READ : Joshua 24:14-15
We all face choices in life. Many of them are minor ones, but others have lasting, even eternal significance. Let’s think today about the most momentous choice of all.
We all face choices in life. Many of them are minor ones, but others have lasting, even eternal significance. It won’t much matter next week what clothes you decided to put on this morning or which flavor of ice cream you order in your waffle cone, but your whole life will be affected by what you decide to do as a job or career, and whom you choose to marry, or not to marry.
And then, of course, there is the most significant and consequential choice of all. I once heard a wise Christian leader put it this way, “I learned long ago that at some point everyone has to decide whether or not they believe the Bible.” That really is one of life’s most basic choices because if you believe the Bible, then you believe that the Bible is more than just human words about God; it is, rather, God’s Word to humans. And that means the Bible has an authority over us unlike any other book or message.
If you believe the Bible, you won’t just own a Bible, you’ll read it; and you won’t just read your Bible, you’ll accept it as true; and you won’t just accept the Bible’s teaching, you will obey it. Because a word from God is a Word to be obeyed.
To Obey or Not to Obey, That Is the Question
The book of Joshua is full of such choices, choices about whether or not to believe and obey God’s Word. As Joshua opens, we see the faith-filled choice of Joshua and the people to believe God’s promise and obey his command to march straight into the Jordan River, even though it seems almost suicidal. Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, chose by faith to identify with the people of God rather than with her pagan homeland and culture, and in so doing she saved not only herself but her family as well.
Later, in chapter 7, comes the story of a terrible choice that affected the whole community. A man called Achan decided to keep some of the treasure from the conquest of Jericho for himself, even though it was all supposed to be an offering for the Lord. Achan’s greed and deceit led to a defeat for Israel, and to terrible consequences for himself and his whole family.
The last half of the book of Joshua is all about the division of the land into each tribe and clan’s allotted territory (chapters 13-21). A hero like Caleb is allowed to choose his inheritance for himself (chapter 14), but mostly it is God who makes the choices, assigning the different territories by lot. In a later time the psalmist, viewing all of this through the eyes of faith, would realize that it is God himself who is our true inheritance.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” . . . The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Psalm 16:2, 5-6, esv
If you know the Lord, you can say the same, no matter where you live.
Choose This Day . . .
Then as we reach the closing chapter of the book of Joshua we see a man putting another choice before the whole people. Joshua has accomplished what God called him to do. The inhabitants of the land haven’t all been entirely subdued, and each tribe still has the responsibility of securing its own territory, but as Joshua delivers his farewell address to the people in chapter 24, he can look around with great satisfaction and conclude that the Lord has kept all of his promises without fail. The biblical writer summarizes:
Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. . . . Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
The Lord keeps all his promises to us; the question is, what about ours to him? His commitment to us is never-failing. But what about our commitment to him? The history of Israel, short as it is at this point in the biblical narrative, is already a rather sorry tale of broken vows and short-lived obedience. And it’s only going to get worse.
But before we start feeling superior perhaps we should look at our own lives as Christians. We too generally promise better than we perform. So Joshua puts the question squarely to the people again, just as Moses had at Mt. Sinai, just as we have it put to us in the critical moments in our own lives: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). Will you serve the Lord, or will it be the gods of your neighbors, the idols worshiped by the culture around you, the gods of Egypt and the gods of the Amorites or the Israelites, or for us, the gods of technology, entertainment, prosperity, comfort, pleasure, and success? “Which will it be?” says God’s Word. “Choose today!”
Let’s observe a couple of important things about this stirring challenge which Joshua issues to the Israelites and ultimately to us. First, it was preceded by a lengthy rehearsal of God’s gracious acts. Joshua begins by going all the way back to Terah, Abraham’s father, who lived as an idolater in the land beyond the Euphrates River (v. 2). Out of sheer grace, as we read in the early chapters of Genesis, the Lord revealed himself to Abraham and called him to move to Canaan, where the promised descendants would come to him through Isaac, Jacob, and his sons (vv. 3-4). There was nothing about Abraham that would make God want him. He and his family were worshiping other gods when the Lord called him. God’s call and promises to Abraham were acts of pure grace, totally unmerited and undeserved.
Next Joshua offers a synopsis of their deliverance from Egypt, the wilderness years, and the conquest of the land (vv. 5-13). The theme of that whole section could be summed up in two phrases from Joshua 24, verses12 and 13, “. . . it was not by your sword and bow, says the Lord. I gave you [the] land.”
Salvation, you see, is all God’s doing. We don’t really do anything, he does it all; he gives us everything. It’s all grace. So the response that we are asked to make, the choice that is set before us is a response to the grace of God which we’ve already experienced. Listen to this. Our choice is not whether or not we will be saved. We don’t choose God in order to be saved, but because we already have been saved by his prior choice of us and by means of his mighty acts of love. So we don’t initiate this. We simply respond. Our choice is whether or not we will respond to God’s grace in faith and obedience.
That’s the next thing to note. The choice we are asked to make is not a decision simply to believe in God but one to live in active obedience to him: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” That’s how Joshua puts it, and then he adds in his famous testimony, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (v.15). We are saved by God’s grace alone, which we receive by faith alone. But the Bible insists from beginning to end that real living faith, the only kind that can justify us, leads to a new life, one that’s wholly committed to the loving service of God. It’s relatively easy to make some sort of intellectual commitment to God, or to repeat a formula of acceptance, but as Jesus reminds us, the thing that really matters is not whether we say, “Lord, Lord,” but whether we do the will of our heavenly Father (Matthew 7:21).
The Secret of Service
It’s all very well to call for the decision to serve the Lord, but now we come to the truly remarkable part of this story. When Joshua put the question to the people, they replied enthusiastically, “We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (v. 18). And here’s how Joshua responded:
But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” (v.19).
How about that! Joshua has just made an impassioned appeal to the Israelites to choose the Lord instead of any rival gods. The people have just responded with an enthusiastic statement of their desire to do just that. And Joshua flatly rejects it! It’s as if an evangelist invited people to come forward at the close of his message and then told all those who came, “Go back to your seats. You can’t make a commitment to Jesus anyway.”
Why did Joshua do that? Is he merely trying to test the strength of the people’s resolve? No, it’s really something more than that. Joshua is pushing the people into further thought by his startling response to them. He’s really telling them to slow down a minute and count the cost before you make your commitment. God is not to be trifled with; those who commit to him had better be ready to serve him and him alone, entirely with their whole life.
But I think there is even more here. What Joshua says is literally true: we can’t really serve the Lord, not in our own strength. We can’t make a lasting commitment to him. He is faithful; we are fickle and frail. If you undertake the Christian life confident of your own power, and relying on the strength of your own faith or the quality of your own obedience, you don’t have a chance, and neither do I. The secret of lasting faith is to learn the paradoxical truth that we cannot serve the Lord, we cannot love the Lord, we cannot even believe in the Lord in and of ourselves. Our only hope is in him. The secret is to begin, and continue, by always mistrusting ourselves and always and utterly relying upon him alone. Only then will we be faithful to the end.