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Covenant Renewal Before Joshua’s Death



Joshua 24:1-33; John 12:25-26

October 8, 2017 ● Download this sermon (PDF)

Congregation of Christ: It has been a great journey through the Book of Joshua over the last four and a half months. We learned that God promised Joshua and all Israel that he will be with them to give the land into their hand; how God led Israel into the Promised Land when he dried up the Jordan River so they could cross on dry ground; how he fought for them in their battles against the inhabitants of Canaan; and how he divided the land between the 12 tribes of Israel.

Today we will end our series as we study Joshua 24. In the previous chapter, Joshua 23, the writer tells us about Joshua’s farewell address, as he was “old and well advanced in years,” being 110 years old. In verses 6-8, he gives a final charge to the people,

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, 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, but you shall cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day.

If they were not faithful in serving only the Lord God, he warned them in verses 16-16,

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, 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.

So here in Joshua 24, Joshua gathered all the leaders of Israel at Shechem. This place is of great significance because it was here that Abraham first stopped in Canaan after God called him out of Ur, his hometown (Gen 12:6). Joshua also recounted how God had called Abraham, whose family “served other gods,” from Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), beyond the river Euphrates.

How astonishing it is that God will call an idolater to be the father of his people Israel! This is real “amazing grace,” that saves a “wretch like Abraham”! How sweet the sound of God’s call to all of us who used to disobedient sinners, following only the ways of the world. Grace is all the Lord’s work, because it was the Lord “who took Abraham” from his pagan roots. It was God who also “called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

This gathering of Israel in Shechem is often called a covenant renewal. They were to obey the covenant that God made with them at Mount Sinai, and at the covenant renewal at the same place after they entered the Promised Land (Joshua 8:30-35). Now, about 50 years later, Joshua wanted to renew this covenant with God before he leaves the scene.

The whole chapter has all the elements of ancient treaties between a powerful king and a vassal, or a less-powerful king. Verse 2 is a preamble of the covenant, when God introduces himself as the Sovereign King. Then follows a historical prologue, recounting God’s past gracious works towards Israel in verses 2-13. In verses 14-24, we find the stipulations, a list of Israel’s responsibilities in the covenant. Witnesses are required in a covenant, which we read in verses 22 and 26-27. Every covenant has blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience on the part of the vassal; we find these in verse 20. Finally, in verse 26, we read that the words of the covenant were recorded and set up on a stone under a tree near the tabernacle. The stone itself was a witness to this covenant. We will study these elements briefly.

Historical Prologue: “This is What the Lord Says” (verses 2-13)

The preamble of this covenant is this: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says.” Who initiates the covenant? God alone. Who writes the rules, stipulations, blessings and curses of the covenant? God alone. Nothing is negotiated between God and Israel. And this is how God makes a covenant with man. All these covenants with man are unilateral, beginning with Adam, then with Abraham, Moses, David and Christ himself. God’s people are required to obey the rules of the covenants, period.

And what did the Lord God say to Israel? He recounted to them how he saved Abraham from idolatry; how he gave him Isaac and Jacob; how he multiplied Jacob’s family in Egypt into a multitude of descendants; how they became slaves in Egypt, and how he brought them out. He reminded them that he was the one who sent plagues to Egyptians, dried up the Red Sea, and destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the sea. When they were still in the wilderness, he fought for them against the Amorites, and defeated King Balak and Balaam his magician. Finally, God again dried up the Jordan River so they can cross into the Promised Land of Canaan. There, God fought for them first in Jericho, then against the Amorites, Canaanites, and all the other –ites in the land. Again, who did all these things for them? The Lord God himself, and in the end, in verses 12-13, God summarizes his wondrous works for them:

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.

What a gracious, merciful and longsuffering God! In this recounting of his deeds, he did not even mention all the rebellion and unbelief of his people when they were in the wilderness for 40 years. Instead, he seemed to have forgotten their unfaithfulness.

We are amazed at God’s patience, when we are not. When we pray, we can’t wait for his answer. We’re like little children on a long drive asking, “Are we there yet?” God must be saying, “You want it when?” But God has demonstrated to us in his covenants with Israel that he is patient and kind, even when they were not. So the psalmist encourages us when we pray, “But for you, O LORD, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer” (Psa 38:15).

Stipulations: “Fear the LORD and Serve Him with All Faithfulness” (verses 14-24)

God having recounted all that he had done for Israel, he now requires faithfulness and obedience from his people in verses 14-15:

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.

What should the only logical reaction of Israel to God’s deeds of mercy and power toward them? It must be one of awe and wonder, plus praise and thanksgiving, plus faithfulness and obedience. This is what Paul says in Romans 12:1, when, after expounding on man’s helpless and hopeless condition in sin and on the saving grace and power of Christ’s death for sins, says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” There is no real saving faith when there is no true service and worship of God.

However, most evangelicals today use a portion of these two verses incorrectly, “choose this day whom you will serve,” by using them out of context. And what’s the context of this phrase? In this famous “choose-this-day” command, was Joshua calling on the people to choose God? No, he was asking them to choose between two sets of pagan gods! The gods their forefather Abraham used to worship in Mesopotamia, “beyond the River”; or the gods of their Amorite neighbors in Canaan, the Baals and the Asteroth. Why would Joshua give them these two options? These are not real options, because there is only one true God, the Lord God of Israel. Worshiping idol-gods is not only false worship, but unreal worship.

Joshua was using an argument against idol worship by showing how ridiculous, illogical and impossible idol worship is! He was saying, “Serve the Lord, but if you don’t, you’re serving not the wrong gods, but gods that don’t exist!” So this verse is absolutely not about making a decision for God or for Jesus.

But no matter what the people does, Joshua has made a commitment, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” He makes no other choice but to worship the only true God. This is what the First and Second Commandments require: worship no other god, except the true God; and do not create the gods of your desires and pleasures. Jesus summarizes these two commands into one great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Then in Joshua 12:25-26, he gives another all-or-nothing requirement:

Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

Blessings and Curses: “He Will Bring Disaster on You” (verse 20)

If the people disobey God’s covenant requirements of obedience and faithfulness; if they worshiped other gods; if they rebelled against him; then “he will bring disaster on you.” What disasters will befall Israel? These are listed in Deuteronomy 28:15-69, in a covenant renewal ceremony before they crossed the Jordan River. Their cities, fields, flocks, and even their women’s wombs will be cursed with pestilence, disease, heat and drought. They will suffer defeat at the hands of their enemies, their nation destroyed, and they will be taken to foreign lands as slaves. And in those foreign lands, they will serve pagan gods. God warned them in verses 47-48, “Because you did not serve the LORD your God . . . you shall serve your enemies.” What God was telling them was, “Be careful what you wish for. If you desire to serve pagan idols, I will grant your desire.” And this really happened to them centuries later when Babylon invaded them, destroyed their cities and fields, including Jerusalem and their temple. And they were taken as captive slaves to Babylon. Like Adam and Eve after they rebelled against their Creator God, they were also driven out after rebelling against their covenant God.

But in the same Deuteronomy Chapter 28, verses 1-14, the Lord God promised them blessings, “And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God” (verse 2). Their cities, fields, flocks, and even their women’s wombs will be fruitful and increase. All their enemies will be defeated. They will be given a land where they will prosper in material abundance. And this is what the Lord gave them, when the second-generation Israelites conquered and then settled the Promised Land.

In the Book of Judges, which we studied last year, we saw this cycle happen to Israel. When they were rebellious and idolatrous, the Lord cursed them and gave them into the hands of their enemies. But God was merciful to them, so he sent judges to deliver them from their enemies. They then worshiped God who blessed them with peace and prosperity, but as soon as the judge died, they returned to their rebellion against God.

Covenant Vow: “We Will Serve the Lord”

So what was the people’s reaction to Joshua’s challenge? The vowed in verse 18, “we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” What a commitment! This covenant vow was the same as their parents’ vow at the covenant at Mount Sinai in Exodus 24:7, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”

And Joshua answered, “Yay! Way to go, Israel! No, Joshua didn’t say that. Instead of applause, what did Israel hear? In verses 19-20, he gave very discouraging words, words that seem to put them down, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” But in the epilogue in verse 31, the writer says, “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.” And that was the extent of Israel’s faithfulness. After all these leaders died, we read in the Book of Judges that Israel began serving and worshiping the idol-gods of the Canaanites.

Joshua was confirming the solemn vow that the people had taken. It’s a most serious vow. If they violated the covenant laws, they will be condemned. When they said, “We will also serve the Lord,” the Lord will hold them accountable to that solemn vow: curses will follow them.

If Israel was not able to serve God then, when they had Moses and Joshua, how could we as God’s people today serve God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength?

Dear Friends, you can only serve God by his mercy and grace. When we sing, “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold,” God asks us, “Really? Can you really do this?” We commit perjury and break our promises whenever we sing, “I surrender all, all to Thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all.” We can only sing, “O Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end” because of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. You “shall not fear the battle” against sin only “if Thou art by my side . . . if Thou wilt be my Guide.”

Jesus tells you that before we can serve him, we are to count the cost and take up his cross. This means that following him means many sacrifices. It might mean losing our job, or losing or family or friends. It might mean being ridiculed. For most others who belong to other world religions, it might even mean death. And we can only follow up on our promise to serve him only by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.

But the reward is eternal, “If anyone serves me,” says our Lord Jesus Christ, “the Father will honor him.” To those of you who calls on the Lord, he promises, “I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him” (Psa 91:15). Your eternal reward is to be with God forever, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).

Jesus is able to deliver this promise to you because he alone of all human beings was able to perfectly serve and obey God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. It is this perfect obedience that God sees in all of you who believe in him and declare with your lips that he is the only Savior and Master of your life.

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