The seventh chapter of Joshua records an interesting and informative series of events. Shortly after the destruction of the city of Jericho, we find the Israelites had failed to understand the lesson God was trying to teach them. They had defeated Jericho only because God had caused the walls of the city to fall. The lesson was that if they were to defeat their enemies (the inhabitants of Canaan), it would only be as a result of faith in God: their enemies were far stronger than were the Israelites. Forgetting the lesson--or more likely, they just never really got it--the Israelites sent a force of 3,000 men against the city of Ai, the next obstacle standing in their path. Not only were they soundly defeated, but 36 Israelites were slain.
Joshua and the elders of the nation tore their clothes and put dust on their heads--signs of mourning--when they received word of the defeat. Falling on his face before the Ark of the Covenant, Joshua asked, "Alas, Lord God, why have you brought this people over the Jordan at all--to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us?...O Lord, what shall I say when Israel turns its back before its enemies?"
God's response was abrupt and none too gentle: "Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face? Israel has sinned...for they have taken of the accursed things, and have both stolen and deceived; and they have also put it among their own stuff."
God's command to Israel before they took the city of Jericho was that the spoils of the city were to be dedicated to God and to go into His treasury; they were not to take anything for themselves. One man, Achan by name, had done exactly that: he had kept a beautiful garment from Babylon, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold, and buried them in the ground beneath his tent. Following God's instructions, Achan was identified and he and his family were stoned to death and all their possessions burned.
Now if that sounds like a really harsh judgment, that's because it was. Keep in mind that Achan's sin had already resulted in the deaths of 36 men. But why did God hold other people who had nothing to do with Achan's sin equally accountable? Why didn't God judge Achan and his family (they were aware of his theft and had kept quiet) alone for their sin?
The truth taught here is one of the most important truths for us to learn today. Consider the case in the church at Corinth many years later. A young man in the church was living in sin with his former stepmother, a sin Paul said was so vile--for a man to engage in sexual relations with his father's (former) wife--that even the unsaved Gentiles recognized it as sin. In spite of that, the Christians at Corinth were actually proud of their openmindedness in allowing the man to remain in the church. It was as if they were saying, "We certainly aren't going to judge him!" Paul's rebuke to them was sharp: "For I indeed...have already judged him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?" (1 Corinthians 5:3-6). Their failure to judge the man's sin was a corporate, or group, sin. By failing to call him out for his sin, the church as a whole was being affected just as an individual does when he refuses to judge himself.
How is such a person affected? Consider Psalm 66:18: "If I regard iniquity in my heart (that is, if I knowingly hold on to a sin), the Lord will not hear me." Wow. Think about that. If I deliberately continue in some sin (or sins), refusing to judge myself, I effectively cut off communication with God! If you need further confirmation, Isaiah 59:1-2 says essentially the same thing: "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear you."
Paul's point to the church at Corinth was that the sin of even one Christian can affect a church as surely as it affects that Christian. The remedy for an individual or for a church is the same: repentance and confession. That's why God's judgment had fallen on the nation of Israel as a whole and not just on Achan. Remember what God said to Joshua: "Israel has sinned...". But, you might argue, how could the nation have known about Achan's sin, which was done in secret? That is the question we'll consider in part 2.