Many years ago, after a long discussion of the challenges, difficulties, and heartaches she faced, a frustrated parent told me, “Preacher, it is not easy being the mother of a child with her own free will!”
Parenting is hard. Leadership is hard. Life can be hard. As we have celebrated Father’s Day this past Sunday and Mother’s Day just a few weeks ago in May, many individuals have just experienced seasons of both celebration and difficulty. For many parents and children, these days are wonderful seasons of celebrating family, love, and cherished memories. However, for many others, these days bring seasons of pain, disappointment, and frustration – over what is, what was, and what might have been. The truth is that faithful legacies are easy to celebrate when they exist and are well received. However, when they are rejected, ignored, abandoned, or absent altogether, there are many holes, hurts, and haunting questions that remain.
What kind of legacy should we leave to our children, our families, and those under our influence?
How do we leave a legacy of lasting and positive impact pointing others to faith in the Lord?
What do we do when that legacy is ignored?
What do we do when that legacy is rejected?
What do we do when that legacy is abandoned?
God is not ignorant of these hard realities and questions, nor is His Word devoid of wisdom and guidance concerning them. In Joshua 24:14-19, the Lord proves this to His people as He works through His servant Joshua to call them to account for their actions, choices, and convictions. This magnificent and iconic passage takes place shortly before the death of Joshua as he is preparing to leave the scene of both leadership and life, and Israel is preparing to enter the dark and challenging days of the Judges. In preparation for what was to come, Joshua knew that he had a responsibility to call Israel to a moment of decision – and in his role as their leader, to call them boldly, clearly, and firmly to the foundation of truth.
In his book, Thinking for a Change, John Maxwell observed: “If you are successful, it becomes possible for you to leave an inheritance for others. But if you desire to create a legacy, then you need to leave something in others. When you think unselfishly and invest in others, you gain the opportunity to create a legacy that will outlive you.”
I think Joshua knew that truth well as the leader of God’s people. A marvelous and legendary legacy of faithfulness to the truth of God had been committed to him by his predecessor, Moses. Now, it was Joshua’s turn to impart his own legacy of faith to the people of Israel. That is no small task unto itself, but it was further complicated by Joshua’s understanding of his own people. They could triumph in faithfulness one moment and sink into the despairing and disillusioning pit of idolatry in the next. How quickly they could forget. And yet Joshua knew what they needed and what God had charged him to do. In one of the most loved and frequently quoted passages of Scripture, Joshua acted in obedience to the Lord’s command by confronting the people of God and challenging them to make a clear, definitive, public decision of faith.
First, Joshua issued a bold and clear command to the children of Israel: in light of all that God had done for them, they now had a choice to make regarding what they would do for Him. Verse 14 of our focal passage came on the heels of a recitation of God’s blessings upon His people in Joshua 24:1-13.
It was the Lord who brought them out of bondage in Egypt.
It was the Lord who led them through the wilderness wanderings.
It was the Lord who protected them from all of their enemies in the world around them – before, during, and after the wilderness wanderings.
It was the Lord who brought them victory over all of their enemies in the promised land.
And it was now the Lord who called them to remember and to recognize His hand of blessing and who called them to respond to those blessings by committing themselves to love and serve Him, to lead victorious and joy-filled lives marked by faithful service to Him, and to stand as witnesses to Him in a lost and dying world.
The recitation of God’s abundant faithfulness to His people is breathtaking. God’s people were arrested by this recounting of His faithful love and provision for them through daunting challenges and countless failures on their part. And yet, despite the moving nature of this declaration of God’s amazing grace toward His people and the passionate invitation to faithful commitment issued at its conclusion, a nagging question remained. How were they to do this? How were these people to demonstrate their faithful commitment to such an awesome, holy, and loving God? Joshua provided a clear answer in verse 14: “…fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” (ESV). The whole response God sought from His people was predicated on the first three words of Joshua’s exhortation: fear the Lord.
What does it mean to “fear” the Lord? When we think of fear, we typically think of a noun describing an emotional state of being terrified. Or, perhaps, we think of a verb that associates and projects that emotional state onto something that triggers it. We fear spiders. We fear snakes. We fear storms…or intruders…or bills…or the IRS…the list goes on.
Fear, as translated in the passage before us, is, in fact, a verb but one that describes action different from that described above. The word Joshua used for fear is the Hebrew word יְר֧אוּ  (“yeru”), which means to stand in awe, to revere, or to be stricken with a deep sense of honor. Joshua is not calling the people of Israel to be terrified of God in the sense of a phobia, but rather to revere and honor God through obedience to His commands. As David Jackman noted in his commentary on this passage, “It is the proper attitude of a redeemed sinner before a holy God, a humble submission that recognizes that he is God and we are not and that therefore submits every area of our lives to his authority.”
In light of this calling to “fear” the Lord in reverential awe, what were God’s people to do on a practical basis? The answer was to put away their false gods. In his exhortation, Joshua references three accounts of prior spiritual unfaithfulness. First, the Abrahamic generation beyond the Euphrates. Second, the generations who lived in Egypt and assimilated their idols (v. 14). Finally, Joshua referred to the Canaanite gods worshipped in the land where they dwelt as he addressed them (v. 15). Joshua’s purpose in calling the attention of the people to these tragic instances of idolatry and idolatrous temptation was not to rub salt in the proverbial wound. Rather, it was to publicly and soberly bring his people to a critical and decisive choice that would impact their lives then and in the years to come.
As verses 16-18 recount, the people responded positively to the choice Joshua sat before them. They declared that they would put away their false gods and that they would serve the one true God of Israel. As the people stated in the concluding declaration of verse 18: “Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God” (ESV). One would think that Joshua would be elated in response to the full-throated, passionate declaration of faith and commitment on the part of the people. However, Joshua was a seasoned veteran of many years spent leading God’s people. He knew their hearts. And he knew their tendencies.
This explains Joshua’s immediate response, which often confounds those reading and studying this account. Joshua replied to the people: “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.” (Joshua 24:19 ESV; emphasis mine). As one can imagine, this verse is often a focal point for those claiming that the Bible is full of contradictions. As a matter of fact, it has been called by some scholars the most shocking statement in all the Old Testament. How can a God who repeatedly asserts His willingness to forgive sin and transgression – offering mercy and redemption to His sinful people – then be said to not forgive sin and transgression?
The answer is revealed in the two-fold understanding of Joshua. First, Joshua knew his people. And second, Joshua knew his God. As their leader, Joshua knew that, in their own power, the people could not keep the promise of faithfulness they had just made. He further knew the awesome and holy nature of the God they had just committed themselves to serve. Joshua’s declaration was not issued to suggest that God is unforgiving in an absolute sense, but rather to warn that he cannot condone apostasy – the heart of Israel’s past and future problems. In order to drive home the solemnity of the vow they had just made and the binding nature of their commitment to purge from themselves not only their idolatrous tendencies but any notions of a cheap, superficial, shallow faith, Joshua declared before them the absolute nature of God’s holiness. In his brilliant commentary on this passage, Dr. David Howard stated it this way:
“Joshua’s response to the people that they were unable to serve the Lord properly communicates the absolute and awesome nature of God’s holiness and his jealousy. He would not forgive them if they persisted in sin. However, Exod 20:6 shows that even this jealous God would show his love in a most bountiful way if his people loved him and kept his commandments. Joshua himself assumed that the Israelites would make a choice (Josh 24:14–15). His dramatic words here emphasize the solemnity of the requirements, to purge from the Israelites any false notions of “cheap grace.” Theirs was not to be a nominal, superficial faith. As J. H. Michaelis noted, Israel could not serve the Lord “by your own resolution only, and without the assistance of divine grace, without solid and serious conversion from all idols, and without true repentance and faith.”
So often in life, the truth is hard. It is often hard to say. It is often harder to live. And yet, the truth, stated and declared in love, always has a liberating effect on the heart, mind, and soul. In the truest example of a godly leader and father, Joshua loved God’s people enough to declare before them the truth. And, as shocking as that truth seemed at surface level, there is actually tremendous comfort to be found in the truth Joshua proclaimed, as David Jackman observed:
“Joshua is in essence telling them, “What you have promised is impossible.” But Joshua is not just turning the tables or playing games with them. The rest of the verse explains what he means. God is “holy” and “jealous.” He is set apart from all the petty, false, pagan deities and also from his own people by his righteousness and moral purity. There is no flicker of deviation in his character, which is why he will not share Israel’s devotion with any rivals. He is jealous, like a faithful partner in a marriage whose love for his or her spouse is so constant and so uncompromising that reciprocal undivided love is the only appropriate response in return. Yahweh’s response underlines the absolute demands and awesome nature of God’s grace, seen in his holiness and jealousy. It is not a light choice to refuse to genuinely surrender to his Lordship (v. 20).”
As followers of Christ, if we are lead lives marked by faithfulness to the Lord Jesus and lasting legacies that will bring glory to His name and encourage others to do likewise, then our lives and the legacies they construct must be marked by one thing above all else: truth. Faithfulness to the truth was the hallmark of Joshua’s life and leadership and the bedrock of the lasting legacy he committed to Israel as the end of his days drew near. In light of the complicated and complex world in which we live, it is a fair question to ask how we are to remain faithful to truth when it seems like a trip to the grocery store can present complicated logistical challenges with worldview implications requiring a well-conceived, peer-reviewed, and systematically-formulated strategic plan (if that sounds exceedingly complicated, that’s my point – put another way, “to mask or not to mask – that is the question”). We are reminded of the answer in Joshua 24:19. We cannot do it.
We cannot change the world overnight.
We cannot fix all of everyone else’s problems.
We cannot unilaterally defeat all of the evil in the world.
We cannot unilaterally deliver the suffering from their plight.
We cannot unilaterally deliver those enslaved to darkness from their bondage.
We cannot unilaterally solve all of the world’s great and daunting challenges.
We cannot save another soul.
But God can. God has always been able to do all of these things. And God remains able to do all of these things today, tomorrow, and forevermore. There is no state of the world that God cannot alter. There is no problem that God cannot solve. There is no evil that God cannot defeat. There is no suffering from which God cannot bring deliverance. There is no enslavement that God cannot liberate. There is no challenge that God cannot overcome. And there is no soul, turning to Him in faith, that God cannot save.
Joshua called Israel to recognize the greatness, holiness, and majesty of the incomparable God who loved them, cared for them, and called them to follow Him. And Joshua called Israel to recognize the seriousness of their decision and their response before that great, holy, and majestic God. In his clarion call, “choose this day whom you will serve…,” (24:15), Joshua loved his people by calling them to a critical moment of decision. In his own response to that moment of decision when he declared, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” (24:15), Joshua loved his people in leading by example. And in shockingly pronouncing the twin realities of Israel’s inability and God’s character when he declared, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins,” (24:19), Joshua loved his people by setting them on the bedrock of truth.
Yes, truth can be tough. But truth is also the great tonic of the soul. Truth grounds us in the right understanding, sets us on the right path, and orients us in the right posture before a loving and holy God. When Joshua drew near to his departure from this life into eternity, he thought not of his glory days, his military might, his skills and successes as a spy, or his greatness as Moses’s successor to lead the people of God. Joshua thought of truth. And, in doing so, Joshua gave to his people – and to us – the lasting legacy of truth.
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32 ESV)
 John Maxwell, “John Maxwell on Creating a Legacy,” Sermon Illustrations, PreachingToday.com. Accessed June 22, 2021. https://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2005/september/16127.html
 Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: SESB Version., electronic ed. (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 2003), Jos 24:14.
 Ludwig Koehler et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000), 433.
 David Jackman, Joshua: People of God’s Purpose, ed. R. Kent Hughes, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 189.
 Jackman, Joshua, 189.
 David M. Howard Jr., Joshua, vol. 5, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 437.
 Howard Jr., Joshua, 438.
 Jackman, Joshua, 191.