Message: Instructions From the Dying | Scripture: Joshua 23 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Growing up, twice a year, my family would drive down from Toronto to Orlando. The drive was roughly 24 hours, and we’d always stop overnight somewhere along the way. That first day was always really uneventful. You don’t really get to see anything. But as soon as you cross the border into South Carolina and then into Georgia, there was always one event that kept us on the edge of our seats, and that event was rain.
You see, in the north, it rains. But in the south, it’s like a bucket, the size of the sky, being poured on top of your car in endless amounts, which meant that visibility outside of the car was very low. You could hardly see farther than a few centimetres in front of your windshield, while listening to droplets the size of a fist slapping down upon the roof.
I remember, for entire stretches at a time, my dad sitting there with his eyes peeled to what was in front him, sitting on the edge of his seat, driving maybe 15 mph, making sure not only to avoid hitting the cars in front, beside, or behind him, but also just to simply keep us on the road. It’s by the grace of God and by the attentiveness that he gave to my father in those moments that made us through every time—not a single memory comes to mind of being in an accident through those incredibly dangerous drives.
Then came one year where, out of the blue, my father was in or apart of three accidents within the span of three weeks, and they were accidents not involving our drive to Florida but in my dad’s normal, day-to-day activities. Things that we all do regularly. One accident took place while he was driving down the road on a clear day, and he simply failed to break early enough. Another came when he was pulling out of a parallel parking space without checking if he was clear of the car in front of him. For a man who had driven thousands of miles in the worst possible conditions, these events should have been easy for him to avoid.
But I remember one conversation that my mother had with him, asking him why he was getting into so many accidents. Was it because he was tired? Was it because the people around him were bad drivers? And I remember, clearly, my father looking at my mother with a face consigned to his own words when he said, “I was just careless and undisciplined.”
You see, it’s easy to pay attention when rain is coming down like cats and dogs, and you don’t know where danger might come from, but that danger always seems to strike when you least expect it to, doesn’t it? When we let our guard down—when we think we’re in control and nothing can go wrong. This is perhaps the lesson we learn from so many victims of accidents all over the world and throughout history—that tragedy often comes when we take our lives, our circumstances, and our surroundings for granted—when we’re careless and undisciplined.
Our passage this week teaches us this lesson—that we are not take this life we’ve been given for granted. It builds upon what we learned last week to be faithful with what God’s given us at all costs—we aren’t only to be faithful at all costs, but we are to be faithful at all times. We are always to aspire to the high privilege of being called the children of God. It is not a right to be saved. It is not a right to partake in divine blessing. All of it is afforded to us, and we are always—in every season—not only to be mindful of that but to aspire to it—to pursue a life worthy of the calling. So, this morning, we’re going to look at the three main seasons of our time here on earth and hear what Joshua has to say about them and the aspirations that we have in this life beginning with our first point:
1) In the Heights of Promise (we’re to aspire to the high privilege of being called a child of God at the highest point of life—at the height of God’s promises)
Read along with me in Joshua 23:1-5. TWoL: 1 A long time afterward, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, 2 Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years. 3 And you have seen all that the LORD your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the LORD your God who has fought for you. 4 Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. 5 The LORD your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the LORD your God promised you.
Joshua 23 is the second of three final speeches given by Joshua to Israel about how they are to retain the land, and the overwhelming theme in all three speeches is faithfulness. The ability of Israel to keep what God’s given to them will be dependent upon their faithfulness. This is, in fact, how Joshua sets the tone at the end of chapter 21 before entering into these three speeches. We’re told there that “not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.”
Thus, it becomes imperative upon Israel to do their part—God has been faithful, so now, you, Israel, be faithful. And for a time, they were. Joshua 23 opens as one of the happiest sentences that we can read in the Old Testament. Few sentences in Scripture are as happy as this one, why? Because it doesn’t just tell us that Israel has received what God meant to give them. It’s not just that they had rest. We’re told that they’ve had it for years. The exact language given to us is, “And it was after a great many days in which the Lord gave rest to Israel . . .”
Let’s just pause here because such an introduction deserves it—after all the striving, entering, conquest—after all the miracles that displayed the power of God, this one sentence has more weight than all that’s come before because all of that was for this one clause. God gave rest to Israel, and we’re told that he was generous with it—they had it in abundance. This is what is supposed to be. The enemies of God quieted. The presence of God felt, established, and adored. The people of God cherished, satisfied, preserved, and flourishing.
And in the midst of it is Joshua—like an old, wise, soon-to-pass father over his children, he gathers them in, and in particular, he gathers his eldest children together—the leaders of Israel—those who shall take over his responsibilities when he’s gone, and he does a few things with them. But before I tell you what those things are, let us take in that this is good parenting on display—that he is concerned for his children not only when he is living amongst them, but also for when he will no longer be with them. He desires to prolong what Israel has for as long as he possibly can.
So, the first thing he tells them to do in verse 3 is to look around at all this happiness—recall everything you’ve witnessed. Here is the first rule of good parenting: Joshua points his children to God because everything they’ve witnessed—all that they’ve experienced has come from him. Then, secondly, in verse 4, Joshua points them to himself—I’ve allotted and secured these lands for you.
Notice, he isn’t trying to be conceited here or boast in his own works. Rather, he’s trying to establish a pattern of what good example setting—of what good parenting looks like, namely, giving of oneself for the sake of your children. Both God and his chosen leader, Joshua, have demonstrated time-and-again what true love is. God fights for Israel over-and-above all his other creation. Joshua allots and cuts off the nations for Israel despite their sinfulness and faithlessness to follow him as they ought.
And both of these truths lead us to the third thing, in verse 5, in that, while Joshua is about to pass on from this earth, the examples set by him and, more importantly, by their undying God, is what shall propel these leaders in their own love and example for their people as they go into possess what land that remains. This is the height of God’s promise displayed in his own faithfulness and communicated through his covenant mediator. Just as God helped Joshua do what he had commanded him to do, God will now help Israel, even without Joshua, do what he has commanded them to do. They ought to have an expectation for God’s coming help, and that expectation is to drive them into deeper, unwavering faithfulness.
This is actually how Joshua says it in verse 5, “God will push back and drive out the remaining inhabitants, so do your job and possess the land as you are meant to.” And I’ll have you notice another thing—see how Joshua’s goal is not to give detailed instructions about how God will do these things. No, the overwhelming witness of the Bible is that God does not often reveal the specific details of his future plans to us, why? Because like a son is supposed to be submitted to the heart of his father out of a deep trust that his father is doing what is right for him, so too are we to be submitted to the heart of God.
It is not about the instruction. It is not about our ability to control the situation and know for ourselves the reason why we are being led so. It is about being with the father, being known by him, and knowing him as our rock and steadfast defender. It is about reveling in the height of the promise that he will secure our life in a way that adheres to his glory and that maximizes our good.
These first five verses are happy verses—some of the happiest that we’ve read together because they are filled with the promise of fatherly affection more than they are meant to provide detailed instruction. And this is important for us because in those high seasons of life—in the happiest of moments—we will know a fuller happiness, an increasingly satisfied joy, if we aspire to know the goodness and affection of our God more than our need to know the specifics, to control the situation, and to reason it out with our own wisdom. God isn’t telling us to figure everything out. He sets the plan in motion. He will see it through. Let the promise of himself be motivation enough to follow wherever it is he leads.
2) In the Drudgery of Daily Life
Read along with me in Joshua 23:6-13. TWoL: 6 Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, 7 that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, 8 but you shall cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day. 9 For the LORD has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. 10 One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the LORD your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God. 12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you.
In the 23rd Psalm, in the first three verses, and especially in that second verse, we’re given the highest joy as we imagine ourselves as sheep cared for by our shepherd and given rest in green pastures and beside still waters. But then, in verse 4, a turn take place, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” And I think many of us are tempted when we get to this fourth verse to think of it as a predicament that we’ve placed ourselves into. We’re naturally wandering sheep, right? So, the passage must be saying something like when I fall away—when I am in the dredges of deep suffering, God comes in and saves me.
But, as good and true as that message is, it is not what the psalmist means because those first 3 verses have nothing to do with our wandering. Instead, they have everything to do with our shepherd’s leading, and there is nothing in the text that might suggest that, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he is not the one who brings us into it. He brings us into the shadow to remind us that his rod and his staff are ever for us—that his very presence is to be our comfort over the temptation to let the shadow distract our eyes away from his present help.
And this is the reason for the author of Joshua’s “therefore” in verse 6. He’s just led Israel through the highest notes of promise—the shepherd that leads us to green pastures and still waters has done so. But it is likely that for the audience of those reading this book, those green pastures and still waters have faded into the background. It is likely that those hearing these words are those walking, dragging their feet through the valley of the shadow of death. It is likely that these are Israelites facing their condemnation. It is likely that these are Israelites who have been misled by leaders who are no longer those who follow after the instructions of Joshua, and they would be asking here, after verse 5, “what are we to do with this hope and this expectation in God’s promised leading? Where do we go from here?”
It’s at this point that the author of Joshua reminds his readers that, although specific details have not been given for how God shall act and fulfill his promises, instructions have been given as to how God’s people are expected to live in light of those promises—both in times of light and shadow. They are to be faithful. They are to aspire to the high privilege of being called the children of God—as those who know his sovereign, steadfast character.
This is what the author does, he exhorts and commands Israel to faithfulness in verses 6-8 and verse 11: “be exceedingly, perpetually, always strong in your conviction and keep, protect, or guard the law of God. Don’t convolute those laws by falling in love with the practices of other nations. Cling to God. Love God. Be faithful to God.” And in this exhortation, the author gives us two grounds—two reasons—as to why we ought to cling, love, and be faithful to God. The first is retrospective—you’re to be faithful and love God because he’s shown you grace, verses 9-10. God has done incredible things for his unworthy, undeserving people.
The second, however, is prospective—you’re to be faithful and love God because to do otherwise is to do a fearful thing, verses 12-13. God has not only shown his grace in the past, but he will display his judgment and punishment towards those who spurn him and forget about his grace in the future. And I use the word “forget” intentionally because every one of these Israelites—every one of us, whether or not we are saved—has experienced his grace. Everyone one has accepted it. You cannot reject it by virtue of your being alive, but you can forget it, and you can trick yourself into thinking that you live and breathe by your own inexplicable power.
Yet, here, the author is very clear, there will come a day, when you will be made to remember, and on that day, it will be too late because what little façade of power that you had will stand before God Almighty, and he will show what you will never forget again. On that day, you will realize that as you walk through the valley, the death that looms over you is no longer a shadow and that as you look around for your shepherd, all that shall be your comfort is the darkness that consumes you.
This is the caution that the author of Joshua gives to Israel as they walk through the drudgery and hardships of life—as we walk through the drudgery and hardships of daily life. God has shown you the height of his promise—live under that, and avoid at all costs, at all times, the way of his wrath. Flee the temptation of the world as your deliverance from the hard work of holiness. Neglect not his promises. Be vigilantly faithful with what he has shown and given to you, even in the monotony of day-to-day things. Always aspire to the high privilege of being called a child of God.
3) In the Cold Embrace of Death
Read along with me in Joshua 23:14-16. TWoL: 14 “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things1 that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. 15 But just as all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the LORD will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the LORD your God has given you, 16 if you transgress the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you.”
These last few words from Joshua to end his second speech match the cold, somber morbidity of his impending death. If you’ll remember, we started in verse 1 with some of the sweetest words, but here, we receive some of the harshest and unapologetic, namely, the restatement that God’s anger and wrath awaits those who forget—those who are unfaithful with the faithfulness of God. The author of Joshua wants to make sure that we do not miss this fact—that God’s faithfulness is a two-edged sword. He is faithful in both his grace and his judgment. He is not a tame and safe God—the kind of god that the world expects him to be. No, he is, as one commentator notes, “a God who is trustworthy both to heal and destroy.”
But for all the unhappiness and coldness that Joshua ends this speech with as his own death lingers over him, we are to remember that promise—for those of us who confess this faith—for those in Israel who are of the true Israel—who set their affections upon the gift of his steadfast presence both in life and in death—we are to remember that this ending—this cold embrace—is but a warning. A warning that is meant to spur you from lethargy to life. A shadow that is meant to point you back to the comfort of your Shepherding Saviour so that you are not lost in the valley of darkness.
There was a pastor-theologian named Donald Barnhouse whose wife died of cancer when their four children were still very young in age. And as he drove his children to his wife’s funeral, Barnhouse stopped at a traffic crossing. Ahead of them was a huge truck. The sun was at such an angle that it cast the truck’s shadow across the snow-covered field beside it. And Dr. Barnhouse, seeing the sorrowful and tear-filled faces of his children, looked at them and spoke to them, “Look at the shadow of that truck on the field, children. If you had to be run over, would you rather be run over by the truck or by its shadow?” The youngest child responded first, “The shadow. It couldn’t hurt anybody.” “That’s right,” said Barnhouse. “And remember, children, Jesus let the truck of death strike him, so that it could never destroy us. Your Mother lives with Jesus now—only the shadow of death passed over her.”
What does it mean, church, to aspire to the high privilege of being called a child of God? It means understanding and grasping on tightly to the fact that the true Child of God—his only begotten Son—gave his own life to spare us from the certainty of our pitiable fate. To aspire to the calling of being a child of God, then, is to endeavour in every season and with every possible means to know the one who has saved us—intimately, passionately, and faithfully, even if it costs us this life. Every single one of us has sorrow and tragedy awaiting us.
Every single one of us shall pass through the shadow of death, but for those who know Jesus, the Psalmist tells us that even in the shadow, we need not fear, because he is with us, and he comforts us. Through the temporary end of his life—through his death and suffering of our wrath, he has not only given us a new beginning, but also an eternity of joy with him in his resurrection. So, aspire to the high privilege of being called a child of God, always with unwavering vigilance, because, in Jesus, death shall never be the final word. He has given us life. He is preparing for us an eternal home. Let his effort, therefore, be the treasure and pursuit of all your days.