Message: Bookends and Common Threads | Scripture: Joshua 1:1-4 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Worship Set: Come Let Us Worship and Bow Down, This is My Father’s World, Give Me Jesus, Yet Not I But Through Christ In Me.
Happy New Year, TCCBC! I pray that this year is of benefit to you, but I don’t mean that in terms of economic or social success. You know that I mean this in terms of growth in our respective and collective holiness and faithfulness both to God and to one another. As I was thinking about how to begin our new year together and this new series in Joshua, I thought it might be a good time to tell you, from my heart, what an honour it is to be the one who introduces this book to you and lead you through it. I don’t know if you guys know how a passion for pastoral ministry works, but to be given the keys to start a series with you, to bring you through it, and to see it through to the end, Lord willing—this is a humble pastor’s dream. I have literally been dreaming of this day—the day where I get to open a new book with you, the people that I’ve been given charge over, and to guide you through its contents. This is my dream—I’ve had the dream to do this since I was seven years old when I went up to my father, and I told him I wanted to be a pastor. I also told him that I wanted to be an NBA player, and it turns out that God gave me the fortitude and height to be only one of these things. So, before we really get into Joshua, I want to say from the bottom of my heart and with all the sincerity that I can muster: thank you, TCCBC. Thank you for the opportunity. Thank you for the gift to open the Word of God to you week in and week out, and to savour the gospel which it proclaims together.
And I think it’s fitting that for both the first sermon of the year and the first full sermon series that I get to introduce—I think it’s fitting that we talk a little about death. That’s right—for all my dreaming, all those years of hoping that I’d make it here to do this thing called preaching, the first thing I’d talk about in my own sermon series was death, and yet, I believe it is fitting. Spurgeon once said, “I think regularly and often about my death, and I think of it fondly for when that day comes with a mortal paleness on my cheek, there shall be but glory in my soul.” The call to being a pastor—someone who leads his people through the sojourning, trials, strife, highs and lows—is a call to think regularly and fondly of one’s death, and not only of one’s own death, but of the death of all whom he ministers to. Every pastor does well to enter his occupation with a preoccupation about the death of his congregation’s members. What his task is is not only to call his people to live well but to die well—to die with glory in your soul. And there is only one way to do that. So, we’re going to talk about that way this week in Joshua 1:1-4. Would you read it with me? TWoL.
After the death of Moses, the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, “Moses my servant is dead. Now, therefore, arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory.”
Our proposition on this first morning of 2022 is a proposition that our souls ought to commend every morning of this year—and in every moment of our lives: Trust Not in Man but in the Lord’s Faithfulness to Himself. And I’ll be framing this proposition within the context of death. Let me tell you why in our first point:
1) Speaking of Death . . .
There are two things specifically about death that tend to terrify us: 1) the finality of its event on this earth in separating us from the certainty of everything we have and know, and 2) the uncertainty of what comes after, or if there even is an “after” that we might be able to expect. It is precisely these two considerations that are sifting through the mind of Israel here in Joshua 1:1 and the beginning of verse 2: “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, “Moses my servant is dead.”
The significance of these words to start the book of Joshua cannot be lost on us. They are utterly significant not only for painting the context of the book but to help us understand where we are in salvation history—after 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership. You see, very often, we consider the first five books of the Bible on their own—the books of the Law, but this intro here in Joshua 1:1-2a tells us that what we’re about to venture into in this book continues the adventure of those five. In fact, all the way from Genesis until the end of 2 Kings, you find one long continuous story, but Joshua sort of stands as something unique.
Its uniqueness is directly highlighted here in chapter 1 with reference to Moses and his death. I don’t know if you know this but the name of Moses in these first eighteen verses alone is mentioned eleven times. The man has died. He isn’t with Israel anymore, but the mark he’s left upon this people and upon this newly appointed leader, Joshua, is so indelible that they cannot stop thinking and talking about him. One commentator puts it this way, “Moses may be dead, but the strongly Mosaic cast of this first chapter intimates that his presence will remain with Israel, both through his words and through the person of his successor . . . Moses’ death will mean the transformation of Israel—from a community propelled by the energy of an original, unitary vision to a people now motivated by deeply entrenched moral principles—they seek to maintain the Mosaic tradition and teaching.”
In other words, so thorough was this man, Moses’, influence and significance that Joshua might be their leader, but his leadership of them starts under the overwhelming shadow of a figure who the writer of Deuteronomy says in 34:10-11, “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land.” There was no one like Moses, and in the days of Israel, until their exile, there will be no one as great as Moses again.
What makes the book of Joshua so unique is that it stands as the pinnacle of Israel’s history in God’s fulfillment of everything that he had promised to Moses, but it also stands as the peak from which Israel will descend into oblivion and exile. Joshua is both the happiest book and saddest book. It is both the message of God’s unmerited election and the basis for God’s unmitigated wrath. Everything up to this point in the Bible leads to the events of this book, but it is hardly a reason to celebrate because everything that follows only enforces for us the reminder that Moses was not enough.
This is why I believe Joshua starts by reminiscing about the death of Moses—not only to tell us that it’s a continuation of the narrative from the first five books, but also to remind us that no one and nothing after the influence of Moses will ever be as great. So long as Moses is in Israel’s sightline, they flourish, but the moment they take their eyes off of him, the moment that they begin to forget all that he accomplished for them in bringing them to the brink of the promised land—that is the moment they start to collapse.
You see, the funny thing about death, and the funny thing about this book is that both serve as a bridge between what could be and what ought to have been. In Joshua, we learn that Israel under Moses could have been great. Israel under Moses could have been the greatest nation this world had ever seen, but they become a lesson and warning to us about wasted potential. In the same way, death is that thing that comes as a consequence of sin and that puts a stop to all of life’s potential. There is no way to escape its inevitability. We might prolong our days through different techniques, but everyone must die, and everyone must face the looming shadow of their own demise. No matter how great your life is or was, it is not something that will endure, and both our thinking about death and this first verse of this book remind us of that. Moses is dead. He is not going to return. For all his greatness, he cannot stay with us—he cannot lead us into the Promised Land.
And this is not lost on the people of Israel. The language in verse 1 and 2a highlight this irrefutably. Moses is referred to as the servant of the Lord. To help explain the significance of this title, servants in Israel received the same notoriety as those whom they served—when you were a part of a family, your status in the community was tied to that family. So, if you’re the servant of a lowly house, you’re a lowly servant. If you’re a servant of the King, you are distinguished and set apart. The author of Joshua tells us that Moses was not only a servant, but that he was a servant of the Lord—he was given the highest commendation for the greatest master. But in contrast to Moses, we are told that Joshua is no servant. He’s not even a servant to Moses. No, he’s an assistant. Someone who helped Moses and who did some of the great work that Moses asked him to do, but he is also someone who does not receive Moses’ notoriety or distinction—his association to Moses is distant compared to Moses’ association to God. It is this assistant who is to lead Israel now—this assistant who has done great things on Moses’ behalf and for the benefit of Israel, but is no Moses.
Remember there are two things that unnerve us about death—its certainty in separating us from all that we know, and its uncertainty in bringing us into what we do not know. It is this certain uncertainty that grips the heart of Israel. Moses is dead. The man who was an Egyptian royal and gave it up in order to bring down the house of Pharaoh. The prophet who simply raised his staff and split an entire seaway in half. The one who interceded for Israel when they were within striking distance of their own death after worshipping the wrong kind of god. This Moses tied Israel’s fate to his own as the one in whom God took every pleasure. This Moses knew, interacted, and received revelation from God in the most direct and terrifying ways. He prayed and the skies rained manna. He spoke and the rock poured forth water. He instituted the covenant and commandments of God. All the hope, the fear, the expectation, the anxiety—all of it was wrapped up in this one man. And on the brink of receiving their greatest blessing out of all the blessings that they had received up until this point, their greatest, fearless, and incomparable leader dies.
Imagine the dismay, imagine the heartbreak, imagine the uncertainty—what shall come of us now? How will God deliver us? How will he bring about the fulfillment of his promises? How can an assistant take the place of the Lord’s servant? Well, let’s take up the answer to these questions in our second point:
2) The Inference of Death
Look at verse 2 with me, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, in the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses.” Do you notice the switch in subject? God starts by speaking about Moses—his servant. Moses is the emphasis and focus of these people. Moses is on their minds. And yet, there’s a subtle shift in the subject from the one sentence to the next. Moses is dead. Now go into the land that I am giving you.
Moses may have done these great works, but I, God, am the one who is acting. I, God, am the one who promised. And I, God, am the one who shall fulfill the tall order of carrying them through. As one commentator puts it, “Moses may be dead, but the promise of God lives on.” You need not fear. You need not compromise your souls. The Almighty I AM is unchanging, his promises are steadfast and true both in light of man and despite man. Moses might have received the promise, but the I AM is the one who gave it. It is the I AM who shall bring it to pass.
But more than this subtle shift in the agent who would bring these things to pass, I want you to notice the language that God uses to make the shift. Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go into the land. He uses inferential language to bring us to the command. He says, “therefore!” We’ve become intimately familiar with this word, have we not? ‘Therefore’ is an inference, which means what is stated before grounds or provides the reason for what comes after. Because Moses has died, you can now go into the land. In other words, what God is saying is that Moses’ death doesn’t only signify Israel’s next step in the progression of history as they move into the Promised Land. No, Moses’ death is necessary so that Israel can go into the Promised Land. Unless Moses dies, Israel cannot go into it. Unless Moses dies, Israel is stuck in the wilderness. Unless Moses dies, God will not give the land over to his people. Moses’ life was not enough to bring them in, his death was the means of God’s fulfillment of his promise. It is because of Moses’ death that they might cross the murky, rough waters of the Jordan. It is because of Moses’ death that all who stand opposed to Israel shall fall as they take the land. It is because of Moses’ death that Israel receives the land at all. They don’t receive it because they deserve it. They don’t receive it because their enemies are weaker than them. They receive it and are given permission to go into it because Moses has died.
What can we make of this? The point of these first two sections is this: God’s faithfulness to himself provides the unexpected means to accomplish his perfect ends. He is not first and foremost faithful to man or to man’s greatness, he is always faithful to his own word. It is in these first four verses of Joshua that we are reinforced with the fact that God is God and that man can only act as God commissions him to act. God does not need man to accomplish what he ordains. What we often forget is that before God sends Moses, Moses is a nobody, too cowardly to do anything about the injustice in Egypt, too cowardly to face the consequences of his murderous actions, too cowardly even to speak the words that God promised to give to him. Brothers and sisters, if we’re to take anything away from these first four verses, if we’re to learn from the death of Moses and Israel’s subsequent action of going into the land, it’s that God uses our humble, desperate, and uncertain circumstances to show us that he is all we need. Men and women of renown will come and go, but God remains steadfast. The only one that can keep his promises a hundred percent of the time regardless of who is or is not in the picture is God himself.
Let me tell you something about heroes. As a small kid growing up in Toronto who dreamed of playing basketball his whole life, Vince Carter injected life into Canadian basketball like no player had ever done. Then, when I turned 12, Vince Carter announced that he would be taking over a basketball camp I’d gone to every summer. Lo and behold, that summer I got to go. I got to play with some of the best coaches our country had to offer. I won all these little awards, and I did it, because I was promised that if I performed the way I did, I’d get to meet Vince Carter. Well, I did it, and I remember the day we were playing our final game, and Vince Carter came over to our bench and sat down right beside me. And you know what he said to me? Absolutely nothing. Didn’t introduce himself. Didn’t come over to shake my hand. He sat down like he had to be there. Looking back now, I know for him it was just a cheque. But for a twelve-year-old kid who thought that situation was going to change his life, it turned out to be the day that I realized that we might make heroes out of men, but no man is a hero. Every man is flawed. Every man is not what we expect. Every man is fallible, broken, and sinful. Every man is these things, except for one man.
There was one man who was infallible. There was one man who did everything perfectly. There was one man who was unequivocally great—greater even than Moses. Moses died because he disobeyed the Lord. Moses had to die as a consequence for his sin. Moses had to die so that Israel could enter the Promised Land without any hindrance. God used the death of sinful Moses to show his faithfulness in his promise, but in Christ, God used the death of our perfect Saviour to give us something more than what this earth has to offer. At our lowest, at our humblest, in our most desperate and sinful circumstance, one man’s death took the place for every man’s failure, and all of our sin was exchanged for an all-encompassing hope. You see, in verse 3, we’re told that Israel received that which was promised to Moses because Moses had died as a consequence of his sin. But what we’re told later in Scripture is that we, sinners and rebels of God, through Christ, have received that which was promised to Jesus because Jesus died on behalf of our sin. And the resulting reward is that much greater than anything Israel thought they could have. One man’s death brought the Promised Land. The other man’s death brought the Promised Life. Moses was great, but Christ is greater. In Moses, we learn that death must precede the fulfillment of the promise. In Christ, we learn that no matter how much death there is, God’s promise shall always prevail because God is always faithful to himself, and he shows us his faithfulness by sending us his own Son to die upon a cross, to pay for the penalty of our sin, and provide us both the ability and permission to arise and enter into his holy presence. We have nothing to fear as we wade into the unknown—with all this Coronavirus stuff, for all our suffering, for the sickness that may dwell in our bodies, for all the brokenness that we see in and around our families and friends, and in the valley of death, we fear no evil for God is with us, and his faithfulness to his purposes has no end.
3) The Theme of Death
Allow me one last word about death as we put death to death. If you have your Bibles, turn to the last chapter of Joshua, chapter 24, verses 29-32. This is what it says, “After these things, Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being 110 years old. And they buried him in his own inheritance at Timnath-serah, which is in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel. As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph.”
Here at the end of Joshua, we end with two significant funerals—that of Joshua’s and Joseph’s. Joseph, if you’ll recall, actually died in Egypt, but the Hebrews promised to bring his bones back to the land given to his forefathers in order to bury him there, and this is significant because it gives finality to all of Israel’s journeying to and from Egypt. In fact, it gives finality to the entire narrative from Genesis up until this point. Again, if you’ll recall in Genesis 12 and 15, God promises to Abraham that this land will be given to his descendants, but the book ends with the death of Joseph and the presence of Israel in Egypt. Genesis is the story of creation leading up to the point of famine and the need for Jacob to relocate his entire estate to this foreign land for help. Then, from Exodus to Deuteronomy, what we get is the tale of Moses and Israel and their journey out of Egypt. Just like Genesis, this narrative section ends with the death of Moses in a foreign land awaiting the promise of God to be fulfilled. Now, in Joshua, we receive the story of Israel re-establishing themselves in the land that they left at the end of Genesis, thus fulfilling, in most part, the promises of God to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15, vindicating the actions of Joseph in Egypt, satisfying the mission of Moses to bring Israel back home, and restoring them to a partial image of God’s creative intention—that they might be as one people in one land under their one God.
You might be thinking that this sounds oddly familiar because it should having just finished a series in Ephesians about God’s one people under one Christ as his one, united family. And the reason that we can make this connection is because of the intentionality of the author of Joshua to bring his narrative to a close in this way. What we see throughout the first six books of the Bible are tales of great men, their works, and their death. In fact, throughout the rest of the Old Testament, what we learn is that death is the inescapable consequence of sin. No man can escape death. We learn this in Genesis with the great Joseph, in Deuteronomy with the even greater Moses, and in Joshua where this assistant of Moses is called for the first and final time a servant of the Lord at the ripe old age of 110. What this means is that Joshua has continued the legacy of Moses, he has been faithful and done as God commanded, and he is distinguished for his faithfulness. And yet, he still dies.
Here’s why I think the author, through God’s inspiration, did this. He did it because death is never the final word. It seems to be the final word in Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Joshua with these respective servants of the Lord, but whenever death shows itself in the Bible with a servant of the Lord, it’s always followed by something far more astounding and interesting than death itself. Just think of our text today in Israel’s inheritance as a consequence of Moses’ death, or in the death of David and Solomon’s building of the temple, or in the “death” of Elijah and the coming of Elisha in even greater power. In this world, there is nothing more interesting or permanent than death. But in the Bible, death is not final, nor is it the main point. You see, the main Old Testament narratives end intentionally with their death, so that we might notice how the main New Testament narratives end with life. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John every single Gospel tells the story of the death of one man—the one, true servant of the Lord, but they do not end there. No, instead they end with the shimmering hope and promise of resurrection. They end with God being faithful to himself. Brothers and sisters, Joseph, Moses, and Joshua—they all die, but God’s promises prevail, and they prevail because Christ has risen. Trust not in man but in the Lord’s faithfulness to himself, because in his faithfulness to himself, he has and will always be faithful to us even when things are at their bleakest and uncertainty abounds. God has never been unfaithful to see his promises through. God is always working good into and for the lives of those who love him. Just as he was faithful to those who went before, he has been and will be faithful to us. Is this not all the hope that we need as we begin a new year—as we hear arise, go into the land that I have promised you? Death may be inescapable, but it is not final, nor does it confound us as we proclaim the glories of our Lord. No, death assures the promise of life for those who love him. So, cling to this promise—cling to Christ who is our eternal hope of a Promised Life and live as if death has been defeated in the temporary death and eternal resurrection of our Saviour.