Grace in a Strange Place
April 27, 2019
This is how the story begins:
“Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim
‘Go, look over the land,’ he said, ‘especially Jericho.’
So they went and entered the house of
a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there” (Josh 2:1).
Some stories in the Bible don’t quite fit.
This is one of them.
Daniel in the lion’s den fits.
Rahab the harlot, not so much.
We’re not so sure about Rahab telling a lie
We admire David for killing Goliath.
We’re not so sure about Rahab telling a lie.
We teach our children to sing “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho.”
I don’t know any songs about Rahab.
Let’s begin with the fact that Rahab was a harlot. That means she was part of what has been called the “world’s oldest occupation.” The Bible does not cover up this fact about Rahab. Three times in Joshua (2:1; 6:17; 6:25) she is called a harlot (or a prostitute, depending on your translation). The New Testament mentions her occupation twice:
“By faith the prostitute Rahab” (Hebrews 11:31).
“Rahab the prostitute” (James 2:25).
That’s five mentions when one would be enough. Evidently God wants us to think “prostitute” when we think about Rahab. It is not an easy fact for us to face. Consider the English synonyms for prostitute:
Lady of the night.
We aren’t shocked by anything anymore
Many others might be listed, including some too graphic to be used in a message like this. But they all paint the same picture of a woman who for whatever reason has decided to sell her body for money. Over time we have lost the sense of how degrading this is. Hollywood has glamorized prostitution so that it doesn’t seem very ugly. Sex has become so casual that we aren’t shocked by anything anymore. Teens experiment and singles sleep around. Girls sleep with their boyfriends. Married men and women have affairs. Although our generation may not believe it, sexual sin leaves a deep scar on the soul. Those who say they feel no guilt are lying to themselves.
We live in an age where sex has become very casual. I took part in a radio interview with a ministry called India Partners that rescues women from the sex trade. Their spokesman said they have rescued women as young as five years old. Think about that.
One wonders if Rahab had given up any hope for a better life. If she had, it would be understandable, but God had other plans for her. He can turn shame into glory in one shining moment of redemption.
God can turn shame into glory
The biblical record does not give us very many details about Rahab. We know she lived in Jericho near the city wall. She was evidently well-known to the men of the city because the two spies had no trouble finding her house, and the king of Jericho knew who she was and where she lived. But there are many things we don’t know about Rahab.
- We don’t know how she became a harlot.
- We don’t know her family background.
- We don’t know her religion, except that she was not raised to believe in the God of the Bible.
- We don’t know if she was hungering for a better life when the two spies came to her home.
What do we know? We know that by the time we get to the end of this story, the prostitute has become a child of God. And we know she is included in the Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews 11. If you ponder her inclusion in that list, you realize how remarkable her story is. The list goes like this: Abel . . . Enoch . . . Noah . . . Abraham . . . Sarah . . . Isaac . . . Jacob . . . Joseph . . . Moses . . .
And then suddenly . . . Rahab!
“By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Hebrews 11:31).
If ancient Israel had a Mount Rushmore, her face would be on it.
If ancient Israel had a Mount Rushmore, Rahab’s face would be on it.
It’s mind-blowing if you think about it. In one fell swoop, God reaches down and rearranges all our neat little categories. We would put Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses on one side of the ledger (the “good” side), and we would put Rahab way over on the “bad” side. Can’t let the prostitutes get too close to the men of faith, or so we think. But God’s evaluation is strikingly different. When the Bible tells the story, it makes no attempt to cover up her sordid past. Five times she is called a harlot. She is truly a “scarlet woman” whose reputation will follow her till the day she dies. Choices have consequences, and just as we remember Peter denied the Lord and Judas betrayed him, even so we recall Rahab was a harlot.
Note the past tense. She “was” a harlot. That’s what she was. But through the grace of God she became a woman of faith.
Here’s how it happened.
A Hopeless Beginning
Rahab had at least four things going against her:
First, she was a woman. She lived in a world where women were routinely victimized and brutalized. By including Rahab’s story, God wants us to know the ground is level at the foot of the cross. Even in that degraded age, a woman could be included on an equal basis with men in the household of faith.
She was a Gentile
Second, she was a Gentile. She has no part in the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants. She is a foreigner to the grace of God. She starts this story as a complete outsider. She did not belong to the Israelites, and yet by faith she was accepted by God and by his people and when the attack on Jericho came, she was spared while the city around her was destroyed. Her life illustrates God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) that through his descendants all the nations on earth would be blessed.
Third, she was a pagan. Raised in an atmosphere of depraved idol worship and gross immorality, Rahab certainly would have known about the Canaanite practice of child sacrifice. Even though she had heard of the God of the Israelites, she knew nothing about him except for his mighty power to work miracles. The Torah was unknown to her. As this story begins, we have no reason to think she would be sympathetic to the two Jewish spies, and we wouldn’t expect her to risk her life to save them.
Fourth, she was a harlot. Some wish to downplay that fact and seek to soften the impact by translating the word as “innkeeper,” but there is no need to do that. Rahab sold her body for money. We don’t need to cover up the fact or try to explain it away. The fact she was a harlot magnifies the grace of God by demonstrating that someone with a bad background could find a place in God’s family. Grace is for sinners, and only sinners need to be saved, so Rahab stands as a beacon of hope to the broken, hurting, bruised, fallen men and women everywhere who look in the mirror and feel, “There is no hope for me.” If you feel that way, then consider that Rahab was a harlot and at this very moment she is in heaven. If God can save her, he can certainly save you.
She sold her body for money
Some people think she doesn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews 11, but that judgment reveals how little we understand about the grace of God. A woman guilty of repeated sexual sin might not seem like a good candidate for salvation, but appearances can be deceiving. Not every church member is as righteous as they appear on Sunday morning, and not every sinner is as far from the kingdom as we sometimes assume.
God has his people everywhere, even in the most unlikely places.
You wouldn’t think a “fallen woman” in Jericho would end up in Hebrews 11, but that’s exactly what happened. His grace is so amazing that he will not only save notorious sinners, he’ll also save self-righteous church members. We may read this story and say there is grace “even” for people like Rahab. But the word “even” gives us away because it unconsciously puts us on a different level, as if our sins aren’t as bad as hers.
But as Romans 3:22 says, “There is no difference.” No difference between young or old, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female, this culture vs. that culture, or this group vs. that group. As Romans 3:23 puts it: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” All means all. We’re all in the same boat, and the boat is going down.
It’s not enough to say there is grace “even” for people like Rahab.
I’m glad there is grace “even” for people like Ray Pritchard.
That’s the only way I’ll ever get into heaven.
A Remarkable Conversion
It was hard for her to believe, and we can imagine many reasons why she might not have believed. She took a great risk when she sheltered the spies and sent them out another way and when she refused to tell her own people where the two spies were and sent the soldiers on a wild goose chase on the road that leads to the Jordan River. Why would she do it? Joshua 2:9-13 tells us she and all the people of Jericho had heard stories about how God had delivered his people through the Red Sea and how he had given them victory over the Amorite kings. Everyone in Jericho had some degree of knowledge. Rumors had spread like wildfire, but only Rahab had the foresight to believe the Lord himself was at work in all that had happened to the Jews. Where does such foresight come from? I believe the eyes of her heart had been opened by the Holy Spirit so that she took the same information others had and came to a proper conclusion. When it came time to choose sides, she joined God’s people.
She betrayed her own people
She even went so far as to make provision for her own family.
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 (Joshua 2:12-13).
Here is another sign of true conversion. She now has a concern for the safety of her extended family. She doesn’t want to be saved alone. She wants to make sure her family is saved with her.
She heard the truth about God, she believed it, she testified to it, and that faith led her to act courageously in the face of great danger.
She hid the spies, lied about it, then sent them out secretly.
She took her stand for the Lord
In a moment of great crisis, she became a traitor to her own people and joined the people of God. If discovered, she would be immediately put to death. Debating about her lie is a luxury we have 3500 years later. In the most important moment of her life, she didn’t hesitate and didn’t debate anything.
She took her stand for the Lord.
She protected his people.
She made provision for her whole family.
She risked everything in the process.
A Scarlet Deliverance
The spies agreed to spare her family in the coming attack on Jericho if she tied a scarlet cord to her window. Why a scarlet cord? In the chaos of the coming battle, a scarlet cord would be easily seen by the attacking army. But there is a deeper symbolism at work here. The scarlet cord reminds us of the blood of the Passover. The color was no coincidence. It was a scarlet cord that guaranteed her deliverance from otherwise certain death. As soon as the spies left, Rahab tied the scarlet cord in the window so everyone could see it. She had no idea when the attack would come. Maybe in a few days, maybe in several weeks. It didn’t matter. When the chips were down, she believed the promise and did something about it. That simple scarlet cord saved her life.
The scarlet cord saved her life
Let each person who reads these words take them to heart. You may be a religious person. You may be very moral in the eyes of others. You are probably not a harlot, and yet you may not end up as well off as Rahab. You may hear the gospel over and over and yet do nothing about it. You may believe the blood of Christ can forgive your sins, you may even be a church member, but until by faith you come to Christ, you cannot be saved. Rahab heard the word and personally responded by tying the scarlet cord to her window. You and I must do the same thing. It is not hearing that saves us but hearing and believing to the point that you reach out and trust Christ as Savior.
Days passed. Inside Jericho life proceeded as normal. Meanwhile, two things were happening that few people knew about.
1) Rahab spread the word to her relatives. “When the attack starts, come to my house. Don’t delay. Don’t join the battle. Don’t run and hide. Come to my house, and you will be safe.” Rahab became an evangelist to her own family.
Her faith saved her whole family
2) Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan and up toward Jericho. That caused the men of Jericho to close the city gates in the belief they could withstand any assault and any siege.
In the ensuing destruction of Jericho, only one family was spared. The Jewish soldiers kept the promise the spies had made. And so Rahab the harlot was spared, and her faith caused her to reach out and guarantee the salvation of her own family as well. This is true conversion.
A Timeless Message
For 2000 years Christian expositors have seen two major themes in Rahab’s story.
1. No One is Beyond the Reach of God’s Grace
Even in the midst of judgment, God reaches out and saves a harlot who turns to him in faith.
But think of all the men she had slept with.
Think of all that sin.
Think of her stained reputation.
And God says, “It doesn’t matter!”
What’s your sin? We all have sins we would rather not mention in public. As the saying goes, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Does your past make you feel unworthy? If so, then you are an excellent candidate for the grace of God because only unworthy people go to heaven. The people who think they are good enough for heaven end up in hell.
Only unworthy people go to heaven
If God can save Rahab, he can save anyone, and that includes you. I would rather be Rahab the harlot on my way to heaven than Sally the Sunday School teacher on my way to hell.
2. Salvation Means Choosing Sides with Jesus
How much did Rahab know when she hid the spies and then lied to the king? The answer is, not much. She knew the God of Israel was the true God, and she knew she wanted to join God’s people. After sending the spies away secretly, she hung the scarlet cord out her window, and she told her family so they could be saved with her.
We might say she was in spiritual kindergarten.
But she made the Book!
“By faith Rahab!”
Sometimes we ask, “How much do you need to know to go to heaven?” Evidently the answer is, not very much because Rahab didn’t know a lot, but she knew enough to choose the right side. A little faith resting on a strong object is better than a lot of faith resting on a weak object. Rahab put her faith in the right place.
God does not consult your past to determine your future
Here’s some good news for all of us: “God does not consult your past to determine your future.”
God delights to save notorious sinners. Let every sinner take heart and come running to Jesus.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requires
Is to feel your need of Him.
One final word and I am done. What happened to Rahab after the fall of Jericho? Matthew 1 contains a genealogy that starts with Abraham and ends with Jesus. Here is Matthew 1:5-6:
Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab,
Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth,
Obed fathered Jesse,
and Jesse fathered King David.
If you follow the genealogy on down, it means Rahab the former prostitute became the great-great-grandmother of King David.
If you know Jesus, one day you will meet her in heaven. And there at last she will be no more Rahab the harlot. She will forever be known as Rahab the child of God. I love these words from a familiar hymn by Fanny Crosby:
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood.
To every believer, the promise of God.
The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
I cannot end this sermon without remarking on the miracle of God’s grace. The Canaanites built a thick wall around Jericho, but no wall can keep God out. No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Not long ago we received a letter from a man in prison serving two life sentences. Here is part of what he wrote:
I am writing to you because I just finished reading your book “An Anchor for the Soul” and want to tell you, bro, this book is powerful. Literally!
When I picked up this book, I was like, “Ah, yeah, well, just another spiritual book about God.” But by the time I got halfway through it, brother, I was on my knees crying like a baby, begging God to forgive me.
And you know what? He did.
No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace!
Yeah, I may have life in prison, but look, I’d rather die in prison knowing I know Jesus than to be free on the streets and die knowing I didn’t know Jesus.
You changed me, Brother Pritchard, you did that, and I want to say, Thank you, Brother.
But it wasn’t me, and it wasn’t the book. It was the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is building his church around the world, and he has his people in many unlikely places. There are no walls high enough and no prison bars strong enough to keep out the Holy Spirit.
The Word of God is not bound.
It reaches people the rest of us never see.
So here is my bottom line:
If you are Rahab, there is hope for you. If you know Rahab, never give up and never stop praying because “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives!”