Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 31 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/28/2010 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Be Strong and of Good Courage”
Be strong and of good courage. That’s commanded three times in this passage; once to the people, and twice to Joshua as the new leader. When we think of our leaders, that’s part of what we want. We want them to be strong and courageous. We want them to inspire us to be strong and courageous. Finding this kind of leadership can be hard. Think of all our political elections. From one election to the next, the balance of power seems to constantly switch back and forth between the major parties. The masses keep looking for someone to provide good leadership. Now, people can disagree on who will provide that, or what is even good leadership. And yet even when we do find good leaders, we ourselves don’t always follow those leaders as well as we ought.
In our passage for today, we read a lot about the leadership among God’s people. God appoints Joshua to succeed Moses, and Moses instructs the priests and the elders about their leadership. A lot of this leadership has to do with the succession of the covenant. As Moses is about to die, he’s preparing the next generation of leaders, and the next generation of Israelites to live out the covenant. He’s setting things up so the covenant will continue after he’s gone.
The whole book of Deuteronomy has been recounting the covenant. We’ve seen all the major parts of a covenant as we’ve studied this book. Two final elements of a typical covenant back then are found in this chapter. One element is that a copy of the covenant document would be deposited in the people’s sanctuary. We see that in verse 26. The other element would be that witnesses would be invoked to hold the parties accountable to keep the covenant. Three such witnesses are recorded in this passage as well. The law, deposited in the Ark of the Covenant, was one of these witnesses, verse 26. The Song of Moses recorded in the next chapter, but discussed here, is a witness, verse 19. And heaven and earth, in other words, the creation, is called to witness in verse 28. These witnesses would exhort both the leaders and the people to be strong and courageous in living out the covenant in the generations to come.
So today we’ll spend some time considering this call to be strong and courageous. We’ll think about it from both the vantage point of the leaders and the people. We’ll think about it in the context of them all being called to live out the covenant in the generations to come. We’ll then apply this all to our new covenant context.
So let’s think then first what this strength and courage should look like in the old covenant. In other words, what exactly does this passage have in mind when it calls them to be strong and courageous here? Well, you notice the first two occurrences of this command are in verses 6 and 7. In verse 6, the people are told, “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them.” The context here is that God doesn’t want them to be afraid of the enemies they will be facing in the Promised Land. They are on the eve of an invasion to take hold of the Promised Land. The exhortation is pretty clear here. Be strong and courageous. Those are essentially two synonyms for an internal strength of conviction that God would give them the victory. That’s immediately followed by two synonyms about not being afraid, “Do not fear nor be afraid of them.” God likes to repeat important points. Four different verbs here to get at the same idea. There’s nothing to fear, so be brave, as you face the enemies in the Promised Land.
Part of their strength and courage would come in the fact that God was giving them a leader, Joshua. Look at verse 7. Notice how Moses immediately follows up this exhortation to the people, with the same exhortation to Joshua. Joshua is to be strong and courageous and thus lead the people in military victory. That’s the last part of verse 7. Moses tells Joshua that Joshua would cause the people to inherit the land. Verse 7 says that Moses told Joshua this in front of all the Israelites. All the people were to witness this charge to Joshua. The people were to see how Joshua was the God-given leader to lead them in conquering the enemies. As Joshua rose to this challenge with strength and courage, it should strengthen and encourage the people. Their confidence should be grown as they witness God establishing Joshua to lead them in victory.
And yet this passage shows that the people’s strength and courage is not ultimately in human leaders. This passage also shows that the ultimate leader here is God. Verse 3. The Lord himself crosses over before you. He’ll destroy these nations before you. Verse 4. The Lord will destroy them like he destroyed the Amorites kings, east of the Jordan River. Verse 5. The Lord will give them over to you, just as he promised so many times. Verse 6 again says the same thing; they can have courage because God will be with them in these coming battles; he’ll not forsake them. Again in verse 8 he promises to not forsake them in these battles. So much repetition here. God is the ultimate leader of Israel. He’s the real captain of their army. He’s ultimately the reason why the people can have strength and courage in light of the upcoming battles against their enemies. He’s the ultimate reason why Joshua can have strength and courage as he leads these people in the military conquest.
And yet, even though God is the ultimate leader, you can’t help but notice that high role of Joshua. The things that are said of God’s leadership here, are in many ways said of Joshua too. When verse 3 talks about God crossing over before the people into battle, it then immediately repeats that same language about Joshua. Joshua will cross over before them, leading them into battle. And again in verse 6 when it says that God would go with the people into battle, the next verse puts it on Joshua, saying that he would go with the people into battle, causing them to inherit the land. That’s amazing. Though God is the ultimate leader, he still appoints a human leader as his agent.
Of course this is what we see in the church of the living God. He is the ultimate leader, but he still uses human leaders under him. When those leaders do their jobs correctly, they are leading the people in the place of God. They become the agents of God’s work among the people. It’s amazing the language here that shows that concept; that close identity between God and Joshua.
And so the result of the leadership of God through Joshua is that the people should not fear, but have internal strength and courage. God will not forsake them. He’ll be with them in battle and always. He’ll be with them even through their leaders. And their leaders can take comfort that he’ll especially be with them. This will be true in the military battles that they are facing. But it would be true in general. God would be with them going forward into the land. They’d have nothing to fear.
And yet this was all contingent on them having one fear, so to speak. Verses 12-13 remind them twice what that fear should be. They needed to fear God. They should not fear their enemies, if God is with them. But God warns them here, that he will only be with them, if they fear him and keep his commandments. That’s sobering to say the least. But if they were to not end up like the other nations God was destroying, he was calling them to be faithful to his covenant that he made with them.
In light of this demand to fear God, God has tasks for other leaders in Israel. Verses 9-13 record God entrusting the law to the Levitical priests. Other places in the Torah mention how they were to regularly teach the people the law. Here the focus comes on a formal reading of the entire law every seven years. This would be a formal ceremony where all Israel, of all status and age, were to come together and hear this law. The result of this in verses 12-13, is that the people would learn carefully all God’s laws, and that they would learn to fear God.
In the rest of the chapter, Moses then is given a song to teach Israel. At the end of the chapter, Moses calls together in verse 28 all the elders and officers. He charges them essentially about the content of this Song, calling heaven and earth as witnesses against them. When we study the Song next time, we’ll see that it warns against the people going astray, about them falling away to false Gods. In other words, it warns them to always fear God, and to teach the next generation to do the same thing. The fact that Moses calls the elders and officers together here is because they are going to have this leadership role among the people. They’re the ones that will be in the trenches with the people. The Levitical priests mentioned earlier are the ones serving at the central tabernacle. But the elders and officers will be those spiritual leaders in each and every town. They’ll be on the front lines. They’ll need to make sure that the next generation is learning this Song. They’ll need to make sure that the next generation is keeping the laws of the covenant. They are charged with this solemn task by Moses, and ultimately by God.
So you see a picture in this passage of godly leadership. Moses is the original leader, and he too had already appointed elders to help. Moses passes on the primary leadership to Joshua here. And the ongoing work by the priests and elders and officers are also in view. These leaders had to be strong and courageous. They needed to be bringing God’s law to the people. They needed to help the people catch an appropriate fear of the Lord. They needed to guide the people in not forsaking the one true God. If they did that, then the people would have found the real source of strength and courage. They’d find that they would never have anything to fear, if they but feared the Lord. If they held fast to God and his covenant that he made with them.
But of course, that leads us to a problem. This passage predicts failure. Yes, it predicts that the initial conquest in the Promised Land will be successful. Joshua will indeed lead the people in taking out the nations in the Promised Land. They will settle into the land. That’s victory. And yet this passage also predicts future failure.
Of course we get a taste right away in this passage that this failure starts at the top. It starts with the leaders. Verse 2 describes the failure of Moses. Two failures of Moses are to be noted here. The first part of verse 2 tells us of Moses’ failing body. He is 120 years old, and can’t do what he used to do anymore. Now, I know that sort of failure is beyond his control, but it is an aspect of failure in their leaders. Good leaders grow old and can’t lead anymore. That’s the case with Moses. There’s no way Moses is physically able to lead a military battle.
And yet verse 2 also reminds us of another failure of Moses as a leader. It reminds us that God had already told Moses he wasn’t going to enter into the Promised Land with the rest of Israel. He had to stay behind. Most of you might be familiar with the reason. Earlier Moses sinned in an act of leadership. As a leader God commanded him to lead the people in a certain way, and Moses didn’t follow God’s directions properly. Numbers 20 records God punishing for that sin, saying he wouldn’t be allowed to cross over into the Promised Land. And so that’s another reason why Moses had to appoint Joshua here. Moses wasn’t coming with them. As a leader, his age and his sin, had caught up with him. Leadership is prone to failure for both of these reasons. Certainly the rest of the leaders pictured here, Joshua, the priest, the elders; even the best of them would grow too old for the job; and even the best of them would have issues of sin in their life, where they would not lead as they ought. That’s the problem we’d see later in Israel’s history with their kings – sinful leadership leading the people in sin. That’s the problem with our ordinary human leaders.
But the predicted failure in this passage is more than just a problem with the leaders. We see here that the people as a whole are predicted to fail in keeping the covenant. Verse 16 is that prophecy. God tells Moses that after Moses is gone, one day the people would go after other gods. They would forsake the one true God. They would break the covenant. Of course as Moses puts it in verse 27, this is something they are prone to do. Though verse 16 puts it as a sort of prophecy in this chapter that one day Israel would fall away, verse 27 makes it seem like it’s obvious. Moses says that the people have been stiff-necked while he’s alive, and he has no doubt that will just get worse once he’s gone.
This would result in divine curse. God will hide himself from them on that day, verse 18. Many troubles would befall them according to verse 17; that’s referring to the covenant curses. The covenant law with its curses would testify against them on that day. The Song that we’ll study next will witness against them. Heaven and earth will witness against them. They’ll be without excuse for not holding fast to God and his covenant. At that point when God has forsaken them, they will have reason to fear. They’ll have lost their source of strength and courage. They’d have no reason to stand strong and full of courage on that day.
What hope would they have on that day? It would be the hope we discussed in the last chapter. The hope of a restoration. The hope of receiving God’s forgiveness and grace. That’s the hope needed for those who were God’s people but had fallen away. It’s the hope that all who have lived their whole lives apart from God need today. Well, I’m thankful to say that this hope has come in Jesus. In Jesus, wayward Jews, and even you and me, can find forgiveness and grace. We can be restored to fellowship with God through Jesus.
Several basic things here in this passage draw us to look forward to the work of Christ. Verse 16 describes the people breaking God’s covenant. That draws us to look for a covenant that can’t be broken. That’s come in Jesus and the new covenant. This passage talks about our need to keep the law. Yet we know that if we falter on any one point of the law, we are guilty as a law breaker. Well, Jesus came and kept the law perfectly. This passage reminded us that God forsakes those who have forsaken him. And yet Christ on the cross became forsaken by God, in our place. He never forsook God, yet he stood in our place, that we would be forgiven. This is the gospel. This passage draws us again to look to Christ and find the fulfillment of the law in him. Through faith in Christ we are reconnected with the source of strength and courage.
As we reflect on this passage, we see how Israel’s greatest enemy to holding the Promised Land wasn’t those nations that they had to conquer. It was themselves; it was their sinful nature; it was Satan who tempted them to such sin. Sin that cast them out of the Land. That’s the real victory they needed. They needed victory over their sin. That’s the victory we need too. And that’s the victory Christ leads us into. Christ leads us in victory over the greatest enemies; over the enemies of sin and death. As we put our faith in him, we are united to him who is our great leader. We’ve talked about leaders today. In Christ we have the best leader for which we could ever ask.
Christ does not fail us as a leader. Think about Christ’s leadership compared to what we see in this passage. We recognized how God was the ultimate leader, yet he still had chosen Joshua as human leaders. Joshua’s work among them was connected with God’s work among them. Well, in Jesus, we have a leader who is both God and man. And even though Jesus is not physically here in our presence right now, he is up in heaven, still the incarnate God-man. We have one who is man before the Father, interceding on our behalf, and governing his church by his Word and Spirit. Joshua is told here to be strong and of good courage. Well, Jesus showed his strength and courage. He showed it when he stood up to Satan when tempted in the wilderness. And he showed it by going to the cross, knowing full well that he would be enduring the horrible wrath of God for sin. And certainly Jesus doesn’t suffer any longer from any of the problems of age, like Moses did. For Jesus has conquered death and has been raised to the resurrection life. Even now in his strength, he is at work to attack the enemy. Even now in his strength he overcomes our rebellious hearts and begins and completes our faith in our hearts. In the end, he will return in the glory of his might to destroy all his and our enemies, casting them into the eternal lake of fire.
This is what Ephesians 6:10 then is all about. It calls us who are Christians to, “Be strong in the Lord and the strength of his might.” That’s how we can apply this passage today from Deuteronomy. Israel’s call for them and their leaders to be strong and courageous is a call for us to be strong in the Lord. We find our strength through being united by faith in our Leader and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Christ is the king and head of the church. And yet what’s amazing is that Christ
still appoints us human leaders in the church! He gives pastors and elders to the church, humans right here with us, to govern the church and to spiritually equip the members. And he gives deacons to provide oversight and leadership in the mercy ministry of the church. He gives imperfect human leaders today to the church. Humans that will struggle with sins and shortcomings. These are the leaders in our church, leading under Christ, and in the name of Christ.
Of course, all the members in the church, are like these leaders. Every member of the church has their sins and shortcomings too. And yet God still has each of us as part of his church. And he still calls us to be strong and of good courage. The leaders in the church, and every member in the church today, can find strength and courage in the Lord. That’s how sinful humans and sinful leaders can have strength and courage. We have it in the Lord.
What’s it mean then for us to find strength and courage today as Christians? What’s it mean to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might? Well that passage from Ephesians 6 takes this concept here from Deuteronomy and helps flush it out with the light of the new covenant. It makes it clear that today we continue to have enemies. We are engaged as a church in a spiritual battle. We will confront these enemies in different ways. But to be strong in the Lord, it says in Ephesians 6, is to essentially put on that spiritual armor of God. And when you read over that spiritual armor, you realize that a lot of what that’s about is continually taking hold of the different aspects of our salvation. We take hold of these through prayer and with the Word of God. We keep returning to God’s truth, to the fundamentals of the gospel, of our hope, to the source of our peace and growth in righteousness. Our strength is not in us, it’s outside of us. It’s in Christ. Our strength comes from Christ who has justified us and who is sanctifying us.
You see, if our strength is in Christ, what enemy can stand against us? If a non-Christian persecutes you, what victory can they have over you if your life is hid with Christ? If your sinful nature tempts you to some sin, Christ grants the grace to overcome it, and the grace to forgive us if we stumble. If Satan tries to accuse you, you defend yourself with the shield of Christ’s righteousness, in which we’ve been justified. Again, I ask: what enemies does the Christian have? What attack can they do that can overcome the strength of Christ and his salvation in our life?
Yes, this requires faith. When Satan attacks, he doesn’t hold back. Unbelievers can treat us very miserably some times. But again, we find our strength and our courage in Christ. In the old covenant, their greatest enemy was the sin that alienated them from God. Their sin separated them from the strength and courage in God. And yet in Christ, he overcomes that greatest of enemies. Now we who are true believers in Christ, will never again be separated from our source of strength and courage in Christ.
And so we find our strength and courage now in a God who didn’t even hold back his own son to save us. He gave his only begotten son to die on the cross for our sins. And that Savior rose from the dead. He conquered sin and death, and is doing that in your life now. That Savior is the Captain of God’s army and is your Lord. Saint, let us indeed be strong and courageous in the Lord, no matter what spiritual attacks may come our way.
Copyright (c) 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.