Reading Time: 19 minutes

Marching orders

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Joshua1:1-18

Thesis: God calls us to fulfill his highest purposes by faith.

Goal: Identify and embrace God’s highest calling for your life.

Oswald Chambers lived one of the most extraordinary Christian pilgrimages of the 20th century. A native of Scotland, his ministry of preaching and teaching took him to the United States and Japan. He founded a Bible Training College in London, then served as chaplain to British troops in Egypt during World War I. His death at age 43 was a tragedy to the troops he served and the family he loved. But his ministry has touched millions of souls he had no opportunity to know, myself included.

Oswald’s wife Biddy made his life motto the title of the devotional book she created from his various sermons and talks: “My Utmost For His Highest.” I’ve been reading daily from this guide for twelve years now, and have found it to be the most essential book in my spiritual life next to Scripture. Its title motivates me constantly: find and give my “utmost” gifts and service to God’s “highest” purpose for my life and work.

What is your “utmost”? What is its “highest” purpose in the will of God? How can you help your class find and fulfill God’s greatest plan for their lives? These were the issues facing Joshua as our text unfolds. The answers given to Joshua are precisely God’s guidance for us this week.

Listen for the call of God (vs. 1-5)

Alexander the Great led his armies by the strength of his single focus and indomitable will. After his death, his generals met to plan their future. To their dismay, they discovered that they had marched off their maps. They were in an unknown location, facing an unknown future. They were not the first, or the last.

Listen in the hard places

So it was for Israel as the book of Joshua opened. Moses had died. This was easily the most traumatic event in the young life of the nation of Israel. He had been the “servant of the Lord” (v. 1), an exalted title given only to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Caleb to this point in Jewish history (Joshua would be added to the list at the end of his life and work; cf. 24:29). Now their mentor, guide, and hero was gone, and the future was uncertain at best.

The book of Joshua connects its narrative directly to this crisis. Its first word, translated “After” in the NIV, is “and” in the Hebrew. The narrative continues directly from the end of Deuteronomy and the death of Moses. Perhaps the thirty days of mourning for Moses had now ended (Deut 34:8). But the crisis facing the nation had not.

God often calls us to his highest purposes in the midst of personal and corporate crisis. Isaiah heard the word of the Lord “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1), as the prophet mourned the death of his king and relative. God began to use Elisha immediately after his mentor Elijah had been assumed to heaven (2 Kings 2:19ff).

It has been calculated that the typical adult faces six crises in his or her life. Not just the routine problems of daily living, but major issues such as death, divorce, and serious disease. If a person graduates from adolescence without trusting personally in Christ, he or she is typically open to the gospel only during such times of crises. It is then that Christians who have built relationship with the person can show God’s love in theirs.

It is also in such periods of crisis that we can hear the Lord most clearly. He speaks far more than we are willing to stop and listen. But when we know that we need his word and help, that we have come to the end of our own wisdom, we will listen for his voice with desperation and faith. And we will always hear him speak. So, whatever your circumstances may be, ask God to use them to bring his word to your heart. And he will.

Expect God to speak to you

In the immediate context of Moses’ death, “the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide….” (v. 1b). Theologian and apologist Francis Schaeffer was right: he is there and he is not silent. God speaks far more than we hear his voice. Just as the room where you are reading these words is filled with radio and television waves you are not hearing, so the Spirit is speaking constantly to his people. But we must “tune in” to his frequency.

God spoke the universe into being. He spoke to and through the prophets, so that their most common refrain was “Thus says the Lord….” Jesus spoke constantly to the disciples and the crowds during his incarnational ministry. His Spirit spoke to those he inspired to record the rest of his written revelation. He speaks now through this word to and through preachers and teachers of his truth. He speaks when we are willing to hear him in silent prayer. He speaks to us through the words and music we use in worship. All truth is his truth, so that every word we hear or read which contains truth comes ultimately from him.

Joyce Huggett has written a marvelous book titled The Joy of Listening to God. She’s right—whenever we are still enough to hear God’s Spirit speak to us, the result is joy. Whenever we are yielded to the truth of Scripture, to the words of a sermon or Bible study, to the truth contained in a worship song, to the truth of God revealed through human agents and means, there is joy.

So it was for Joshua, even in the crisis of the moment. So it will be for you. But you must expect God to speak to you, if only you will listen. You must tune the frequency of your spirit to his voice.

Seek his will for the now

God does not reveal himself in five-year strategies. You and I have inherited the Western worldview, with its linear philosophy of history. We like to think of history as a line on a page, progressing logically toward some conclusion. But God knows that this day is the only day which exists. His will is first and foremost for the here and now. He speaks to us in the present, about the present.

Joshua needed to know the next step to take. He didn’t need a long-range plan, but a present-tense guide. Not a map, but a flashlight. God gave him exactly what he needed to know, for the moment he needed to know it.

God gave him the who: “you and all these people, get ready….” (v. 2a). Not just the leaders of the tribes. Not just the army. Not just the priests. Not just some part of the population. The entire nation intended by God to live west of the Jordan River was now involved in the call and purpose of God.

He gave Joshua the where: “get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them” (v. 2b). The Jordan is typically only 80 to 100 feet wide, and not deep. I baptized a large group there, and had no difficulty wading out into the middle of the slow-moving current. But when the spring rains come, the river can flood its larger bed. Where Joshua and his people would be crossing, the river would be more than a mile wide and a raging torrent. They didn’t know what the Lord already knew—that they would face an insurmountable obstacle which he would lead them across miraculously. We are called to follow God today, and leave tomorrow in his hands. He already knows every step he intends us to take.

Next the Lord gave Joshua the what: they would inherit “the land I am about the give to them” (v. 2b). God had earlier promised this land to Abraham for his descendants (Gen 15:18-19), and had renewed his promise to and through Moses (Deuteronomy 11:24-25). Now he would bring it to fulfillment.

He would give them “every place where you set your foot” (v. 3). The Hebrew tense indicates that the land was already theirs, though it remained to be taken. It already belonged to God, and thus to his heirs. They just had to go and claim it. Each Christmas some very kind friends give our family gift certificates to restaurants (the boys’ favorite) and bookstores (Janet’s and my favorite). Our possession is already purchased and belongs to us—we need only claim it. So it is always with God’s planned future for us, on earth and in heaven. He already owns all that is; we need only go and “set foot” on that which he wants us to have.

Note that the full dimensions of this land would belong to Israel only under David and Solomon, five centuries after the time of Joshua. God’s plans are seldom fulfilled in our sight, or our lifetime. A great leader plants trees he or she will never sit under.

God did not give Joshua the long-term plan, but only the immediate next step to take. This is always how we will hear his call. We must be close enough to hear his voice when he calls to us. We are to be faithful to the last word we heard from the Lord. Only then can we hear the next.

Trust his provision for his purpose

God knew that his people would face opposition for the land he had promised them. Jesus warned us of the same fact: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16.33a). Then he added, “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (v. 33b). The Lord made the same promise to Joshua: “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life” (v. 5a). Why? Because “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you: I will never leave you nor forsake you” (v. 5b).

To “forsake” meant to abandon, to turn loose of. Imagine a mountain climbing guide, holding the lifeline for a climber who has lost his grip on the mountain. This is precisely our condition spiritually. But our Father will never turn loose of our rope. He will always hold us up until we have climbed to his full purpose and will.

Jesus likewise promised his followers that he would be with them always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). When he calls us, he goes before us. We will journey to no place in his will which he has not already prepared for our arrival. We can always trust his provision, so long as we are willing to walk in his purpose.

Have you heard the call of God for your life and work? Can you identify the “utmost” which is God’s “highest” for you? If not, stop now, wherever you are, whatever the crisis or circumstances which surround you. Expect God to speak to you, if only you will listen for his voice. Seek his will for the now, the next step you are to take into his purpose. Trust him to provide for every step of that pilgrimage. Sign a blank check to him. Give him your unconditional commitment to his purpose, whatever it might be. And you will know what you are to do next in the plan of God for your life.

Choose courageous obedience (vs. 6-9)

The next words Joshua heard from God were a direct command: “Be strong and courageous” (v. 6a). “Be strong” translates a Hebrew word which means to be bound strongly together, to be put together well. To be “courageous” meant to be firm-footed, to take a strong stand, the opposite of shaking or quaking knees.

Three times God repeated these words to his servant. Later the people gave Joshua the same exhortation (v. 18). Paul’s word to Timothy brings this encouragement to New Testament believers as well: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Why would Joshua need such courage? Because “you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them” (v. 6b). Even Moses did not fulfill this purpose. Their greatest leaders had not brought them to this place of victory. Now Joshua would lead a nation numbering in the millions into hostile territory inhabited by some of the most wicked cultures known to human history. Indeed he would attempt something so great it was doomed to fail unless God was in it.

What is the secret to such courage? Faithful obedience: “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go” (v. 7). Obedience was and is the prerequisite for divine power and protection. The land was not unconditionally theirs, as Deuteronomy 8:1 made clear; they had to obey the Lord to receive it. Such obedience was not works righteousness—they could do nothing to earn or deserve this grace gift. Rather, their obedience would position them to receive the power and provision God intended to give.

So what is the secret to such obedience? Constant communion: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth” (v. 8a). Those in the biblical era typically read the Scriptures aloud, whether to others or themselves (see Acts 8:30 for one example). We would do well to follow their practice, as we remember far more of what we hear than what we see. And so Joshua and his people were not to allow the word of God to “depart from your mouth.”

Rather, they were to “meditate on it day and night” (v. 8b). “Meditate” in the Hebrew describes a low murmuring sound made by a person contemplating something. We will not simply read the words and leave them on the page, but we will bring them into our hearts and lives. When you read the word of God, first read its words aloud. Then use all your senses. Imagine yourself in this setting—how it feels to your skin, smells, tastes, sounds, looks. Experience these words fully and sensually. Then ask the Lord for one thing you should do differently because you have spent this time with him in his word. Write down that idea or fact; read it over through the day; ask the Lord to apply it to your unconscious thoughts as well as your intentional decisions.

When you “meditate” on the word of God “day and night,” the result will be that “you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (v. 8c). As we commune with God in his truth, we find his help in practicing the faithful obedience which creates courageous strength.

Last, what is the secret to such constant communion? Trusting the presence of God: “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (v. 9). He is “the Lord your God.” Martin Luther believed that the most important single word in the 23rd Psalm is found in its first clause: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Not just the shepherd or even our shepherd, but my shepherd.

Likewise, the Lord is your God. You can go no place which is exempt from his providence and presence. If you will trust him to be present in your life in this and every moment, you can then practice his presence through communion in his word. When you commune with him in his word, you have his guidance to practice faithful obedience. And as you are obedient to his word and will, you will have his strong courage to fulfill that purpose.

As we will see across this study, Joshua experienced precisely such strength and courage. He would lead the people to the great military conquest which would create their nation. He would establish them in their Promised Land, and make of their roving tribes a permanent and mighty people. His God will do no less with us.

Stand publicly for God’s purpose (vs. 10-18)

Now the crisis moment has come. Joshua could lead the people to stay where they are. The nations surrounding them are not yet strong enough to threaten their short-term safety. They could camp on the eastern side of the Jordan and declare victory.

He could abdicate leadership. After all, he’s already done so much, and is now advancing in years. If he was only 20 when he began his service to Moses, and then endured 40 years in the wilderness with the people, he would now be over 60 years of age. This was nearly twice the typical life expectancy in the ancient world. Joshua could with merit claim that he had led the people as far as he could, and ask God to find another to finish their pilgrimage to their land.

He could enter the land privately, seeking his own fortune and his family’s security. Then if he failed, none would know. If he succeeded, he would only take his just reward for his years of faithful service.

Or he could make public his commitment to God and his purpose. This was a true hinge point for Jewish and redemptive history. Would God have a people in this land, or not?

His decision was clear and instantaneous: “So Joshua ordered the officers of the people…” (v. 10). With this commitment, he assumed full command of the army and the nation. Their destiny would be his. He would step into the office vacated by Moses’ death and now assigned him by God. He would stand publicly for the purpose of God.

And he would call the nation to follow him. He sent the officers throughout the nation to prepare the people for their pilgrimage across the Jordan and into their Promised Land (vs. 11-12). Then he spoke personally to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh with them (v. 12), calling them to public obedience as well.

Why did he single them out for special encouragement? Their story takes us back to Numbers 21, where Moses and the people took possession of the land immediately east of the Jordan River. Og, king of Bashan, and Sihon, the king of the Amorites, had possessed this fertile land before Moses and his army took it from them. The large tribes of Reuben and Gad soon found this land to their liking. They owned very large herds and flocks, and discovered the land to be excellent for ranching. And so they asked permission to stay on it permanently (Numbers 32).

Half of the tribe of Manasseh chose to join them. Remember that Joseph had two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. Both were adopted by Jacob as his own children, so that Israel was in fact composed of thirteen tribes. However, God made clear that the tribe of Levi was to have no assigned land, but would live on the support of the others as it served the tabernacle and later the Temple. The twelve tribes which remained would all receive land in due time. The tribe of Manasseh chose to divide in two; half wanted to stay east of the Jordan and raise their cattle with Reuben and Gad.

Moses gave them permission, with the proviso that when the nation was prepared to cross the Jordan and take the rest of Canaan, their soldiers must fight with the rest of the army. This they had agreed to do.

Now Joshua came to remind them of their agreement (vs. 13-15). The situation was potentially dangerous. They already had “rest” (v. 13), an Old Testament concept which includes secure borders, peace with neighbors, absence of threats to life, and security for the future. Now God wanted to give this “rest” to all the nation, with their military help (see the NavPress discussion on page 28 for further insight). But the people would need their “fighting men” (v. 14), all those over the age of 20 who were physically able to wage war. Would they keep their promise? Or would the nation move into the land without a significant part of its military strength?

These “transjordan” tribes gave Joshua their immediate and unconditional support (v. 16). But they made two requirements of him, the same expectations every group has the right to ask of its leaders. First, “may the Lord your God be with you as he was with Moses” (v. 17). They wanted to follow him only if he would follow God. Second, “Only be strong and courageous!” (v. 18). He could not expect them to follow where he would not lead. They wanted an example of godly courage they could follow into battle, and into their future together. And Joshua would answer their call, with miraculous results.

Conclusion

When this pivotal chapter opened, we found Joshua and the people still mourning the death of their beloved hero and leader. Their future was uncertain in the extreme. Their leadership was unclear, their direction undetermined. Joshua had not yet determined to follow God’s purpose for his life and leadership, nor had the people chosen to follow him.

When the chapter ends, the people are one. Joshua is their strong and courageous leader. The people are unified and resolved to follow him into their future. And they will find that future to be as bright as the promises of God.

We need Joshua-type leaders today. Will you follow the Lord with your personal obedience and faithful commitment? Will you trust God, commune with him in his word, and practice his presence? A study group cannot be expected to go further with God than the leaders are willing to lead them. If your class were as close to the Father as you are this moment, would this be a good thing?

Perhaps this chapter could be as pivotal to your soul as it was for Joshua. The choice is yours.