Lord’s day sermon

Josh. 24:29-33
“Three Burials”

The Book of Joshua ends with three burial notices: of Joshua, of Joseph, and of Eleazar. These notices are quite short. The main point of all three notices seems to be this: each of them was buried in the land of his own inheritance. Only Joshua’s burial notice has an extra element added at the end, a short historical note: “Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel” (v. 31). While this is a positive statement, there is an undeniably ominous tinge to it. It evokes the question, What about the next generation, then? Thus, it sets up for the next book, the Book of Judges, in which we see a gradual degeneration of Israel’s spiritual condition.

Why does this book end with these burial notices? And what lesson does God want to receive from them?

Joshua’s Death and Burial
The Book of Joshua ends with Joshua’s death and burial. This is a natural ending to the book, which bears his name. Such was the way the previous book, Deuteronomy, ended–with Moses’ death. Many of you know that Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books of Moses. As it was appropriate for the Books of Moses to end with the death of Moses, so it was for the Book of Joshua.

This is not because the Book of Joshua is his autobiography: it is much more than that. In fact, we don’t get much biographical information about Joshua in this book. We only know which tribe he belonged to and whose son he was. (And the book says nothing about Nun, Joshua’s father, either.) It begins with Joshua’s succession to Moses’ position as the leader of Israel, not with his birth narrative. And while Joshua is certainly the main human character in this book, it is clear that the true protagonist is God Himself. Joshua’s death points to this. Having finished his work, Joshua dies. But the story of God does not end with Joshua’s death. It continues on. In fact, his burial is not the final story: it is followed by two more burials. And we are told that the elders who had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel outlived Joshua. They continued to serve the Lord, who cared for Israel before Joshua became the leader of Israel and who would continue to care for Israel long after Joshua passed away.

In this world, everything comes to an end–for human beings and other creatures, it’s death; for things, it’s destruction or decay. Nothing is 100% guaranteed in this life except death. Joshua lived to be 110 years old. In those years, Joshua witnessed and experienced amazing things: the anguish and humiliation of abject slavery in Egypt; the return of Moses with nothing but a shepherd’s staff and the power of God’s presence; the awesome power of God that destroyed Egypt and delivered Israel from the Egyptian bondage; God parting the Red Sea; God leading them with the pillar of cloud and fire; the awe-inspiring sight of the glory-cloud descending on Mount Sinai and the terror of God’s voice speaking directly to Israel; God’s daily provision of manna during their wilderness journey; God stopping up the Jordan River; God obliterating the wall of Jericho at their shouting; God bringing the Canaanite nations to their knees one by one and at times one alliance after another; and the people of Israel receiving their inheritance in the land and settling down in it after all those years, just as God promised! And Joshua had the privilege of being used as God’s instrument in accomplishing some of these amazing feats! And at the end of this book, Joshua is finally called “the servant of the LORD” (v. 29), just as Moses was. But now the time has come for him to depart from this world.

Here is a quiet yet solemn reminder that our days are numbered. Unless Jesus returns anytime soon, we are all going to die–from the poorest to the richest, the dumbest to the brightest, the meekest to the most powerful, from the youngest to the oldest. Death does not discriminate or play favoritism. Death is an equal opportunity Monster. Some of us may live to be over 100 like Joshua. Many of us won’t make it that long. But we will not exit the world in the order we entered it. So, we better get acquainted with the idea of death. If we ignore it and deny it, we do it to our own peril. Seneca observed how we complain about not having enough time and yet live like we have all the time in the world. We don’t have all the time in the world. There will be the last time your child will fall asleep in your arms, hold on to your hand to walk, need you to change his diaper, need you to drive her around, live in your house, etc. There will be the last time you go to work, or play your favorite sport. There will be the last time you take a walk with your loved one, speak to your children and laugh with them. There will be the last time you take a gulp of refreshing water and enjoy a delicious meal. There will be the last time you take in a breath of air. We must make the best use of whatever time God has given us (Eph. 5:16).

Joshua died at a ripe age of 110. We don’t feel sorry for his death. Why? Is it simply because he lived a long life? Not really. Rather, it was because his death was a peaceful, blessed ending to a life well lived in service of God and His people: he finished fighting the good fight and running the race set before him. And Joshua left an excellent legacy, too: “Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel” (v. 31).

But the most important point of Joshua’s death, I believe, is this: “they buried him in his own inheritance at Timnath-serah…” (v. 30). Unlike Moses, Joshua died in the Promised Land and was buried in his own inheritance. Here we have a strong testimony (with a sense of closure) that the land of Canaan has been given to the descendants of Abraham just as God promised them. God is faithful and He has kept His promise to His people and to Joshua particularly. For, along with Caleb, he was the only one in his generation, who was allowed to enter the land and take possession of it.

The Burial of Joseph’s Bones
The second burial notice is regarding Joseph. Joseph was not Joshua’s contemporary, as Eleazar the high priest was. Joseph had died a long time ago in Egypt and was buried there. But when he died, he made the people of Israel swear that they would take his bones and bury him in the Promised Land when God would deliver them from Egypt. So, at the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, his people brought his bones along with them (Ex. 13:19).

Obviously Joseph’s request showed his desire for the Promised Land. He knew that he was richly blessed by God. It was not easy to be sold as a slave, and by his brothers at that. It was not easy living away from his family in a faraway country without knowing anyone and having anyone to depend on. But in his loneliness, he learned to depend on God and wait on him. This was the most valuable lesson he could ever attain, worth much more than all the time he spent in slavery and imprisonment, much more than every drop of tear he shed in loneliness and sorrow, much more than all those times he desperately asked, “Why?” and felt no one heard him, not even God.

We get attached to people and things. We feel like we cannot live without them. Then, they are taken away from us. We are devastated and yet life goes on. We even feel guilty that we can go on living. But we realize that what has been taken away from us is not what has sustained us. It has been God all along. The people that have loved us and cared for us were merely the instruments whom God used to take care of us. The things we have been so attached to were merely the gracious gifts which God blessed us with. It is not the laws of nature, which hold the universe together; it is the power of God. What are the laws of nature anyway? They are the multi-faceted manifestations of the providential power of God, by which He upholds and sustains the universe! It is He whom we should trust and hold on to. His instruments are wonderful and precious gifts. But they will come and go when they have served their purpose as God’s gracious instruments. But God is faithful through them all, never leaving us nor forsaking us.

Indeed, God did not disappoint Joseph. Against all odds and best of his hopes, God made him Egypt’s prime minister, second only to Pharaoh. As such, he lived a life of luxury and privilege. And he had the joy of saving his family from starvation. He understood why he had to suffer so much earlier on. He understood that his suffering was not in vain; it was for God’s good and redemptive purpose. But he could not have everything in this world, even as Egypt’s prime minister. He knew that the privilege to live in the Promised Land was not his. He himself was an instrument of God. And he also knew that Egypt was not his home. If he could not live in the land that God promised for His people, he wanted to be at least buried there. With his request Joseph showed that his ultimate hope lay with God and His promise to His people. And God granted Joseph’s wish.

God is faithful. And He desires to give what is good to His people. If He doesn’t give us what we ask for, it’s not because He doesn’t love us or He is not capable. It may be because we are not ready. A Tesla may be a cool car to receive as a gift but it is of no use to a kindergartener, at least not yet. And our heart being a factory of idols, we may not have the spiritual maturity to enjoy what we ask for without making it into an idol, which will take our heart away from God.

We must also remember that our relationship with God doesn’t exist in isolation. Yes, there are times when we have to go into our closet to spend time alone with God. And God is able to give each of us His full attention. He is able to detect the smallest changes in our mood and hear the slightest whimper of our soul. But He is not just my God. He is your God, too. He is the God of all peoples and nations. His plan, His eternal decree, involves not only our life and our affairs but also the lives and affairs of everyone and everything in this universe. In His infinite wisdom the timing of God’s answer to you prayer may be related to what’s going on in my life, what’s going on in the White House–in fact, to everything else that is happening in the whole universe! Everything must be aligned according to God’s perfect plan before He answers my prayer.

One of the most important factors is God’s redemptive plan. God doesn’t do things randomly and haphazardly. God does everything according to the counsel of His will. God did not give the land to Abraham when He called him. He and his descendants had to wait four hundred years because the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet complete (Gen. 15:16). You see, Israel’s possession of the land and the sins of the Amorites were intimately connected. That’s why Joseph could not live in the Promised Land no matter how much he wanted. But his desire to be at least buried in the land was granted. Some of our prayers will not be answered in our lifetime. But God is faithful and He will not forget our prayers even after we have been long gone. He is faithful and He will see it through in His perfect timing!

The Burial of Eleazar the High Priest
The third burial notice is regarding Eleazar the high priest. We haven’t heard much about Eleazar in the Book of Joshua. But he had an important role in the distribution of Israel’s inheritance. Why? If you recall, the distribution of the land was by casting lots to discern the will of God. This fell under Eleazar’s responsibility as the high priest. When Joshua was appointed as Moses’ successor, the Lord said, “And [Joshua] shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the LORD.” The Urim and the Thummim, which were sometimes simply called the Urim as here, were associated with the breastplate that the high priest wore (Lev. 8:8). This breastplate was also called “the breastplate of judgment” (Ex. 28:30) because it was used to divine God’s will.

Why is Eleazar’s death mentioned here? Joshua was the undisputed leader of Israel. But he was not the only one. There were elders. There were tribal leaders, too. But for the theocratic nation that Israel was, the role of the high priest was obviously one of the most important ones. In a theocratic nation, the church and the state are inseparably connected; in fact, the state is under the authority of its religion. The sanctuary is therefore not only the center of its religious life but also its national life as a whole. And it was the high priest who was in charge of the sanctuary and its worship. So then, the fact that Eleazar died would be notable news because of the significant role he played in the life of Israel. But it would not be anything extraordinary because everyone dies in the end. It was his turn.

But the New Testament presents this phenomenon as an evidence for the deficiency of the old covenant order of things–not the death of Eleazar particularly but the deaths of priests in general: “This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:22-25).

This shows us that we don’t view things in a vacuum. What we see and think about it depends on the inner filter we have, through which we process it. Many people call it one’s worldview. It is a complex set of what we think the world is like as well as what we think the world ought to be. Our mind does this because we cannot absorb everything that happens in our life. Since so much is happening all around us, we need to filter out what is not important so we can focus on what is important for our survival and sanity. Our perception of reality is only a tiny sliver of it. It is humbling to think that we are not as objective as we think we are. (And if we remember this and refrain ourselves from rash judgment of others and their motives, we may not have as many conflicts as we do now.)

Human beings are unique also in the sense that we don’t just observe how things are; we also cannot help but think about how things ought to be. This is what propels people to invent new things and engage in socio-political, moral reforms. But there’s more. Such things are merely earthly reflections of eternity God has placed in our heart (Eccl. 3:11). We have a deep longing for eternal life, a world where there is no death, no goodbyes. The fact that Eleazar died may be the most natural thing in the world. But the Bible presents a different perspective. According to this perspective, death is not just scary and tragic–scary because it is a great unknown and tragic because it robs us of everything we hold dear in this life; it is also unnatural. What is most natural in this fallen world–that which is 100% guaranteed–becomes the most unnatural and even despicable thing from the heavenly perspective.

It might have seemed only natural that the Levitical priestly system had to be dynastic in nature–that is, each generation of priests to be replaced by the next. How else can it be when everyone dies? But God’s creational intent for man was not death, all the vibrancy and vitality of life swallowed up by the nothingness and meaninglessness of death: God had a better plan for His people–an eternal life with Him. Even the best arrangement we can make in this world is but elementary and pathetic in comparison. Seen from this perspective, even the best possible arrangement in this world is elementary and pathetic in comparison. The most basic function of the Levitical priesthood was to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. But how efficacious could that system be if the priests themselves had to succumb to death, which is the wages of sin?

From this heavenly, eternal perspective, we can see the limitations of the Promised Land. It may seem like an earthly paradise, a land flowing with milk and honey, in which people lived a long, prosperous life and died peacefully at a ripe age. But is that the epitome of human existence or happiness? Even in the Old Testament God told Aaron and his priestly descendants, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel” (Num. 18:20). From the heavenly perspective, the land of Canaan was one big cemetery where the dead were buried. That has not changed at all: that reality continues on to this day and will continue on. Many refuse to be daunted by this reality. They face death head on and accept its reality and inevitability. Instead of subjecting themselves to despair, they use the fact of death to motivate themselves to live each day more fully. And their efforts are admirable and inspirational. But each and every one of their stories will end with a burial notice. Whatever the sentence of their lives might have been, its inevitable end will be that final punctuation mark.

This was true of all men, except Jesus Christ. (Yes, Enoch and Elijah did not taste death. But Jesus is unique in that He rose again from the dead, having conquered sin and death.) By His death and resurrection, He showed that death is not the final punctuation of our life. Death is not the worst part: “just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…” (Heb. 9:27). This is why Jesus had to be greater than Joshua, Joseph and Eleazar.

Jesus is greater than Moses and Joshua. He did not come to take possession of an earthly paradise. He did not come all the way from heaven to restore a plot of land to the nation of Israel, which was not much more than a burial ground! As the greater Joshua, He came to bring His people to the heavenly Paradise where His people can live forever in the presence of God Himself!

Jesus is greater than Joseph whose last wish was to be buried in the land of Canaan. Jesus came to die on the hill of Calvary. And He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. But that was not His final destination. He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven. He is there to prepare a place for us in heaven, not in Egypt as Joseph did for his family.

Jesus is greater than Eleazar. Eleazar was a faithful priest but his ministry ended when he died. Jesus “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:24-25).

Let us not put our hope in this fallen world, which will be our burial ground in the end. Let us live our life in joyful anticipation of our imperishable, undefiled, unfading inheritance in heaven. If this world, fallen as it is, can offer so many things of beauty and delight, how much better will be the new heaven and the new earth, glorified and perfected! Death is inevitable. But for those who are in Christ Jesus, it is no longer a punishment for our sin; it is rather a launching pad for our flight into heaven. Such a wonderful arrangement Christ made for us should be all the more reason that we fight the good fight and finish the race that is set before us with all our might.

© Copyright 2017 by Jeong Woo “James” Lee
All Rights Reserved.