The Banner of Salvation

A sermon preached Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on October 7, 2018.

Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner, saying, “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” Exodus 17:8–16.

Prior to the exodus, Israel had known only Egyptian civilization. The generations led into the wilderness and sustained miraculously by manna from heaven and water from the rock were not seasoned warriors but former slaves. They were not prepared for wilderness travel or battle. In contrast, the Amalekites were nomadic people accustomed to the wilderness. Descendants of Esau, they roamed freely plundering unsuspecting tribes and towns. Whether these descendants of Esau recognized the descendants of Jacob, carrying generational animosity into battle, is unknown. More likely, this group of nomadic bandits saw a group of unprotected, former city-dwelling slaves as easy prey. As witnessed in their consistent complaining, Israel wasn’t known for their fortitude. They were indeed a seemingly defenseless and easy target.

According to Deuteronomy 25:18, Amalek attacked unsuspecting Israel from behind, starting first with the weak and weary stragglers. As a result, Moses charged Joshua with choosing an army to fight Amalek. Moses also revealed his involvement in the battle: “I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand” (Ex. 17:9). This curious detail is also Israel’s key to victory. When the staff is held high, Israel prevails in battle; when the staff is lowered, Amalek prevails. So essential is the elevation of the staff, that Aaron, Moses’ brother, and Hur, likely Moses’ brother-in-law, hold Moses’ hands high until sundown. The result of the high-held staff is victory for Israel, overwhelming “Amalek and his people with the sword” (Ex. 17:13).

As there was warfare significance in the staff held high, the Lord directed Moses to record the event: “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven” (Ex. 17:14). In commemoration, Moses builds an altar, naming it and defining its significance. The name of this altar and its significance are rich with meaning. Moses names the altar “The LORD Is My Banner,” as it is translated in the ESV. The Hebrew word translated “banner” can be confusing to modern ears. You may think of a banner ad that runs across a computer screen. You may think of a banner as a temporary sign. But quite literally, this Hebrew phrase means, “Yahweh is my signal pole.” Or contextually, “The LORD is my staff.” Moses’ staff was no magic staff, but God had chosen to use it as a means to reveal His powerful provision. Moses explains this significance by saying, “A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:16). For Moses, as his hands held high the staff of God, it was as if he was touching the throne of God. As Moses held high the staff, the LORD was there seated on His regal throne. The battle was not a matter of chance nor of might but a revelation of the need of His people and the Lord’s provision.

However, the conclusion of Moses’ words is perhaps the most curious. Having delivered the message to Joshua, that the Lord would “utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven,” Moses then reveals that the Lord “will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” Leading the casual reader to question: Which is it? Will Amalek be utterly blotted out or continue in war against Israel from generation to generation? In the greater context of Scripture we find that the answer to both questions is yes. Amalek will continue to resurface as a consistent enemy of Israel, but their doom is certain as pronounced by the Lord. And under the reign of King David they were destroyed.

This of course is difficult for us to understand. If the Lord pronounces destruction, shouldn’t it be instantaneous? If Israel defeats Amalek once, shouldn’t that be the end of the warfare? It reminds me a lot of the Christian’s battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil. If this world is not my home, why am I still here? If Christ has conquered my sinful flesh, why do I still sin? If the devil has been defeated, why does he still rule this world? In this already but not yet conundrum of the Christian life, we find that God is glorified in our redemption and our sanctification and one day our glorification. We learn that in the battle of this life we are being conformed to Christ for the next. Therefore, in this life in Christ, we cannot passively ignore the battle, but like Israel we must engage in the battle, look to God’s provision, and worship under His banner.

Engage in the Battle

Israel’s battle was with Amalek, a stealthy foe who sought to conquer Israel from behind. But Paul reveals that for the Christian, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Just as Israel could not ignore the attack of their enemy, the Christian cannot ignore the spiritual reality and attacks of our enemy. Israel’s enemy attacked from behind; our enemy “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Martin Luther describes this spiritual warfare in his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” describing this spiritual warfare:

            A mighty fortress is our God, 
            a bulwark never failing; 
            our helper he, amid the flood 
            of mortal ills prevailing. 
            For still our ancient foe 
            doth seek to work us woe; 
            his craft and power are great, 
            and armed with cruel hate, 
            on earth is not his equal.

Oh, Christian do not be naïve! Indeed, “Our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe.” Do not underestimate his craft, nor his power. If on earth there is not his equal, how then do we engage in the battle? How do we engage in this spiritual warfare?

First, we begin by realizing there is a battle. Remember that it was not in the heat of battle that David committed adultery and murder; it was when he stayed home from the battle. Likewise, we must awaken to the fact that this world is a battleground, and our engagement is not optional. Second, do not be naïve nor arrogant, thinking that your engagement wins the battle. You are not a mighty fortress, but our God is. And, we engage in the battle by looking to His provision.

Look to God’s Provision

Upon the hill stood Moses with the staff of God held high: “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed” (Ex. 17:11). Israel understood what David would later sing, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps. 20:7). Engaged in the battle they were dependent upon the Lord’s provision, by means of a banner on a hill. So also, we look to that banner on a hill:

            Did we in our own strength confide, 
            our striving would be losing, 
            were not the right Man on our side, 
            the Man of God’s own choosing. 
            You ask who that may be? 
            Christ Jesus, it is he; 
            Lord Sabaoth his name, 
            from age to age the same; 
            and he must win the battle.

Just as Moses raised the staff of God and later a serpent upon a pole, as a banner of salvation, Jesus said, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). We look to the cross of Christ as a banner of our salvation: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

But, in our engagement, looking to God’s provision of the cross of Christ, we must not think this is a battle of equals. For, just as the Lord prophesied Amalek’s destruction, our battle is with a condemned foe. At the cross, the devil was defeated, the serpent’s head was crushed (Gen. 3:15), the power of death was destroyed (Heb. 2:14). But, until that final day of judgment, we must engage in the battle with our eternally condemned foe and look to God’s provision:

            And though this world, with devils filled, 
            should threaten to undo us, 
            we will not fear, for God has willed 
            his truth to triumph through us. 
            The prince of darkness grim, 
            we tremble not for him; 
            his rage we can endure, 
            for lo! his doom is sure; 
            one little word shall fell him.

Because the victory is the Lord’s, we fight by His ordinary means of grace. As unlikely as the might of a staff upon a hill, through the unlikely means of Word, prayer, and sacrament, we fight in the Lord’s provision. And in the Lord’s provision, we worship under His banner.

Worship under His Banner

Following the battle with Amalek, Moses built an altar, naming it “The LORD Is My Banner.” At this place of worship, Israel was not directed to worship an earthly staff. They did not engage in banner worship. No, the banner directed them to the Lord of glory, and His provision for them. So, also we look to the cross of Christ, the signal pole, the banner of our salvation, not to worship a tree but to rejoice in the substitutionary atonement of our Savior upon it. We worship under His banner, for His banner over us is love (Songs 2:4). And, we “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).

So we look to the sacrifice of Christ today as we observe the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Partaking of the elements of bread and wine, we look to the sinless body and atoning blood of Christ. It is under the banner of Christ alone that we worship, looking to His perfect provision, and in His provision we stand fast in battle.

            That Word above all earthly powers 
            no thanks to them abideth; 
            the Spirit and the gifts are ours 
            through him who with us sideth. 
            Let goods and kindred go, 
            this mortal life also; 
            the body they may kill: 
            God’s truth abideth still; 
            his kingdom is forever!

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