Rahab and the Spies

Joshua 2:1-24

1 October 2000

Greyfriars Church


It's always fun to boast about one's famous ancestors, isn't it?

For example, it wasn't in the Olympic Games, but in 1908 or thenabouts my Great Grandfather, Charles Edgington, gained a world record in speed-skating which he held for 17 years. It was for the furthest distance skated in one hour.

His ancestor, Benjamin Edgington, after whom I was named, had a more biblical occupation. He was a tent maker, and his company made the tents that were used on the very first conquest of Everest. Any of you over about thirty years old who were once Scouts or Guides will probably have stayed in a Benjamin Edgington tent.

So there's a quick introduction to two of my many illustrious forebears, and I'm sure you all have ancestors you like to talk about as well.

In the light of this, it's interesting to look at the genealogy of Jesus, which is recorded in Matthew chapter oneref.

Of course Jesus had all sorts of famous and illustrious ancestors: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; King David; King Solomon and many other names we recognise. These are just the kind of names we would expect to find in the ancestry of the King of the Jews. But there are some surprising names there as well. For a start there are some women mentioned, which is surprising given the time it was written.

Who are these women? Well, working backwards, there's Mary, Jesus' mother, of course. Then there's Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite's wife who bore Solomon to David. So, hang on a minute, already we have a frank admission that Jesus' ancestry includes an adulterous relationship. Before that was Ruth: well, she's OK at least. But just before that we come to Rahab, whom we heard about in the readings today.

How did that get past the editor? I don't think I would have put that one in. Here we have recorded in black and white, in the first paragraph of the New Testament, that Rahab, a pagan prostitute from a heathen people, was one of the ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That makes this story we heard earlier pretty intriguing, doesn't it? Let's find out how this extraordinary situation came about. It's all in Joshua chapter 2. Please turn to it if you have a Bible nearby.

Story so far

Let's recap the story so far.

Joshua and the Israelites are on the border of the land that God has promised them. For forty years they have been wandering about in the desert, but God is finally going to give them what He has promised.

However, the important pagan city of Jericho stands between them and the land. Perhaps daunted by this, Joshua sent two spies over the river to check out the city and report back to him.

We're told in verse one of chapter two that the spies go to stay at the house of Rahab the prostitute. You may have a footnote that suggests that Rahab might have been an innkeeper and not a prostitute, but this is just a prudish attempt to sanitize her. The New Testament is unequivocal on this matter: she was a prostitute. And, of course, the prostitute's house was an inspired choice of place for the spies to stay. Who would concern themselves with two men coming and going from a brothel? What better place to find out all the gossip about what was going on in the city?

It appears that Rahab had a more respectable trade as well, working with flax, and she hid the spies under the large stalks of flax drying on the flat roof of her house. In Rahab the spies had clearly found an ally. What was it that made her take such an incredible risk? What made Rahab betray her people like this?

The Signs of the Times

Well, Rahab had seen the signs of the times, and that is my first heading: Rahab saw the signs of the times.

What Rahab saw was that her world was destined for destruction.

It wasn't just that there was a large army camped just over the river from her: after all Jericho was a heavily fortified city, ordinarily they would have fancied their chances. No, Rahab knew that they had no chance because it was God's Kingdom itself that was coming. Look at verses 9 to 11:

She said to them, "I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below."ref

Rahab had no doubt: God's Kingdom was coming and her world was destined for destruction.

And we should have no doubt either: God's Kingdom is coming, and our world is destined for destruction.

Yesterday in the papers the physicist Stephen Hawking was predicting global environmental catastrophe within the next 1000 years. Well, I'm not talking about that. I'm not talking here about the nuclear holocaust we feared so much in the 1970s. I'm not even talking about being struck by a giant meteorite, which seems to be the latest great fear. What I am talking about is God himself coming to wrap up his creation, when Jesus comes again, and when God's kingdom—His perfect world—is established.

Jesus himself is quite clear about this in Matthew Chapter 24. The disciples ask him, Tell us, what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?ref

Jesus replies by saying, among many other things,

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory... Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.ref

God's Kingdom is coming and our world is destined for destruction. We will not have a realistic view of the world around us until we realise that it is temporary. These seven-hundred year old walls around us now look pretty permanent, don't they? But when Jesus comes they will be crushed in an instant, along with the rest of Reading. What's the point in clinging to things in this world that are only going to be destroyed? But we do, don't we?

Rahab had made this realization, that her world was on the way out, and a new world was coming, and she made the decision that it was time to switch allegiances.

As we will see in a couple of chapters time, just a few people from the whole city of Jericho were to survive: Rahab, and her family. When Jericho was destroyed it is doubtless that many nice people perished. Many rich people perished. Many well educated people perished. Many religious people perished. Many successful people perished. They had one thing in common: they had set their faces against God's coming kingdom.

The Bible is clear that when Jesus comes to wrap up our world, not many people will survive it. When perfection comes, the imperfect must disappear, and that's the situation we face. Even if Jesus doesn't come in our lifetimes, we are no better off: we will still have to face up to God on the Day of Judgement.

Let me challenge you to think tonight: where is your allegiance? Are you attached to this world that we can see and feel all around us, but which is destined for destruction? Or do you want to be part of God's coming Kingdom? Is it time to switch allegiances?

So, what does it mean for us to switch allegiences? Is there any way for you and me to ensure that we will survive when God's Kingdom comes to this world? When He comes to Reading?

Well, Rahab shows us the way. First of all, like Rahab in Jericho, we need to see the signs of the times: God's kingdom is coming. And next, like Rahab, we need to do something about it.

An act of faith

That brings me to my second heading, Rahab's act of faith.

According to Rahab, everybody in the country could see that God's Kingdom was coming and feared the consequences, but in the end only Rahab had the faith to do something about it.

Her first act of faith we saw in verse 1, when she let the spies stay at her house. But somehow news about them and what they were up to leaked out, and the king sent guards to Rahab to capture the spies. Rahab's second act of faith was in protecting the Israelites by sending the guards on a wild goose chase.

She said, "Yes, the men came to me, but I didn't know where they had come from. At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left. I don't know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them." (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.)ref

Out of all the people of Jericho, Rahab was the only one who did anything. The others had belief, but Rahab had faith. This shows us a sharp distinction between the two.

In the other reading we had from James he says, You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.ref James' point is that a saving faith is not just a set of correct beliefs: it is a belief that acts. James says of Rahab was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?ref Rahab believed, and she acted on that belief.

James is sometimes accused of being a little off-message in this respect, so it's interesting to note that the writer to the Hebrews says much the same thing about Rahab. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.ref You see, she believed, and she acted on her belief.

In some ways Rahab's story is a little like that of Corrie ten Boom. In wartime Holland, occupied by the Nazis, Corrie ten Boom and her family hid Jews from from persecution, and risked their lives many times. There's a terrific book about it all, The Hiding Place, which I highly recommend. So, both Corrie ten Boom and Rahab acted on their faith while others remained silent, and both were traitors to the worlds they found themselves in: one in heathen Jericho, the other in Nazi occupied Europe.

An act of faith in God is an act of treachery against the world, because we find ourselves in a world where the devil is in charge. Once we have decided that we are on God's side then we will inevitably be traitors to this world.

So, how are we going to show our treachery to this world, that we no longer belong to it? Rahab harboured spies; Corrie ten Boom rescued Jews; how will we show our faith? Here are some ideas.

Our world says that my colleagues' beliefs are just as good as mine; that there is no absolute truth. So when we say, "NO! there is one Holy, Almighty God, and I know him" , then we are honouring God and committing an act of treachery against the world.

Our world says sex is just a bit of fun, do it whenever you want, with whomever you want. So when refuse to have sex before marriage, and then keep our marriages pure, we are honouring God and committing an act of treachery against the world.

Our world says you are what you own; shop, shop, shop seven days a week. So when we refuse to shop on Sundays and come to church instead then we are honouring God and committing an act of treachery against the world.

Our world says that we are only to be considered successful if we are in jobs that pay a lot of money. So every time we do a good deed of love in secret for no reward then we are honouring God and committing an act of treachery against the world.

How many of us actually do these things? I read recently that some startling number like 30% of British men believe that they should lose some weight, but also admit to still eating whatever they want. Comical, isn't it? But I suspect that we are all a bit like that really: we know the truth, but so rarely act on it.

The sad truth is—and I'm speaking to myself now as much as anyone—that so often we are indistinguishable from unbelievers. We might claim to believe all the right things, but the message of Rahab, and the message of James and the Bible, is that belief only becomes faith when we do something about it.

So, let's do something about it! Let's go out this week and be traitors to the world! Let's show Reading, and Maidenhead and wherever we live and work that we do not belong to this world marked for destruction, but that we are part of God's kingdom that is coming! Like Rahab, it may take us some considerable courage, but what alternative do we have?

Incidentally, what are we to make of the fact that Rahab lied? In my opinion, she did her best on a very limited understanding of who God is; she acted in accordance with the faith she had. If her faith had been stronger she would have done better to tell the truth. Corrie ten Boom's story, The Hiding Place, has some astonishing examples of how God honours truth-telling. We should aim for the best; but I believe that God will use our deeds done in sincere faith, even if, perhaps, they are not quite perfect. And that's a great encouragement.

So, Rahab saw the signs of the times: God's Kingdom was coming, and she showed her faith by what she did, thoroughly putting most of us to shame in the process.

Saved by Grace

But there is some really good news here. In the end Rahab was not saved from the destruction by what she did; she was saved from the destruction by the mercy of the Israelites. And that gives us a third heading: saved by grace.

In verse 12 Rahab pleads with the spies, Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.ref

So the Israelite spies promise that she will be saved if and only if she ties a scarlet cord to her window frame, which the Israelite army will be able to see as it approaced Jericho.

This choice of sign must have had great resonance for the spies. Just a few years earlier the Israelites themselves had gone through an amazing rescue by God. In living memory of the Israelites would have been that amazing passover night when God had gone through Egypt and slain the firstborn of every household. But in those households where the scarlet blood of a passover lamb had been smeared on the door frame God spared the family. Those were the houses of the faithful Israelites.

Now again we have the same symbolism: not scarlet blood, but a scarlet cord; not a door frame, but a window frame. Nonetheless, a sign of God's saving grace.

Perhaps too many questions would have been asked if Rahab had sacrificed a lamb to smear its blood on the window frame, but she could get away with hanging out a scarlet cord: it was probably a sign of her trade, a pre-electric version of the red light district. God turned this sordid symbol into a wonderful sign of salvation.

And we know, don't we, of another sordid symbol that God has turned into a wonderful sign of salvation. I'm talking about the cross on which Jesus was crucified. This Roman torture instrument—the electric chair of its day—has become for us the wonderful way that God rescues us from this world.

On that cross Jesus shed his blood. When we are marked with the symbolic blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, then we too are marked out for rescue when the kingdom of God arrives. God is coming to destroy the world, but he will pass-over his faithful people marked with the scarlet blood of Christ, just as the Israelites passed over Rahab's household when they destroyed Jericho.

Rahab and her family didn't save themselves: they didn't need to fight their way out of Jericho with swords when the Israelites came. No, in faith they put up the sign that had been given to them, and waited for rescue: God's rescue. It wasn't their work, it was God's: that's why I called this section "saved by grace". It's a gift of God, freely given to those who want it.

So that's the answer to the question that I asked earlier, isn't it? How are you and I going to make sure that we will be rescued into God's Kingdom when He comes to wrap up the world? Well, the answer is that we simply need to make sure that we are marked with that scarlet sign: the blood of Jesus, and God will do the rest. How do we receive this sign from God? Just by putting our faith in him: a genuine faith in which belief and actions go together.


To conclude: if this pagan prostitute from a heathen nation can become an ancestor of our Lord then there is hope for all of us.

Far from being ashamed of her, she is an ancestor to be proud of, because when she saw God's kingdom coming she decided where her allegiance lay; she acted on that decision which made her a traitor to her world; and she put her trust in God to save her.

This is exactly the same way that God deals with us today.

The take home message is this: God's kingdom is coming. If you want to be part of that kingdom then put your faith in God and act on that faith. If you do this you have the certain hope, because of the blood that Jesus shed, that God will rescue you when he comes.