Most of us have something we’re afraid of. Not the exotic phobias we met in last week’s family service, but real, ordinary fears: heights; or needles; or spiders; or crowds. What is your fear?
Now imagine that you have to go into a situation with those: up a tall tower, or having an injection. How will you feel? Afraid! Now imagine someone says, ‘Be strong and courageous’. Will that help? Probably not much, if I’m honest about my fears.
In the Christian life, our struggle is not against flesh and blood: we have reason to fear even greater enemies than our personal phobias. God says to us ‘Be strong and courageous’. I don’t that will help unless we understand what he means, and see what it looks like.
The place to find out is Joshua 1, when Joshua and all God’s people are told to be strong and courageous in the face of a clear and present danger. That story was written for us, for our learning and encouragement.
Follow the Story
‘After the death of Moses’ (v1)
We’re following God’s Big Story. Last time (two weeks ago) we were in Numbers 13-14. Israel sent spies into the land; they they came back with the grapes on a branch and said the land is good, but it’s filled with giants. They refused to trust God, and that entire generation was condemned to die in the wilderness. The only two men/to go through to the land of milk and honey/were Joshua son of Nun/ and Caleb son of Jephunneh.
Moses is the last one of that whole generation to die: now is the time to cross into the land:
“Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. (Joshua 1:2)
‘The Land I am about to give you’ (v2-4)
The Land is Canaan, and was not chosen at random. God promised in Genesis 12 he would give Abraham A people, A blessing, and A land. By now Abraham’s descendants the Israelites are a numerous people, they have the blessing of God’s presence with them, and we’re waiting for the last part: the Land that God promised.
God says he will give the land. We see this in the summary of Joshua’s conquest:
So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war. (Joshua 11:23)
Actually that’s a bit of an exaggeration because the conquest of Canaan is only partially fulfilled, and we’ll see that the promise of land is only partially fulfilled in Canaan. See 13.1
When Joshua was old and well advanced in years, the LORD said to him, “You are very old [not very tactful is he!], and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over. (Joshua 13:1)
‘I will be with you’ (v5)
God gives the land but Israel will have to fight for it. Nevertheless, God is the true warrior because he fights for Israel:
No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. (Joshua 1:5)
Remember, though, that there are people living in the land who have no intention of giving it up to the Israelites. The people are strong and well-armed. Israel has good reason to be nervous!
‘Be Strong and Courageous’ (v6-9)
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)
I must say that the command ‘Do not be afraid’ is one of the least helpful commands I know. If you are afraid, it’s not much help being told not to be. In many ways, fear is an emotion that comes upon you; it’s like surprise. The question is, once you experience the fear, what do you do to it? Do you let it master you and paralyse you? That seems to me to be the sense behind terrified in v9: don’t let your fear paralyse you. Courageous people still know what fear is. General Norman Schwartzkopf echoes the words of many others, soldiers and civilians alike, when he says
True courage is being afraid, and going ahead and doing your job anyhow, that’s what courage is.
Thinking of war reminds me of another period for violent battles (this is a joke): Two Norman soldiers were relaxing after the Battle of Hastings 1066 (Normans defeated the Saxons).
“What a battle! What a victory! Someday children will read about this battle as a turning point of history…and we were here!”
“Perhaps,” said the other soldier, “But I think they will be shielded from most of the details.”
“Why?” the first soldier asked.
The other soldier shook his head and replied, “Too much Saxon violence.”
Before we see what that looks like in the Christian life, I need quickly to address three questions before we can move on.
Questions we have
Isn’t the Conquest of Canaan wrong?
In order to gain the land of Canaan, Israel needed to destroy the people who already lived there: the Canaanites, Perrizite, Girgashites, Hivites, Jebusites and others.
When you read God’s commands to Israel, it is clear that he wants them capture the land and kill the inhabitants. Doesn’t that seem wrong? How do we approach that as Christians? (See Chris Wright The God I don’t Understand Zondervan 2008, Chapters 3 & 4)
If we’re going to take the Bible seriously, we can’t write these passages off as ‘nasty OT’ because all of it is God’s Word. We can’t pretend that Israel mis-heard God, because his commands are clear, as are his rebukes when they don’t do what he tells them. And we can’t pretend this is a fable: it’s an historical book.
We can’t take away the violence of the conquest. We can put it in perspective.
- As a battle tactic is was not unusual (it was normal at the time); and it was not permanent: it was only this generation and in the initial conquest of the land that the capture was to be total. Israel’s later battle conduct was much more merciful.
- God is the ruler of all the nations of the earth. In that context we see that the destruction of Canaan is not genocide but judgement. The problem with Canaan is not their ethnicity but their idolatry and wickedness. We are all sinful and wicked, but sometimes a nation’s wickedness rises so high that it must be dealt with. The wickedness of the Canaanites was brewing even as God promised the land to Abraham, generations earlier:
In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15:16)
The wickedness of the Amorites (that is those living in Canaan) will reach a point where judgement is mandated. In the conquest of Canaan, Israel acts as the instruments of God’s judgement. Violence is uncomfortable, and our sovereign God uses even that for his good purposes.
The Christian faith centres on a different act of violence: the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Conquest and the Cross are both about God’s judgement on sin. The difference is that at the conquest God poured out his judgement on a wicked society that deserved it. At the cross, he poured the judgement of a wicked humanity on himself in the person of his son – who deserved it not one bit.
How should Christians think about this Promise (of Land)?
A second question is how should Christians think about this promise of land. It’s central to the Old Testament. What does this promise of land mean for us Christians?
You may know that this is a contested question: some Christians feel strongly that the promise of land remains unchanged. I want to consider how the NT picks up the promise. It never speaks of the promise of land, but uses the language of inheritance to speak of the Kingdom of God. Just as OT Israel looked forward to entering the land of Canaan, so now Christian believers of all kinds look forward to entering the Kingdom of God. For example when Paul commends the elders of the Church at Ephesus to God’s keeping he says:
Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)
Hebrews explains that Jesus brings a new covenant so that we can have an inheritance:
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15)
This means that what we read about the Land in the OT we can apply to the Kingdom of God in the NT.
What does prospering and succeeding (v8) mean for us?
If Israel are faithful in battle and in occupying the land, God promises them prosperity:
Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. (Joshua 1:8)
Within the terms of the Old Covenant, if Israel were faithful they would be wealthy and safe in the land. If they were not, they would be poor and exiled. That’s exactly what happened.
Under the terms of the New Covenant, our inheritance is God’s eternal kingdom. Therefore our eternal wealth and security follow if we are careful to keep the book of the law in our hearts. The story of Israel is that they could not do it, and lost the blessing. The story of Jesus is that he alone could do it and he did. Our wealth and security are guaranteed in Christ.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, (1 Peter 1:3–4)
Spiritual prosperity and success come by receiving what Jesus Christ has gained for us in his death and resurrection. It’s not mere material success: it’s far more substantial than that.
Being Strong and Courageous Today
So when do we need to hear God’s promise and command to be Courageous because God is with us? Three areas in NT.
God wants to bring change to your life and mine. He also has many people in this town who aren’t yet his: family, friends, neighbours, colleagues. How will we, and they, receive the blessings God wants? How will God’s enemies turn their hostility into obedience and willing faith?
God has given us a message about a man who was killed. It’s not much is it? It’s tempting to wonder whether that will make any real difference? There are weeks when I am tempted to be ashamed of this message and long for something, well, stronger. The apostle Paul knew that temptation and he said
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (Romans 1:16)
The first set of giants we face are the giants of doubting the power of God’s word: in our preaching; in our evangelism; in equipping our children for life; in ordering the life of our church and denomination. It looks so weak! And in the face of the opposition, it is weak because we are weak! But in evangelism and ministry, just as in Canaan, the strength comes because God is with us:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)
Jesus knows evangelism is hard: it is literally a battle for a person’s soul. We are knocked back, rejected, discouraged, misunderstood – even when we’re being tactful, gentle, truthful, loving. That is a time to be courageous and strong because the Lord your God is with us. Let’s stick to his word because it is a powerful and good word. Be courageous and strong because Jesus Christ is with you.
The second battle is in our own hearts:
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Verse 5 quotes from Joshua 1. Greed, covetousness, and not trusting God’s goodness are deadly to the heart.
- When we’re fighting against sin, it’s a mistake to think we can conquer it alone. It’s like we saw in Numbers 14, Israel went alone against the Amorites, and were smashed.
- When we’re fighting against sin, it is equally a mistake to think we can never defeat it:
God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5–6)
Sin and evil will do anything to stop us entering our inheritance – they are fighting harder than any Canaanite defending his city and homestead. Don’t give up! And when you fight, don’t fight alone! Cry to God and call on him in your struggle.
When Joshua and the Israelites looked into the Land, they saw first the Canaanites whom they had to face. Understandably they were afraid.
Our inheritance is an eternal inheritance. Those who have died in Christ (like dear David Woodman) are rightly described as being called ‘home’. But between here are there stands a great enemy: death itself. Hebrews says we all live as slaves to the fear of death, and that Jesus came to rescue us from the power of death over us
Since the children have flesh and blood, he [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14–15)
By his death (& resurrection come to the seminar) that enemy is defeated. So be courageous and not afraid. What does it look like?
Pilgrim’s progress is an allegory of Christian journeying from the city of destruction to the eternal city. The final barrier is a strong river, which stands for death:
Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.” [a reference to a Psalm]
…Christian is afraid and sees his spiritual enemies.
Then I saw in my dream that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole. With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see Him again, and He tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.’”
Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation.” Then they all went they along together toward the gate.
If we trust in him, he will bring us into our inheritance. He will, as that great Welsh hymn has it, ‘Land me safe on Canaan’s side’.
Be courageous and strong, even when the enemy is strong and your heart is weak. Be bold because the Lord your God is with you:
- We trust God’s word to be the power of God for the salvation of all who believe: courage means sticking to what God has said.
- We trust God’s promise and his Spirit to fight with us and for us against sin, whether it’s obvious sins like sex, money and power; or more subtle attacks such as undermining our contentment.
- We trust Jesus’ death to have defeated the power of death to make us afraid, and to keep us from entering our home.
Questions for Home Groups
When are you most in need of courage, as a Christian?
When will God’s promise to be with us be most helpful? See Matthew 28.16-20; and Hebrews 13.5