Joshua 21:1-3, 41-45; Galatians 3:23-29
August 20, 2017 ● Download this sermon (PDF)
Congregation of Christ: “I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband, in sickness and in health, until death do we part or you turn into a zombie. Because then we’re going to have to start seeing other people.” “I promise that even though we have cell phones, I will never forget your number. You will be my phone call when the whole system crashes.” “With our wonderful chemistry, I know we would truly win the newlywed game. And by the way – I’ve signed us up for the Newlywed Game when it comes back on the air in 2020.”
These are actual wedding vows made in actual wedding ceremonies. More and more, couples are staying away from the traditional wedding vow, I think, because of the total commitment involved in the words, “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” Also, many couples want to avoid the solemnity of the marriage bond ordained by God between a man and a woman, and instead, choosing to make the ceremony casual and funny.
But our text today speaks about the absolute perfection, permanence and solemnity of God’s promises in his Word, the Holy Bible. Over the last few months, we have studied Chapters 1-20 of the Book of Joshua. The book can be divided into two main sections. Chapters 1-12 tell us about how God fought for Israel in the conquest of Canaan the Promised Land. Then Chapters 13-24 are about the distribution of the land among the tribes.
Our text today, Chapter 21, begins with the allotment of cities for the Levites, who were the priests of Israel. Recall that in Chapter 13, God told Joshua that the Levites would not have any land inheritance of their own, because “the LORD God of Israel is their inheritance” (13:33). They would only subsist through the people’s offerings to God, “The offerings by fire to the LORD God of Israel are their inheritance” (13:14).
However, verses 1-40 of our text add more details about the Levites. The 12 tribes who were given inheritance would give 48 of their own cities with pasturelands to the Levites for their livestock. So the Levite priests were scattered throughout the whole land so they would be able to do their priestly duties to all the people.
Following these first 40 verses is our main text. Verses 41-45 are a summary of the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land. Unlike the broken promises that we all make as sinful human beings, God’s Word is always true and perfect, and he never breaks his promises. He is faithful to all his words, as the prophet Isaiah tells us, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:8). And Jesus himself declares to us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt 24:35).
“The Lord Gave Them All the Land”
Verse 43 is the first of these three promises to Israel that God fulfilled, “Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there.” Who were Israel’s “fathers” to whom God made promises? They were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who lived about 500 years before Joshua.
What did God promise Abraham? In Genesis 12:2-3, we find the first two, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). This was the first revelation of God’s covenant with Abraham. He was chosen to be the covenant head or representative of the old covenant nation Israel. From him and Sarah, there would be born children “as [numerous as] the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Gen 22:17). How did God fulfill this first promise? From Abraham was born Isaac, Isaac bore Jacob, and then Jacob bore 12 sons. These 12 sons or tribes of Israel became a great nation after Jacob’s family sojourned in Egypt because of a great famine in Canaan. In 400 years, his family of 70 people exploded into about one million people. Surely a great nation!
The next promise God made to Abraham was that “in him all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” When the Bible says, “in him,” it means that all the families or tribes of the earth will be united to him. How did God fulfill this promise? In Galatians 3:26-28, Paul uses the same phrase “in him,” referring to our Lord Jesus Christ. He calls all who believe in Christ as those who are “in Christ.” Through faith in Christ, a believer becomes a child of God. And because of this faith in God, there is no more distinction between Jews and non-Jews, male and female, rich or poor. True Christianity then knows nothing of racism. In heaven will be found all kinds of people from all nations, tribes and languages.
The third promise God made to Abraham is found again in Genesis 12, “To your offspring [children] I will give this land.” What land was God referring to? It was the land of Canaan which was conquered and settled by Israel under Joshua’s leadership. Summarizing, Paul then says to all Christians in Galatians 3:39, “if you are in Christ, then you are Abraham’s children, heirs according to promise.” All the earthly and heavenly blessings that God made to Abraham are yours, if you are in Christ!
But what was the state of Abraham and his wife Sarah when God made these promises? At the time God made these three promises to Abraham, Sarah his wife was already 75, past childbearing age. In fact, she was barren and had no children. How did God fulfill these promises? He is truly the God of the impossible! The Holy Spirit is the Life-giving Spirit. Didn’t he overshadow Mary, who was a virgin, to conceive our Lord Jesus Christ? How did Mary conceive without having physical relationship with a man? Only because, “nothing will be impossible with God”! (Luke 1:37) As he did to Mary, so he did to Sarah.
So then, do we assume that God will answer all our prayers positively, since nothing is impossible for him? God tells us in 1 John 5:14, “if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” So if we were to pray for something good, for example, the healing of a Christian member of our family or church who had been diagnosed with cancer, wouldn’t that be according to his will? Just last week, a man named Nabeel Qureshi, who was raised as a Muslim but was converted to Christianity, died of cancer at the age of 34. Why did God not grant his prayer, and the prayer of many other Christian friends, for healing? The short answer is, “It was not according to God’s will.” As well, Christians prayed that God will spare lives and homes and churches from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and God granted this request for some, but not for others.
God’s answers to our prayers are always for our ultimate good, as he says to us in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” But the good that God knows for us may not always be the good that we pray for. Just look at all the persecution and martyrdom that Christians in the Middle East have suffered through the centuries.
“The Lord Gave Them Rest on Every Side”
The second fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel is that “the LORD gave them rest on every side.” After God fought for Israel, Israel had rest from their battles against the inhabitants of Canaan the Promised Land. It should be noted that there were still some land that had to be conquered (13:1), but God promised them that if they obeyed his commandments, the whole land would be given to them. So at the height of Israel’s monarchy during the reign of King Solomon, Israel had control of all the land God promised to them, and even beyond its borders.
But we have noted before that Hebrews 4:8-10 tells us, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” What God is saying is that he fulfilled his promise of rest from war to his people Israel. But was this promise of rest from war the ultimate promise to Israel? No, because there remained a final rest for Israel then, and also a final rest for all of God’s people from creation to the end of the world.
And what is this final rest? Jesus gives us the answer in Matthew 11:28-30:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
The final rest for all God’s people, Jews and Christians, is not rest from physical warfare, but rest from spiritual warfare. We are at war against sins and temptations that Satan fires our way. Our “holy war” is not physical warfare against the enemies of Christianity, but against “spiritual forces of evil,” which are sin and Satan (Eph 6:12).
This final Sabbath rest then is what we still await. What is this “Sabbath rest”? Recall that in the creation narrative, God rested from all his works of creation on the seventh day. This seventh day rest is merely a foretaste of the eternal rest that all God’s people will inherit in heaven. How does one receive this eternal Sabbath rest? Only by resting from striving to get to heaven through good works. Good works never gave Israel their final rest, and it has never given anyone final rest. Our Lord Jesus Christ invites all to rest in him by coming to him in faith and repentance. He doesn’t burden anyone with all kinds of laws to be able to get to heaven. Rather, he already obeyed all of God’s laws perfectly for all who would come to him. Only then will they be given eternal rest, even in this life of sin, temptation and suffering. Friends, come to Christ and he will give you rest for your souls!
“The Lord Gave All Their Enemies into Their Hands”
The third and final fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel is that he “gave all their enemies into their hands.” All throughout our study of the book of Joshua, we have seen that it wasn’t Israel’s mighty warriors, chariots or swords that conquered their enemies. They were weak compared with the Canaanites. But we learned that God fought for them until the whole land was conquered.
So do not be deceived by those who teach that Abraham is still waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled. Our text clearly and unequivocally teaches that all God’s promises to Abraham have already been fulfilled. The twelve tribes of Israel became as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They have settled the land promised to them. Abraham has become a blessing to people who are in Christ from all nations of the world. Read Joshua 21:43-45 and Galatians 3:29 again:
Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the LORD gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the LORD had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass (Jos 21:43-45).
And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal 3:29).
However, we know from Israel’s later history that their stay in the Promised Land was conditioned upon their obedience to God’s commandments. God warned them long before they entered the Promised Land that there would be blessings for obedience (Deu 28:1-14) and curses for disobedience (Deu 28;15-68). One of these curses is exile out of the Promised Land, where they would have no rest (Deu 28:64-65).
And disobey they did after Joshua died, and throughout their history. They became idolaters, sexually immoral, violent and murderous, just as the Canaanites before them were. They even offered their own children as burnt sacrifices to their idol-gods (Jer 19:4-5). So what did God do to them? God warned them in Leviticus 18:24-28 that as he vomited out the Canaanites from the land because of their wickedness, he will do the same to Israel, “But you shall keep my statutes and my rules … lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.” Several centuries after Joshua, God sent Babylon to invade and destroy Israel and its temple in Jerusalem, and exiled them as slaves in Babylon. They were vomited out of the land.
Dear friends, this was not the end of the story, because the final fulfillment of God’s victory over his enemies is still forthcoming. Our Lord Jesus Christ came and saved his people from sin and oppression by Satan when he offered himself as our humble Suffering Servant. He saved his people by suffering and dying on the cross for all our sins.
But when he returns, we read in Revelation 19:15, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” On that day, we read in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 that he will come “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction.”
So take heart, dear Christian friends, it is not for you to fight a “holy war” against the enemies of Christ, because God himself will fight for you and destroy his enemies in the end. God’s promises in his Word are true and perfect. He fulfills all his promises to you:
“Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to you will fail; all will come to pass.”