The thing about spiritual pageantry
Jesus is the true and better Joshua who takes the curse hanging over his sinful people, the leader who finally succeeds in creating authentic, lasting faithfulness in every generation.
1Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac. 4 And to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. And I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. 5 And I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in the midst of it, and afterward I brought you out.
6 “‘Then I brought your fathers out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. And the Egyptians pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7 And when they cried to the LORD, the put darkness between you and the Egyptians and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did in Egypt. And you lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan. xThey fought with you, and I gave them into your hand, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. 9 Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel. And he sent and invited Balaam the son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam. Indeed, he blessed you. So I delivered you out of his hand. 11 And you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, and the leaders of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And I gave them into your hand. 12 And I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you, the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant.’
14 “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods, 17 for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is ma holy God. He is na jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the LORD.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance.
Joshua has been faithful and flawless—a brilliant tactician, an inspiring leader, and a devoted servant of the Lord. So it’s significant that his final act is not a battle, but a fatherly moment of spiritual leadership as he shifts the focus from his own legacy to God’s faithfulness. His life’s work has not been about conquering Canaan, but pursuing God.
Nobody would fault Joshua for enjoying his retirement and leaving Israel’s problems for the next guy. But he’s concerned for Israel. For all of his diligence, he sees trouble ahead: He knows he hasn’t created lasting faithfulness in God’s people.
First, God speaks through Joshua to the assembled leaders of Israel, recounting their history.
I took your father Abraham… I gave him Isaac… I sent Moses and Aaron… I brought your fathers out of Egypt… I destroyed… I delivered… I gave…
This is a record of Israel’s utter helplessness in the miraculous journey from slavery to conquest, of their constant dependence on God. Clearly, Joshua has not missed the point. Despite Israel’s repeated failures, God had carried his people all the way to the Promised Land.
Joshua baits his people with three options: They can either serve their parents’ idols or the idols of the native Canaanites—“But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The Israelites—bless their hearts—answer with a rousing, “We also will serve the Lord!”
What comes next is all wrong. An effective leader would never end his ministry by telling his followers they are incapable of following through on their promises. Would he?
You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.
Why would Joshua deliberately kill the buzz? This is not a rhetorical trick and he’s not trying to inspire them to merely follow his example. The moral of this story is not that God’s people should try harder to be like Joshua. The covenant becomes a curse when sinful people rely on their “service” to please a holy God.
He knows his people and he knows his God. The Israelites, high on winning, are in a mood to make splendid vows and promise unfailing loyalty. But Joshua is a wise old man with no patience for spiritual pageantry.
Joshua can’t save Israel from God’s inevitable wrath; he can’t even keep them on the right path. Sure enough, the very next generation of Israelites “did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals.”1
From Moses to Daniel, the best efforts of Israel’s best leaders always fail to save God’s people from the curse. Unless God sends a greater leader than Joshua, we are doomed to repeat Israel’s mistakes. And he has.
Jesus is the true and better Joshua who takes the curse hanging over his sinful people. He is the leader who finally succeeds in creating authentic, lasting faithfulness in every generation.
And this means whatever monument he leaves behind for his people will be the last reminder we will ever need.
Joshua’s standing stone at Shechem is “a witness against us.” Jesus’ cross testifies to our sinfulness, but also establishes our exceeding worth in God’s eyes. The covenant becomes a blessing when a holy God comes and serves sinful people.
Whenever we work to please God, our relationship with him takes on the weight of the curse. But the message of the cross is not that God will only love us if we’re as faithful as Joshua. It’s that God loves us even though we’re as unfaithful as Israel.
1 Judges 2:10-11