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A challenge from an obscure place

July 1998 | by Roger Hitchings

At the close of the Book of Joshua (19:49-50), we read how this remarkable servant of God finally receives his inheritance. The passage that deals with this event is brief and apparently insignificant. But it speaks powerfully to our day and situation.

Magnificent humility

It is a very simple and human account. The Israelites had divided the promised land of Canaan among their tribes. Only when all other territorial claims had been settled did Joshua finally request an area for himself. It was called Timnoth-Serah, which means ‘my abundant portion’. After all his battles and trials, he still had the energy and desire to go out, take possession, and develop it. In doing so, Joshua teaches us three lessons that we urgently need to learn. In the first place he shows magnificent humility. In ancient times, as still today, leaders were wont to feather their own nests. Before distributing territory and spoil to others, they made sure that they themselves were all right. Joshua is startlingly different. He sees to everyone else and only then, last of all, does he ask for his own inheritance. What a picture this is of our Lord, who ’emptied’ himself, putting his own interests last! He humbled himself to take our humanity and die for rebel sinners. And Paul says, ‘your attitude should be the same’ (Philippians 2:5-8)!

Great commitment

Secondly, Joshua shows great commitment. He was not prepared to sit back and rest on his laurels. He refused to take things easy and bask in his achievements, ‘being corrupted by complacency’. Rather he is eager to get to grips with a new challenge, to embark on a new conquest, and to engage in a further confrontation with the enemy. Like the Apostle, who forgot the things that were behind and pressed on ‘for the prize for which God had called him heavenwards in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 3:14), Joshua sets us an awesome example which we have no right to ignore.

Wonderful expectations

Thirdly, Joshua displays wonderful expectations of God. He was yet to live some twenty-five more years. In faith he looks on his inheritance as an ‘abundant portion’. He does not anticipate scraping through, or just coping at the minimum level. No! His inheritance is in Mount Ephraim (meaning ‘where I shall be doubly fruitful’) and he expects to prove God and his promises to the full. He believes that there are great resources in God, and so should we. If the Holy Spirit is the ‘deposit guaranteeing our inheritance’ (Ephesians 1:13-14), then we also may expect riches of experience from God. Here is Elisha requesting double the spirit of Elijah. Here is Paul exhorting Timothy, ‘be strong in the grace of the Lord’ (2 Timothy 2:1). Here is the encouragement of Hebrews 12:1-3 to conduct our Christian lives with vigour, facing the difficulties, but looking to Christ both as our example and the source of all grace and strength.

Joshua was no armchair theorizer, but a practical man of vision. He not only saw what needed to be done, but also applied himself to the task. He strove to fulfil his own responsibilities and to emulate the great examples of godliness that he had witnessed in others, like Moses, the man of God. We also are called to personal application in service to God and those around us, and this requires humility, courage and faith. Only by God’s grace can we achieve these things.

The situation we face

But we must recognize that at the present time in Western Christianity, and particularly amongst Reformed people, we have adopted a different agenda. The New Testament sets before us the challenge to be overcomers (see the Lord’s message to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3). Indeed, the Bible issues a constant challenge, to individual believers and to the church as a whole, to engage in spiritual warfare and conquest (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; Ephesians 6:10-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:8-11). This is well summarized by Phillip Keller, commenting on the book of Joshua, in the following terms. ‘Above and beyond all the battles and the struggles, it is His ultimate purpose that we be those who not only take territory but occupy it to find fruitful lives rich in the abundance of His provision.’

The contrast with our present embattled state as churches is quite shocking. It could not be greater. Instead of storming enemy strongholds, we stand still, as if ourselves under siege. We see ourselves as those who are threatened, rather than people who possess the most powerful weapons and materials for spiritual warfare. What are these means that pose such a terrifying threat to the enemy? They are the gospel of Jesus Christ and the empowering agency of the Holy Spirit. Our whole mind-set seems remote from New Testament thinking. We have promoted the fear of opposition over the glories of our resources, and look more on ‘the things that can be seen’ than on ‘the things which are unseen’ (2 Corinthians 4:18). While protesting our adherence to the Bible, we have in fact adopted a quite materialistic set of reactions.

Castle of San Marino
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Consumed with care

The Lord tells us that ‘the gates of hell will not prevail’ against the church (Matthew 16:18). Yet instead of deploying our battering rams, we are busy erecting barricades and digging trenches to keep ourselves safe and warm. Rather than being an army ‘terrible with banners’, we are on the defensive, worrying about where the next attack might come from. We have an imbalance in our reasoning, so that the duty to preserve what we have has been promoted over the call to go forward in aggressive promotion of the glorious gospel of God.

The most dramatic manifestation of this is seen in the behaviour of many individual Christians. Some are taken up with their own defeat, despair and discouragement. Many others, like the Jews of Zerubbabel’s day (Haggai 2:2-11), are consumed with care for their private lives and comforts, while the work of Christ lies disregarded. Pastors find themselves taken up with counselling and ministries of comfort, far beyond what would appear to be the New Testament norm. In preaching, we rarely hear the call to arms, to imagination, to initiative in outreach, to courage, to sacrifice. Such things are rarely mentioned, or are expressed only in guarded and qualified terms.

Do not hold back

Yet there is a biblical challenge to ‘rise up and take new territory’. There is the thrilling promise that ‘with God all things are possible’. We have heard the call to ‘enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide,do not hold back, lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes’ (Isaiah 54:2). Indeed, we honour those who take such challenges seriously, and count them heroes. But to emulate them, and take Isaiah’s exhortation as the word of the Lord for ourselves? Ah, that is another matter.

Joshua stands before us in his leadership and personal example, and he shames our negativity. If his God is our God; if the Lord Jesus Christ is exalted with all authority and is our full supply; and if the Holy Spirit is our indwelling source of mighty strength; then by what right do we justify inaction and entrenchment? Are we not in danger of denying the very essence of the gospel we profess? Imagination, courage, faith and obedience have always been the hallmarks of God’s victorious people. The challenge is before us and, amazingly, God is still with us! That must humble us, but also inspire us to action.