“Joshua Made a Covenant with the People”
Why are we here? Why do we come to worship service week after week? One of the pitfalls that come with religious freedom is the consumer mentality in religion. What the people with that mentality care about the most is, “What does this religion have to offer to me? How can its community and worship benefit me?” Why is that a problem? When we approach anything in that way, especially our religion, we care more about what we like or what we want rather than what is true. This is a problem because what we want and what we like may not be what is good for us.
What about Christian worship? Why does God call us to worship Him? Surely, His intention is to bestow His blessings on His people. And this is welcome news. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face in life and we want some assurance that everything will be OK. Sometimes we feel lost and we are desperate for some direction. Sometimes we are discouraged and we can use some inspiring words. But what is worship? As a compound word made up of “worth” and “ship,” it means to acknowledge God’s supreme worth. It is something we give to God. Then, what is worship? What’s supposed to happen during our worship?
Today’s passage deals with Israel’s covenant renewal. We are going to see how it applies to our life, to our worship, under the new covenant, if at all. We are going to see whether this covenant renewal is unique to the Mosaic Covenant or common in all administrations of the covenant of grace. And if there’s anything unique, why and in what ways.
I just said that what we see in today’s passage is a covenant renewal. But doesn’t v. 25 say, “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day”? But it was not a new covenant; it was a renewal of the Mosaic Covenant, which was ratified at Mount Sinai. We say this because the content of this covenant was no different from the Mosaic Covenant. At Mount Sinai, after hearing the law God gave through Moses, the people responded, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Ex. 24:7). In this covenant, too, the people of Israel promise, “The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey” (v. 24).
Throughout Israel’s history, we see the Mosaic Covenant being renewed on different occasions. In fact, the first instance took place almost right after its ratification. Israel broke their covenant by building a golden calf and worshipping it while Moses was communing with God up in Mount Sinai. Upon witnessing Israel’s idolatry, Moses threw down the two tablets of stone (Ex. 32:19) upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments with His own finger (Ex. 31:18). The smashing of these stone tablets was a dramatic picture of the covenant broken. The tablets represented the terms of the covenant, which Israel promised to keep. These tablets were like the contract papers. As such they were to be kept in the Ark of the Covenant.
God was ready to destroy Israel but He spared them at Moses’ request. (Of course, God did not really intend to destroy Israel and had to be held back by Moses’ wise counsel. It was rather to show the gravity of their idolatry–Israel deserved to be destroyed for their sin. But it was also for the purpose of testing Moses as the leader of Israel. Through all this, God was pointing us to Jesus Christ, our ultimate Mediator and Advocate.) The covenant thus broken so soon, it had to be renewed. So God renewed His covenant with Israel by giving them another set of stone tablets. (And interestingly here, too, God says, “Behold, I am making a covenant” [Ex. 34:10] while He is simply renewing the covenant.)
We can also see the Book of Deuteronomy as a covenant renewal. The exodus generation perished in the wilderness for their unbelief and rebellion. A new generation arose in their place to enter the Promised Land and take possession of it. So, Moses read the Law again (which is what Deuteronomy means) and the new generation renewed the Mosaic Covenant as the new beneficiaries of the covenant.
How about the renewal Joshua officiated here in this passage? It was prompted by his challenge to Israel to choose whom they would serve–the Lord their God or the pagan idols of Gentile nations. The people of Israel responded positively. And despite Joshua’s discouraging words–“You are not able to serve the Lord…”–they persisted on their pledge to serve the Lord alone. So Joshua made a covenant with Israel on behalf of God (which was to renew the covenant already ratified at Mount Sinai). This was appropriate, now that Israel had begun living in the land and their leader was about to pass away.
Israel renewed the covenant again under Josiah’s reign. This came after a long time of Judah’s apostasy. By this time, Israel was divided into the southern kingdom (Judah) and the northern kingdom (Israel). From its inception, the northern kingdom was in rebellion against God and His temple. The southern kingdom, Judah, was the continuation of the Davidic kingdom (as David was from the tribe of Judah). When Josiah inherited the throne, the temple was in disrepair and the law of God was long forgotten. While repairing the temple under Josiah’s religious reform, Hilkiah the high priest found the Book of the Law. When Josiah heard the Law, he tore his clothes in sorrow and fear because he understood the reason for Judah’s shame and misery: God promised to punish His people with covenant curses if they disobeyed Him and sought after the pagan idols. So, Josiah made a covenant with the Lord to walk after the Lord and keep His commandments and so did the people of Judah (made up of the tribes, Judah and Benjamin).
Something similar happened with the post-exilic community under Ezra and Nehemiah. After restoring the wall of Jerusalem, the people celebrated by having Ezra read the Law of Moses. When they heard the Law, they were deeply convicted by their failure to keep the law of God. This led to the renewal of their covenant with God (Neh. 9:38).
But covenant renewals were not unique to the Mosaic Covenant per se. The Abrahamic Covenant was renewed many times. The covenant was inaugurated in Gen. 12 when God called Abram. It was renewed in Gen. 15 when God passed through the path of self-malediction between the rows of cut up animals. It was renewed again when God instituted circumcision as the sign of the covenant. This was renewed again when Abraham passed the test and showed that he loved God more than his son Isaac. Of course, this covenant was renewed with each of the succeeding generation of the Patriarchs, namely Isaac and Jacob.
Why was it renewed so many times? When God renewed the covenant in Gen. 15, Abraham found himself in a dangerous position after getting involved in a war when he rescued Lot and his family. In Gen. 17, it was after Sarai and Abram resorted to their way of acquiring an heir through Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid. God appeared and renewed His covenant to Abraham when he felt vulnerable and weary of waiting.
God established the Davidic Covenant in 2 Sam. 7 after rejecting David’s plan to build a temple for God. The Lord promised to establish David’s throne forever. This covenant was renewed to Solomon after he built the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 9:4-5).
You can see some obvious differences between these and the Mosaic Covenant, can’t you? Think about the circumstances in which the Mosaic Covenant was renewed. Those renewals were occasioned by Israel’s breaking of the covenant and their recognition of the need to renew their commitment to the covenant. So the people took the initiative to renew their covenant with God. In contrast, God took the initiative in renewing the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants. Why the difference?
We get a clue in Jer. 31. There God promised to establish a new covenant with His people: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband…” (Jer. 31:31-32). When God said He would establish a new covenant, He implied that there was an old covenant–“the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” This referred to the Mosaic Covenant.
How would the new covenant be different from the old covenant? God declared that the new covenant would be “not like the [old] covenant… that they broke….” The old covenant was a breakable covenant, which the people of Israel indeed broke. The new covenant would be an unbreakable covenant.
How can the Mosaic Covenant be breakable? Didn’t we affirm that the Mosaic Covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace? And if it is a covenant of grace, it cannot be broken, can it? Grace is God’s favor extended to sinners. The sinfulness of sinners, their inability to keep God’s law, is presupposed. When God established the covenant of grace, He did so with His omniscient, full knowledge of our sinfulness. He does not get shocked and dismayed because we are more sinful than He thought! That is why the covenant of grace cannot be revoked or broken. A covenant of works, like the covenant of life God made with Adam, is bilateral–that is, it requires man to fulfill certain conditions to receive the blessings of the covenant. As such, a covenant of works is breakable. The covenant of grace, on the other hand, is unilateral in nature–that is, it is not contingent on how we perform but wholly dependent on God’s sovereign grace toward us.
Does this mean that the old covenant (i.e., the Mosaic Covenant) was a covenant of works? No, we have already pointed out in previous sermons the peculiar feature of the Mosaic Covenant: while it was an administration of the covenant of grace, it included in it the Law and its works principle. Why? Paul explains in Gal. 3 that the law was added to the covenant of promise (i.e., the covenant of grace), which God made with Abraham. Notice: it was added to the covenant of promise, not given to replace the covenant of grace with a covenant of works. So Paul says, “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:21-22).
As you can see, the law was added in order to expose Israel’s (and the fallen man’s) total inability to meet the divine demand for holiness and righteousness. But simply to chide and condemn Israel for its failure was not the ultimate goal. It was actually to drive the people of Israel to what the covenant of promise actually promised: our salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the promised Offspring of Abraham. The law was a diagnostic tool to expose Israel’s true spiritual condition so that it would turn to the divine Physician for healing and life.
But the law served another important function: it put forth the standard which the Messiah must fulfill in order to earn our redemption. You see, the grace of a righteous God could not be an arbitrary act. It had to satisfy His demand for justice and therefore had to be a righteous grace. Such a righteous grace of God required a deposit of righteousness, which our Savior made on our behalf with His life of perfect righteousness.
So then, under the overarching theme of grace, there was within the old covenant an administration of law and works principle. It was with regard to this aspect that the old covenant was said to be broken. And if the people of Israel felt the need to renew the covenant again and again, it was because the covenant was indeed broken–many times–as we saw. So then, is there any need for covenant renewal under the new covenant, which is the covenant of grace fulfilled?
Michael Horton claims that our Lord’s Day worship is actually a covenant renewal ceremony. Interestingly, a Bible study resource available at Calvin College website points to a parallel between the covenant renewal in our passage and our Christian worship. Here are some points of parallel:
1. The people were called by Joshua to assemble before God: “Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem…. And they presented themselves before God” (v. 1). This is also what happens at the beginning of our worship when the Call to Worship is issued.
2. Joshua spoke for God and retold the story of God’s great and mighty deeds for His people (vv. 2-15). This is what happens in our worship through the reading and preaching of God’s Word as well as in our songs.
3. The people responded to God, specifically by renewing their commitment to serve God alone and obey His commandments (vv. 16-24). This is what we do in our worship when we sing our hymns of adoration and response, when we give our offerings.
4. This covenant renewal was solemnized by a written record and a stone of witness (v. 26). We do not keep a written record of our weekly worship (but we do keep track of all the baptisms performed and all the Lord’s Supper celebrated in our session minutes). Of course, the Bible is our covenant record. And in the place of a stone of witness, we celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a covenant meal as a sign and seal of the new covenant in Jesus Christ.
5. Joshua dismissed the people to return to their own homes (v. 28). So, we too are dismissed from worship with a divine benediction at the end of our worship.
You can see how our worship can be considered our weekly covenant renewal. But while there is a close resemblance in structure, there is a big difference in emphasis and mood. What was the emphasis in Israel’s covenant renewal? It was Israel’s certain failure to keep their covenant obligation and the threat of God’s covenant curses for their idolatry and disobedience. Although Israel’s renewed commitment was very much commendable, a dark cloud of failure tragedy hung over their future.
What about our new covenant worship? The reality of our sinfulness and shortcoming is certainly there as we confess our sins before God. But our confession is immediately followed by the divine assurance of forgiveness. Not because our confession is as sincere and heartfelt as it should be. How does our confession measure up to the resolve and sincerity with which Israel made their commitment to the Lord? But God extends His forgiveness freely and willingly on account of Jesus’ sacrifice for us!
Is there any need for us to renew our commitment to the Lord in our new covenant worship? We said that the covenant of grace is a unilateral covenant, in which God promises to do even what is required of us. We saw how it was God who renewed the covenant again and again to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to David and Solomon. Even so, a covenant is a covenant. In its narrow sense, a covenant may just refer to the contract (as in a legal document). But in its broad and full sense, it refers to the actual relationship between the parties involved. The new covenant is certainly initiated by God and fulfilled by Christ (without our help). But why did God do what He did in Jesus Christ? “[O]ne has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15).
As you can see, even the new covenant requires our response–a response of faith and gratitude and worship and service. Abraham responded with faith when God renewed His covenant to him (Gen. 15:6). And we are called to believe and trust in the Lord–not only for the forgiveness of our sins but also for a holy living. We are called to renew our commitment to love Him with all our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to renew our commitment to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, as our spiritual worship to Him, because of the great mercies He has shown to us in Christ (Rom. 12:1).
This idea of our worship as a covenant renewal compels us to approach it in a radically different way, doesn’t it? It doesn’t allow us to have a consumer mentality, coming to worship service just to receive something from God, from the message, from the officers and even from other, more active members of the church. Of course, God is gracious and, when He calls us to worship, His heart is full of fatherly love to bless His dear children–so dear and precious to Him because He paid a costly price of His Son to adopt us as His children!
But when as our worship is a covenant renewal, can we just sit back and expect God and others to serve us? As we are reminded of how God first loved us, we are called to renew our love, our first love, to our loving and gracious God. As we are reminded of God’s faithfulness to us, we are called to renew our commitment to God. God’s goal in saving us is not to just keep us on heaven’s social welfare program; rather, it is to enable and empower us to be and live as thriving, productive citizens in the kingdom of heaven. The feeling of being forgiven is so profound and awesome that we wonder whether God can gift us with anything better. Yet, grace upon grace, God wants us to experience the awesome feeling of God working in us, conforming us to the glory and beauty of Christ, allowing us to feel useful and significant as we participate in His work of providence and redemption!
The former Navy Seal, Eric Greitons, says that what the veterans need more than anything is not sympathy and pity; what they really need is a new purpose for their lives, which is noble enough to replace what they lived and were willing to die for when they were in the military! As God’s children, as Christ’s disciples, we are given the noblest purpose in life–to live our life for the most glorious and wonderful God and in the process do things of eternal significance and lasting impact. Our worship, our weekly covenant renewal, reminds us what our life is about–no longer living for ourselves and our petty, selfish dreams but for Him who died and rose again from the dead for us. This gives us clarity of our vision. How important it is to be reminded that, though Christian life is hard, it is simple. And if it seems complicated and complex, it’s probably because we are trying to do the impossible–serving two masters, both God and our self. Let us renew our faith and commitment to serve Him! As we do so, may we experience our Christian life and worship becoming even more vibrant and richer! For it is not the dark cloud of certain failure, which hangs over us. Though it is undeniably present, it is being dispelled by the brilliance and power of the light of Christ!
© Copyright 2017 by Jeong Woo “James” Lee
All Rights Reserved.