Following the Leader

Anson Kroeker on September 19, 2021
Following the Leader
September 19, 2021

Following the Leader

Passage: Joshua 1:10-18
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As we get into our second week of Joshua today, it’s helpful for us to remember what kind of a book Joshua is. To many students of the Bible today, we consider Joshua the first of the historical books, because of the way that it relates a part of the history of the people of God to us.

I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those guys that likes history. I think history is interesting and, more so, important, and so if Joshua was just a historical book I’d be down with that.

But I know that not all of you are in the same boat. The idea of studying a historical book doesn’t get your heart rate going like it does mine. And that’s where it might be helpful to remember something I mentioned last week—that the ancient Hebrews did not consider Joshua or Judges or Samuel or Kings to be “historical books.” Rather, they called them the “Former Prophets.”

They considered these to be works of prophecy. Not prophecy in terms of foretelling the future, but prophecy in terms of exhorting God’s people to be faithful to God and His word.

So Joshua is history that preaches. And we’re going to see that today in the second half of chapter one as we read about Joshua assuming command of the people of Israel. This is not just an account of things that happened.

This is history that preaches some very important messages to you and I today in the midst of a federal election and a provincial mask mandate and changes to the governance structure here at EBC and to our daily lives where we get to choose, day at a time, whether we’re going to do whatever we want to do or whether we’re going to do what King Jesus wants us to do.

So let’s quickly review what we saw last week. The book of Joshua picks up right after the death of Moses, when Israel was right on the brink of entering in the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness. And Joshua has been appointed as the new leader of the people.

There could not have been a worse time, humanly speaking, for Israel to lose Moses. On a human level, this kind of leadership change at such a volatile moment could be a catastrophe.

But God is up to something here. He is showing that human leaders are dispensable. They come and go. But God is the real leader of His people, and He hasn’t changed, and His promises haven’t run out, and so Israel people can keep moving ahead even without Moses at the helm.

Now that’s what God told Joshua in our passage last week. But some big questions hang in the air. First, will Joshua step up? Will he respond to God’s commands and be strong and courageous, or will he shrink back in fear? And second, will the people respond to him? Will they understand that God is still in charge and keep following Him without Moses in the picture? Will they get it?

Today’s passage answers both of those questions and, as mentioned, has some really important lessons for us today as pertains to leadership.

The basic outline for this passage is built around three speeches. Last week we saw God speaking to Joshua, and today we find three more speeches: Joshua speaking to the officers of the people, Joshua speaking to the tribes on the other side of the Jordan, and those tribes speaking to Joshua.

1: Joshua to the Officers

So let’s look at this first speech, which answers the question “will Joshua step up, obey God’s call, and start to lead the people?” And the answer is a clear yes. Verse 10: “And Joshua commanded the officers of the people, ‘Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, “Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess”’” (Joshua 1:10–11).

This is an amazing moment. If this were in a movie, this moment would start off in slow motion and have really epic music in the background. And I’m not trying to be funny there, but just to show us how important this is. Joshua, the new and untested leader, responds to everything God told him by getting up and assuming command.

I would have loved to be there to see the looks in the eyes of the officers of the people. For 40 years they had taken commands from Moses. Joshua was just the assistant. And now Joshua walks up to them and says “Here’s your orders. We’re on the move in three days. Tell the people to get ready.”

And the fact that nothing else is said suggests that these officers hurried off to do exactly what Joshua said to do. These are Joshua’s first commands as a new leader and these are exciting moments.

2: Joshua to the Transjordan  Tribes

Verses 12-15 count Joshua’s speech to what are sometimes called the Transjordan tribes. And there’s a bit of background here we need to understand.

God had originally promised Israel the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. But as they got ready to cross over the Jordan river, two and a half of the tribes came to Moses and basically said, “We like it here on this side of the Jordan—can we just stay here?”

And initially Moses had a big problem with this. “But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, ‘Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here?’” (Numbers 32:6).

And so they replied to Moses that they would leave their families and herds on that east side of the Jordan, cross over with their brothers to help them take the land on the west side of the Jordan, and then when the fighting was done they’d come back to live in their own land again.

And Moses agreed to this arrangement. And Numbers 32:25-27 says that “the people of Gad and the people of Reuben said to Moses, ‘Your servants will do as my lord commands. Our little ones, our wives, our livestock, and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead, but your servants will pass over, every man who is armed for war, before the Lord to battle, as my lord orders’” (Numbers 32:24–27).

This background is important because it shows us the conversation that happened between these tribes and Moses. It also shows us the respect that these tribes had for Moses’ authority. “Your servants will do as my lord commands… as my lord orders.”

They were really wanting to show that their desire to stay on the east side of the river wasn’t because of rebellion against Moses. They were submitting to his leadership and were going to obey him even if that meant leaving their families for a couple of years to go fight for land that they weren’t actually going to live in.

So when we turn back to Joshua 1:12, we see that Joshua is really asserting himself as a leader when he pulls these tribes apart and says, “remember what Moses said to you? It’s time to make good on your commitment.”

We should notice in verse 13 and 15 how Joshua describes Moses: “Moses the servant of the Lord.” Just like we saw last week, this phrase is a reminder that Moses was just a servant of the living God, and while Moses was dead, God hadn’t changed and neither had his promises or commandments.

Even so, this could a tense moment. Remember, Joshua is a brand-new leader who hasn’t proven himself yet. It would be easy to picture the leaders of these tribes laughing and saying, “Ya, well, Moses commanded us to do that, but Moses is dead now. And who are you? We’ve changed our mind. If these guys want that land, they can fight for it themselves. Bye-bye new guy.”

3: The Transjordan Tribes to Joshua

And with that possibility in mind, this last speech in chapter one is, to me, the most exciting of all. Because here’s what they actually say, starting in verse 16:

“And they answered Joshua, ‘All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses! Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous’” (Joshua 1:16–18).

So we’ve really got to notice how awesome this is. This could have gone so many different directions. But just look at what they say to him.

First of all, in verse 16, “All that you have commanded us we will do.” That’s pretty remarkable because all that Joshua has really commanded them to do is to remember what Moses commanded them.

And instead of saying, “Ya, Joshua, we remember exactly what Moses told us. You cool your jets,” they say “All that you have commanded sure will do, and wherever you send us we will go.” In other words, do you want to send us anywhere else? Do you have any other dangerous and uncomfortable missions for us to do? We’re in!

Then there’s the first half of verse 17: “Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you.” This is basically a pledge of allegiance or loyalty. They’re telling Joshua he doesn’t have to earn or prove anything, but that they’re going to follow him just like they followed Moses. Incredible.

And then we get to the second half of verse 17, which is really interesting, where they say, “Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses!” At first this sounds like a blessing—may God be with you has He was with Moses!

But then there’s that word “only” at the beginning, which gives this statement a sense of a condition. As Donald Madvig wrote in his commentary on Joshua, “They seem to be saying, ‘We will follow your leading so long as there is evidence that you are being led by God.’”1Donald H. Madvig, “Joshua,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 259.And we’re going to come back to this in a few minutes, because it’s so important.

What comes next in verse 18 is another statement of loyalty: “Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death” (Joshua 1:18).  That’s how seriously they’re taking Joshua’s leadership. “Not only are we going to follow you, but if anyone won’t, he’ll be put to death.”

That sounds a little extreme to our ears, perhaps. But we should remember that these are the words of a people about to engage in battle together. In the military, disobedience is taken very seriously. Because one man’s disobedience can jeopardize the entire nation, as we’ll find out in chapter 7.

And so by saying this, the people are recognizing Joshua as their leader. Obeying him isn’t just a good idea or a nice thing to do. It’s necessary and they will enforce it with the death penalty.

And then look at how they finish up: “Only be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:18). Once again, that word “only” has the slight feeling of a condition to it. They’re ready to follow Joshua, but they really want to see him being a good leader—being strong and courageous.

But at the same time this is quite the encouragement. The very words that Moses said to Joshua, the very words that the Lord said to Joshua, are now the words being spoken to Joshua by these tribes. “Be strong and courageous.” “Lead us well, Joshua,” they are saying.

And by speaking the very same words that God spoke to Joshua, this chapter concludes with a picture of rock-solid unity. God, Joshua, and the tribes are in lockstep unity together, everybody on exactly the same page, working together as one solid unit. What God wants, what Joshua wants, and what the people want are all the exact same thing.

And what we see here is the promises of God already coming to pass. God promises Joshua that He would be with Him and that no man would be able to stand before him, and that as he carefully followed God’s law he would have good success.

And that’s already happening as these tribes people willingly submit to his leadership and God’s people is able to move forward together unity.

So… What?

Now you might be thinking this morning, “That’s great. Good for Joshua. But what does that have to do with us?”

And that’s a good question, because, you’ll remember, Joshua is a book of prophecy. Not telling the future, but telling about the past in a way that preaches to us today.

And there’s some really valuable lessons here for us pertaining to leadership among God’s people today, even though we find ourselves in a different spot in God’s big story. In particular we’re going to focus on this final speech from the Transjordan tribes to Joshua in verses 16-18.

And what I see here is one big idea, with a few smaller ideas attached to this one big idea.

Godly People Willingly Follow Godly Leadership

The one big idea is that when God moves in the hearts of His people, they will be willing to follow godly leadership. We can put this another way if you like: godly people willingly follow godly leadership.

And I hope it’s not hard to see where I’m getting this from in this passage. The Reubenites and the Gadites were acting in accordance with God’s character—they were acting in a godly way—as they willingly submitted to Joshua’s leadership. They didn’t come kicking and screaming. They didn’t need to be bargained with. There was an open willingness.

And I want to suggest that to the present day, this pattern exists. Godly people willingly follow godly leadership. And one of the ways we see this is by the way that the New Testament describes those who are ungodly. Think of Titus 1:10, where Paul describes the ungodly people of Crete, and he writes that “there are many who are insubordinate.”

That word “insubordinate” means rebellious, independent, disobedient, not being subject to anybody. And that’s a marker of sin and ungodliness.

We see lots of rebellion and insubordination in our world today. Sadly, it’s getting way to common to see it in the church today. Whether it’s against the government or against church leadership, Paul’s words about Crete are just as true today about our own country: there are many who are insubordinate.

And if being rebellious against leadership is a marker of sin, then a marker of godliness is a willing submission to leadership, just like Paul wrote to Titus a bit further down in his letter: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1–2).

That’s what godliness looks like. A glad willingness to follow leadership. And ultimately this comes from the fact that God’s people gladly submit to Him. We willingly follow the leadership of king Jesus. And when we willingly follow Jesus, we’ll willingly follow whatever leadership, under Him, He tells us to follow without kicking or screaming.

Godly people willingly follow godly leadership.

What About the Government?

Now before we go any further, I think we need to talk about submitting to the governing authorities. We’ve just read the statement about that in Titus, and it’s repeated a number of times across the New Testament—in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, for example.

And when it comes to the governing authorities, we don’t just have the permission to submit to governing leaders when they are godly, and then rebel against whoever else is ungodly. When Paul told Titus to “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1), Nero was the emperor. Nero was a terrible person, about as ungodly as you can imagine.

Whoever you think is the bad guy in politics right now is a Boy Scout compared to Nero.

30 years ago, a Bible commentary on Romans was published, and it talked about the command in Romans 13 to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). This commentary said that there is “no exception related to the ruler’s competence or incompetence, morality or immorality, cruelty or kindness, or even godliness or ungodliness… Regardless of the failures of government—many of them immoral, unjust, and ungodly—Christians are to pray and live peaceful lives that influence the world by godly, selfless living, not by protests, sit-ins, and marches, much less by rebellion.” [John F. MacArthur Jr., Romans, vol. 2, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 213-214, 217].

You want to know who wrote those words? John MacArthur. Some of you might be thinking “that sounds a little different from some things I’ve heard John MacArthur saying today,” and that’s a discussion worth having. But up until quite recently, Evangelical Christians for the most part seemed to understand that unless we are being told to directly disobey God’s word, we obey and respect the governing authorities even when we don’t like it.

It was sure easy to talk that way 30 years ago. It’s a lot harder to talk that way today when obeying the government means wearing a mask and now showing proof of vaccination before going out for supper.

But the whole reason the New Testament has to tell us again and again to submit to our leaders is because it’s so hard. Because it’s not easy.

I know a lot of you don’t like these rules. You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to think they’re okay. But you do have to obey and you to have to show honour and respect to your leaders. We don’t get to change the rules just because obeying them is starting to feel hard.

I heard recently, from someone who knows someone who works in a campaign office, that the nastiest phone calls they’ve received this election have been from evangelical Christians. And that is so wrong.

When it comes to our government, we obey, unless obeying means clearly disobeying God.

In the Church

But when it comes to leadership among the people of God, that’s a different discussion. Among the people of God, we willingly follow godly leadership.

We know that leadership in the church has been instituted by God Himself. In Acts 20:28, Paul tells the elders of the Ephesian church that the Holy Spirit had made them overseers in that church.

Ephesians 4:11 says that Jesus gave apostles, teachers, evangelists, shepherds and teachers to His church. And so God’s people should willingly follow whatever leadership has been established by the God whom we willingly follow.

But the oversight and leadership of these human leaders is not absolute. It depends on godliness. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 make it clear that someone is only qualified to be an overseer in the church when their character meets a certain standard. In other words, just like the Transjordan tribes in Joshua 1, we willingly follow those whom are willingly following God themselves.

Now we’re still kind of on this big idea here: godly people willingly follow godly leadership.

Substance, Not Style

One of the smaller ideas coming out of this is that godly people will gladly follow leaders based on their godliness and not their personality or style.

We talked a bit about this last week—the way that, in our world today, people are drawn to charismatic personalities. We build personality cults. We so easily follow people based on their personality or their style or their gifts or the way they make us feel rather than deciding who we will follow on the basis of character and godliness and biblical truth.

We see this on a big scale, with the kinds of people who build big successful ministry empires, and we also see it on a small scale, even among small friend groups, where so often it’s the bold, outspoken people who have an influence that far exceeds their actual character or maturity or godliness.

And we see it all the time in churches. People are so often drawn to a church because of the pastor and his personality and style rather than to the content of his teaching or to his godly character or to what the church itself actually believes.

And so we can all learn a lesson from the Reubanites and the Gadites today. They didn’t insist that Joshua be exactly like Moses. They did want to make sure that God would be with Joshua as he had been with Moses. That’s what mattered. And if that was true, then they were willing to follow him.

They were more concerned about the substance of Joshua’s leadership rather than His style. They were more concerned that God be with him than that he be exactly like Moses.

And so as you think about the leaders in your church or even the kinds of authors you’ll read or podcasts you’ll listen to, you should care about character and godliness more than personality. You should care about substance way more than style.

Say No to Spiritual Abuse

There’s a second smaller truth connected to this big truth that godly people willingly follow godly leadership. And it’s this: as much as godly people willingly follow godly leadership, they will not willingly follow ungodly leadership.

This is so important because spiritual abusers often take advantage of the willingness that godly people have to follow leadership.  Spiritually abusive leaders prey on that willingness and manipulate godly people to follow them for their own purposes and ends, to build up their power base and to satisfy their own desires for control.

And so God’s people have to be vigilant to this. Just as much as we’re willing to follow godly leadership, we need to be unwilling to follow ungodly leadership.

And we see this dynamic at play in Joshua 1:17: we’ll obey you like we obeyed Moses—only may the Lord be with you like he was with Moses. The implication is that if God is not with Joshua, if he goes off the spiritual rails, then they won’t follow him.

That kind of language is threatening to spiritually abusive leaders. Spiritually abusive, power-hungry leaders want you to follow them at any cost because they said so. And in their mind, the standard of what’s right and wrong isn’t what’s in the Bible but simply whether you do what they want or not.

So here’s a question: how do you know the difference between a godly leader who you can trust and an ungodly, spiritually-abusive leader that you should run from?

There’s many ways to answer that question, but here’s one idea, right from our passage today: tell that leader the same kind of thing that these tribes said to Joshua in verse 17. Tell them, with heartfelt respect, “I’m so happy to follow your leadership so long as it’s clear that you’re following God and that you’re leading me in accordance with God’s word.”

A godly leader will be honoured by a statement like that. A godly leader will respond to that kind of a statement with something like, “I am so honoured by this sacred trust and I invite you to pray for me that I might stay faithful to God and thus continue to earn your trust.”

And ungodly leader, on the other hand, is probably going to be threatened by that kind of a statement from you. Because they don’t want you to be the one deciding whether you’ll follow them or not. They want you to follow them because they said so. They’re going to demand unconditional allegiance. They’re going to be threatened any time someone comes in to their office with an open Bible to ask them questions about their leadership in light of God’s word.

And so, in summary, this is why I think today’s passage is so important for the people of God today.

There is a real problem in many churches today with rebellious, insubordinate people who don’t want to be told what to do, refuse to follow or submit to anybody, and bristle at any mention of authority whatsoever. And on the other hand, there’s a real problem in many churches today with power-hungry dictatorial leaders who demand that people roll over and play dead at their every command because they said so.

And today’s passage addresses both of those extremes so well. It speaks to the rebellious by showing us this beautiful willingness to follow leadership and submit to authority. These tribes came to Joshua with their arms folded and their chins out, scrutinizing his every little decision, just waiting for him to do something wrong.

No, their words show a glad willingness to follow his leadership with open arms and open hearts. And from this we see that godly people willingly, gladly follow godly leadership.

But at the same time, these people were not signing their lives over to a dictator who could say and do whatever he wanted. They would follow him like they followed Moses only if God was with him as God was with Moses.

And that’s because their ultimate allegiance was to God, and not to any human leader. They would follow Joshua as Joshua followed God, just like God had warned Joshua about back in the first part of the chapter. His strength in leadership depended on his faithfulness to God’s word.

The same is true for any leader among God’s people today. And godly leaders will welcome the accountability and answerability that comes from this.

Making it Real

So that’s the big truth that comes out of this passage,  and we’ve all got some great opportunities to apply these truths in the coming days. Here’s four real-life applications for us.

First, we’ve already talked about the election tomorrow. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, as the results of the election came clear either tomorrow night or in the days ahead, we all stopped to pray for our new government before talking about it with anybody else, and certainly before joining everyone else beaking off on Facebook?

Provincially, our government has just made some decisions this past week that many people aren’t happy about. As citizens in a democracy, you have the freedom to tell the government what we think about these decisions. But as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, we don’t have the freedom to whine and complain or to be disrespectful or to rebel just because we don’t like what’s happening.

As we think about our life together here in the church, we just had a very important gathering on Wednesday evening where Jason Elford, Curtis Jurgens, Bradly Lytle and myself were all affirmed as elders according to our new bylaws.

You now have a recognized team who are shepherding you together. And I encourage you, on the basis of God’s word, to gladly follow the leadership of this team. But I also strongly encourage you, on the basis of God’s word, to stop gladly following this team if this team stops being faithful to God and His word.

If we start doing stuff that makes you scratch your head, come to us with an open heart to have a real conversation. And hopefully we’ll get a Bible open and together look at what God has said and together get back in line with God’s word.

Follow us as we follow Christ, and only as we follow Christ.

Fourthly and finally, every single one of us can make this really personal when we remember that Jesus is our ultimate leader, our ultimate authority, and that He is the one we all must always willingly and gladly submit to.

This week you’re going to have plenty of chances to decide whether you’re going to do what you want or what Jesus wants. And in those moments, you get to ask for Jesus Himself to help you, to give you faith in His promises, to trust that the one who died and rose again for us is reliable and worthy of our trust and obedience.

And as you and I today are empowered by God’s spirit to live under the Lordship of Jesus, we look forward to the day when everyone, everywhere, will acknowledge the kingship of Jesus. We look forward to the day when God’s people will never, ever struggle to obey Jesus again, and Jesus reigns over a world made new.

May Jesus keep us faithful until that day comes.