While it may not appear evident at first glance, both the Holy War in which Israel was engaged in the Old Covenant (Ex. 34:11–16) and the Holy War in which Christians are engaged in the New Covenant (Eph. 6:10–19) are directly related to the saving work of Christ. A biblical theology of the Land and temple enables us to make sense of holy war in the Old and New Testaments by giving insights into the holy war that God waged on Christ at the cross. This keeps us from dissecting the Bible into two unrelated books. The cross is the epicenter of God’s revelation in both testaments. The shadows and types of the Old Testament are realized in the full light of the person and work of Jesus. In order to understand the New Testament’s teaching on holy war, we must first understand the nature of old covenant holy war and how God declared holy war on Christ at Calvary.
Purification stands at the forefront of God’s command for Israel to destroy the nations in the land of Canaan. God promised to dwell with His people. The land of Israel was a stepping-stone toward the restoration of Eden. God’s purpose was to restore paradise lost with “new heavens and a new Earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). The land of Israel was a temporary step in this process. The land was set apart by God for a holy dwelling. In order for the Holy God to dwell in the land, the land had to be holy. The Canaanite inhabitants and their practices represented everything opposed to the holiness of God. As Meredith Kline noted, “Israel’s conquest and dispossession of the Canaanites was carried out in fulfillment of their status as a nation of priests . . . commissioned to cleanse the land claimed by Yahweh as holy to him.”
In redemptive history, the temple became God’s dwelling place in the land. The temple needed to be cleansed because of sin. The several acts of temple cleansing in the Old Testament pointed back to the conquest of Canaan and forward to the work of Christ (2 Chron. 29:3–19; Neh. 13:4–31). In His day, Jesus cleansed the temple. These temple cleansings showed the need for a final spiritual cleansing of the worshipers. Both the conquest of the land and the cleansing of the temple were to teach the Israelites their need for spiritual cleansing.
At the beginning of His ministry, our Lord said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). He was “speaking about the temple of his body” (2:21). Jesus is the temple because in Him “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19). When Christ was crucified, the temple was cleansed in the greatest act of judgment . In the destruction of His flesh, the sin of His people was cleansed (2 Cor. 5:21). The Father declared holy war on His people and their sin when He declared it on His Son. In the death of Jesus, the people of God were judged for their sins. When Jesus was crucified, we were crucified with Him (Gal. 2:20). The power of sin was destroyed (5:24). When He rose, we rose with Him to new life (Rom. 6:5–10; Col. 3:3).
In the new covenant, all who are united to Christ by faith form the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16–17). The Spirit of God no longer dwells in a building in Jerusalem; He dwells in the hearts of believers. The blood of Jesus cleanses the hearts of His people. Our sanctification is continually affected by His death. The Spirit of Christ resides in believers and is committed to cleansing their hearts of remaining corruption.
Today, the church is engaged in holy war. It is a war against the spiritual enemies who lie behind the kingdoms of this world (Eph. 6:10–11). In this holy war, we are not called to conquer the land of Israel; rather, we are to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). We do not fight this war with physical weapons; we do so by proclaiming the gospel and putting sin to death by the Spirit. At the cross, Jesus disarmed principalities and powers (Col. 2:13). In His ascension, He plundered the enemy (Eph. 4:8), freeing His people from the power of sin and the Devil. We participate in His victory by participating in the church’s mi s sion. When sinners are converted, they undergo a spiritual death and resurrection. Their hearts are cleansed through faith in the crucified Savior. Wherever the message of the cross is proclaimed — and whenever believers engage in hand-to-hand combat with their sin — holy war is being fought.
Whatever the circumstance, we must never forget that the battle is the Lord’s — He has determined its outcome. The war has been fought and won. Victory has been secured at Calvary. God declared holy war on His Son at the cross. In doing so, He conquered the world, the flesh, and the Devil.