Today we are going to study a few verses out of a discourse that Joshua spoke to the nation of Israel prior to his death. They are recorded for us in Joshua 24:19-22. We read, “And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the Lord: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good. And the people said unto Joshua, Nay; but we will serve the Lord. And Joshua said unto the people, Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the Lord, to serve him. And they said, We are witnesses.”
What harsh words Joshua spoke to Israel: “You cannot serve Jehovah! God will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.” That is downright discouraging! Is it even proper theology? Is it proper for Joshua to say this to God’s people, especially since God in His faithfulness to His promise had just given this nation the land of Canaan for a possession?
Then too, are these words spoken only to Israel, or are they spoken to the church of Jesus Christ today too?
Obviously, we would not consider this Word of God if it did not apply to you and me and the church today too. The accusation of Joshua is leveled against the church of Christ then, now, and throughout the ages. It is true: we cannot serve Jehovah, for He is holy and jealous. Such is the subject of our broadcast today.
As we mentioned, Joshua addresses in these verses the nation of Israel as a whole. The people of Israel gathered together before Joshua in Shechem. Joshua then addresses the people with their elders. He briefly sketched for them the history of Israel from its deliverance from Egypt to the present. The emphasis of this history is that God protected and led this nation from the outset so that what she possessed now was freely given to her from God. God gave to this nation a land for which she did not labor. With that, Joshua exhorts the elders of Israel in verse 14, “now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and truth.” The response of the people to this exhortation was, “God forbid that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods.” Joshua’s response that we find here in the words of the verse we consider today: “You cannot serve the Lord!” The people through their elders claimed most emphatically, “God forbid that we should forsake Him!” Joshua responds: “You cannot serve Him!”
I. A Jealous God
Why would Joshua tell God’s people that they cannot serve Jehovah? Scripture is clear enough, after all. “Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing” (Ps. 100:2). “Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13). We must serve Jehovah! We must serve Him alone.
But there is an important rule of grammar we must bear in mind in the words of our text here. Joshua is not saying, “You may not serve Jehovah,” as if God does not give Israel or us the permission to serve Him. As we pointed out, Scripture everywhere teaches us that not only may we serve Jehovah, but we must serve Jehovah. What Joshua explains to the heads of the tribes of Israel is that the nation cannot serve Jehovah. The nation and people are not able, do not have the ability, to serve Jehovah.
But again, is it not true that by the work of God’s grace and the Spirit of Christ in our hearts we are able to serve Jehovah? More than definitely that is true! It was true then too. God’s people have been given the desire and the spiritual ability to serve God with godly fear and reverence.
But Joshua, by means of this blunt statement, points out to the elders of Israel that serving God is against our sinful flesh. It is not a simple thing to serve God alone without making to ourselves other idols that we serve beside Him. God demands of us perfect obedience to His Word, perfect conformity to His commandments. That is the only way we can serve Him aright. Likewise, God demands of us that we serve Him alone as the one only true God of heaven and earth. God commands His people to serve Him without wavering or doubting, without excuses or spiritual maneuvering to avoid His will.
For that reason, Joshua tells us, we cannot serve Jehovah! Even as redeemed children of God cleansed in the blood of Christ, believers are not able to serve God perfectly as He wills of us. Joshua does not say this in order to discourage the nation of Israel or to deter them from wholeheartedly serving Jehovah. He says this in order to show the elders of the people that serving Jehovah is not an easy matter, because it goes against man’s sinful nature. We must recognize our own inability and insufficiency to perform of ourselves a service that is acceptable to God. We are not able to serve Jehovah properly by our own resolution or without serious turning from idols in humble repentance and faith. The ability to serve God in a way that is pleasing to Him comes only when we implore the work of God’s grace in us. We must be deeply aware that we depend entirely on the work of our Savior in our hearts. The proper service of God does not come naturally. It is a gift of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Joshua then explains why we cannot faithfully serve God of our own accord and ability. Notice, verse 19: “Ye cannot serve the Lord: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God.” We must look upon the God whom we are called to serve! He is a holy God! In God there is no sin or impurity. He dwells in a light of perfection. For that reason He is dedicated to Himself as the highest good. The service God demands of men must therefore be perfectly holy too. There may be no impurity in our service of God. We may not deem to worship God as we ourselves think He should be served. God determines for us the holy service of His name. When we fail to follow that service from a heart that loves God with heart, mind, soul, and strength we fail in our service of God. It requires the work of God’s grace in our hearts and the Spirit of Christ in order to serve God with godly fear.
Furthermore, we learn that God is a jealous God. We all know what it is to be jealous. It is intolerance of rivalry, or a fear that another is taking away the affection and love of another. Wives and husbands, for example, are jealous of each other. This can be a good thing, but when it is sinful it can result in a lack of trust. Well, God is a jealous God—but always in the good sense, of course. He will not tolerate those who place their affections and love on another. He is angry when His spouse, the church and her members, turn away from Him to serve idols. This too is why Joshua tells the elders of Israel that the people of Israel cannot serve God. It is in our sinful flesh to place our affections on things of this world rather than solely on God. We will worship God. We will serve Him. But there are so many other things of this present life that rob God of our full attention and love. We so easily place our affections and desires on the things here below, and often they take precedence over serving God. We place these people and things before God.
Israel was, in fact, doing exactly that. They were at that time serving other gods. It was easy to say, as did the elders, “God forbid that we should forsake Jehovah to serve other gods.” But this is exactly what many within Israel were doing! And God is jealous! He will not tolerate any rivalry for His affections.
Neither ought we to think that God does not care. He does. God is very sensitive in His holiness and jealousy. Read the rest of verse 19: “he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.” Now, that last phrase there, “God will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins,” might raise some questions. We learn in Scripture that God is plenteous in mercy. In His grace He does forgive us of our sins. When we stumble into the paths of sin and come before God in humble repentance, we know that God will look upon us for the sake of Jesus Christ and forgive us. Yet, Joshua declares, “God will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.”
But we must not misunderstand what Joshua says. The term “forgive” does not refer to pardoning sin. It refers to tolerating or overlooking sin. Now the sentence makes sense. God does not tolerate or overlook the sins of His people. God does not accept the person of one, or look favorably upon that man or woman or young person, who walks in rebellion against His commandments. God does not wink at our sins and say, “No problem, I love you anyway!” God is a holy God and a jealous God. He is not satisfied with us when we merely say that we love Him but then love other gods alongside of Him. God is not satisfied with us when we worship Him in church or in our families in a mere formal sense and then turn around and serve ourselves and the lusts of our flesh.
We may not fall into the malady that has overtaken many in the church today and which characterized the nation of Israel repeatedly through her history. It is an easy thing to say, I am a Christian and I serve God. But to follow after Christ and to serve God wholly with our hearts and souls is another matter. God will not share our devotion with another. God will not tolerate those who despise His holiness in the way they live. You see why Joshua states, “you cannot serve Jehovah!”? Who listening today can say that we serve God with heart, mind, soul, and strength?
Furthermore, Joshua is addressing the church as a whole. It is true that in Israel there were many who were faithful to God. But there were also many who were already serving the gods of the land together with their worship of Jehovah. The nation of Israel as a whole was not even able to say, “We will serve God alone.” The church institute always has its share of unbelievers in it that serve the gods of this world alongside of Jehovah.
The positive truth we draw from this is the knowledge that our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. We cannot serve God, but Christ has perfectly served God. We do transgress or rebel against God’s law oftentimes, but Christ was perfectly obedient to God’s law. We do sin or miss the mark of the holiness of God, but Christ has never missed the mark. Christ was and is perfectly righteous. Furthermore, Christ alone has earned the perfect righteousness of God on the cross, where He paid the price for all our transgression. It is that righteousness of Christ that is imputed to His people through faith. On the basis of Christ’s work alone, therefore, God forgives believers of their sins.
But that we are justified by faith alone does not make the believer careless and profane. We do not simply plead on Christ’s merits and then go our merry way and walk in the service of the gods of this present world. We do not say we love God and then give ourselves over to the carnal lusts of our flesh. The gods of this world: the immorality and sex, the drunkenness, the sinful entertainment of this unbelieving world, are horrible gods! But even when we give ourselves over to such things as sports or recreation or the accumulation of money and goods so that these take priority in life above God, these too become gods that we serve.
With sanctified hearts we flee the gods of this world. We hate sin. We strive the more to serve Jehovah alone. And when we fall, then we in sorrow ask forgiveness in the blood of Christ. Then our Father grants us forgiveness for Christ’s sake. God does not tolerate us when we sin, but God pardons our sins for the sake of His Son.
II. A Consuming God
Joshua, however, in the verses before us, places before the elders and heads of the people the continued threat of the gospel. We read in verse 20, “If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then he will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that he hath done you good.” This warning came to the nation of Israel as a whole. God never, of course, consumed in His wrath His elect people found within that nation. They may have been punished together with the nation as a whole, but they were never consumed in God’s wrath. We need to make that clear distinction. What may have been true of Israel organically, that is, as a whole, may not have been true of God’s elect people within that nation. What may be true of the church as an institute today does not necessarily apply to God’s elect people within that institute. You see, the church of Jesus Christ as a body in this world is made up of only the elect. But when that church organizes into an institute, the carnal seed is mixed together with the believing seed. Reprobate can be born into the church or join the church from without. Not all that is called Israel is Israel.
When Joshua speaks here in our text, he speaks to the nation as a whole—a nation into which were born and in which lived reprobate as well as elect. To this nation Joshua declares, “If you forsake Jehovah and serve strange gods, Jehovah will do you hurt! He will consume you in His wrath and destroy you! He who has done you good will turn away from you as a nation, after having done you good, and He will hurt you!”
That warning issued to the church then ought to be well heeded by the church institute of our day. God always saves His elect—always. He never forsakes them. They are held in the hand of Jesus Christ. God will preserve them in His grace. But they belong together with unbelievers in the church institute. When such unbelievers gain the upper hand in the church and turn the church away from God and to the strange gods of this wicked world, God will do such a church hurt. He will consume that church. When a church turns from god to serve the strange gods of false doctrine, when such a church makes of Jehovah a god that tolerates and accepts the persons of sinners, then God will hurt that church. When such a church allows its members to walk in the ways of this world, satisfying the lusts of their own flesh, when such a church tells everyone, “Don’t worry, God loves you all despite your sins,” God will do such a church hurt.
After Joshua died, a new generation of the church was born and grew up. We find, during the times of the judges, the nation of Israel repeatedly turning away from worshiping Jehovah. The people turned to idols, indulging in the same excesses and sins that accompanied idol worship. God then hurt His people by sending these same nations upon them to destroy Israel. These nations killed the people, raped the land, and forced the nation of Israel to pay tribute. It was not until God’s people in Israel turned to Jehovah and cried in repentance that God delivered them through a judge. Later in the history of Israel, when she under her kings continued in her idolatry, God took her away from the land of promise into captivity. Today, of course, God does not hurt that church unfaithful to Him in the same way He did Israel. Today God simply removes the candlestick of the gospel from the midst of that church. He gives such a church over to heresy and the sins of her members. Such a church may remain church in name, but it is void of the truth and her members perish for lack of knowledge.
Again, keep in mind, this passage before us does not contradict the truth that God always preserves unto Himself a church. Tracing the history of Israel, we will find God always preserves to Himself a people out of Israel. Those in Israel that walked in sin during the time of the judges were judged by Jehovah and consumed. He did them hurt. God’s people who cried to God in their distress were forgiven and delivered by means of the judge. Later, when Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were utterly destroyed because of their unbelief, Jehovah, the changeless God, in His faithfulness to His people brought them into Babylon, but after 70 years brought them back again to the land of Canaan. God has always preserved His true church throughout the ages. Even though church institutes have risen and fallen, God always preserves His elect church.
III. An Answerable People
In verse 21 of our text the elders of Israel took a vow on themselves on behalf of the nation of Israel: “We will serve the Lord.” By saying this they made themselves and the nation of Israel answerable to God for their actions. We too, fellow believers, as officebearers and members of the church, are answerable to God. Today too we vow: we will serve Jehovah! God hears our vow. And He holds us to it! We must serve the God who has delivered us out of the hands of our enemies. We set our hearts today on the God whom we serve. We desire Him above all earthly joy. We will serve Jehovah! Let God be our witness, we will serve Jehovah!
Now listen to how Joshua responds in verse 22: “Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you to serve the Lord.” Dear friends, may our witness never be against us! When a new generation grows up in the church, may they take that vow seriously too! May the witness of parents not be against their children when they grow up to take their place in the church. May we continue to serve the Lord in our generations. May God by His grace lead us to serve Him faithfully.