The book of Joshua opens with a double emphasis on the fact that Moses has just died. The very first words are “After the death of Moses” and then in verse 2, Joshua is again reminded by God that “Moses my servant is dead.” Why are we told this twice? We’ve just read at the end of Deuteronomy about the death of Moses and how Joshua was chosen to take over leadership of the children of Israel. Moses himself “the LORD knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). The same verse says, “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses”. He was a man of God, the meekest man who had ever lived, and commended in Hebrews 11 for his faithfulness. But he died before entering the Promised Land for one mistake, when he struck the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it.
Why would God do that? Why would he bar a man of faith from entering the Promised Land? Especially after he had given so many years in faithful service. For one mistake. The answer is in the allegory of the passing on of the mantle from Moses to Joshua. Moses himself was faithful, and he will be raised from the dead and be given a place in God’s eternal kingdom. But what he represents is law, and the inability of law to save. James brings out the principle when he writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10). Law cannot save, and that’s why Moses, law’s representative, had to die before Joshua took over. After saying “Moses my servant is dead”, God went on to tell Joshua, “Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel.” All of which points forward to what Jesus accomplished on the cross, replacing law with grace. Joshua’s name is the Hebrew form of Jesus – Yahweh saves, and the whole ministry of Joshua keeps teaching the principle that we cannot save ourselves by keeping a law, it is Yahweh who saves us by his grace.
Another way the first chapter of Joshua emphasizes this point is in the titles of the two men. Moses is called “the servant of the LORD” while Joshua is “Moses’ assistant” (Josh. 1:1). Both words have the basic idea of being a servant but with a subtle difference. The word describing Moses’ service is the same word translated “slavery” in Exodus 13:3 – “Remember this day in which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” – and means a bond slave, someone who is owned by a master, like the taskmasters of Egypt. Elsewhere the Bible draws up the parallel of Israel’s slavery in Egypt and being bound by law. But the word used to describe Joshua’s service is more to do with someone who is free but chooses to serve. That’s the fundamental difference between being under law and under grace.
The principle of grace overtaking law is taught in several other examples of one man taking over another. For instance, Elijah passed on his mantle to Elisha, whose name is similar to Joshua and means “God saves”. Elijah was a man who wanted to bring judgment on the people of Israel and represents the condemnation of law. The most important example is John the Baptist making way for Jesus. John, who came in the spirit of Elijah, was the last prophet under the Law of Moses. Jesus said, “The Law and the Prophets were until John” but now the man whose name means “Yahweh saves” was going to take over and provide the means for the grace of God to bring salvation.
There’s a good reason why we’re taught the principle of grace taking over law so many times. We naturally gravitate towards law-based religion. It’s easier to quantify where we are and measure ourselves. Clear boundaries are drawn, and it feels safe. But law has no power to save. No matter how much effort we put into doing everything exactly right we ultimately fail. Law-based religion also produces the wrong spirit. God isn’t looking for bond slaves, people who serve out of necessity. He wants people who are free and choose to serve. In Jesus we have been freed from the shackles of law. We are no longer contained in a box with clearly defined edges. And yes, we can use our freedom to indulge in the flesh and that will be our own self-condemnation. But we can also choose to rejoice in the freedom God has given us through his son and serve him with gladness of heart. Joshua was still expected to “do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you” (Josh. 1:7) but with an entirely different motivation. Our task is not to try to present to God the very best resume, with all the boxes checked which are necessary to achieve salvation. We are to leave salvation up to God and instead “be strong and very courageous” (Josh. 1:7) by living our lives in faithful service.
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