As the church studies the book of Joshua, it should engage the message the book communicates within the context of redemptive history. The promises God made to Abraham included a promise to make Abraham into a people, give them a land, and bless all nations through them. God chose Abraham and his family as agents to advance his kingdom. God committed himself to this endeavor freely, remained faithful to this promise, and began to fulfill the promise regarding the land in Joshua’s lifetime. Joshua led his people to fulfill the mission God had given them to take the Promised Land, a mission to take the land and thus participate in the spread of the Kingdom of God on earth. Throughout the book of Joshua, the people demonstrated the zeal for that mission and obedience to God’s requirements that are necessary in order to enjoy the blessing of participating in God’s work.
The last chapter marks a significant transition and brings to a close not only the storyline of Joshua, but also its message. After the period of conquest, Joshua and the high priest, Eleazar, facilitated the dividing and settling of the land. During this period, Joshua still worked closely with the leadership of each tribe. We are not told what role Joshua played in Israel’s leadership during the waning years of his life, once the tribes dispersed to their territories. Did he settle disputes? Did he summon the tribes for special gatherings? Did he maintain a visible role in the yearly festivals? The answer to all of these questions is probably yes, though the text does not tell us. However, the day came when he had to prepare the twelve tribes for a future without his leadership.
Chapters 23-24 contain Joshua’s farewell addresses. He informed the people that he would die soon and intended before he did to reinforce Israel’s commitment to the terms of God’s covenant and the mission that stems from it. Here Joshua issued his famous charge, “Choose this day whom you will serve,” and used the weight of his example (earned through a lifetime of godly commitment) to establish the proper course of action. His address serves as a reminder that belonging to God’s covenant people and participating in kingdom service involves a continued commitment to follow him wholeheartedly.
In the address in chapter 23, Joshua laid out specific obligations facing the Israelites as they sought to live faithfully in God’s land as his people. Verse one of chapter 24 marks the beginning of a new address with a new context. Again all Israel, including the key leaders from each tribe, is present. This time they are assembled at Shechem. While Joshua used the previous gathering to remind Israel of its commitments, this gathering seems to have been intended as a commitment ceremony, as the narrative describes.
THE GRACE OF ELECTION (1-13):
The first 13 verses tell the story of the past. But lest we think that Israel had an unhealthy fixation upon past events, we must remember that the story Joshua told is a story of God’s grace. The commitment Joshua intended to press upon the people is a commitment in response to God’s unmerited favor. The story of God’s grace to Abraham and his descendants serves, in fact, to establish the very definition of grace in the Bible. The challenge of obedience that faced the generation following Joshua was a responsibility placed squarely upon God’s people.
And they were God’s people because, in his grace, he chose them. This is how Joshua begins his farewell challenge. God “took” Abraham and “led him” all the way from Mesopotamia to the land that would belong to his descendents. The story is told and retold throughout Scripture because it is foundational. God chose Abraham, committed himself to the patriarch, and poured blessings on his descendants that they did not deserve. Note a few things about God’s election of Abraham that Joshua points out:
God rescued them out of spiritual darkness. Verse 2 states clearly that they had worshiped other gods in Mesopotamia. They were not rescued because they were worthy. They were, in fact, idolaters, just like the Israelites who made a golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai and experienced the wrath of God. Abraham, the idolater, was rescued from the darkness and bondage of idolatry. God chose Abraham for reasons of his own and rescued him from darkness.
God’s choice of Abraham brought rich blessings upon the patriarch and his family. Verse three points out that God multiplied Abraham’s descendants. This was unimaginable to the old man of 85 years whose wife was beyond child bearing age.
God delivered his chosen people from evil. In his sovereign wisdom, He allowed his people to go to Egypt (for their preservation). But he also allowed them to suffer hardship there. Nevertheless, verses 5-7 remind us that God delivered his people from the hand of the Egyptians in spectacular fashion.
God brought victory over Israel’s enemies. In addition to the Egyptians, God led Israel to defeat the Amorites living east of the Jordan (in the territory inhabited by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh) as well as the peoples living in the land of Canaan.
All of things incredible blessings came as a result of God’s choice of Abraham and in spite of the many failures of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the wilderness generation, and even Joshua’s generation—failures that the Bible has documented carefully. As Israel considered its responsibility to follow God obediently, they needed to strongly consider the grace God has shown them thus far. They are God’s people by his gracious choice, and He has proven himself both faithful and abundantly generous. In light of God’s grace, his people should commit themselves to following God fully.
THE CALL TO SANCTIFICATION (14-24):
The Challenge: The need for an appropriate response to God’s grace is the subject of the next section. The strong calling of this section brings to mind two passages from the New Testament:
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but
much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God
who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” (Philippians 2:12-13).
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you
practice these qualities you will never fall,” (2 Peter 1:10).
The only appropriate response to God’s abundant grace is the response of obedience. God’s people, chosen by grace, demonstrate that they belong to God by living obediently. Joshua called the people of God to act like God’s people.
The challenge is very real in every generation. In Joshua’s generation, the great challenge upon Israel’s faith was the pull of idolatry. Modern believers have a difficult time appreciating the hold worshiping idols had upon ancient believers, but the temptations were powerful and involved a few things we relate to easily:
1) They were tempted to find solutions to life’s problems that were quick and easy to control. Ancient idol worshippers believed the gods to be in control of the various natural forces, and offering them sacrifices were well known paths into favor. If rain was not forthcoming, appropriate sacrifices to Baal should take care of the problem.
2) They were tempted to indulge in their carnal appetites. Ancient religious cults often involved indulging in sinful pleasures. Baal worship, for instance, involved sexual immorality. Idol worship tempted the flesh.
Joshua, however, called upon Israel to think like believers and act like believers. They were expected to recognize God’s lordship over the universe, trust in his sovereign provision, avoid sinful and destructive lifestyles, and find their pleasure and satisfaction in God. The same is true for believers today. As you teach this lesson, consider some of the “gods” we are called upon to lay aside today. What do we lean upon? What should believers be leaving behind as they follow Christ?
The Problem: Notice the people’s response. They said the right things. Even after Joshua’s less-than-encouraging pep talk (verse 19), they still insisted that they must choose to live obediently. However, the law is an unforgiving task master. Joshua made it clear that they could not live according to the covenant. This beautiful statement, “He will not forgive your transgressions and sins,” leaves in place a tension that is only resolved on the cross.
In this passage, Joshua is pressing upon the people the need to respond to his grace by living in obedience. However, they do not have the resources to do this by themselves. In the unfolding of God’s covenant with his people, he has revealed his plan to make them a people and bless all nations through them. He also gave them a land and gave them clear stipulations for enjoying his blessings. They must follow his instructions. This is what they are unable to do. Joshua knew the people would sin, would break the law, and would experience God’s judgment. How would they be restored? How could the people consistently glorify God? This is accomplished in Jesus.
God calls his people to obedience. We can be thankful that we are his people because He has rescued us. We can thank him that we can live obediently because He forgives us of our sins, blesses us with the Holy Spirit, and gives us a new heart with a new desire to follow his commands. Praise be to God!
THE TESTIMONY OF COMMITMENT (25-28):
This closing section of the farewell speech contains a commitment ceremony. We live in an increasingly informal culture, and we are often shy about such ceremonies because they can be shallow, forced, and manipulative. But do not miss the power of this event. The people participated willingly and their actions served as an important milestone. They were a milestone for the people involved, publically declaring their commitment to God and putting them on record as committed to him. They were also a milestone for those who followed. Anyone could look back, remember the commitment made that day, and choose to live according to that commitment. Sometimes we need such bold testimony in our churches.
THE END OF AN ERA (29-33):
As we transition to Judges, note a few quick facts: the people of Israel finished out Joshua’s days well by living obediently; they followed through with Joseph’s request and buried his bones; Eleazar passed as well. A new day was dawning.