Lesson 7 - Joshua 23-24
As for Me and My House

A call to a faith with holiness
An Exposition by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Great men lead nations or companies or churches for a time, as Joshua had done. But how does a leader pass on his legacy to the next generation? How does he insure that the values and programs he has fought for all his life will continue after him?

In the two final chapters we hear Joshua's final words. First, to the leaders who served under him -- the tribal elders, leaders, judges, and officials (23:2; 24:1) -- and then to all the people in all the tribes (24:1). What he speaks about on this occasion are the issues closest to his heart:

  1. The need to take possession of unpossessed land
  2. The importance of separation from the people of the land and their gods, and
  3. The necessity of a clear choice to serve the Lord

The LORD Will Fight for You

Though all the Promised Land was not yet under their control, Joshua encourages them,

"It was the LORD your God who fought for you... The LORD your God himself will drive them out of your way. He will push them out before you...." (23:3, 5).

So how does this work? Joshua tells them, "You did not do it with your own sword and bow" (24:12). Then whose sword and bow was at work? I guess the question I am approaching is this: If the LORD fights for us, do we have to do anything at all? Are we idle?

Certainly, the Israelites used their swords and bows in the battles of the Conquest. We see many references to the Israelites smiting the populations of cities with the edge of the sword (Hebrew chereb; Joshua 6:21; 8:24; 10:11; 10:28, 30, 32; 10:35, 37, 39; 11:10-12, 14; 13:22; 19:47). It isn't that the Israelites didn't fight. The point is that the Lord empowered them so that the effect was far beyond what they could have expected in their natural strength.

"One of you routs a thousand, because the LORD your God fights for you, just as he promised." (23:10)

In the Pentateuch we first find this promise to the Israelites if they obeyed the Lord:

"You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you" (Leviticus 26:7-8).

Are these multipliers to be taken literally? No, they aren't intended that way (as you can see if you compare the enemies routed per capita in these two passages). The clear point, however, is that God increases their strength and ability many fold. They still have to fight, but God fights alongside them.

If you've ever tried to stop a heavy car without power brakes, you know how much we take power brakes for granted. We apply some pressure, but then the power kicks in and does the lion's share of the work.

I Sent the Hornet (24:12)

In one rather vivid passage Joshua recites the word of the LORD,

"I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove them out before you -- also the two Amorite kings. You did not do it with your own sword and bow" (24:12; see also Exodus 23:28, Deuteronomy 7:20).

Was this a literal hornet? I don't think so, or we would have read about it elsewhere as instrumental many battles of the Conquest. It was figurative.

A few years ago as I was mowing the weeds on our country land, my mower happened to disturb some wasps or hornets living in a ground hive. All it took was one to sting me, and I ran away from there as fast as I could go, leaving the mower behind. I retrieved it a few days later. The Israelites knew about the hornets in Palestine. The most common hornet species there is Vespa orientalis, a large yellow or reddish-brown insect that will sting anyone who molests it. The Israelites also knew when to run. I think fleeing before hornets is the metaphor Joshua is using here, since the hornet is used in the context of "which drove them out before you." (An alternative explanation is, that just as the hornet's sting paralyzed its victim, God's onslaught would render the Canaanites immobile. So RK Harrison in ISBE 2:757).

In any case, Joshua's point is that God worked on Israel's behalf. It wasn't their own strength; they had a power assist.

Take Possession of the Land (23:3-5)

Joshua presents an enigma: some of the land that he has conquered, and that had been allotted to various tribes, is still in the possession of its former inhabitants. The key battles have been fought and won, but until they actually took possession of the land and settled in it and lived in it, it wouldn't be fully theirs.

I see an unmistakable analogy with the victory Christ has won for us. He has saved us by his victory on the cross (Colossians 2:13-15), but it remains for us to possess that which he has won for us. We have been saved from the penalty of sin, but sin still seems to reign in our lives (Romans 7:21-25). It's power has been broken, but it needs to be run out of town entirely.

Some naive Christians assume that God does all the work and they don't have to do anything. "Lord, I need a job. I'm going to sit here by my phone waiting for the employer that you will have call me." No, that isn't the way God works. Paul puts our work and God's work together in that difficult passage:

"... Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12-13).

He saves us, but we must work out the implications of it in our lives. And when we seek to conquer the areas where sin is in control in our lives, and rely on his help, he energizes our efforts and cooperation, and helps us conquer sin and bring those areas of life under his control. We see the same paradox in Colossians 3:3-5:

For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God ... Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature...."

This is how the Christian life works. First, Christ saves us, our hearts are gradually renewed by the working of his Holy Spirit in us, and then we gradually become co-workers with God and work alongside him in his work. He directs us, we do what he shows us to do, and he empowers our work.

One of my seminary professors, Robert Boyd Munger, wrote an article entitled "My Heart, Christ's Home" (http://www.theway.billygraham.org/heart.htm) that has been reprinted many times. He uses the analogy of inviting Christ into your home to visit, all the while being careful to restrict him to the living room, the only room which is cleaned up. You don't want him to see some rooms at all! Yes, there is in me unpossessed land that Christ wants to help me conquer with his aid. How about you?

The first main exhortation that Joshua gives the leaders is to continue on to possess the land that the LORD has promised them, and not to quit until they possess it all, for the LORD will fight for them. The second exhortation talks about holiness.

Holiness before the LORD

Let's take a trip away from the book of Joshua into the New Testament for a moment in order to see the bigger picture. We need to understand better what holiness is, and then we can understand what we are seeing in Joshua's final words to the people of Israel.

What is holiness? To be holy means (negatively) to be separated from all that is unclean, and (positively) to be completely and utterly God's.

There's no way we can make ourselves holy. We are laden with sin. The prophet Isaiah writes, "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6) -- literally, like menstrual cloths.

But we have been made holy by God's fiat on the cross. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Jesus' death on the cross for our sins wasn't anything we had planned. It was God's unilateral action to save us. It is a "done deal" which we appropriate by faith. "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Peter 3:18).

And in so doing God made us righteous, and cleansed us, and because we were cleansed, he could now draw us near into his very presence. "You are not your own; you were bought at a price" (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Every bit of us -- body, soul, and spirit -- belongs to God. We are now his temple in which he dwells.

And since we have been cleansed by God and belong to him, we are holy. This is an established fact. You do not make it so. He made it so. It is!

Now because we are holy, we are to act holy. Make sure you get this straight. We don't act holy in order to become holy. We act out what we already are -- what God has made us to be. We are called "saints" (holy ones), and now we must act like it. We have been separated from the world's rebellion and sin and worship of false gods, and have become God's own holy people. Now we must act like it.

The theological word for this is "sanctification," the process of living in a holy manner and yielding to God so that his character begins to take over our character, and we become in character what we are in fact -- holy people.

"And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18)

I could multiply verses from the New Testament that talk about this process of sanctification, but I'll leave you with just one more:

"Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God" (2 Cor. 7:1).

Since we are holy we need to let that holiness change us and infuse us through and through. We are God's holy people, and we must act like it.

A Holy Nation

But Israel was a holy nation long before we Gentiles ever had an inkling of God's grace. At Mount Sinai he told them:

"Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6; also quoted in 1 Peter 2:9-10).

Love the LORD (23:11)

As holy people they were to act with holiness. Joshua tells them: "Be very careful to love the LORD your God" (23:11). The word translated "love" here is Hebrew 'aheb, "to have affection for." It is related to the Great Commandment that Moses had given the people on the plains of Shittim before they had entered the Promised Land: "Love ('aheb) the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5; quoted by Jesus in Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).

This kind of love is to be an exclusive love. You cannot love the LORD and love other gods, too, because this love for God is to consume all of you. If we love God rightly, there is nothing left of our heart, soul, and strength with which to love a rival.

Throw Away Your Foreign Gods (24:23)

The people of Israel had already begun to compromise with the culture around them. Some of them possessed household gods representing Baal and other gods worshipped by their neighbors. Joshua told them clearly what was involved with following the Lord:

"Throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD the God of Israel" (24:23).

Our problem, like theirs, is that we want to be Christians without booting out the other loves of our lives that tend to take first place. In the fall of the year, it becomes pretty clear which Americans value football above worship. Football too often has priority over God and becomes a false god. For many, Money has become a substitute god. We scramble and we spend, we borrow and go bankrupt, and some of the time it is because we have placed Money and what it can buy in the place of God, and our lives spiral out of control. Other things compete for first place. Sex, recreation, food, music, and the list goes on. Now all these things can be good, even money and football, but not when they take the place of God in our affection. Jesus said,

"Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.... No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money" (Matthew 6:21, 24).

What is your treasure? Where is your heart? Joshua commanded the people of his day to throw away their foreign gods. We must do no less than topple the gods that have crept into places of priority over the true God. This is part of holiness, and part of what it means to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Do Not Associate and Intermarry with Them (23:7-13)

Another requirement of holiness is not to associate or intermarry with people of other faiths that "remain among you."

Because Israel hadn't obeyed God to destroy the peoples of the land, they faced constant temptation to adopt their ways, "adjusting" their faith so as not to overly offend their neighbors, and gradually assimilating into their culture.

We face this same temptation today. We Christians are not some fortress island isolated from the heathen world. We live among them, and many of us are only a few years removed from living just like they do. How do we live in holiness surrounded by unbelievers?

Christian history is replete with hermits who retreated and separatists who divorced themselves from society. But that isn't the pattern set for us by the New Testament.

Jesus loved the outcasts of society -- the prostitutes and tax collectors. He even went to their parties and was accused of being a drunkard because of it (Matthew 11:19). But when he associated with them, he came in the presence and power of God. He didn't conform to their expectations or assimilate to their lifestyle. He came in the strength of his own character and holiness, and because of it, many of their lives were changed.

Notice, however, that while Jesus did not shun sinners, he did not associate with them. Yes he saw them casually and in his meetings. But his closest companions were his disciples, men who had committed themselves to following Jesus on a path toward God's will.

How do we walk this fine line? With difficulty. But here are the principles:

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is -- his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2).
"I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people -- not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat" (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).
"Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14, KJV).

No one said this was easy. But we must take it seriously. As we live in this world we are to let our light shine and our salt leave its tangy taste in people's mouths (Matthew 5:13-16). We must not compromise, but be bringers of Christ's light to a very dark world.

Joshua commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with people who worshipped other gods (Joshua 23:12). We have the same command. This is one thing that "Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (1 Corinthians 6:14) means. Christians are free to marry, but our spouses are to "belong to the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:39).

What if you are already married to an unbeliever? Many are in our day. Many were in Paul's day. Christians are not to divorce unbelievers just because they are not Christians. Paul taught that in some sense the believer's holiness is transmitted to the unbelieving spouse and children. Of course, not all marriages between Christians and unbelievers last, but we Christians are to do whatever we can to keep them together. Who knows, your spouse may be saved as a result (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

You and I are tempted constantly by the world. Often we let it invade not just our workplaces but also our homes through unmonitored television. We are to be in the world, but not of it. We are to live in the world, but not allow the world to live in us.

Reciting History (24:1-13)

On this last public occasion that Joshua had to address the entire nation, he told them stories -- stories of their common history and the history of their forefathers. Of Abraham's heathen parents, of Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron. He tells them where they came from, "beyond the River" (that is, the Euphrates River), from slavery in Egypt, from victorious battles of the Conquest. God had brought them out of a pagan path, had blessed them with knowledge and faith, and had given them "a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant" (24:13).

"Every promise," Joshua reminded them, "Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed" (23:14).

How quickly we forget. How quickly we begin to take for granted the wonderful blessings and gifts from God. We need to remember and reflect. That's why Jesus commanded his disciples to partake regularly of the Lord's Supper, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19). Paul wrote, "For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). Communion is a time to recall and repeat the story, lest we forget. Wherever Jews gather on Passover, the youngest child is given the question to ask, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" And then in the family circle, the patriarch explains what happened on Passover night that was so marvelous.

Remembering what God has done for us helps strengthen our faith and resolve when faced with difficult choices. That is what Joshua was doing on this important occasion: preparing people for a choice.

Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve (24:15)

Joshua would not be with the people much longer. But to help them go on with the Lord, he forced a choice, a renewal of the covenant between God and his people.

"Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD" (24:15).

Too often we just drift. Yes, we have our faith, but.... Faith without commitment is like living together without marriage. Some, perhaps some who read these words, are cohabiting with God but have made no firm commitment to him. And consequently your life is like a ship without an anchor. You need to decide what you are going to do, and then do it!

Joshua called for a decision that day. Now! "Choose for yourselves this day...."

As a boy, I had been raised in church all my life. I had attended innumerable Sunday school classes, and had snoozed through countless worship services, snuggled up against my mother. But when I was nine years old, something happened. In June of that year my brother, John, who is two years older than I, went forward at the pastor's invitation -- an "altar call" they termed it -- and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.

When I saw my brother do that, I realized that I had never made a commitment myself. Oh, I believed in God. But I had never given my life to God, to do with what he wanted. My brother's act of faith quickened in me a deep struggle. Prior to that I had been oblivious to it. Now I was faced with my own resistance to God. It may sound strange that a boy of nine can resist God, but it happened to me. I knew that I needed to surrender my life to God, and a very strong part of me said "Not yet. Not now."

But God kept speaking loudly to me. Sunday after Sunday the struggle continued. I wish I could say that my love for God overcame my resistance. That didn't happen. One Sunday late in June, nearly forty-five years ago, my pastor chose to preach on hell. And as a boy of nine, resisting God as I knew I was, that was too much. At the close of the service I, too, responded to the altar call and prayed with the pastor to invite Christ to forgive me and be my Lord and Savior. Not a very altruistic reason to come to God, surely. Selfish, when you examine it in the light of day. But that is what happened. I remember going out to our car parked in front of the church, and crying. It was like the struggle inside of me was over.

God was gracious. He took the faltering prayer of a shaken nine-year-old that day, and infused it with his love and help. That day was a turning point for me. And it was a turning point for two reasons:

  1. The example of my brother John, and
  2. The call to decision of my pastor.

Choose This Day

On that day at Shechem, nearly 3,400 years ago, when elderly Joshua stood before his people and issued this call and challenge, he embodied both the call and the example.

"Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.... But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

The people of Israel looked at the example of their leader. He had stepped forward and committed himself. And his example, itself, was a challenge and encouragement for them to take a stand. One by one they decided to follow the Lord, too. "Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods!" they called out.

"You are not able to serve the LORD," replied Joshua, "He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins" (24:19).

Joshua was not trying to make out God as unforgiving. But he was telling it like it is. You can't take serving the LORD lightly or casually. You can't serve him at the same time as you go your own way and worship other gods. This must be an exclusive relationship. Anything else is rebellion against God which he will not tolerate or overlook.

"No," the people protested. "We will serve the LORD."

"You are witnesses," Joshua said. In other words, he is reminding them that they are taking a formal, legal vow placing themselves in a binding covenant relationship with God.

"Yes, we are witness," they replied, acknowledging that this is what they were doing.

"Now then throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel," Joshua said.

"We will serve the LORD our God and obey him," they responded.

Joshua made a covenant that day for the people, and renewed the Law that day. Then he set up a stone pillar as a reminder of their vow and commitment, and then they all went home.

When they reached their homes that evening or the next, many household gods were removed from shelves or from hiding and were taken out and broken and thrown away in disgrace. There was a repentance and a turning that day that stayed with them to the end of their lives. "Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the LORD had done for Israel" (24:31). It was a decision that would last.

How about you? As you've read this, what has God's Spirit been saying to you about your own commitment to the Lord? Did you commit your life to him years ago, but then have fallen away from following him the way you should? Why don't you stop reading right now, and kneel down by your chair, and commit your life to him right now. He is calling you. Perhaps you can begin your commitment with a prayer something like this:

Father. I can sense you speaking to me, calling me to make a fresh decision to follow you. I have sinned, fallen short of what I know you desire for me. Right now I commit my life to follow you. Please come into my life and forgive my sins and receive me afresh as your child. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Then tell someone else, another Christian, about your new or renewed decision to serve the Lord. The act of stating out loud your commitment to Christ is an important act of faith for you (Romans 10:9-10).

Joshua, the Servant of the LORD (24:29)

"After these things, Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of a hundred and ten" (24:29)

It's a simple epitaph, but a profound one: "servant of the LORD." The kingdoms of this world don't see much glory in serving, but in the Kingdom of God, the servant is King. Jesus took off his outer garment, wrapped himself with a towel, knelt at the feet of each disciple and washed his feet as would a humble servant (John 13:4-5). They had been squabbling about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24) and this act of service was Jesus' answer. He taught them,

"The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:25-28)

In us there sometimes rises up the desire to BE someone. Someone important, someone well-known, someone with power. But that is the opposite of servanthood. The servant says, "How can I serve YOU? How can I make YOU known? How can I use YOUR power to see the world changed?"

The proud person lives for himself, and the acclaim he generates is its own reward. The servant, on the other hand, lives for his Master. Years before on the banks of the Jordan River, Joshua had met the Commander of the Army of the LORD and had prostrated himself at his feet. "What message does my Lord have for his servant?" he asked (5:14). To his death some 30 years later, Joshua remained a servant.

May God grant that over our grave someone might erect a simple stone, with a name, and the words "Servant of the Lord." May God grant on that Day that we will hear the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord." Amen.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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