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Friday, February 28, 2014

Joshua Twice

If you’ve had occasion to visit many Christian homes, you’ve almost certainly seen this phrase prominently displayed in a frame somewhere near the front door on more than one occasion:
“…as for me and for my house, we will serve the Lord”
It’s a great aspiration for any Christian home and worth recalling frequently — so it’s certainly suitable as a wall hanging. However, as is common enough with many pleasant-sounding snippets taken from the pages of the Bible, the original context of the phrase is made obscure by the isolated phrase’s popularity.

The phrase originally comes from the final chapter of the book of Joshua and is taken from his last public charge to Israel. In context, Joshua is speaking to the people he’s led and who he knows far too well — and because he knows the people so well, he makes a rather cynical offer to them. Joshua presents the people with a stark choice — a choice to be made between an absentee god, a powerless god ...

... or Jehovah (the God who delivered them from Egypt and brought them into the land of promise).

To Joshua this seems a rather obvious decision, but perhaps not so for the people.

It is in the context of that choice — between the distant gods across the river, the gods who just lost the land to Jehovah’s people — that Joshua makes his personal stand. In effect he says this to the people: “YOU can all be idiots, but I’M going to do the only thing that makes any sense at all — as for me and for my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Joshua’s famous phrase is definitely not a stirring call to shared faithfulness among all the people of God — which is how we seem to use and apply it today.

Instead, it is a claim to solitary fidelity in the midst of surrounding decline and decay.

Of course we don’t often think of Joshua as cynical or bitter. Perhaps I misjudge him, and if so I’ll be happy to apologize. But it’s hard to see what comes next from Joshua as anything but rather dark. The people happily respond to Joshua’s challenge by averring that they will indeed serve the Lord too, just as he will. To which Joshua has a threefold response:

·         You won’t be able to serve Him. He’s holy and you’re not.
·         He’s jealous. When you fail (and you WILL fail), he’ll judge you and hold your sin against you.
·         If you serve foreign gods (and history shows they would and did), Jehovah will turn against you.

The people immediately protest in response: “We WILL serve the Lord”.

But they’re wrong. 

Joshua’s right. He knows it and history proves it. I can picture Joshua — even if only metaphorically — throwing up his hands as he speaks: “Your words are witnesses against you”.

Then he writes those words down as a historical record to serve as witness against God’s people. It’s pretty clearly his intent that the people will bear the weight of their own proud claim. But he goes further than a mere written reminder. Joshua provides a visual token as well; he takes a large stone and sets it beneath an oak tree by the sanctuary. Neither large stones nor oak trees move easily, which would seem to speak to the intended permanence of Joshua’s actions; he wanted the visual reminder to remain.

Joshua explicitly reminds them that the stone — like the book — is a witness against the people.

Additionally, where he places the stone is intriguing: Joshua sets the stone by the sanctuary. It was Joshua’s desire that as the people of God sought the presence of God, they would have an obvious and immovable reminder of their own perfidy; that as the people of God approached the presence of God, there would always be a witness against them there.   

So Joshua passes out of the scene. The last record we have of him is this: after leading the people of God into the promised land, he had come to view his own compatriots as prone to the most foolish of failures and his parting wish was that they should be reminded constantly of their own fallibility. If Joshua had a legacy among the people, it would seem to be largely one of cynicism and bitterness pictured by his parting words, by his final writings but perhaps most clearly by the stone that he leaves as a perpetual reminder outside the sanctuary.

That’s a fairly pessimistic legacy to leave. For some time after Joshua’s passing, men and women of Israel who approached the sanctuary of God would have to do so in the very shadow of their own inconsistency and their own failings. The last thing they saw before coming into the holiest place was a token of their own shame.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to find the words of Peter in the New Testament. For there we will read about a second Joshua — another One whose very name means “Jehovah saves”. Hebrews 4 will take pains to point out that the work of the second Joshua exceeds the work of the first by a wide margin.

Like the Joshua of the Old Testament, the NT Joshua also has a stone associated with His legacy. It’s about this second Joshua — Jesus — and about His legacy that we read these words attributed to God in 1 Peter 2:6:
“Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone …”
God Himself has placed a stone in much the same way Joshua once did.  Like Joshua’s stone, the stone God places is in His immediate presence; for Zion was the site of the Temple, the very heart of a Jew’s connection to Jehovah. This stone is in the immediate physical context of man’s meeting with his Creator.

Just like Joshua’s stone, this stone is placed as a reminder to fallible men.

But this is where the similarities between the two stones and the two Joshuas end. For the things of heaven are not like the things of earth and the heart of God is not like the hearts of men. God knows — far better than the first Joshua ever could have known — that I and others who claim to be followers of Christ are often wayward, predictably selfish and prone to the same foolish sins again and again. Despite that knowledge, the stone God places for us to see is set as a witness not against us, but rather for us.

In full knowledge of our flaws and sin, the One who would always desire to bless and not curse does not become cynical or bitter as it appears the first Joshua did. God has not placed a stone in His presence that reminds those who come to Him of their failings; rather He placed a stone that is to remind men of His unfettered mercy, grace and forgiveness. As if to underline the point, Peter adds these words:
“He who believes in Him will not be put to shame. This precious value is for you who believe ...”
The first Joshua left a book in which he’d written the people’s own words as a judgment against them. The second Joshua is not like the first. If there is anything to be said about writings against the people of God, Colossians 2 has the final and best word:
“When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
I’m glad to read the OT example of the first Joshua. But I’m far happier to rely on the finished work of the second Joshua; work that has established a firm and immovable witness on my behalf in Heaven.

The first Joshua’s famous phrase is a stirring statement indeed — the words of a strong and godly leader.

Were I a stronger man and a more faithful one, I would perhaps adopt his words as my own. But the truth is that as for me and for my house, despite our best intentions, we will struggle to serve the Lord and we will often fail. So if I hang anything on the wall, I don’t think it’ll be a bold claim to personal strength and ability. I think — as for me and for my house — it might better be this:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

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