(Preached for the ordination service of Christopher Seah.)
Chris, thank you for inviting me to speak. I am honored to have this privilege. I chose this text because it seems to carry some parallel to your own situation. After serving an apprenticeship of sorts, Joshua was about to take leadership of a people and travel to another land. Our passage presents the charge which God himself gives to Joshua for this undertaking. That charge is to be strong and courageous. Three times in this passage, God gives this charge. Joshua actually hears it a lot. In Moses’ final words to Joshua, he tells him to be strong and courageous (Deuteronomy 31:7). The Lord then tells him the same thing as he commissions Joshua later in the chapter in verse 23. As if Joshua hadn’t got the message, leaders of the people exhort him, “Only be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:18). I don’t think Joshua had difficulty remembering his charge! Let’s see what we can learn from it.
After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, 2 “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.
Consider the circumstance. God’s first word to Joshua is the blunt statement that Moses is dead. Moses. Never had there been (and never would be until Christ) a man through whom God worked such mighty miracles, all of which Joshua witnessed. He witnessed the ten plagues brought about through Moses’ words. He walked through the Red Sea parted when Moses spread his arms, and he drank the water that poured from the rock when Moses struck it. He led the battle against the Amalekites, in which he prevailed only so long as Moses’ hands were raised.
This was Moses the lawgiver, the man Joshua accompanied on Mt. Sinai, but not to the top. For only Moses could go to the very top and stand before the Lord to receive God’s law. This was the man who formed a stiff-necked people into a covenant nation. There was never before anyone like him (and never would be again until the Messiah himself), whom the Lord knew face to face.
Joshua knew Moses better than anyone else. He went higher on the mountain with Moses than anyone. When Moses would enter the tabernacle, Joshua would be there with him. He was Moses’ right hand man, and he had expected to be at Moses’ side when Moses led the people into the Promised Land. But Moses was dead, denied entry because of one act of anger provoked by the disobedience of the people, the same people that Joshua was now to lead alone. No Moses to hold up his hands; no Moses to perform mighty miracles; no Moses who had stood as the mediator between God and the people. Just Joshua.
Joshua does, however, get his own promises from God. The Lord promises possession of the land. He promises victory against the enemies. He promises, most importantly, that he will be with Joshua just as he was with Moses. That’s a pretty good promise, but what is not included in the fine print is that the visible signs of God’s presence would be removed. The manna would cease, but in particular, we have no record of the pillar of cloud and fire, continuing into the land, the visible sign of God’s presence. Indeed the only pillars from now on will be those made by stones to remind the people to whom they belonged.
There would some miracles. Joshua would do his own leading of the people through a river, and we know how the walls of Jericho will come tumbling down, but then that’s it. Territory would be won by plain old fighting, and food would come from the earth, not from heaven.
In such a context the Lord tells Joshua “be strong and courageous.” Three times he says this to Joshua, each time with a slight distinction in the basis for making this exhortation. Let’s look at them.
Promises Demonstrated in Moses
Verses 3-6 read:
Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. 4 From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory. 5 No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.
Joshua has been given a daunting task – to lead an obstinate people into a land of fierce enemies. No wonder he needs to be strong and courageous. But the Lord gives him a very real basis for having such strength – his own promises of victory and of being with Joshua. And what is of particular encouragement to Joshua is that they are the same promises that Joshua witnessed being fulfilled in his mentor Moses. Just as God promised Moses the land, so he promises Joshua victory in that land. Moses did not get in. Even so, Joshua witnessed God’s promise fulfilled in Moses in delivering the people from Egypt and taking them through the wilderness. He knew from experience that the Lord kept his promises.
Even more heartening had to have been the promise that just as the Lord was with Moses, so he would be with Joshua. As mentioned before, no one knew Moses better than Joshua, for he was with Moses on Mt. Sinai; he was with Moses in the Tabernacle. He understood the presence of God that was with Moses. And so God promises that same presence. It may not be as ostentatious. But God will be with him, no less than he was with Moses. Joshua can bank on it, for God will never leave him, never forsake him. With such confidence, he may then be strong and courageous.
The Written Word
Verses 7-8 present the second basis for God’s exhortation:
Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. 8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
It would not be by miracles that Joshua would conquer the land; it would not be by a rod to clutch for confidence and do mighty works; it would not be by a pillar of cloud or fire to give him assurance of God’s presence. It would be by written words inked on material rolled into scrolls that were to keep him steady. The Lord commanded Joshua not to remember the miracles he witnessed through Moses but rather to meditate upon and obey the Book of the Law that Moses wrote, the law that God gave to him.
Knowledge of God’s Word and obedience to God’s Word – those were the keys to success. To be a military conqueror, Joshua was to be first a student of God’s written Word. To settle a large multitude in a hostile land, he needed to first know the God of Moses, and he would gain such knowledge, not through sitting in the cleft of a rock as the glory of God literally passed by, but by meditating upon the words of that same God written down by Moses. Joshua had to know the will of God to make his way prosperous. And he would learn that will, not by standing on a mountaintop before God, but by bending over a scroll and running his finger under the words as he meditated upon them.
And then do what they said to do! Joshua had to be more than a student. He had to be a disciple who followed wherever the words of the supreme Teacher led him. They would spell out the land to conquer and how to partial it. They would give the laws by which to govern the people. And so with this book that gave him knowledge of God and of the will of God, Joshua could be strong and courageous.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Verse 9 concludes with a final repetition of the charge and assurance of God’s presence, but there is an important nuance. The Lord says, “Have I not commanded you?”
God is saying to Joshua, “It is not Moses speaking to you, nor the people. I am speaking to you. I, the Lord, am giving you your charge.” Joshua is not taking on someone else’s mission. It is his mission given to him by no less than Yahweh, the same Lord who forty years earlier had charged Moses to deliver his people from Egypt. And this charge is a command, not a request. “Have I not commanded you? Joshua is receiving his charge from the supreme Commander. With that knowledge – knowledge that he receives his orders directly from the Commander, the Lord of hosts, so he is moved to be strong and courageous.
So then, Chris, what are your lessons? You are not to take a sword and wage battles. You’d never get it on the plane! But you have a war to wage nevertheless; for you battle against the spiritual rulers of Satan who will scheme against you. And you will not have with you the system of support that has been here – a pastoral and church staff to support you, a fellowship of believers who encourage you. You go to a church that will look to you to lead them and shepherd them. Surely, you need to heed the words to be strong and courageous.
Know that you have the same basis as Joshua to be strong and courageous. You go with the promises of God that he will be with you and will give you victory. Your Lord Jesus Christ has promised to be with you wherever he sends you. He has given you his Holy Spirit. More so, than even Joshua would know, you know union with God through Jesus Christ who abides in you through his Spirit.
You have the very same words of God written down for Joshua, and even more. You have the books of wisdom and of the prophets; even more, you have the very words of Jesus Christ, the records of his ministry and work; you have the letters of the apostles instructing you and revealing great mysteries about God and his work through Jesus Christ. What you know, even Moses would have traded his experiences for.
And remember, the same God who gave Moses his commission and Joshua his commission and Paul his commission, is the same God who gives you yours. You know what an ordination service is. You know that when we lay hands on you, it will not be to give you our commission but to act for the great Commander who calls you into his service and sends you out. You have not been given a nice job opportunity; you have been given a command. And you are not called merely to take up another man’s mission; rather, this is your mission that you are to take up.
So know what you have. You have your orders from the Lord. You have been equipped with the Word of God. And you have God himself with you. And thankfully, you know that you are weak and fearful. Oddly enough, it is that knowledge that will keep you steady and relying on these three promises we have been talking about. A servant of God is never in a more dangerous position than when he credits his victories for his strength and courage.
Even the great apostle Paul learned this lesson. As he pleaded to God to take away a “thorn in the flesh,” the Lord taught him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then goes on to say, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Aren’t you glad that you are a jar of clay through which Christ can display his power? Aren’t you relieved to know that it is when you know so well your weakness and fearfulness, that God will make you strong and courageous? May the Lord bless you as you go forth in service for him, and may he make you strong and courageous.
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