Topic: Default Scripture: Joshua 1:10–1:18
We are in the second half of Joshua 1 this morning. The structure of this first chapter is really clearly laid out once you see it for the first time. In our passage last week God was commanding Joshua, and Joshua was responding in obedience. This week, Joshua is doing the commanding and God’s people are responding in obedience. The command last week was for Joshua to be strong and courageous and the command this week is to prepare to take the promised land.
There is so much in the first half of Joshua chapter one that a deeply theological and eminently practical teaching is often overlooked in the second half of the chapter: the need for the people of God to be unified. Joshua’s main concern as they prepare to take the promised land is that all twelve tribes of Israel would be unified.
What we value is what unifies us with other people. If a whole neighborhood values being annexed into the nicer zip code, they are unified in this value. If your college football team is good, you are unified with other alumni in your desire to see them go all the way. If you have an arrogant, condescending boss, your workplace might be unified in your desire to see him move on.
The unifying value for the Israelites was God and the promise of land. The unifying value for Christians is the Triune God who has established a better promised land in Jesus Christ. The twelve tribes of Israel were united even amongst bitter disagreements about what they should do and they better stay united if they want to claim this promised land. Christians are united amongst our myriad of different preferences that threaten to divide us because of our highest value of Jesus Christ.
I have a dear friend who is a Pentecostal pastor and he loves to tell this joke. When you have one pentecostal, you have an evangelist. When you have two pentecostals, you have a church. When you have three pentecostals, you have a church split.
Now, it’s easy as non-pentecostals to laugh at this, but in our age of radical consumerism and fierce dedication to individual rights, it should come as no surprise that one of the great casualties of our Western society is church unity. I have seen churches split over the style of music, whether land should be used as a cemetery or a playground, chairs or pews, whether to call the pastor brother or reverent, how the pastor dresses, Sunday school or community groups, American flag or no American flag in worship, and integrated or all white church services (and I’m talking within my lifetime).
Unity was paramount the success of Israel and it is paramount to the success of the church. In this passage we see an example of unity, the foundation of unity, and the fruit of unity.
For what it’s worth, this sermon might feel a bit different than my others. It’s still expositional in that the main point of the passage is the main point of the sermon, but every now and then I like to dive a bit deeper and flesh out practically how the teaching of Scripture plays out in our lives a bit more. It’s what Paul does in 1 Corinthians and it’s what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount and in His messages to the seven churches of Revelation so that is what I’m going to with unity in this passage.
- The call for unity
What is the first thing Joshua does after commanding the people to prepare to cross the Jordan? He goes to the two and a half tribes whose inheritance is east of the Jordan. Why does he do this? To make sure they are on board to help the rest of Israel.
We need to understand some history here to appreciate what is happening. First, a lot of people don’t understand what a half tribe is. Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, had twelve sons and each became a tribe. Joseph, though, because of his role in saving all Israel during the famine, basically got two tribes. Joseph had two sons named Ephraim and Manasseh and instead of having a tribe of Joseph, Jacob created two half tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
The second thing we need to understand is that the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh were all promised land to the east of the Jordan. That’s the side that the Israelites are already on. So, it wouldn’t be crazy if these tribes did not want to risk their lives for land that wasn’t going to be theirs. That’s why the first item on Joshua’s agenda is to remind them of the agreement they made with Moses in Numbers 32.
You’ll get your land, but you had better fight with the rest of this nation once we get to the Jordan. Joshua’s first act in office is to maintain the unity of Israel.
Twelve different tribes fighting as one nation. The unity of God’s people has always been both a defining mark and absolutely foundational to God’s plan for the redemption of the world. and this is true both universally, that is between churches, and locally, between the members of a local church. That’s true in the Old Testament context of tribes and it is true today in the context of churches.
Paul spends a lot of time encouraging unity in the New Testament. To the Corinthian church, he calls us one body. To the Philippian church he says, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” - Philippians 2:2. Basically the entire letter to the Romans was was written to encourage unity in that church.
So, because there is local and a universal aspect to our call for unity, let me make one clarification about both. First, locally, we have to be careful not to mistake unity for conformity. Unity doesn’t mean that we all dress the same, act the same, talk the same, and vote the same. That’s called a cult. Not what we’re after. It also doesn’t mean diversity for diversity’s sake. The unitarian church does a fine job of that. God wants His people to be both beautifully diverse and unwaveringly unified because that is who He is. Three diverse persons, yet one unified God. Unity and diversity is who God is and what He wants us to reflect to the world.
But, this begs a huge question and takes me to my clarification universally. If the call is to be unified, why are there so many different churches? To answer this well, it is helpful to give you a brief history on what I am calling the organizational separations we see in the universal church and then dial down on what is ok and what is not. During the first 1000 years, there was, for the most part, organizational unity. You had lots of different individual churches because geography and building size demanded that, but all these churches were, for the most part, organizationally unified. There small spats of division here and there, but the larger body of Christ maintained a strong sense of unity and looked poorly at division.
The first major division happened in 1054 when the Eastern church, what we now call the Orthodox church, separated from the Roman Catholic Church. The over simplistic explanation of this split is that the Roman Catholic Church believed they had the power to change things like the creeds where the Eastern church believed the creeds had more authority than the pope. Then there were two.
Fast forward about 500 years and you have the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church because division wasn’t on anyone’s minds back then, but the church excommunicated him in 1521 for his views on grace and now there are three branches of the church. Later that century the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated the Church of England and now there are four branches. There was an old Anglican saying, “We suffer schism, we did not cause it.” That saying was important because, no matter how bad things got, no one considered separation a good biblical option. It was a matter of last resort.
Since the 16th century, the third group, the protestants from Luther’s reformation, have splintered into hundreds of different groups including baptists, presbyterians, methodists and a wide variety of charismatics. Within this third group, some of these splits were more justified than others.
Sometimes church splits are a good and necessary thing. A church can become so large that it starts a new church with a portion of its membership. Maybe some people are traveling great distances and it makes sense to start a new church in that place. Sometimes humble, well-meaning Christians disagree on theological issues like baptism or church government which regrettably necessitates different churches, but even then there should remain a strong sense of unity between these churches. There are churches in Orlando we disagree with theologically, but we still deeply believe we are on the same team. We know that we make up a universal church that works together to see Christ exalted in this city.
There are also, unfortunately, bad separations that come from pride, personal ambition, and heresy. Our call is to strive to display unity in our local congregation and see OGC as a part of a much bigger work that God is doing in this city and in this world. That’s why we recited the Apostles Creed today. In it we confess that we believe in the holy catholic church. That isn’t referring to the Roman Catholic Church, it’s referring to the universal church. That’s what the word catholic means.
We are called to be one body, one flock, and built on one foundation. But, if we are going to enjoy unity in this church, we need to know what that foundation is. Second enpoint.
- Foundation of Unity
We see in this passage that the foundation of the unity of God’s people is God’s command and our obedience. Let’s look at them both. First, God’s command. Look at verses 10 and 11: And Joshua commanded the officers of the people, “Pass through the midst of the camp and command the people, ‘Prepare your provisions, for within three days you are to pass over this Jordan to go in to take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.’” Joshua 1:10-11
So, God commanded Joshua and Joshua commands the people. What is that command? Take the land that the LORD your God is giving you. That word ‘you’ is important. If we were reading the DSV, the Deep South Version of the Bible, this word would be translated ‘y’all.’ The land is being prepared for y’all. All of you. Again in verses 13 and 14: ‘The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land.’  Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan, but all the men of valor among you shall pass over armed before your brothers and shall help them, - Joshua 1:13,14
You will fight together. This is not optional, it is a command. Unity is not optional in the
Old or the New Covenant. Unity in the church is one of the places Paul throws down the Apostle card. Why is it that Paul can be so strong in the way he commands unity in the church? Because there is already an actual spiritual unity between all those who believe in Christ. The command is to enjoy that unity that has already been given to you. This is why Paul says that there is one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and One God. The oneness of God is given to us when we believe and the command is to see that oneness unify His churches.
But we can’t be naive to the threats to our unity. There were three kinds of threats the Israelites faced and they are the same three threats we face today. We have external threats, internal threats, and invisible threats. A predominant external threats in Joshua’s context that threatened their unity would be the opposing cultures that inhabit the land they are taking. A predominant external threat to us today that threatens our unity is a culture telling us very unbiblical things like you should have it your way. And this transfers over into church. You should get the programs you want, the music you want, and the preacher you want. I’m not saying any of those things aren’t important, but we have to see what a new thing it is in church history. We tend to not make a covenant with a church, we make consumer driven contracts. As long as you give me what I want, I’ll stay committed to you. Praise God that’s not how Jesus relates to us.
In our culture, there will always be the next new shiny thing in the church world and if we are constantly wooed to the next new shiny thing we will turn into very superficial, flakey, and consumer driven Christians who know nothing of the unity that God commands.
Then there are the internal threats. Joshua had to deal with sin in the camp. That phrase comes from this book. We are selfish people. We come by it naturally. None of us had to teach our kids to say, “Mine!” And what happens when you put selfish people together? Division. I had kid tell me this week, “I’m only selfish when my brother is around.” Sorry, dude, this is your selfishness, your brother just shows it to you. One aspect to the sin in our camp is that we will always judge others more harshly than we will judge ourselves. Then the problem becomes less and less about us, more and more about others, and the result is division.
Then, third, there is an invisible threat. There is an invisible army who wanted to divide Israel and that same army is battling us today. Our enemy can’t harm God, so he goes after God’s church. Our enemy attacks God’s plan for our unity by getting us to believe his lies that lead to isolation. We now live in the loneliest, most isolating culture that has ever existed and we can’t for a moment forget that there is a spiritual enemy working hard to ensure that stays the case. God’s plan for us is meaningful interpersonal connection through unity in a local church, but we have an enemy that will work to usurp that design in any way he can.
The unity of Israel was based in God’s command that they be unified, but, then, second, the people had to obey. We have a real duty to obey what God commands. Look at verses 16-18: And they answered Joshua, “All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the LORD your God be with you, as he was with Moses! Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous.” - Joshua 1:16-18
I just have to laugh a bit at the people’s response to Joshua. “We are going to obey you just as well as we did Moses.” That had to be really reassuring to Joshua! Just because
God commands something doesn’t mean that we will do it. Actually, if you go back to Numbers 32, the first conversation between Moses and these 2 1/2 tribes, Moses clearly outlined the two options before them. He said you can obey this command or your sin will find you out.
Those are the two options for the Israelites and they are the two options for us. We obey or our sin finds us out. Now, there are different ways our sin can find us out. It may simply mean that we, as believers, will suffer the consequences of isolation in this life. We are going to see examples of this in people like Aikin as we walk through Joshua.
It could also mean that our isolation shows that we were never a believer in the first place and that will catch up to us in the end. This is the whole reason the remnant of believing Israel was saved and the larger ethnic group cast out by God.
So, how can we grow in our unity both locally and universally? Locally, I do think this church is doing a great job in many regards. I can see the peacemaking culture that was established so many years ago. I have been so impressed in the relatively short time I have been here in the way you really do love and care for each other. The place i think God is pushing us in terms of unity is more universally.
The more connected we are to other churches, the more fruitful we will be. We will be fruitful in that we will learn from them and be sharpened by them. Some churches are truly excelling in areas that we are openly desiring to be better. In the same way that the unity in the local church sharpens us individually, so unity in the universal church sharpens us corporately. So we are fruitful in what we receive from cooperation, but we are also fruitful in what we can contribute. The more connected we are to other churches, the more we will be able to contribute people, prayers, ideas, practices, and money in a way that maximizes the impact of this one local church.
As many of you know, OGC is a truly independent church, but for years we have desired to affiliate with some network or denomination. We have identified affiliation options and we are working hard to narrow that field as we investigate them by doing research, talking with people, and even attending conferences like the Acts 29 Global Gathering here in Orlando this summer.
We need to be unified locally and universally. God commands this, but we can so often miss the fact that every command of God is based on a promise and intended for our good. This is true of every command in the Bible from ‘be fruitful and multiply’ to ‘go therefore.’ So, what is the promise behind the command to be unified? Here’s another way to ask this question. What fruit does our unity produce? Third point.
III. The fruit of unity
The fruit of our unity is kingdom growth and rest. First, let’s look at kingdom growth. In the context of Joshua, their unity contributes to the growth and strengthening of the nation of Israel. Joshua’s first thought when commanded to lead the people into the promised land is their unity. Their unity contributes to their ability to take the promised land and retain the promised land. And in the same way, our unity contributes in a real way to the growth of the kingdom of God. Jesus says exactly this in John 17 as He prays: ...that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. - John 17:21
I think there are two aspects to the way that unity drives kingdom growth. First, as we experience unity, our relationship with God is fueled in a way that makes us want to talk about Him…in a way that makes us more evangelistically fruitful.
Second, and I think this is more in line with what Jesus is saying, our unity should turn heads. There are economic, racial, and social boundaries that people normally don’t cross. I mean, we are going to be nice to people who aren’t like us, but we probably aren’t going to have them over to our house on Friday night or go on vacation together. When I was on staff with Cru at Mississippi State there was a clear racial boundary in the union food court. There was a white side and a black side. It wasn’t organized like this, but that is practically how it played out. I vividly remember two students involved in the ministry sitting together in the black side of the food court and the way they turned heads. One of them was a large African American defensive lineman and the other was a skinny white tight jean wearing artist. These are two people who wouldn’t normally be eating lunch together because they have such different backgrounds, but Jesus brought them together. Their unity across socio-economic and racial boundaries caused people to consider Jesus.
As we display unity amongst our diversity, we communicate something so powerful about the character of God that it actually draws people in. The kingdom goal in Joshua’s day was land, the kingdom goal in our day is hearts.
Kingdom growth is the first of the fruits of unity, the second is rest. Twice in this passage Joshua says, “The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest.” If they remain unified, they have at the hope of rest. The promised land offered the Israelites the hope of rest from their wandering. A place they could build homes, grow crops, and raise children and grandchildren. A place free from war and full of food.
But, as we see in Hebrews, this land only foreshadowed a greater rest. For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. - Hebrews 4:8 Even though God was giving His people some relief in this land, it wasn’t the final rest He has for His people. There is a heavenly rest from everything we battle that can only come through Jesus.
Christian unity produces rest, both in this life and beyond. In this life, to the degree that we are united to other believers, to that degree will we rest in the salvation in Jesus Christ and the better promised land and more perfect rest He is bringing here.
If we love Jesus, we are to love others who love Jesus. I am truly grateful for the growth our church is experiencing, but if it’s not good growth, I don’t want it. I have seen too many churches grow fast and then the pastor leaves or some other even better church comes in and the church just seems to blow away like a Thanos snap. I don’t want growth that comes at the expense of unity. Now, that doesn’t mean that we will experience unity with everyone here. Certainly no Israelite knew all the others. I doubt they even knew everyone in their own tribe, but they were unified.
The early church had thousands convert in a day. They certainly didn’t all know each other, but they were unified. They were unified in their God and their mission and so must we be.
We must take deadly serious the threats against our unity whether they be internal threats like gossip and bitterness, external threats like cultural pressure, or invisible threats from Satan himself. And you better believe that if we continue to grow, our unity will be attacked. If we don’t experience unity as a church, we don’t do the main thing we are called to do: communicate the gospel to the world.
But, when we do experience unity, we make it clear to everyone in our midst that Jesus is our greatest value. More than our race, more than our money, more than our neighborhood or background. Will you commit to unity in this church the way Jesus has committed His love to you? That’s the question.