I draw your attention to Joshua 22, another of these texts that, unless your minister preaches through the Bible paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter, you are highly unlikely to ever hear preached. More’s the pity because it has a very important message.
With chapter 22, we begin the fourth and final section of the book of Joshua. If you remember, the first section was identified by the frequent repetition of the Hebrew verb “to cross,” and concerned Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land. The key word of the second section, which extended from 5:13 to the end of chapter 12, was the verb “to take,” because that section concerned Israel’s conquest of the land. The key words of the third section, extending from the beginning of chapter 13 to the end of chapter 21, were the verbs “to allot” and “to possess” or “to occupy;” that section concerned the division of the land among the tribes of Israel. The leitwort, or key word, of this final section is the Hebrew verb “to serve,” because this section concerns Israel’s response to all that God had done for her and given to her. Israel is now to serve the Lord in the land the Lord her God had given her.
v.3 It is important to the appreciation of the history that follows that these two and a half tribes had been faithful; they had fulfilled their obligation to help the rest of the nation secure the land and had deferred their settlement of their own new lands east of the Jordan in order to do so.
v.6 Here is the great theme of the final section of the book: let Israel be careful to remain faithful to the Lord — faithful in heart and soul — as the Lord has proved faithful to her. Verse 5 is a beautiful summary of the Christian life: to obey, to love God, to cling to him through thick and thin, and to serve him in gratitude for his grace and gifts to us. [Howard, 404]
v.9 Much is unsaid, of course. It had been more than five years since Israel crossed the Jordan into Canaan. Had these men made trips home between battles or when on leave from the army? Had some of the plunder of earlier battles already been shipped east of the Jordan? But now comes a crisis. Ironically a gesture on the part of the two and a half tribes that was intended to cement Israelite unity almost tore it apart. [Howard, 405]
v.12 The explanations come later, when we learn why the two and a half tribes built the altar and why the other tribes were so disturbed by it.
v.14 The presence of Phinehas, the priest, indicates that the question of right worship was central to the concern of the other tribes.
v.20 Now we understand the fear of the other Israelites. They imagined that the altar was for the purpose of worship and sacrifice; but Israel had been commanded to offer sacrifice in one place only, at the tabernacle. It was characteristic of Canaanite worship and the Canaanite worldview that they worshipped everywhere. They conducted their orgies in sanctuaries on the top of hills and under or near large trees and the like. But Israel was not to do that. The localization of Israelite sacrifice in one place was meant to preserve the purity of that worship. But here, it seemed, the two and a half tribes had built an altar of their own at a place of their own choosing, just as the Canaanites would have done. [Davis, 173-174] The tribes who settled in Canaan also understood the principle that a little leaven leavens the entire lump; that the infidelity of some tribes would bring guilt upon the entire people.
There is nothing in the text to suggest that this zealous rebuke was not both proper and exemplary. Every generation of God’s people should be so concerned about the purity of the church. They ought to realize that their own health and the health of their future generations are at stake. After all, this sort of infidelity expressed by participation in pagan worship had happened before in Israel. They had fallen prey to the influence of Balaam at Peor. Of course it could happen again, it has already happened. And so the tribes west of the Jordan urge their fellow Israelites who were to live east of the river to abandon their holdings and settle among the rest in Canaan. That would serve to keep the Israelite together in faithfulness to Yahweh. They would be nearer to the tabernacle and could worship properly more easily.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that the placing of the altar where they did already suggests purer motives on the part of the two and a half tribes. It was large, so they could see it on their eastern side of the river, but it was on the western side, of little use to them as a place of worship and sacrifice. It was intended to be seen, not to be used.
v.22 Take note of their impressive appeal to the one living and true God, with the piling up of his names: el, Elohim, and Yahweh. [Howard, 411-412]
v.29 The Transjordan tribes responded passionately. They had never intended to use the altar for sacrifice; it was rather built as a witness to their children and the children of the tribes west of the Jordan that they were Israelites through and through and that they intended to remain faithful to the heritage of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to the Lord their God and to the Law of Moses. The altar they built was not an altar at all; it was a replica of an altar! They were afraid that in a generation or two the Israelites in Canaan would begin to regard the Jordan as Israel’s boundary and the people east of the river as not true Israelites. That would, in turn, undermine their children’s loyalty to Yahweh and his worship. It was not an empty concern. The rift atop which the Jordan flows is the deepest trench on the surface of the earth. It was a true barrier and boundary. One geographer refers to it as “this colossal ditch.” [George Adam Smith in Davis, 176-177]
v.34 Israel’s faith and her unity rested on that joint conviction that Yahweh was the one living and true God. The full purpose of the altar was as a witness to the fact that Yahweh was God. The people of Israel were united in this belief and would remain a single people devoted to the right worship of God so long as they remained convinced that the one living and true God was Yahweh, the Lord.
We think of Joshua, and rightly, as the history of Israel’s conquest and settlement of the Promised Land, the fulfillment of promises made by the Lord to Abraham centuries before. But the book ends not so much by reminding us of what the Lord had done in giving Israel the land of milk and honey and the wealth that it contained, but with the recognition that God’s gifts create a corresponding obligation on the part of his people to respond in gratitude and faithfulness. Everywhere this is the message of the Bible: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments;” “We love him because he first loved us;” “In view of God’s mercies we must present our bodies to him as living sacrifices;” “He saved us to make us zealous for good works;” and a hundred other texts like those.
But the saddest fact of biblical and church history is that this faithful life of love and obedience tends almost always to lose its way, to lose touch with its foundation, and finally to go to ground. It may take several generations, it may sometimes take many generations, but sooner or later the faith that lived in the hearts and lives of great-grandparents or grandparents can no longer be found in the hearts of their descendants, who have somehow, for some reason, and perhaps without conscious intention, become Canaanites. These last chapters of Joshua, we have already noticed, are preparing us for the long march of kingdom history. Last week, for example, in considering chapter 21, we were introduced to what would prove a major feature of kingdom life from that time to this: viz. the pastor of the local church and the ministry of the Word as a central feature of believing life. Well, here again in chapter 22 we find one of these fundamental perspectives on the unfolding history of the kingdom of God. The great message of Joshua 22 is that Christians must take great care to preserve the faith or it will be lost. There really hasn’t been to this point in the Bible such a clear, unabashed warning of this danger or summons to take steps to prevent this outcome. There will be many to come, but this is the first full length warning that a living relationship to the Lord is hard won but easily lost. It is a fact writ large over the spiritual history of the world and the Christian church; one of the most important facts of all. We have here, alas, the shadow of apostasy overspreading the future history of Israel and the people of God, an apostasy that will darken the otherwise glorious story of the gospel’s progress to the four corners of the earth.
Happily, in this case, it proved to be all a misunderstanding, but there hangs a tale on the fact that this episode is reported in such detail. In fact, what we see is both parties doing precisely what they ought to have done. No one is in the wrong in chapter 22! The one side should have worried about the long-term fidelity of their children and grandchildren and the other side should have worried when there seemed to be already unfaithfulness appearing in the camp. And the reason is because, though it did not actually happen in this case, it would happen soon enough and, alas, repeatedly through the ages to come.
We can tell that sad story in regard to innumerable Christian families. We know Christian families who have kept the Christian faith vitally alive through three or four or five generations. Nothing is more wonderful and that it should be the case is the repeated teaching of the Word of God. How often does the Lord promise his grace to the umpteenth generation of those who love and trust him! But we also know of so many families in which the faith, so strong in the first generation, has withered or actually disappeared even by the second generation or the third. I know and, no doubt some of you know Christian people whose hearts are broken because their children or grandchildren have lost all touch with their own Christian faith. And, of course, so often after the connection of faith and spiritual life has been broken the rising generations in that family line will be unbelievers, not faithful Christians. Scores and hundreds and thousands of people who might, who should have been Christians are unbelievers instead, scarcely aware of what might so easily have been their spiritual inheritance in the kingdom of God.
But the story of Christian families is replicated on a larger scale in the history of churches. We have a congregation in the Presbyterian Church in America, Manor Church in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, long known as Faggs Manor Presbyterian Church. That congregation was organized in 1730 in the tumultuous days of the first Great Awakening. It remains a congregation of evangelical Christians these almost three centuries later. But how comparatively rare the churches that have been faithful to Christ and his gospel through so many generations! It is not unheard of, of course, to find living churches that continue in faithfulness to the Lord and his Word after a century or century and a half, or two centuries, but how many more are there who lost their way at some point and have begun to produce not ardent followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, but unbelievers with a religious tinge. In Europe such churches are the vast majority; in America their numbers are growing apace.
The last time I was in Edinburgh, I did as I always do. I made a pilgrimage to St. George’s, the church which a hero of mine, Alexander Whyte, pastored for almost 50 years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a large church, with a towering spire, in the fashionable West End, just a few blocks from the fabled Princess Street and only a stone’s throw from the Castle.
It was known as Free St. George’s in Whyte’s day, because it was a congregation that, influenced by the evangelical revival, had left the Church of Scotland in the Disruption of 1843 to become part of the Free Church. The building it presently occupies was built by the congregation during its Free Church days. With most of the Free Church it returned to the Church of Scotland in the early 20th century and is now known simply as St. George’s. It is a church with a history of great ministers. Andrew Mitchell Thomson pastored the church before the Disruption. Thomson, a leading evangelical in the Church of Scotland of his day, was a preacher of considerable power. He was once described by Thomas Chalmers himself as a man of colossal mind, wielding the weapons of spiritual warfare with an arm of might and voice of resistless energy, carrying, as if by storm the convictions of his people. [Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, 820] Thomson was the editor of an influential church paper, the author of important books, and, as we know, a considerable musician. He wrote the tune, appropriately entitled “St. George’s Edinburgh,” that we use for the verses of the 24th Psalm that begin, “Ye gates, lift up your heads on high.” He was a faithful pastor and started a Christian school for the neighborhood. Thomson was followed by Robert Candlish, the leader of the Free Church in the middle of the 19th century, a theologian of international significance, and principal (we would say “president”) of the Free Church’s theological seminary. Candlish was then followed by the greatest preacher of all of St. George’s pastors, Alexander Whyte, who held the large congregation spellbound for nearly 50 years. You can still see a plaque in the narthex of the church, a profile of Whyte in stone with an inscription describing his long and faithful ministry and the undying affection of the congregation for him.
A few of you old-timers may remember that this congregation gave me a gift in June of 1995 to commemorate the seventeenth anniversary of my ordination and installation as the pastor of this church. It was a nicely bound volume of handwritten transcriptions of sermons delivered by Whyte in Free St. George’s in October and November of 1881. Interestingly, at the beginning of several of the sermons the transcriptionist entered a note right beside the text and title of the sermon and the date on which it was delivered. In one case it reads “church full,” in another, “church very full.” Free St. George’s was one of the most celebrated congregations in the Scottish church and the very large sanctuary was full almost every Sunday. What is more, the church was very like some famous churches of our day. It was not only large, it was influential. The pastor’s messages were published in books read all over the world. Important figures of Edinburgh government and business were members and attended services. The ministers were public figures and among the most honored citizens of the city. St. George’s was Redeemer and Saddleback rolled into one.
The first time I visited St. George’s – in 1984 – it was a weekday afternoon and I just happened to find the janitor on the premises who graciously let me into the sanctuary to see the pulpit where Whyte preached and absorb the atmosphere of that great sanctuary. But the last time I was there the outer door of the church stood wide open and the narthex was filled with booths and activity. It was Music Festival week in Edinburgh – the city has a world-famous music festival in August every year – and many organizations seek to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city who fill its streets and halls during the Festival week. Well, St. George’s narthex was filled with what, I suppose, would be called “social justice” organizations peddling their wares. Crafts from Africa were for sale and printed material describing their programs to promote “justice” in other parts of the world were there for the taking. They were hoping that you would sign up for this or for that.
I was with my son-in-law and Jim Price and wanted to show them the sanctuary, but there was a musical concert going on at the time and we weren’t allowed in. I did find on a rack a newsletter from the church itself. It was full of this report and that meeting having to do with a now very familiar approach to social justice using all the predictable vocabulary so beloved of the liberal church that has no longer any message of eternal life, of the forgiveness of sins, and of the true justice that comes from the transformation of the human heart by the power of God. The name Jesus Christ did not appear in the pamphlet and nothing was said – nothing whatsoever – of the church’s commitment to the gospel of Christ as a message of the salvation of sinners and as the true hope of the world’s people. There was nothing distinctively Christian in all the pages of that booklet, and I looked very carefully from beginning to end.
As it happens, from what I was given to understand, Sunday would have been still more dismal. The congregation is small, services are poorly attended, not a hundred people, a tiny fraction of the immense crowds of people that used to fill the church twice on Sunday to hear the sermons of Candlish and Whyte. Sad to say, it won’t be long before there isn’t enough of a congregation to sustain that large building and it will be sold for condominiums or a night club, as so many Church of Scotland sanctuaries have been over these past forty years or so. That is one example of literally thousands upon thousands that might be offered of the very spiritual collapse into false religion and irrelevance that the Israelites west of the Jordan feared had already begun among them when they saw the altar near the Jordan River. We have large sanctuaries here in Tacoma that once were filled to the brim with worshippers every Lord’s Day, morning and evening, but in which now a small congregation rattles about. Lest we forget, the same thing would happen in Israel in the very next generation: the momentum of faith and love would be spent and Canaanite practices would begin to be embraced by the people of God.
There is, sad to say but important to know, a kind of second law of thermodynamics in the spiritual world as well: things tend to fall apart, to grow weak, and then to die. The church may grow for generations; it may transform a culture for some considerable time; but eventually she grows weak and invariably by compromise with unbelief. But we have not only the prospect of such apostasy here in Joshua 22 but the antidote to it as well. What this generation of Israelites did — that is, the men of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh — was to bear witness to their determination that they, their children, and their grandchildren would serve the Lord. They built a huge replica of an altar on the opposite bank of the Jordan as a testimony to their belonging to the people of Israel, to their place in the heritage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that they were committed to doing all that that heritage required of them. Every time they traveled near the river they would see that huge altar — not for making sacrifice but for reminding them of who and what they were as the people of Israel — and when their families were with them they would explain to their children why the altar was there and what it meant.
These Israelites were doing the very same thing that the parishioners of the Old Kirk, Kiltearn in Rosshire in Northern Scotland did when they laid a stone that everyone entering the church would see that bore the inscription: “This stone shall bear witness against the parishioners of Kiltearn if they bring an ungodly minister in here.” “This stone shall bear witness,” which is to say we want God to take notice of what we are doing; we want him to inspect our lives; we want our lives to be subject to his correction and to his rule in every way. They were taking the future seriously, the danger of spiritual apostasy seriously, and the absolute necessity of continuing fidelity to the Lord, to his Word, and to his worship in the rising generations. What we see in these two and a half tribes is the exact reverse of spiritual complacency, of what Amos would later call the sin of “being at ease in Zion.” That mindset is, alas, found wherever one looks in the church. It is as if the Christian man or woman says to himself or herself, “I am saved; I am right with God; I am going to heaven; all of that is now taken care of. Therefore, I can relax and enjoy my life in this world. In the confidence of my own position I needn’t be so zealous; having heaven, I can have the world too.” Few Christians will actually say that to themselves, of course, but through the ages a very large number of them have behaved as if that were what they actually thought.
But that is no way to preserve faith in the next generation and the generation after that. A shadow cannot produce a shadow! No, faith that endures through generations will be a zealous faith, a witnessing faith, a vigilant faith, an active faith, a faith concerned as much for children, grand-children, and great grand-children as it is for oneself. The faith that is evidence here in Joshua 22.
We see just that in both of these groups, the point being the clearer precisely because they both demonstrate the same concern: to be sure that living faith endures in Israel. It is this zeal for fidelity that is the key point here. The methods required are, of course, varied and judgments must be made all along the way. The interesting thing here is that while zeal for Israel’s fidelity to the Lord is front and center, concern for the unity of the people is equally obvious. The solution the nine and a half tribes first propose is that the two and half tribes abandon their claims east of the Jordan and come live with the rest of Israel in Canaan. They thought there would be strength in unity. And the rest of the Bible lays great emphasis on that truth. The church is strongest and her faith is most impregnable, when she is united and conscious of her unity. Zeal for doctrinal integrity that forgets the importance of unity can do as much harm to future generations as doctrine and liturgical laxness. A divided church, a fractured church always loses its influence on the rising generations. Most churches that originate in schism — it is fact sad but true — get smaller as the years go by, not larger. Such divisions may be necessary, I do not deny that they may be, but no one should imagine division a likely path to greater things for the kingdom of God in generations to come. The sad fact of our life as believing Presbyterians in America in the 21st century is that the die was cast a long time ago and that there are many, many fewer of us than there used to be and our overall numbers are declining rather than growing. Our individual churches — the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church may be growing slightly — but the overall story is one of precipitous decline. We have lost the future generations just as these wise Israelites feared might happen. Thankfully, the number of believing Presbyterians elsewhere in the world is soaring; in Africa, for example, but not here in America. Apostasy kills not only that generation guilty of the betrayal but the generations that will come after. What we see in Joshua 22 is zeal for Israel’s unity and zeal for Israel’s fidelity that amount to a concern for the future of Israel’s spiritual life.
When in any time and place the generational connection of faith in God and holy love is broken, the believing church becomes a “remnant,” the Bible’s technical term for the smaller believing part of a church that by and large has lost its way. It would become such a remnant soon after the death of Joshua and again and again in the history since. It is, of course, better to be faithful even in small numbers, than to be unfaithful. But how sad to have lost generation after generation, thousands if not millions of people who should have been Christians and are not.
We are warned against this eventuality in Joshua 22 and we are shown what generational faithfulness requires: a people as concerned for the spiritual life of their children and grandchildren as for their own; a people vigilant for any sign of spiritual defection, and a people zealous to take whatever steps might be taken to bear witness to the future of their own faithfulness to God and their desire to see the rising generations as faithful as they, if not more so.
I have no simple nostrums to offer you. The story of the church and kingdom of God in the world is a story of struggle; of progress and of setback. No one who has read the history of the church and, therefore, knows how inevitable the spiritual slide seems to be, will ever tell you that he or she knows how to prevent this. No one who has counted up the hundreds and thousands of educational institutions in our land that once were loyal to the gospel of Christ and now are its avowed enemies will imagine that such apostasy can be prevented by this means or that. It is a matter of heart and will. Joshua 22 teaches us to care deeply about this, to worry about it, and, insofar as it depends on us, to do everything we can to protect the unity of faith in the church and, still more, to cultivate that faith in God and Christ in the hearts of our children and our grandchildren.
For the fact is, if the bond of faith and love between the generations is often broken, it is not by any means always broken. And God forbid that it should be broken in our families and in our church. May this church still be proclaiming Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life 300 years from now when all of us have long been forgotten — if Christ has not returned by then — and may its congregation, larger then than now, still be adorning that gospel and bearing witness to it in worship and in life. It will be so only if first we, then our children, then our grandchildren are determined that it be so!