Message: The Mercy of God in the Wrath of God | Scripture: Joshua 7:10-12 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Almost every week as I’m preparing my sermons, I inevitably hit a block of some sort. There’s always a specific point in the text or an illustration or a theological perspective that gives me a lot of trouble, and I’m the type of person where when I hit a block, everything else stops. I can’t work. I can’t divert my attention. I get frustrated when someone distracts me. I become a mess when it feels like my brain isn’t working the way that it’s supposed to.
But, as surely as I am to get stuck on something in my sermon writing every week, somehow, by the mighty and awesome grace of God, I’ve been able to get unstuck. In fact, it’s quite incredible how all of this happens because I’ll usually be doing the most meaningless thing when, all of a sudden, everything clicks into place. I remember this one time, I had written the whole sermon feeling like there was this cloud over me the entire time only to realize that I had misplaced the whole point of the text in another part of the sermon forcing me to rearrange everything and rewrite an entire section thirty minutes before I was about to sleep on a Saturday night.
The reason I’m telling you this about my sermon writing process is not to cast a light on the difficulty of doing this week-to-week, I love what I do. Rather, it’s to cast a light on the fact that you wouldn’t and won’t have weekly sermons—you wouldn’t and won’t have someone standing here before you to speak about the wisdom of God in the gospel—unless God mercifully pulled me out of my fog in my pleading, out of this feeling that I was dead in the water as I looked at the text, to give me the words that might be suitable for your hearing. Every week I plead, and Candace is my witness to this—I plead for God to give me the truth of his Word, the unction of his Spirit, and the conviction to preach what he shows me with zeal and courage. And every week since April 11, 2021, he’s been faithful enough to give me that Word so that I might serve and show you his glory and beauty in the joy of his truth.
And while my experience is meager compared to Joshua’s, I hope it helps you understand a little of where we are right now in the text because Joshua feels like he’s dead in the water. He is in mourning and despair. He knows the wrath of God has fallen upon Israel, but he has no idea why, and what’s worse is that he has no idea what to do next. He thinks God has abandoned him and his people. He thinks God has gone back on his promise. But our text, as much as it is meant to highlight the wrath of God, also is meant to highlight the incredible mercy of God that, despite our best efforts to spurn him, he does not abandon us or go back on his promises. This is what we’re to be mindful of as we look at our text in Joshua 7:10-12. Would you follow along with me now as I read it to you? TWoL.
The Lord said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings. Therefore, the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies. They turn their backs before their enemies, because they have become devoted for destruction. I will be with you no more, unless you destroy the devoted things from among you.
Our proposition is a play on the famous quote from John Owen: Be killing sin before sin kills you. Now, I’m not saying John Owen was wrong to say it this way in the grand scheme of what he wrote, but when we take this quote in isolation, and when we apply it to our lives, it’s more accurate to say, “Be killing sin before God kills you.” And this is the main point of our text today—this is where we’ll unpack the mercy of God in the wrath of God—be killing sin before God kills you, and our outline today reflects how we ought to be doing this—how we are to experience the mercy of God in light of the coming and certain wrath of God. Three steps in how we proactively kill our sin. Let’s look, now, at the first step.
1) Know Your Sin
Verses 10 and 11 form the contents of this first step: “The Lord said to Joshua, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings.”
What’s particularly important for us to remember is Joshua’s prayer before God speaks. You’ll remember with me last week, that Joshua in his words reverses what he knows about God. He faults God in verses 7 to 9 with abandoning his people. He believes in the righteousness of man while charging God with fickleness and faithlessness. So, right here, from the get-go, I could stop my sermon, because I’ve shown my point. God, by the simple fact that he responds to Joshua in a way that is not ferocious or righteously angry shows an immense mercy to the leader of Israel.
What’s more is that, because of Joshua’s position and representation of all of Israel, he essentially brings disrepute upon all of Israel. So, not only does God have the right 100 times over to smite Israel where it stands, but Joshua, by his words, gives God another reason why he ought to wipe his people off the face of the earth. Not even their leader can get it right, so what hope is there in the people?
But not only is Joshua’s prayer of importance, but we also have to look at his posture. He is in utter despair. One might say he was in a state of death, losing all sense of the purpose of his life—all that Moses had trained him up to do, all the promises that God had given to him—he was to be the man who leads the nation of Israel into the Promised Land, and now, it seemed that God had taken all of that away from him. Joshua’s own words reflect this, “now the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of [your unfaithfulness] and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth,” is what he says. He’s consigned himself to an early grave in hopelessness and in forgetfulness of who he’s speaking with.
It’s this context of Joshua that we read the words from God, “Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?” The text literally translated actually says, “Get up! Why are you like this? You who has fallen upon your face.” God is incredulous with Joshua: “what are you doing?!” Stop sulking! Stop whining! Stop misdirecting your judgment!
But more than anything, God tells him to get up because Joshua ought to know better than to consign himself to death and defeat. He ought to know why God has done what he’s done, but instead of thinking for himself and considering rationally the possibilities, he takes the lazy route, and he makes it about himself. He internalizes the plight of Israel as if it’s about him and his pedigree as the leader of God’s people. In other words, the mercy of God is on display here in the judgmental words of God by telling him, “stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
When I was young, I’d get into trouble by my parents for something bad I did, and one of my tactics to get them to stop being angry at me was to cry uncontrollably. Essentially, my strategy was to beat them into submission by looking utterly helpless and faking my regret—all in an effort so that I wouldn’t have to apologize. But I remember one particular thing I did, I think I had hurt my brother somehow intentionally, and I was in trouble for it. And like my one-year old son, I broke into an uncontrollable tantrum, until my dad came over, picked me up, stood me on my feet, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. This is not about you. Grow up.”
And surely enough, God here is speaking to the tantrum-filled Joshua, telling him, “This is not about you. Grow up.” See, the interesting thing about sin is that it makes us self-involved and self-obsessed not only in our actual commission of wrongful actions but also in how the effect of other peoples’ sins makes us think about ourselves. Not only does our own sin turn our eyes inward, but sin has such a staining effect on the world that it turns all of our eyes inward even when we’re not the specific party committing the sin. It makes all of us look at ourselves in self-concern rather than look outward to those in need and upward to the one who can deliver us. And God here is telling Joshua to look upward.
Joshua is being instructed to fix his eyes on what really matters—it’s not about his complaining heart, it’s about how God has been maligned. Israel has sinned. Look at verse 11 with me. Do you see how the verse grows progressively? The author of Joshua starts off with a simple statement to reveal to Joshua why things have gone awry. He tells him Israel has sinned, but then he gets more specific. How have they sinned? They’ve sinned by transgressing my covenant that I commanded them—the covenant in which, back in Deuteronomy 20, I ordered all of Canaan to be devoted to me. And they failed to do that.
This, God is saying, is why I abandoned you when you went up to Ai! My assurances to be with you in Joshua 1, they were dependent on the fact that you adhere to my law and to my covenant stipulations (Josh 1:7-8). But you took some of the devoted things, and by taking some of the devoted things—things that you either ought to have destroyed or put into my treasury, you’ve made yourselves thieves and liars.
What God is doing here is not only pointing out to Joshua that Israel, through Achan’s sin, has transgressed some arbitrary command to devote all of Canaan to destruction and to put the precious metals in his treasury. God’s not some vindictive, greedy child who can’t control his emotions. No, at base, Achan’s action transgresses the very heart of God’s covenant and law, namely, the eighth and ninth commandments—commandments, which are meant to show us the moral fabric of the universe—those laws that are meant not only to show us God’s goodness but to keep us from the chaos of evil.
And not only has Achan broken the moral code that upholds the very fabric of everything, but he’s transgressed and offended the very character of God upon which the entire moral code is based. In other words, at the core and heart of our sinfulness is not the need to feel sorry or pitiful for ourselves. At the core and heart of sin is our lack of concern, devotion, and desire for God.
Why is the imperative to be killing sin before God kills you something accurate for us to say? Because sin is not simply the absence of God, it is the desire for the destruction of God. When we sin, we are telling God, we desire anything but you—in fact, our lives would be better without you, and that’s offensive to him because not only do all things come from him, but he, himself, is the source of all that is good and right—he, himself, is the source of life. To desire our sin, instead of God, is to desire that he cease living, that he stop contending for us, and so it goes with the logic that to sin is to make an enemy of God—it is to desire the giver of life to stop giving us life because we think we can find it elsewhere—we think we can find it in ourselves.
So, how is it that we kill sin, and thus, thwart death? We do so, firstly, by knowing what our sin is—that it is an offence against God and that it is the desire for life apart from God, which is not just impossible but utterly insane. God is merciful to his people even when he inflicts upon us a small portion of his wrath because in his correction, he shows us his care and wants us to see the insanity of sin so that we might flee back to him. But make no mistake, his message in those moments of affliction and in his anger is not trivial because he’s telling us that it’s time for us to grow up. It’s time for us to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and learn that he is the only rational object of our devotion and our desire. He is the source of our strength and life. Apart from God, none can stand. Be killing sin before God kills you.
2) Account for the Cost of Your Sin
It’s what God tells Joshua in verse 10 and 11 that serves as the reason as to why God has allowed the Israelite defeat in Ai. It’s not because God has been faithless. It’s not because God has gone back on his promises. It’s because sin has entered the camp, and not only has sin entered the camp and brought guilt upon one man and his family, but its presence infests the whole group, it turns their eyes inward, and it causes them to forget who their God is, and how he intends to bring them into the land.
Remember how absent God is from the picture in Josh 7:2-5. Joshua commissions the spies to go into the land, but he never consults God. He sends 3,000 men into Ai, but we never see God’s presence go with them either in his promise or physically with the ark. It’s as if the Israelites have completely forgotten how they got where they are. They’ve forgotten Egypt, they’ve forgotten the wilderness, they’ve forgotten the Jordan, they’ve forgotten Jericho—and all of those things have one thing in common: God’s extraordinary and direct intervention to deliver them and give them what he’s promised.
But what does sin result in? I want us to see the parallel because it does result in the extraordinary. It does result in his intervention. It does result in his direct presence. But these things do not come in the way we want them to. The result of our sin is God’s extraordinary anger. The result of our sin is his devastating intervention. The result of our sin is his direct and present terror.
The way that the author puts it for us here is to use language that shows us sin is a transaction. It’s a trade-off. The reason God gives for his wrath and judgment is because by stealing and lying about the devoted things, those who steal and lie become the very vessels that need to be destroyed. There is a price to pay for our thievery and deception, and this idea of sin earning us a certain wage is confirmed for us by the apostle Paul in Romans when he says that “the wages of sin is death.” This word for “wages” in Romans is a word often used in reference to services rendered—payment that you are owed.
Well, if what we pursue and work for in life is to be like the Canaanite, then our destiny—our wage—our payment—shall also be like the Canaanites. You see, our fate and our identity are bound to the things that possess our heart’s desires. If we desire things that are temporary and fleeting, we too shall become temporary and fleeting, but if we desire things that are eternal and good, we too shall receive that which is eternal and good.
Brothers and sisters, I hope it goes without saying by now, but the only way to kill sin as those who belong to God is to pursue that which is more satisfying than sin—that which is more satisfying than ourselves. Sin makes us think we are our own highest pleasure, but we see it in the world—we see it in the Ukraine, in Uvalde, in Buffalo, in shootings of congregants in churches, in the persecution of the saints—when we seek our highest pleasure in ourselves, the only valid payment—the only valid wage that we can account for is the assurance of our own destruction, a destruction simultaneously brought on by ourselves and by God.
Now, I know there’s more to this verse. There’s that special word “unless,” and I’ll deal with that word in our last section but allow me to reiterate here that we need to be killing sin before God kills us. Kill it by knowing what your sin is against a most holy God—anything that replaces your wholehearted delight and pursuit in him. Kill it by accounting for what it has already and will inevitably cost you if you persist in sin—your life, your family influenced by your corruption, your friends, possibly your church.
What this text does is follow and broaden the pattern of the Fall of Adam and its effects in the world. And while the command for our pre-emptive physical death in this life for our sins does not necessarily continue in the same way as it once did in the Old Testament, our obligation toward the severity of sin remains. We may not have to pay with a physical, imminent death, but we are to die to self as living sacrifices, pleasing and holy to God. We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus as he goes to Jerusalem where, in our identification with him as he is crucified in order to pay for our guilt and God’s wrath, our old self is put off, and our new self in the Spirit is given reign.
We need to see that all that our sins can purchase for us is an eternal death. A faith in ourselves—a faith that is devoid of God is a faith devoted to destruction. But it’s not too late. The final judgment has not yet come. There is still time to repent. There is still time to believe. Kill the sin in your life now before God kills you.
3) Turn to God
The end of verse 12 serves to set the stage for the instructions that God’s about to give to Joshua in verses 13-15. He’s just spent two and a half verses telling Joshua why Israel was doomed for destruction. But here, at the end of verse 12, God gives him an out. God gives him an “unless.” I will destroy you, unless . . . And we have to remember, at this juncture, who the characters in this story are. There’s, of course, the omnipotent God over all the universe, faithful in his word, righteous in his ways, resolute in his judgment, abounding in love, infinite in mercy and grace. Then, there’s Joshua. Leader of Israel, exalted among all the people, normally courageous and surefooted. But here, he’s in despair and resigned to death, on his knees, unable to lift his face.
And although Joshua is like this, we are not to forget who he is. He may have forgotten, briefly, his theology and the great works of the Lord to bring his people into the promised land, but he is still God’s chosen leader. And he is such not because of his own sovereignty, faithfulness, righteousness, justice, love, mercy, or grace. He remains Israel’s leader—he remains God’s mouthpiece and prophet—because God has chosen him.
God’s elect will not fall away. Here, in the midst of his judgment—in the midst of his wrath—the sovereign God of the universe remains compassionate towards those whom he loves and is ever-faithful to them. Church, in this picture between God and Joshua, we need to understand the depth of sin’s ravaging and severing nature—that it goes so deep and that it is so great that all we are left to do in its grip is to let it kill us—to resign ourselves to a fate that we cannot control nor one that we would like.
Yet, the only way that we are restored from death to life—the only way our despair turns into hope is if God himself, in our rejection and rebellion of him, comes to us, bends down to us, breathes life into our lungs, tells us that there’s an “unless,” and says, “Get up!” This is the picture that the author of Joshua paints for us between God and Joshua—between God and his leader.
Two weeks from now, after Father’s Day, we’ll talk about the exact stipulations of God’s “unless” clause, but for now, this is what I want to focus on. I want to focus on the mercy of God in the wrath of God, which permits us to kill sin before God kills us because he gives us an “unless.”
However, more than focusing on us, I want to focus, even more specifically, on the relationship between God and his leader displayed for us. We are to remember who Joshua is. We are to remember that he intercedes for the people of God. He is the prime example of the righteousness of God. And yet, at the same time, we’re to see that this man is in the throes of sin imputed to him. He hasn’t acted unjustly—another has, and yet Joshua is here paying the price. This man is suffering because of the sin of another. This man’s posture is like one who is dead—unable to raise himself up from his own demise. This man’s words, at the thought of his death, are filled with sadness, longing, and desperation.
This man, God appointed. This man, God has exalted. And yet, here, he is condescended and humiliated because God scorned and struck him all so that he might offer his people that pivotal word: “unless.” Unless this man intercedes, and unless this man delivers the good news to God’s people, there is no tomorrow—there is no verses 13-15. Unless there is a verse 12, there is no hope.
Brothers and sisters, we are able to kill sin, now, before God kills us because one has been killed for us. We can kill sin, now, before God kills us because one has brought us face-to-face with God, in a better way, in a perfectly faithful way, because in his righteousness he bore the stipulations of our “unless” for us. Our Joshua has become the devoted thing because our sins were imputed to him. Our Joshua faced our destruction because our wrath was laid upon him. And he’s done all of this so that we might not only live, but so that we might be restored to a greater promise—not an earthly one but an eternal and heavenly one.
And what’s better about all of this is that in his state of death—when it seemed like there was no hope left—God said to him not in frustration but in absolute, joyous victory, “Get up!” and through that one man’s resurrection—Jesus Christ has dealt with all our sin for all time without reservation, without any further stipulation.
Where Joshua ought to have interceded for his people instead of cowering in faithlessness and resigning himself to death, Jesus dies as the means of our intercession and to display the completeness of his faithfulness. Where Joshua is at the mercy of God to raise him back up and restore him as Israel’s leader, Jesus is God who is raised by God, the Father, through the power of God, the Holy Spirit, to give and establish with us an eternal and unbreakable covenant because of how he was broken on our behalf. He has fulfilled the law’s requirements. He has satisfied all God’s commandments. In him, we shall receive the full promise of the heavens and the earth—the whole kingdom of God because he has taken our sin. He has borne our condemnation. And he has been devoted to destruction so that we might no longer be the enemies of God, driven out, and left to die, but that we might be called his friends. This is the power of God’s “unless”—that his mercy is displayed to us in infinite supply because while we were still sinners, Christ died God’s wrath-filled death for us. Be killing sin by trusting in Christ whom God killed for you. Kill your sin and turn to God who desires to save you from sure destruction. Delay no longer. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Look to Jesus and get up.