Here in 2019, this has become a difficult question to answer. It seems every week we hear stories of people who climbed to the top of their profession, who built empires, who exemplified creativity and talent and hard work, who received accolades and awards and international recognition, who were the definition of success in their respective fields. But then the stories started to come out. Sexual harassment. Inappropriate relationships. Embezzlement. Scandalous conduct. And very soon, all that they had built counts for nothing. People want justice.
We’ve seen this time and time again. Tragically, we’ve seen it even in the church.
What is success? We normally think of success in terms of those things I initially listed. Those are the things we admire. Those are the things we aspire to and want for our children. And yet, when the scandal breaks, we realize how worthless that “success” really is.
What is success? And how do we get there?
The Book of Joshua records Israel’s conquest of the land, which God had promised to their forefathers hundreds of years ago. Having been delivered from slavery in Egypt, having been led through the wilderness, having been miraculously brought into Canaan, Israel will now begin their conquest of the land. And the question facing them is: What will it take to win? How is this nation of ex-slaves, wandering nomads, to conquer this vast land of fortified cities and well-equipped armies? New military strategies? New technologies? Cultural savvy?
We are in a very different context than Israel in that day. But the God that led them is the same God we follow today, and he never changes. So we want to pay attention to what Israel would have for us.
The main idea for this sermon is: Faithfulness is success.
True for us corporately. It’s true for us individually. No matter who you are: pastor, student, stay-at-home mom, CEO, rich or poor, young or old, whatever. Faithfulness to God is success.
My outline is based on three ideas to reinforce this principle:
-The power of obedience
-The disaster of unfaithfulness
-The grace of God’s covenant
May God help us to see the goal of our lives in this way.
The Power of Obedience
(Read Joshua 6:1–27)
If Israel was to establish a foothold in the land, they first had to get past Jericho. Jericho is one of the oldest cities on earth with some of the earliest fortifications known to mankind. Archaeological evidence shows that the city wall was almost five feet across, which helps us understand verse 1: “Jericho was tightly shut up because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.” Here was an impossible task. Siege towers hadn’t been invented. Even though Israel had just crossed the Jordan on dry ground, it makes sense why the king and people of Jericho were still defiant. They were living in the most secure, impenetrable city of their time.
And yet, verse 2: “The Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands.’” It’s as good as done. And the way God would do it is striking. All the armed soldiers would march around the city. And yet in the midst of the soldiers, priests, blowing trumpets. And in the midst of the priests, the ark of God. God gives his people specific instructions, because this is more than just a military exercise. Even if it didn’t make any sense, this is the Word they were to obey.
The king, the soldiers, the inhabitants of Jericho, would have seen this happening. But would they have understood? And so on Day 1, the marching begins. The soldiers were armed for battle, and yet they were strangely silent, even solemn. Clearly, in the middle there were priests. Seven of them, why seven? Each holding trumpets, seven of them again. And the trumpets were sounding, normally used in the announcement of the arrival of a king. But where was Israel’s king? And of course, the Ark of the Covenant, this strange symbol of the presence of the God of Israel. For six days, the people of Jericho watched.
Then on the seventh day, Israel does the same thing. But after the first circle, they go around again, and again, and again. A fifth time. A sixth time. For the observant bystander, there should have been this mounting sense of anticipation: What’s about to happen? And then, on the seventh time around, on the seventh day, with the seven priests blowing their seven trumpets, the army of God shouts, and then it happens. Verse 20: “The wall collapsed, so every man charged straight in, and they took the city.”
The strongest fortification of that day collapses like a house of cards. And there is no dramatic battle. If Peter Jackson was making this into a movie, he would probably turn this into a 30-minute battle scene, but that’s not what we see here. Joshua did not fight the battle of Jericho. Rather God does it all. Israel marches right in and devotes every living thing in the city to destruction. The only ones spared are Rahab and her family, just as the spies promised. And rather than taking any plunder, here, in their first conquest of the land, all valuable metals are devoted to the treasury of the Tabernacle. Everything else is burned.
Here, the chapter closes with Joshua pronouncing a curse on Jericho, again a clue that this is more than just a military conquest. Something theological has just taken place.
For many modern readers, the account of the Canaanite conquest is troubling. And understandably so. We see the description of the slaughter in verse 21 including not only soldiers but men and women, young and old. And yet according to the text, this is the explicit command of God. How can this be?
There are some scholars who have tried to offer different solutions by pointing to the worse violence of ancient cultures or the usage of certain terms, and some of those things might be true. But most important is that we understand that what was happening in Canaan during the time of Joshua was a unique, redemptive, historical event. Namely, in the conquest of Canaan, Judgment Day had arrived for the inhabitants of Canaan. This is what God had promised 400 years ago to Abram.
In Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abram and says to him:
Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated 400 years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation, your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure. To your descendants I give this land.
Four hundred years prior to these events, God saw the sin that would fill up the land of Canaan. We see it foreshadowed in the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah during the time of Abram. And it only got worse from there. The Old Testament speaks of the horrific practices of child sacrifice, which marked the pagan worship of Canaan. And yet for 400 years, God patiently bore with that land. But now, the sin of this land has reached its full measure. And with the arrival of Abram’s descendants, Judgment Day had arrived in Canaan.
That’s the significance of the sevens throughout this passage. Seven is the number of completion, of fullness. As far as the Canaanites are concerned, their time was complete. We see this same imagery used in Revelation, with cycles of sevens, indicating that the fullness of time has come. That the end has come. And when that Final Day comes, as we see here, judgment will fall on all people. No matter who you are. Man or woman. King or servant. Old or young. All who are outside of God’s covenant people will be subject to God’s judgment.
This event stands as a warning to all of us here today. No matter who you are, rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, I am here this morning to warn you that there is a day that will come when God will judge the world. Now you might be thinking, “Really? Look at the sun shining outside! What a beautiful summer day. Maybe if we were living under nuclear fallout I would believe you, but c’mon. I’m supposed to believe that there’s Judgment Day coming?” You know, in many ways, I’m sure the residents of Jericho felt quite secure within their walls. It was unimaginable that anything could ever happen to them. We might not have physical walls put up, but we’ve got all kinds of other things we use to make us feel secure. Our finances. Our accomplishments. Our careers. Our networks and relationships. Our charitable works. And with the sun shining outside, we feel pretty good about our chances. Oh but on that day, all those walls will collapse.
And we will find ourselves face-to-face with the God of the Universe. And on that day, every single one of us will have to give an account to God for our lives. What does that mean?
As one made in God’s image, did your life reflect the fullness of his glory? The goodness of his character and perfections? Or was it more a reflection of your selfishness?
As one created by God, did you live in submission to his authority, to his commands? Did you live up to the conscience he gave you? Or did you act as your own authority?
As one living in the world, was God honored and glorified in how you treated others? In how you stewarded your gifts? Or did you use them for your own advantage?
As Jesus taught, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our standard is not our teachers, our neighbors, or even our best intentions. Our standard is God’s perfect holiness. And he will be our Judge.
The truth is that we are sinners. And before a holy God, we deserve the same thing that the inhabitants of Jericho deserved: destruction.
I know this isn’t a popular message. My goal isn’t to manipulate anyone with fear. But if this text really gives us a glimpse of the Judgment Day that is coming, then we ought to rightly fear.
As Christians, we want to be clear about this when we share the gospel. Sin deserves God’s judgment. Salvation only makes sense when we understand this part of the message. On that day, I imagine that I will have to give an account for this sermon. God will ask, “Did you warn them? Did you explain this text and show them the judgment that is to come? Was my wrath against sin made clear? Or did you keep them from the truth?” Oh, friend, we fail to love those around us if we make them think there is no judgment coming. We need to tell people that the wrath of God burns against sin. This is not just some ancient story in some ancient world. This is our story and this is the world we live in.
Speaking this truth is part of our obedience to God. In contrast with the defiance of the Canaanites, we see the careful obedience of Israel—not only of destruction but also of the marching and trumpets and shouting. For Israel, the issue was not so much carrying out God’s judgment but rather simply obeying God’s commands. It was by their obedience that God’s power was displayed.
To be clear, obedience is not how we manipulate God to act. God is not limited by our obedience or even disobedience. And yet at the same time, we should only expect God to work as we are walking with him in obedience. This is what we see here in Joshua. Only as Israel followed God’s commands did God accomplish his mighty work.
Yes, the people of Israel were commanded to shout, but you realize that it wasn’t like the walls were sonically destroyed by their voices. But it was at that moment when they shouted that God collapsed the walls. That’s a good illustration for how God works today. When we share the gospel faithfully, when we pray for one another, when we speak the truth in love, it’s not like those things actually create new spiritual life or affect repentance and growth in a person’s heart. No, that’s God’s work. And yet, powerfully, amazingly, God takes our feeble, imperfect words and uses them to accomplish a miracle. God uses our imperfect, finite obedience to accomplish his divine work. The dead are raised. The wayward are turned back. And the church is built up.
Friends, the things that you want most in life, true, lasting, spiritual change for you, for your family, for your church these are beyond your ability to accomplish. You cannot bring it about. But take heart. God is at work in you and through you. You don’t have to manipulate him. Trust what he has commanded of you. Because it’s in your obedience that he displays his power in your life.
The Disaster of Unfaithfulness
(Read Joshua 7:1–26)
If faithfulness equals success, then unfaithfulness means disaster. We see that powerfully illustrated here. Rather than obeying God’s command, Achan secretly took some of the devoted things. And God doesn’t just hold Achan accountable. But in his sin, all of Israel is defiled by sin and guilty. This is the holiness of God.
Verses 2–5 describe the outcome. Did Israel lose because they were too self-confident? Was it because Joshua forgot to pray? No. Verse 1 makes clear that this was God’s anger against his own people for their sin. This is why they were routed and 36 of them are now dead.
So now the people are terrified and Joshua and the elders are in anguish before God. Because if God isn’t going to deliver the Canaanites into their hands, then they have no chance to survive. They will be destroyed. Joshua is desperate, and yet he knows that God is his only hope. And he appeals to God based not only on their survival but on his reputation.
Well, God responds in verse 10, with a rebuke. “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?” Joshua should have known why they’re being judged. He warned his people back in chapter 6 that if they took the devoted things there would be trouble. Now was not the time to be weeping. This was a time for action.
So God calls the people to consecrate themselves, and in the morning, just as he instructed, the people are assembled, and one-by-one, God reveals the tribe, then the clan, then the family, and finally, the man who has sinned. And now, in front of the entire nation, Achan is called to confess his sin.
And here in his confession, we see the awful progression of sin. He saw some beautiful plunder. And there in the seeing, he began to covet them for himself. Until finally he took them. But now having taken them, he has to hide them away. Does that sound familiar to you? From seeing to coveting and lusting to taking and then to shamefully hiding. And it all seemed to go along just fine. Until he was exposed.
The plunder is found and poured out before the sight of all the people. For this, 36 people died. For this God’s people and God’s name was disgraced among the nations. And he didn’t even get to wear the robe. This is the disaster of sin.
Now, as one who has loved the things of Canaan, Achan will be treated as a Canaanite, along with all that he has. And so he is stoned. In chapter 4, Israel set up a monument to God’s power and goodness in bringing them into the land. Now Israel sets up another monument in the Valley of Achor, this time to the stupidity of sin and disaster that it brings.
Friends, hear this warning: Your sin will find you out. And this warning is particularly for those in the church. Achan belonged to God’s people. He was from a prominent tribe. He had made it across the Jordan and received the sign of circumcision. But in the end, his life proved he was no Israelite. He was a Canaanite. And so he was judged along with them. Do we have any Achans here this morning? Perfect church attendance. Godly Christian parents. Many hours of volunteering. All those things are great. But are you secretly in alliance with sin? Are you following another master when no one’s looking? Friend, don’t be deceived. God cannot be mocked. He sees all and knows all.
To harbor sin is to betray God. God calls their sin a violation of their covenant. In other words, it’s personal. This is why one of the best images we see in the Bible for our sin is adultery. Sin is like having an affair with your spouse’s worst enemy.
Sin is also a betrayal of God’s people. There is no such thing as a private sin. Sin will always affect the people around you. Your family. Your loved ones. Your church. We are a connected people, and therefore Achan’s sin meant God’s judgment not only on him but on all the nation. So husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, church members, your sin against God matters. No matter how secret, your sin is a betrayal of the people around you. It will bring trouble on you and on them.
So what is to be done? Friends, the only way to fight secret sin is by exposing it. Sin festers and grows in darkness. While we keep it a secret, it’s so easy to minimize it, to cherish it, to fool ourselves. But it’s when we turn on the light, when we allow others in, that we begin to see it as the wickedness and death that it is. This is the grace of confession. Before the Reformation, confession meant finding a professional, a priest that you could confess your sins to, who would absolve your sins. But Christ is the only one who can forgive our sins. We first and foremost confess to him and seek mercy from him. And now, as those who profess the gospel and are filled with the Spirit, we understand that God calls us to bear one another’s burdens. Scripture calls us to confess our sins to one another and to pray for each other. We cannot walk through the Christian life alone. But together we acknowledge that we are sinners and need help. We refuse to live a lie but speak the truth about ourselves. Do you have a Christian brother and sister you can share your struggles with?
I’m struck by how God responds to Joshua. Sometimes, I deal with people struggling with sin, and all they want to do is lament and talk about their struggles and talk about how terrible they feel. But then they walk away and nothing changes. Friends, that’s not repentance. In those moments of conviction, God says to you, “Stand up! Take action! Make a change!” If you want to repent, then deal with your sin. Confess it to someone. Sign up for accountability software. Ask for prayer. Rather than using your energy and creativity for sin, use it for figuring out how to fight for holiness. Think about when you’re tempted. Make a plan. And find others to fight with you.
Confession is a humiliating thing. It feels like dying. There will be consequences to having our sin exposed. But it is nothing compared to the shame of those who refuse to repent and are exposed on Judgment Day.
As a church, we don’t have the authority to stone anyone. There have been times in church history when church authorities burned heretics. Let me be clear: They were wrong to do so. The church does not bear the sword. But God has given the church spiritual authority. And God does command us to practice church discipline, to remove from our membership those who are living in persistent, unrepentant sin. The church is to be holy, just as God is holy. For a church to refuse to practice church discipline would be like the Israelites refusing to deal with Achan.
And the issue is unrepentant sin. We all struggle with sins, even in really serious ways. But a Christian is someone who is seeking to repent of all known sin … who, when confronted, responds with humility and turns to the gospel. But for all those who refuse to repent, who will cherish their sin rather than Christ, even if they’re a small group leader or an elder or a pastor with an international ministry, they are to be publicly disciplined and put out of the church. As far as we can tell, we can no longer affirm that they belong to the people of God.
The point of church discipline is not to condemn anyone. Rather our hope and prayer is that by this warning, people are awakened to the judgment that is to come and repent before it is too late. How kind of God that we live in a world where there are warnings and discipline! Can you imagine if you went through life without any warnings, without any discipline, and then one day you woke up before the judgment seat of God? But no, in our conscience, in his providence, through loving parents, through authorities, through the church, God is revealing the folly and danger of sin, and bringing us to a place of humility and need of him before it’s too late.
The Triumph of God’s Covenant
(Read Joshua 8:1–8, 24–35)
Given the events in chapter 7, the people of God have much reason to be afraid and discouraged. They violated God’s covenant! Will God’s purposes carry on? Will God fulfill what he had promised?
Yes. God will graciously persevere with his people. We see in verse 1 God calls his people forward. Just as he delivered Jericho to them, he promises to deliver Ai also. But this battle is going to be different. This time, God doesn’t just deliver the people into their hands immediately as he did in Jericho. No, Israel now has to strategize. They have to prepare and plan. And they actually have to fight. They still are to follow God’s instructions. But now obedience is going to be much more involved.
Unlike the battle of Jericho, which was basically covered in one verse, verses 3–23 describe all the planning and strategizing and fighting that took place. Israel sets up an ambush west of the city, while the rest of the army draws the soldiers of Ai away from the city. And then when Joshua gives the signal, the ambush party burns the city so they cannot retreat and then surrounds the men of Ai. Did you catch verse 6? God uses the pride of Ai in their first victory against them. There is no sin so terrible that God cannot work for his good purposes.
As judgment fell on Jericho, so judgment falls on Ai. But this time, God allows the people to keep the plunder for themselves. If only Achan had waited! God would have gladly provided all that he needed. But he refused to trust God.
Just as Joshua declared Jericho accursed, he does the same for Ai, this time by hanging the dead body of the king on a tree. According to Deuteronomy 21:23, this grotesque sign is a picture of God’s curse and judgment upon the king of Ai and his people.
God has not abandoned his people. His purposes in redemptive history will carry on.
The chapter ends then with a covenant renewal ceremony. Mount Ebal was about 20 miles north of Ai. Moses had commanded back in Deuteronomy 27 that Israel was to have this covenant ceremony when they arrived in the land. And now, having defeated Jericho and Ai, having experienced the tragic betrayal of Achan, Joshua decides it’s time to renew their covenant.
All the people, citizens, leaders, men, women, children, aliens, make their way to the location, and there they offer burnt offerings for their sin, fellowship offerings celebrating their relationship with God. Then all the tribes arrange themselves on opposite mountains, as Joshua reads all of the commands of Moses. Verses 34–35 are emphatic. “Joshua read all the words of the law—the blessings and the curses—just as it is written in the book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel.”
What’s the point of this event? What are we to learn from the victories at Jericho and Ai and the disaster of Achan? The lesson is that if God’s people are to succeed, if they are to see God’s good promises fulfilled, they must remain faithful to God’s Word. Faithfulness is success. And to be clear: Faithfulness doesn’t lead to success. No, faithfulness is success. Because being faithful to God and to his Word means remaining in covenant relationship with God. And to be in relationship with God is the greatest good that we can have. Friend, here is the most astonishing thing about Israel: not that the walls of Jericho collapsed or that their enemies were defeated but that this nation of sinful people could be in a covenant relationship with the perfect, holy God of the Universe. That somehow judgment has passed over them. That is the most amazing thing in these chapters.
This is possible only due to God’s grace. What we see in the flow from chapter 7 to chapter 8 is that even more important than the people’s faithfulness is God’s faithfulness. Israel was far from perfect. If there’s anything that Israel’s history confirms, it is our inability to follow God faithfully. Like Israel, we are those who are unfaithful to God. Who love our sin. Who break our promises. Who go against God’s law and our consciences. If faithfulness is success, then we are failures. And yet, somehow, chapter 8 shows us that God’s covenant is not thwarted by our sin. No, amazingly, God perseveres with his people and his purposes.
When we follow the storyline of Scripture, we see that God’s purposes would find their fulfillment not in this Joshua but in a much greater Joshua, in Jesus. (Jesus is Greek for Joshua). Israel would fail to keep God’s covenant. But hundreds of years later, Jesus would come, promised of old. And he would not fail to live out the terms of this covenant. He would perfectly obey the Book of the Law of Moses. Every word, all that was commanded, just as it was written. He loved his God perfectly and he loved his neighbor as himself perfectly. And yet unexpectedly, at the end of his life, we see him not blessed but cursed. Condemned by his own countrymen, he is nailed to a Roman cross. His body is hung on a tree. There the perfect one is cursed, not for his sin, but for ours. Once again, Judgment Day arrived in history, not on us, but on Jesus. All the horror that you feel over the judgment of these chapters, realize that that same judgment was poured out on the innocent Christ, not for his sins, but for ours.
Why? So that sinners like you and me may go free. For all who repent of our sins, who turn to Jesus for mercy, can be forgiven, can be saved. This is the New Covenant that Jesus inaugurated with his blood. Not a covenant based on our performance or obedience. No, rather a covenant based on his perfect obedience and his atoning sacrifice in our place.
Why would he do this? Why would he sacrifice himself like this? Because he loves us. The God who hates sin and will judge all evil is also the God who loves sinners and bears their judgment.
And the sacrificial death of the Son of God is the only solution to the problem of our sin. Here is how we can be made right before a holy God. Here is how God’s judgment can pass over us: not because God simply sweeps it under the rug but because it already fell on his Son, in our place. Repent of your sins and place your trust in Christ. God promises to accept all who come to him through his Son.
I’m struck by the final words of this chapter. Did you notice the emphasis on inclusion? Men, women, children, even the aliens among them … they are all included in this covenant. In the destruction accounts, we saw God’s judgment fall on men and women, young and old. And yet, in the same way, in God’s covenant, we also see the completeness of God’s grace, available to all kinds of people, from Joshua to Rahab the prostitute.
And so it is in Christ. Today, no matter your background, no matter who you are, no matter how much of an outsider you may feel like, this New Covenant in Christ is held out to you. Find refuge in the one who was hung on a tree for you, who bore your curse for you, so that you might be brought into God’s family. Find mercy in Jesus.
Earlier in the sermon, we thought about Judgment Day. There’s no question, that will be a fearful day, a day of reckoning. Even as Christians, it’s tempting to think of that day with a sense of dread. But consider this. The Jesus who died on a tree for you is also the Jesus who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. And it is that Jesus who is coming back for you. The Jesus who loves us, who gave himself for us, who is our Bridegroom, it is that Jesus who will appear, who will rescue us, and who will lead us to our new home. Friends, if you are in Christ, if your hope is in him, then whatever else happens that day, you can know, it’s going to be good. It’s going to be so good. Until that day, let’s remain faithful.
Geoff Chang is an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.