The new year is already one month down and seems to be picking up speed! I find in myself both a real desire to serve the Lord in 2013 and a keen awareness of my own weaknesses, failures and inadequacy for the task ahead. For me that task involves seeking to be real and close in my own walk with God; to be a good husband to my wife and a good father to my four (now adult) children. It also involves seeking to be a faithful pastor who rightly handles the ‘word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15) and watches carefully over the souls of our congregation (Hebrews 13:17). Along the way it also includes trying to communicate the ‘big picture’ of the Bible to twenty-five 15 and 16 year olds at a Christian school. As Paul says, "Who is sufficient for these things?"
I have been encouraged in thinking of the year ahead and its challenges by the words of the Lord to Joshua, as recorded in Joshua 1:6-9: "Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. 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. 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. 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.”
Three times in these four verses the Lord exhorts Joshua to be strong and courageous! Even though Joshua was by this time already a man of proven natural and spiritual courage, the Lord obviously assessed that he needed courage to do all that was before him at that the pivotal time (with Israel about to enter the land of promise after 40 years in the wilderness). Moses, the servant of the Lord and Joshua’s mentor, was dead, and Joshua now took up the ‘ministry’ that Moses had exercised for many years. It is in this context that the Lord gives Joshua this strong threefold exhortation to "be strong and (very) courageous." I think you will be encouraged, as I have been, to look at the different dimensions of this exhortation.
(1) Courage to do God’s work (v.6)
Joshua’s work was to take a vast multitude of men, women and children (with a pathetic track record of unbelief and disobedience) into hostile territory; engage and defeat the ‘fierce’ forces of the inhabitants; overthrow or take their cities – described as being "great and fortified up to heaven" (Numbers 13:28); divide the land among the tribes of Israel; and set up a God-pleasing nation with God-pleasing worship amongst them; defending them against the assaults of the surrounding nations. What a staggering task! Joshua’s pressing need was for strength and courage to do the work God had commanded him to do.
We, as Christians and churches in the 21st century, also face a massive task. We are to take the gospel into all the world, making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). This is world with over 7 billion inhabitants, 195 nations, and 7000 languages! This is a world characterised by widespread apathy, materialism, atheism, and the (sometimes aggressive) oppostion of other religions. We too desperately need to be "strong and courageous". Like Joshua we will find that needed courage in God alone – His presence (Joshua 1:5, Matthew 28:20), His power (Joshua 1:5, Matthew 28:18), and His promises (Joshua 1:3, 6; Philippians 2:9-11, Revelation 7:9,10).
(2) Courage to do God’s work in God’s way (v.7,8)
In Deuteronomy 31:9-13, 24-26 we are made aware of what Jonathan Edwards called "a new and glorious advance" in the history of redemption – here for the first time God’s people are given a written word of God. God had revealed His truth to Moses and now this had been written down for the benefit of God’s people in all succeeding generations. Joshua is here commanded by God to be "careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you". He must meditate (think deeply and seriously about it) day and night, and not turn aside from what was written to the right hand or to the left. Now God’s people were ‘the people of the Book’ and they were to live ‘by the Book’, being careful to do all that God had commanded them. John Calvin comments that now "it would not be enough to obey God in any kind of way."
We too need to battle the distressing and unnerving tendency to seek to to God’s work "my way", to be wise in our own eyes, to lean on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-7). We see this all around us (and within us). We see the task that God has set before us and we rush off to do it with a commendable enthusiasm, but all too often without stopping to search the Book and see what instructions God has for us. You would think that God had not spoken, that He was silent. But God has spoken and given us His authoritative, sufficient, God-breathed Word (2 Timothy 3:16,17).
Granted, doing things God’s way sometimes appears foolish, odd, outdated, irrelevant, ineffective, etc. This is certainly how it looked in Joshua’s day when God’s people were called to walk around Jericho for several days in solemn procession (Joshua 6) instead of conventionally attacking or laying seige to the city. And it would have certainly appeared ridiculous to many when Noah constructed his huge ark (Genesis 6) with no obvious place to sail it! And it seemed foolish to both Jews and Greeks when the early church proclaimed this ‘crazy’ and offensive message of a crucified Saviour! (1 Corinthians 1:18ff) May God give us courage also in the 21st century to believe all that He has said, and to do His work in His way.
(3) Courage to deal with myself and my fears (v.9)
Put yourself in Joshua’s place. It would be so easy to be "frightened and dismayed", to feel overwhelmed by the task and the oppostion. The word ‘frightened’ in verse 9 has the connotation of trembling and being terrified! The basic idea behind the word ‘dismayed’ here is to be shattered, to be broken, demoralised, to lose heart.
What will give Joshua the strength he needs and keep fear at bay? A large army? An elite bodyguard? Chariots and horsemen? No, this is not what he needs. What will give him the courage he needs is the awareness of the fact that the Lord is with him wherever he goes (Joshua 1:9). He must, by faith, lay hold of God’s promise of His presence and help whenever he is assaulted by temptations, fears and discouragements. And so must we. Jesus, in giving His great commission, likewise promised His disciples His presence with them: "I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) And in Hebrews 13:5,6 this is reinforced by the words, "He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”
As we serve the Lord in 2013 may he give us all courage to do His work, to do it in His way, and to deal with our ourselves and our fears. At this time of year we are thankful to the Lord for the courage of the early missionaries who first brought the gospel to New Zealand almost 200 years ago. May the Lord give us grace to also be men and women of real courage in our day, for His glory!