Something Even Better Than This

Joshua would have given up everything to experience a day in your normal Christian life.

dylanhamata on December 12, 2021
Something Even Better Than This
December 12, 2021

Something Even Better Than This

Passage: Joshua 24
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Today we arrive at the very final chapter in Joshua, and as this chapter opens up I’ll admit to some sense of déjà-vu from these opening words. “Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God” (Joshua 24:1).

Didn’t Joshua just do this in the previous chapter? Didn’t he already all an assembly of all Israel?

Yes, and he’s doing it again—a fact that’s actually really important in understanding the meaning of this chapter.

But before we get there, we should note that chapter 24 isn’t exactly a full cope of chapter 23. This time, Israel has been summoned to Shechem. Shechem was an important spot in the promised land—it’s where God first promised to give this land to Abraham’s offspring, and it’s where Abraham built his first altar in the land (Genesis 12:6-7). It’s also the town between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, where Joshua Joshua led Israel in a covenant-making ceremony almost 30 years beforehand after they captured Ai.

So by being summoned here, there’s a sense of some religious officialness to this gathering. It’s not just Joshua delivering a personal farewell address. This is a more formal gathering.

And in fact if we look at this chapter as a whole, we see that these events follow the very specific pattern of ancient covenant ceremonies. We know, from documents that archeologists have found, that when a king would come to make a covenant with a people it would follow a very specific script, with a preamble, and then a bit of history, and then the rules of the covenant, with blessings and curses. And then the covenant would be written down with witnesses. And Joshua 24 follows this pattern very specifically.

So that’s a big difference from chapter 23 to 24. This isn’t just an informal gathering. This isn’t just another speech. This is more like a wedding ceremony in terms of it’s formality. Joshua has brought Israel here, much like Moses did at the end of his life (Deuteronomy 29), to solemnly lead them into a formal covenant between them and the Lord.

Now this isn’t a whole new covenant. It is just a renewal of the covenant God first made with Israel, 70 or so years earlier at Mount Sinai. But the idea is that Joshua wants Israel to renew this covenant with Yahweh before he dies.

The History

So he begins, in the format of covenant ceremonies of the day, with a historical preamble that begins with Abraham.  “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac. And to Isaac I have Jacob and Esau” (Joshua 24:2–4).

It’s going to come out later that Joshua is really concerned about the idol-worship that still persists among God’s people. And so there’s a warning here that Abram and his family worshipped idols before God called them. Worshipping idols might feel old and familiar but God has called them to something better.

In verses 4 to 7 God, through Joshua, reviews the sojourn in Egypt: “And I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. And I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in the midst of it, and afterward I brought you out. Then I brought your fathers out of Egypt, and you came to the sea. And the Egyptians pursued your fathers with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. And when they cried to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did in Egypt. And you lived in the wilderness a long time.” (Joshua 24:4–7).

Verses 8 -10 review what God did with His people on the East side of the Jordan: “Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan. They fought with you, and I gave them into your hand, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. Then Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel. And he sent and invited Balaam the son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam. Indeed, he blessed you. So I delivered you out of his hand” (Joshua 24:8–10).

And finally verses 11-13 sum up the recent history that we’ve spent the last few months reviewing: “And you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, and the leaders of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And I gave them into your hand. And I sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you, the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant” (Joshua 24:11–13).

“The hornet” is a symbol God uses a few times to describe the fear that God sent upon Israel’s enemies. He gave Israel supernatural victory over their foes and one of the ways he did that was with fear.

And this historical review ends with a reminder of what these people had been enjoying for the past couple of decades: they were enjoying land which they hadn’t had to work and cities which they hadn’t had to built and vineyards and olive orchards that they didn’t have to plant.

The Requirements

So having walked through this history, Joshua moves to the requirements of the covenant. This is where he spells out what is required of the people, given all that God has done for them. Verse 14:

“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14–15).

Now there’s a few things in here that are really surprising and we need to deal with. What’s not surprising is the call to fear the Lord, to fear Yahweh, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. That makes sense. What does surprise me is the next phrase, “Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord” (v. 14). It’s surprising to me that, after all those years, there are still idols hanging around.

It was here, at Shechem, that Jacob buried his household gods under a terebinth tree (Genesis 35:4). And it’s here that Joshua calls Israel to finally and fully rid themselves of all other forms of worship.

I thought this would have happened already. But apparently not. We know that back in Egypt, Israel served foreign gods. That’s why Israel needed to put blood on their doorposts when God came to judge “all the gods of Egypt” by killing the firstborn in Exodus 12:12. The Israelite homes needed a lamb to die in place of their firstborn sons because they, too, had worshipped the gods of Egypt (c.f. Ezekiel 20:7-8).

But surely by now that’s ended! Surely by now they’ve stopped worshipping idols! But apparently not. Joshua’s basic sense is that Israel has never fully yet worshipped God the way that they should. To this day they have never fully worshipped God and God alone.

And so, here in this covenant ceremony, he serves them with an ultimatum in verse 15: “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).

Do you hear what Joshua is saying here? Yahweh, the God of Israel, is not just one more god to add to your collection. You can’t add him to your list of things to worship. You must choose either those other gods or Him and Him alone. You can’t have both.

I wonder if any of us need to hear that truth today. God is not interested in being a part of your life. God is not even interested in just being number one in your life, with lesser things filling up the list below him. No, with God it is all or nothing. If you don’t serve Him fully and Him alone, you’re not serving Him at all.

And Joshua is adamant that as for him and his house, they will serve Yahweh.

This is probably one of the best-known verses from the book of Joshua. And let’s just remember that Joshua lived in a time when religion was a family affair. Dads chose for their families who they would worship. Their children were part of the covenant simply by being born to Jewish parents.

Today we’re in a different spot in God’s plan of redemption, and at this point in the story, we come into God’s people as we individually place our faith in Jesus. One of the reasons we do Awana is because we believe that children can come to know and follow Jesus even if their parents don’t choose to do so.

But for Joshua it was different. In that covenantal arrangement, who his household worshipped was his decision. And Joshua was making very clear that his house was going to worship the Lord and not any of the idols that came before him.

The Debate

And in verse 16, the people respond to Joshua’s ultimatum or challenge with some really great words: “Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God’” (Joshua 24:16–18).

This sounds great, doesn’t it? They are reviewing this history back to Joshua, telling him what God has done for them, and then saying “Of course we’re going to serve him and not these other gods!”

Great! Bring out the pen and ink, sign the covenant, and be done.

But this passage is full of surprises. And in verse 19, Joshua goes off-script, in a way that doesn’t seem to fit this covenant format at all, when he tells the people, “you are not able to serve the Lord.” Why? Because, verse 19 says, “He is a holy God. He is a jealous God, he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.” And then he spells out the covenant curses that will come up on them if they forsake the Lord.

God is not like the other gods of the other nations. He is holy—completely different, completely other, completely devoted to His own purposes. He is jealous, like a husband for his wife. God will not share His people with any other God. And he won’t turn a blind eye to their sins.

That’s the meaning we should understand from verse 19, which says that “he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.” In the context here, this is not talking about what God will do when His people repent of their sins and turning back to the Lord and seeking His forgiveness. In that setting, He will always forgive our sins. That’s who He is (Exodus 34:7).

But what Joshua is talking about here is what will happen if the people turn their backs on the Lord and pursue other gods and don’t turn aside from their sin. If they do that, God won’t just turn a blind eye to their sins. He will bring the curses upon them that He promised to. And Joshua is really concerned here that the people simply won’t be able to serve God wholeheartedly. Their hearts are too sinful. Their feet are too prone to wander. They might not be able to do this.

But the people respond to Joshua again in verse 21 with a rebuttal of their own: “No, but we will serve the Lord.” This has turned into quite the debate, hasn’t it?

And the back-and-forth continues in verse 22, when “Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.’ And they said, ‘We are witnesses’” (Joshua 24:22). Now here we are back on script. In a covenant ceremony, there was always witnesses, and here the people themselves agree to be the witnesses that they will serve the Lord.

But once again Joshua is not content with their answer, so he responds in verse 23: “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 24:23). If you’re going to do this, then do it!And, once again, the people respond with the right answer in verse 24: “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey” (Joshua 24:24).

And so Joshua relents, and proceeds with the rest of the ceremony. Verse 25: “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord (Joshua 24:25–26).

Remember that it was under a terebinth tree—maybe even this very tree—that Jacob buried the idols that his household had carried? And by this tree now lies the seventh stone memorial in the Promised Land, a reminder of the people’s pledge to do the same.

And in verse 27 Joshua gives the people one final reminder and warning: “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God’” (Joshua 24:27).

And then the ceremony is finished, and in verse 28 we read that “Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance” (Joshua 24:28). Every man back to the inheritance that God had given to them.

The Conclusion

And so we arrive at the final verses of the book of Joshua, which tell us about three burials. It begins with the death of Joshua himself. “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” (Joshua 24:29–30).

Verse 32 tells us about the second burial: “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” (Joshua 24:32).

And finally, verse 33 caps off this period of Israel’s history with the death of the high priest: “And Eleazar the son of Aaron died, and they buried him at Gibeah, the town of Phinehas his son, which had been given him in the hill country of Ephraim” (Joshua 24:33).

Joseph and Eleazar were the key public figures of the people of Israel throughout this time, and they are both dead. And their bodies are buried, not out in the wilderness somewhere, but in the promised land, in the land belonging to them and their sons.

And in between we hear about the bones of Joseph, which he asked to be taken out of Egypt, being finally laid to rest as well in the promised land.

And so this book concludes with a picture that is on the one hand full of a sense of finality and rest. God’s promises have come true, the land belongs to the people, the people have promised to follow the Lord, and their leaders lie buried in the place that God promised to give to Abraham.

That’s a happy ending, isn’t it?

And yet… and yet… there’s more here, isn’t there? There’s a sense of incompleteness, isn’t there? Because Joshua and Joseph and Eleazar just… died. And that was it. All they had to look forward to, all that had been promised, was the Promised Land. And they got to enjoy it for a short time, and then… they died. And that was it.

And they died with a certain amount of worry about what was coming after their death. It’s not hard to tell in this chapter that Joshua is quite concerned that the people aren’t really going to be able to keep this up. He’s not so sure that they will keep their covenant. And, in fact verse 31 sounds quite an ominous note in the midst of this conclusion here: “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” (Joshua 24:31).

Israel served the Lord in those days. But what about the days after that?

And if you’ve read the book of Judges, which follows Joshua, you know that it didn’t take long for Joshua’s worst fears to come true. And before long God’s people are chasing after other gods like there’s no tomorrow.

So I don’t know about you, but when I get to the end of this chapter, I am left with a deep longing for more. I’m longing for more than what God gave to Israel at this time.

I’m longing for more than just a promised land. More than just the promise that if you obey God, you’ll enjoy a long life full of riches and health in a beautiful land. That’s great, but what comes after that? You’re going to die and then someone else will get everything. And that’s it?

That’s the message of the book of Ecclesiastes. We work hard, we serve God, and then… we die. Just like everybody who didn’t serve God. And that’s it. Whoop-de-do.

Joshua also leaves me longing for more than just covenants of blessing and curses. I long for something more than just threats of “obey God or else.” I want to see Joshua doing more than just desperately gathering the people again and again to plead with them and renew the covenant again and again and again. I want to see Joshua going to his grave in peace knowing that the people aren’t going to forget and that they will serve the Lord from the heart.

Because we know that they didn’t. They didn’t remember. The threats of punishment weren’t enough to scare them off. The promises of blessing weren’t enough to keep them faithful. They didn’t teach their children, they didn’t remember, and before long they were chasing after what they thought were the better blessings of the gods around them.

The book of Joshua leaves me longing for something to fix our hearts.

And ultimately the book of Joshua leaves me longing for a better leader. How could you have a better leader than Joshua? He was rock-solid, wasn’t he? He trusted God and led Israel faithfully over those years and didn’t waver from the right to the left. Yes, that’s all true. But then he died. And all of his threats and pleading and speeches didn’t do much to make Israel stay faithful to the Lord.

So the book of Joshua leaves me like after you get a small meal at a restaurant. It tasted good, but when you get to the end you’re still hungry and you’re thinking, “That’s it?”

And we’re not wrong to be thinking this way because when we turn to the prophets, later on in Israel’s history, we see that something better was promised to God’s people.

Think of Jeremiah, centuries later, watching the unfaithful Israelites finally being torn to shreds by Babylon, and yet speaking out promises like this: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness’” (Jeremiah 23:5–6).

God Himself was going to come and be the righteousness of the people, reigning through a king who will finally make the people safe and secure.

Or here these words from Jeremiah, just a few chapters later: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31–34).

Doesn’t the book of Joshua, especially this ending, just make you long for that with everything you’ve got? Not just the same old covenant of blessings and curses repeated again and again, being broken again and again, not making any different for anybody. We need a new covenant, a new covenant that changes our hearts. We need to have God’s instruction inside of us, changing us from the inside out. We need more than just all these people in a mixed bag half-heartedly hollowing God because that’s what their dad did. And we need more than endless animal sacrifices; we need real forgiveness.

And God promised that all of that was coming. Someone better than Joshua was coming. Something better than the promised land was coming. And even—we get a glimpse in Daniel’s prophecy—something better than just living and dying was coming.

And it happened in the most unexpected of all ways. Centuries later, an unmarried Galilean girl got pregnant, and in the midst of the scandal, while her fiancé was making plans to divorce her, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:20–21).

“Jesus” in Hebrew is the identical name to “Joshua” and that’s probably not a coincidence. Here is the one who will lead His people into real freedom, real rest, real heart change, and real eternal life.

And so as we come to the end of this message and this series, I want to invite you today to look to Jesus and love Jesus. For some of you this morning that might mean looking away from idols and other things that have been trying to share space with Jesus in your life, just like ancient Israel. For some of you today this might mean looking to Jesus to be saved by Him for the very first time. And for others of you this might be an encouragement to keep looking to Jesus and not look away.

Jesus came for you. And as we come to Him He has the power to change our hearts, the power to forgive our sins, and the power to give us eternal life that won’t end when you take your last breath.

And so here’s the really incredible truth. I remember as a child I would read stories like the crossing of the Jordan River or the walls of Jericho falling down, and I would wish that I could live back then. Back then sounded so exciting and today things just felt boring.

But I now realize I had it mixed up. Joshua would have given everything to experience what we experience, if we could. Joshua would have given everything to know something better than what he went to his grave knowing.

And so as you go into your week today know this. Know that, if you know Christ, your “normal life” is dazzlingly glorious. You know how the promises are fulfilled. You get to draw near to God through Christ as often as you want. You can just open up a completed Bible and read and see how the whole story fits together. You can just talk to God and confess your sins and know that you are forgiven, on the spot, because of Christ’s sacrifice.

Your normal Christian life is dazzling and it’s what people like Joshua longed for for centuries. Jesus is so much better than anything we could’ve dreamed of. The good news of the gospel is better than anything we see here in Joshua.

Know that, and feel that, and carry that into your week with you and see what a difference it makes.