A lot of things have happened in the first eight chapters of Joshua that make these verses feel like a lull in the action. Looking back we remember God’s commissioning of Joshua to lead his people into the Promised Land.
We remember God’s miraculous intervention in helping them cross a river in the middle of flood season. We remember the intervening help of Rahab the prostitute with the spies. We remember the circumcision of all the men before battle. We remember the victory at Jericho. We remember the devastating loss and the subsequent comeback victory at Ai.
Long story short, this story has been a fast paced narrative highlighting the ups and downs of our own struggle with obedience as well as God’s faithfulness in victory. And through it all, this one truth remains: There can be no rescue without coming under the rescuer’s rule. It’s one thing to win a victory but it’s an entirely different thing to lay hold of that victory by renewed commitment to God (Jackman 2014: 100). And that’s exactly what we see happening in our text today, Israel is laying hold of the victory as they come under the rule of their rescuer.
Joshua 8:30 – 35
30 At that time Joshua built an alter to the Lord, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 31 just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, “an alter of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.” And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings. 32 And there in the presence of the people of Israel, he wrote on the stones a copy of the Law of Moses, which he had written. 33 And all Israel, sojourner as well as native born, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, to bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterword he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. – This is the Word of the Lord to us today. Amen? Let’s pray…
1: Joshua Builds an Alter (vs. 30 – 31)
At first glance it all seems very simple. Joshua grabs some uncut stones, he builds an alter, he offers up some burnt offerings and then he sacrifices some peace offerings. Seems pretty straightforward and simple right? Wrong! There’s actually a little more complexity to this story when you take into account that Joshua is doing all of this according to a script that was written many years earlier. Joshua is following the Word of the Lord in regards to proper worship.
In Deuteronomy 11:29 – 30 and 27:1 – 8 the Lord tells Moses where this alter-building ceremony and subsequent offering are to take place. Joshua literally had a roadmap of sorts long before he ever led the people of Israel across the Jordan River and into the battles of Jericho and Ai. And here’s the interesting thing, the place that God had previously instructed his people to build this alter was roughly twenty miles north of the cities of Jericho and Ai in the valley of Shechem.
Don’t miss this, God lead the people of Israel to cross the river in flood season, to take out the two stronghold cities that stood in their way and then he lead them to get over to the valley of Shechem to hold a worship ceremony with an alter. I don’t want to belabor this point too much but it’s interesting to me that after wandering around in the wilderness of the consequences of their sins for 40 years, the Lord leads Israel through a flooded river, to victory over Jericho to defeat at Ai and then victory at Ai to then worship in a valley between two mountains.
What is the significance of this episode for us today? Let’s not rush to answer that question just yet. But for now let’s just note the sequence of events that leads to Israel worshipping around a bloody alter in the valley of Shechem after experiencing the rescuing power of God as they came out of the wilderness, crossed the flooded river, defeated Jericho, got their butts kicked at Ai because of secret sin and then defeated Ai after dealing with the sin. This is the sequence of events that leads to this day of worship in the valley. Israel isn’t taking a break from the action. Israel is worshipping as Joshua gathers them in the valley.
2: Joshua Gathers the People (vs. 32 – 33)
In our western mindset we oftentimes approach the gathering of God’s people on Sundays or throughout the week from a consumer mindset rather than an investor mindset. We gather with other people because we like what we get out of the experience.
But here in verses 32 – 33 Joshua doesn’t gather the people together so that he can feed consumers. He gathers the people together so that they can worship the God who has just redeemed them from the wilderness of their sin, has provided a way through the flooded river and has absolutely annihilated the enemies who stood in the way of their worship ceremony.
Don’t miss this, everything about this gathering of Israel in the valley between two mountains was bathed in blood, it was filled with fighting and it was centered on the God who rescued them miraculously. The setting of the valley of Shechem, between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, is very important too. All of the people were gathered into that valley which is roughly two miles wide. The Ark of the Covenant was in the center of the valley with half of the people in front of one mountain and the other half of the people in front of the other mountain. And Joshua made copies of the entire Law of Moses on stones.
So the people of God (Israel) were assembled together in the presence of God (the Ark) with the Word of God (the Law) in a valley between two mountains. Those two mountains will be very important as we move into the next section but just make a mental note that one mountain was barren and rocky (Ebal) while the other mountain was full of beautiful fruit-filled woods (Gerizim).
What do you think is the significance of gathering God’s people into a setting like this? Why did Joshua gather the people together for a worship ceremony between an ugly mountain and a beautiful mountain? What significance does this setting have for us today? Keep that question in mind as we examine the last few verses here.
3: Joshua Preaches God’s Word (vss. 34 – 35)
In these final verses Joshua preaches every word of the law of God to every person who is gathered in the valley between an ugly desolate mountain and a beautiful lush mountain full of fruit. No one was excluded from the gathering. The ex-prostitute, Rahab, would have been there. Everyone was there; young and old; insider and outsider, for the preaching of God’s Word amidst the bloodbath of an alter.
What was the summary of Joshua’s sermon? How would you sum up the preaching of the law of God between those two mountains with the bloodbath of the alter right in front of you? The summary can found in verse 34 where it says that Joshua preached “all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse”. So the summary of his sermon was blessing and curse between an ugly barren mountain and a fruit-filled mountain in front of a bloody alter where the sacrifice for sin and offering of worship were made.
Could it be that the significance of all of this for us is that when we gather as a church, we gather between the tension of the picture of our barren lives without Christ and the fruit-filled life that is possible with Christ? Could it be, that when we gather for worship and preaching, we should be ever mindful of the devastating effects of the curse of sin and the available blessings of the sacrifice of Christ at the cross of Calvary? Would it surprise you to see that this entire episode really points forward to Christ’s coming to this earth to deal with our worship dysfunctions?
One author says that this passage of Scripture helps us to think about the heart of true worship. He says: “We live in a culture that wants to be self-sufficient. We don’t want to have to trust or be dependent upon anybody; we want to run our own lives in our own way. We are adept at creating and worshipping any number of idols as substitutes for God, but behind them all stands the great idol of self – governing our lives with all the false confidence of creaturely pride in rebellion against the Creator. Obedience then becomes a hateful concept, since we have come to believe that no one (not even God if he exists) has the right to tell us what or what not to do” (Jackman 2014: 99).
Why would anyone change from this default position of “I’m living life my own way” to “I’m living life God’s way”? What makes a person move from being an Achan to being a Rahab? The answer is transformation. We must be transformed by the gospel. The Law will not transform you. The Law will only convict you and show you how the blessings of a godly life have been crushed under the curses of your sin. So what will lead to the transformation of our lives? I believe the key that unlocks the answer to this question and paves the way to the message of the gospel that sets us free is found in Exodus 20:2.
Exodus 20:2 (the introduction to the giving of the Law of God) says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This was God’s opening line to the giving of the Law that Joshua preached in the valley between two mountains. In other words, the reminder of rescue came before the command of obedience. God’s rescue of our lives in the cross of Christ is the key to transformation that results in obedience.
But the question remains, have you come to live under the rule of the rescuer? Are you living in the shadow of the mountain of blessing? Or are you living in the shadow of the mountain of cursing? Is your life characterized by the desolation of sin or the fullness of fruitfulness? Why are you here today? Why will you gather with God’s people throughout the coming week? What will it look like for you to come under the rule of the rescuer this week?
For all of us this means reorienting our priorities. It’s not like you start attending church and then somehow everything is fine now. The Christian life is always about advancement. It’s always about growth in Christ. It’s always about continual transformation and change in every aspect of our lives. It’s always about a continual reorientation of our affections and our devotion.
For some of you this means reorienting your days to spend some time in individual worship, Scripture study and prayer so that when you gather with God’s people it becomes an extension of your own worship of Jesus. For others of you, coming under the rule of the rescuer means surrendering your life to Jesus for the first time. It means recognizing that you have played the role of God in your own life and you need to recognize that Jesus gave his life for you so that by trusting in him you can be transformed into a worshipper of him instead of an enemy of him. For others of you, this realignment of priorities might mean confessing some secret sin, getting some real accountability for your fight against sin and getting some spiritual disciplines in place.
The point in all of this is meant to lead you to the blessings of the cross of Christ. As you survey the ugly mountain of sin on one side and the beautiful mountain of freedom on the other side with the bloody cross at the center, how could you not come under the rule of the rescuer? What would stop you from being rescued?
If you are living your life in disobedience to the Lord’s commands and you are experiencing the curse of the consequences of your sin then you have not fully laid hold of the rescue that is yours in the cross of Calvary. If you are living in the shadow of that wasteland of Mount Ebal then you have not laid hold of the bloodbath of the alter.
The blessings of the cross of Christ are available to everyone. His blood was shed and his body was broken so that everyone who would come to him would obediently live in the blessing of the transformation of the cross and the empty tomb. The bloodbath of the cross is what enables you to live in the shadow of fruit-filled Mount Gerizim. Is your life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? This is the fruit of salvation.
One author states it this way: “Being a Christian is not about playing spiritual games or having a spare-time religious interest. It demands the whole of our being, since spiritual neutrality is impossible. We cannot worship truly at the cross, our alter, and then go on living in disobedience, because the two attitudes are mutually exclusive. But if we seek to live in obedience, although we will often fail and fall, if our lives are characterized by repentance and faith, God is with us. He is committed to those who trust him, and his victories will become ours” (Jackman 2014: 102). This is what it means to come under the rule of our Rescuer.