“Tell Bud, ministry isn’t everything. Jesus is.” That was the final message Ray Ortlund’s dad sent to him. Ray’s dad had woken up that morning in his hospital bed, somehow realizing that this day would be his last on earth. He gathered his children around, blessed them, and they sang hymns together. Meanwhile, Ray was in Northern Ireland, with his wife, doing ministry there. He was unaware of what was going on back in the states as his siblings gathered around their father. After his father died, Ray arrived back in the states, asking his sister if his dad had one final message to him, and that was it: “Tell Bud, ministry isn’t everything. Jesus is.”i
I remember the first time I read that story I first thought, “I want to be like Ray Ortlund’s dad.” What a way to depart from this world. But my next thought was what a good final message that was, something that I want to make sure I remember, that my identity isn’t wrapped up with ministry but with Jesus.
Beyond that specific message, someone’s final words have always been fascinating to me. Now, I don’t necessarily mean the final words someone speaks before dying unexpectedly. I mean someone who is choosing his final words, realizing that these are indeed his final words, like Ray Ortlund’s dad’s final message to his son. Or, if you read 2 Timothy and realize that Paul is writing this thinking this may be his last words, then his charge to preach the Word in season and out of season, even to people who don’t want to hear it, helps us recognize the prominent place the preaching of Scripture had in Paul’s mind.
Well, when we come to Joshua 22-24, we find that we’re not only dealing with the final words of the book of Joshua but also find the last words of Joshua himself to the people of Israel. And what hit me when I read and studied these three chapters was how much it feels like the kind of thing you would want to say to any people in terms of final words. Even the narrative of chapter 22, which simply tells of an incident that happened when some tribes misunderstood the actions of another tribe in Israel, communicates a truth that we would want to hold up to a church if we were wanting to address it for one last time.
Therefore, the way that I want to frame the sermon this morning is in terms of things that we need to remember as we go forward and prepare for the next generation. Again, that’s what is going on in the text, and I think it’s a fine thing for us to keep in mind as well. The first exhortation then I want to give us is this:
We see this truth really come to the fore in chapter 22. The chapter begins with Joshua addressing two and a half of the tribes of Israel. Specifically he was speaking to the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. And the reason Joshua wanted to speak to those tribes is because (as you may remember) those two and a half tribes wanted to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan River. And Joshua had said that was fine as long as they crossed the Jordan and fought with the other tribes to conquer and settle the promised land on the western side of the Jordan. Well, they had been faithful in that task, so now Joshua was gathering them together to tell them they’d been faithful, should now go back and settle their land on the eastern side of the Jordan, and charged them to obey God’s laws. We read of his charge in 22:5, as Joshua said, “Only be careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.”
So, things seem great. This is a very encouraging moment in the book. But all of the sudden, things begin escalating quickly. We read in 22:10 that when these two and a half tribes get back to their land, they build an “altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size.” News of this altar spreads to the other tribes, and then we read in verse 12, “And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them.” And at this point, you can feel like, “Whoa, what’s going on?” It feels something like if you went to bat a fly off of your friend’s shoulder, and he turns and pulls a knife on you. I mean, isn’t this overreaction, and what’s wrong with an altar anyway?
Let’s answer the second half of that question first. What’s wrong with this altar being built by these tribes? Well, the answer to that question is in Deuteronomy 12. In that chapter, the Lord commanded the people of Israel only to offer sacrifices at the site that the Lord chose for them. So, when these other tribes hear that another altar has been erected and assume that it’s for offering sacrifices, it sure looks like these two and a half tribes are in rebellion against God’s commands.
Now, let’s answer the first part of the question. Isn’t this an overreaction? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that they perhaps should have inquired why this altar was built in the first place. It turns out, the two and a half tribes were not trying to rebel against the Lord at all. In fact, they were trying to make sure that they were always considered people who belonged to and obeyed the Lord. They were basically building this altar as a memorial or sign. They explain to the other tribes that because they were on the eastern side of the Jordan River, while all the other sides were in the land west of the Jordan, they were afraid that sometime in the future, a generation of Israelites might arise and say, “Those people don’t belong to the Lord or worship the God of Israel.”
So, they answer, “We thought, ‘If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, “Behold, the copy of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.”’ Far be it from us that we should rebel against the LORD and turn away this day from following the LORD by building an altar for burnt offerings, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the LORD our God that stands before his tabernacle!” (22:28-29).
In other words, it was a misunderstanding. They were doing it to make sure they weren’t pushed away from the Lord and his people, not in order to rebel against the Lord and his people. So, because they jumped to conclusions, you might say that the people of Israel were overreacting in a sense. But in another sense, no they weren’t overreacting. And here’s why.
Remember Achan? Achan had taken some spoil from Jericho when the people were instructed not to, and it resulted in thirty-six Israelites being killed as the Lord judged the people in the battle against Ai. And we know this was on the tribes’ mind because as they exhorted the two and a half tribes not to build the altar they said in 22:20, “Did not Achan the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel?” In other words, they understood that the need for holiness among God’s people wasn’t an individual matter. They needed to make sure all of the tribes were walking in obedience to the Lord and his commands.
Now, here’s the question. How does this translate to us? We’re not ancient Israel. Hasn’t the need for thinking of holiness as a corporate reality disappeared? And the answer is, “No, it hasn’t.” Remember 1 Corinthians 5? A man in the church was walking in terrible sexual immorality, everyone in the church at Corinth knew it, and they wouldn’t practice church discipline, removing him from the congregation. And Paul wrote to them, strongly commanding them to remove him, saying, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor 5:13). But why? Why did his sin matter to the church as a whole? Paul answered in verse 6 of that chapter, writing, “Do you not know that a little leaven leaves the whole lump?”
In other words, when the church sends the message that unrepentant sin is okay, it encourages others to walk in sin as well. That’s why we’ve often noted that as bad as a man walking in open, unrepentant adultery is, what is worse is a church that says nothing to that man about it. As members of a church together, we bear responsibility for each other. We must see holiness not merely as an individual pursuit but as a corporate pursuit.
Now, this doesn’t mean we take up arms and declare war against each other if we find out someone is wandering from the Lord. But it does mean that we love them enough to run after them, express our love and concern, and plead with them to repent. It means that it’s not okay for us to say, “Well, their open sin doesn’t concern me.” Love demands more than that. Love demands that we remember that holiness isn’t merely an individual pursuit but a corporate one. We must remember that as a church. Our witness to the community at large is at stake if we forget this. Second:
One of the saddest stories in the Bible involves a king named Hezekiah. He was faithful to the Lord for most of his life, but in his final years, he disobeyed the Lord. And the Lord spoke to him, saying that his sons and those in the generation to come would suffer under Babylonian oppression, and Hezekiah answered, “The word of the LORD . . . is good.” For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?’” (2 Kings 20:19).
Brothers and sisters, the Word of God will not allow us to think like Hezekiah. We must remember to always be equipping the next generation for faithfulness to the Lord, and one key way of doing this is by speaking and sharing of God’s faithfulness to us. We saw this in the text read earlier in our service from Psalm 78 as the psalmist says that they will tell the glorious deeds of the Lord and the wonders he has done to the coming generation. But we also see it in these chapters in Joshua.
We’ve already seen how the two and a half tribes west of the Jordan were concerned to make sure the coming generation walked faithfully. That’s why they built an altar as a memorial. But they weren’t the only ones concerned about the coming generation. This is basically the thrust of chapter 23 as Joshua speaks to Israel’s leaders.
Joshua notes that he is old, advanced in years, and perhaps soon will die. But he’s not content to think that Israel did pretty well in his lifetime. He wants this to continue. So, he tells them, “You shall cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day” (23:8). Then, immediately thereafter he reminds them of what the Lord has done in their own day, driving out before them great and strong nations. His words build to 23:14 where he says, “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.”
But he doesn’t stop there. He spends the first half of chapter 24 gathering all the tribes and telling them of God’s faithfulness and works not just in their own generation but in the generations prior. He wanted no one to be ignorant of how the Lord had worked generation to generation so that, by understanding and knowing God’s faithfulness, they too might walk in faithfulness.
And I’m certain that we’re supposed to recognize (as we read these chapters) the need to equip the next generation for holiness by reminding them of the Lord’s faithful works for two reasons. One, the book of Joshua ends with us reading in 24:31, “Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel.” In other words, Joshua prepared these other leaders, equipped them to walk faithfully even after his death, and they did. And it was rooted in them knowing the work that God had done for Israel. Praise the Lord! What a glorious note to read at the end of Joshua.
But the other reason I think we’re to recognize this need to prepare the next generation by ensuring they know the works of the Lord is because of how the book of Judges begins. After recounting Joshua’s death, in Judges 2:10-11 we read, “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals.” Joshua prepared his own generation, who outlived him, by reminding them of God’s faithful works, but the next generation didn’t know the work of the Lord and abandoned him.
Brothers and sisters, we must remember our responsibility to equip the next generation to be faithful to the Lord, in part, by ensuring that they know the Lord’s faithful works in our lives. Nathan has reminded me over the years that when the Lord reveals his faithfulness in your life through some provision or deliverance or miraculous act, at least one reason he’s doing it is so that you can bear testimony to others that the Lord can be trusted. So, let’s make a habit when we gather together—whether formally in times of prayer as a church or informally just around our kitchen tables—of recounting stories of the Lord’s faithfulness in our lives.
I remember and try to share often with those preparing to go do the work of church planting and are anxious about finances a story that Timothy O’Day shared before he went to Utah. They’d just had their first child, were anxious about how they were going to make it in Utah, and had an unexpected expense come up. Timothy shared that he walked into his house to find Haley crying, holding that unexpected bill in her hand. So, he hugged her and then prayed with her, specifically asking that the Lord would remind them of his faithfulness to meet their needs and care for them, even as they went to Utah. Moments later, he opened the front door to find that someone had left a gift for them—a changing table or stroller or something else they really needed. What a story of God’s faithfulness! Or I could share the story of Christopher and Sarah Ortiz being $13,000 in debt and wanting to go to New York debt-free when a church member walked in and gave us a check to give to the Ortizes to pay off their debt—a check that was half of that brother’s annual salary! And time would fail me to tell of such provision in my own life or the Lord giving wisdom and clarity in a moment or healing or the like.
Brothers and sisters, let’s share with each other (and with the generation under us) of the Lord’s faithfulness. Let us share of how he was like a husband to you when you lost your husband, a rich comforter when you suffered abuse, a father to you when you had no idea even who your earthly father was, and on and on. And when we find ourselves in times of need, bring your children into your prayers. Let them hold your hands as you gather around the table and ask for his provision so that they might witness and rejoice when the Lord graciously provides. Let it not be said that a generation of those who grew up at Cornerstone Community Church didn’t know the works of the Lord. Remember to share God’s faithfulness with the next generation. Third,
I want to point this out because in light of what I just said you could think that the Lord’s grace and provision and guidance in our lives means that everything is always sweet and easy. But the Lord’s faithfulness often shows itself as he’s leading us through the valley of the shadow of death, doesn’t it? Look, for example, at the opening of Joshua 24. Joshua is sharing all that the Lord did to care for his people from the time of Abraham on. And listen to what he says in verses 3-4. “Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac. And to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. And I gave Esau the country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.”
Now, if you just read those verses, it could sound like such a nice, peaceful, easy path. But we know how the stories go, don’t we? When the Lord says that he made Abraham’s offspring many, he means that he gave him Isaac after Abraham and Sarah struggled, and wept, and agonized, and hurt through years of infertility. When he says that he gave Isaac Jacob and Esau, and Jacob and his children went down to Egypt, we can add, “Where they were enslaved for years and made to do hard labor.”
In other words, God’s faithfulness doesn’t mean that we won’t face trying times and pray many prayers of lament, with tears rolling down our faces. Of course our path is one of suffering and hardship. So was the path of our Lord. But the reason Joshua could share this history of Israel as if it was all glorious is because at every point the Lord was working for their good, for our salvation, and for his glory. And he’s doing the same in our lives. So, at each point in our lives, we can say, with tears at times rolling down our faces, “My Lord is good, loves me, and is trustworthy. He is and always has been faithful.” And one reason we can always say this is because looming over every moment of our lives is a memory that in our time of greatest need Christ died and was raised for us. How could we ever doubt his love and goodness toward us? Finally, let us,
In the very last section of the book (the latter half of ch. 24) Joshua calls the people to respond to his sharing of God’s faithfulness by walking in faithfulness themselves. It’s somewhat of a famous text. Here’s what he says in 24:14-15: “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
As I noted, that text is perhaps familiar to you. Choose this day whom you’ll serve, but as for me and my house, we’ll serve the Lord. But what you may have never noticed is that Joshua’s exhortation to choose this day whom you’ll serve is an exhortation to choose which false god they’ll serve. He says that if Israel is not going to serve the Lord, then they need to choose which other (false) god they will serve.
What’s his point? Why does he say it this way? I think it’s because he’s making the point that you’re going to serve some master as your god. If you think that you can really not commit yourself in wholehearted obedience to the Lord but kind of just drift along in some kind neutral place, you’re deceiving yourselves. You’ll always serve some god. So, he says, in essence, “If you’re not going to serve the Lord, then consider which of these other puny and pitiful gods you’re going to serve because don’t be deceived, you’ll serve something.”
So it is with us. We’re going to commit ourselves in service to something or someone. This is why Jesus says that you can’t serve God and money. You’ll actually end up committing yourself to one and despising the other. We can’t serve God and money or sexual immorality or a pursuit of prestige and man’s praise or whatever else. So let us today, in light of the Lord’s faithfulness to us—especially with the redeeming work of Christ—give ourselves in pursuit of wholehearted obedience to the Lord, remembering these truths that we’ve seen in our text this morning. And lest we forget why our Lord is worthy of our wholehearted obedience, let us once more come to the table, eating and drinking in remembrance of crucified and risen Lord. Amen.
i Ray tells this story at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/ray-ortlund/my-dads-message-to-me-on-the-day-he-died/.