It wouldn’t have been easy for Achan to hide the treasure under the tent floor without his family seeing it.)

God turned from His wrath and restored His blessing, and Joshua turned his attention back to the conquest of Ai.  This time he dedicated his full attention to the battle.  God blessed His people and even handed them the broad outlines of a battle strategy.  Joshua set an ambush and lured the men of Ai out onto the battlefield.  Ai’s army fell into the trap.  Israel destroyed the army and took the city.  “And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day” (8:28).

Representation by Covenant

Liberals, libertarians, and secularists of all sorts have a hard time with the story of Achan.  God was angry with Israel for the sin of one man, a sin that no one but the perpetrator knew anything about.  God withdrew His mercies from Israel’s armies, and thirty-six men died.  To the dedicated individualist, this seems unjust and immoral.  Why should one man—or thirty-six—suffer for another man’s sin?

In truth, of course, we deal with this ethical reality every day.  We are represented by elders and pastors, by husbands and fathers, by parliaments and presidents.  Their choices bring us good and evil.  Often the evil is the more obvious.  A father sins, and his family is financially devastated.  A pastor sins, and his flock is scattered.  A president provokes a war, and young men die on foreign fields.  These examples have one thing in common: In each case the relationships involved are covenantal.

Covenants unite the covenanted parties in a structure of mutual representation.  Each party represents the other in some fashion and to some degree.  Because of this, each party is responsible in some measure for the actions and the well being of the other.  A child breaks a window, and the father pays the bill.  A general orders his men to fire and thereby commits his whole army.  A pastor profanes the sacraments by secret sin, and his church suffers the judgment of God.  Clearly, some covenantal offenses are more serious than others.

Representation and Holiness

Holiness means separation—separation from the world, and separation to God and His purposes.  Under the Old Covenant, there were marked degrees of holiness.  Israel was a holy people, but only the Levites could approach the holy things of the Tabernacle.  The Levites were a holy tribe, but only Aaron’s sons, the priests, could offer sacrifice and minister in the Holy Place.  The priests were holy, but only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies—and then only once a year with blood.  Each degree of holiness imposed greater responsibility and required greater care.  It was a glorious, but dangerous, thing to draw nigh to God.  When Aaron’s sons offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, fire from the LORD devoured them (Lev. 10:1-2).  When the Levite Uzzah reached out his hand to grab the toppling Ark, God smote him so that he died (1 Chron. 13:9-10).

Now Achan and all Israel were engaged in holy war.  They were fighting the battles of Yahweh.  God had claimed Jericho as the firstfruits of the whole campaign against Canaan.  Its ruins and spoils were set apart—either to destruction or to the service of the Tabernacle.  When Achan stole from Jericho, he stole from God, and he did so as member of Yahweh’s priestly army.  His sacrilege had far wider consequences than any ordinary theft would ever carry.  And because Israel didn’t carefully seek after God’s leading in their campaign against Ai, they suffered the consequence of their negligence and of Achan’s sin.

The spiritual realities of representation and holiness are found in the New Covenant as well.  We may consider Holy Communion.  When we come to the Lord’s Supper, we “draw nigh” to God.  We are there as God’s holy priesthood, His representatives to the world (1 Pet. 2:9).  We come as a body, in corporate union with Christ.  Any unconfessed sin that anyone brings to the Supper can provoke the wrath of God against the whole congregation (1 Cor. 11:23-34). Paul warns us that we must judge ourselves if we would not be judged.

Representation as a Divine Attribute

Representation is an eternal reality.  The Son is the eternal Word of the Father (John 1:1).  He is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) and the express image of His person (Heb. 1:3).  The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, proceeding from both the Father and the Son (John 20:22).  Scripture speaks of a mutual indwelling of the Father in the Son and of the Son in the Father.  Jesus said, “the Father is in me, and I in him” (John 10:38).  In His farewell discourse, He used similar language:

Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake (John 14:11).

Charles Hodge summed up this mutual indwelling his chapter on the Trinity:

As the essence of the Godhead is common to the several persons of the Trinity, they have a common intelligence, will and power.  There are not in God three intelligences, three wills, three efficiencies.  The Three are one God, and therefore have one mind and will…The Son is in the Father, and the Father in the Son; that where the Father is, there the Son and Spirit are; that what the one does the others do… So also what the one knows, the others know… A common knowledge implies a common consciousness. (Hodge, 461)

Cornelius Van Til writes:  “…the Trinity exists in the form of a mutually exhaustive representation of the three Persons that constitute it” (96), and “If the Persons of the Trinity are representationally exhaustive of one another, human thought is cast on representational lines too” (Van Til, 97).  Because man is made in the image of God, his life can’t function in any other than representational terms.  Representation is not abstract or unusual.  It’s a divine thing and therefore necessarily a human thing as well.  In fact, there can be no Christianity without it.

Conclusion

The judgment on Achan points to the central reality of the gospel:  ”For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).  Jesus Christ bore the sins of His people. He gave Himself in death for His Church (Matt. 1:21; Eph. 4:25).  The moral and judicial validity of representation is the foundation of the atonement.  Christ could die as the penal substitute for His people, His corporate body, because representation lies in very nature of the Godhead.  A theology that knows nothing of the Trinity will struggle with any idea of representation that doesn’t amount to identity and assimilation.  But covenantal representation, as we find it in the gospel, guarantees freedom and individuality with personal and corporate responsibility.

For Further Reading:

Francis Schaeffer, Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1975).

Robert L. Hubbard, The NIV Application Commentary:  Joshua (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2009).

Rick Wade, “The Yahweh War and the Conquest of Canaan,” Bible.org, 2010.  <https://bible.org/article/yahweh-war-and-conquest-canaan>

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. I (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973).

Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Grand Rapids:  Den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969).

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