The Sixteenth in a Series of Sermons on Joshua
Although Joshua has grown a bit long in the tooth, there is still much for him to do. As Israel’s covenant mediator, Joshua must ensure that Israel’s armies capture those remaining portions of that land which God promised to his people and which were still not occupied by Israel. Also, Joshua must divide the land of promise (Canaan) among the twelve tribes of Israel. Finally, in order to fulfill God’s command given through Moses, Joshua must establish six so-called “cities of refuge” (providing mercy to anyone who accidentally takes another’s life) as well as forty-eight Levitical cities, where the priestly tribe, the Levites, can dwell in the midst of the people and graze their cattle. As these things are accomplished, we are witnessing God keep his promise to Israel. Even though this land was promised to them more than four hundred years earlier (back in the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), at long last God’s people dwell in peace and safety in Canaan. As these things are accomplished, the central theme of the Book of Joshua becomes crystal clear–God’s promise to Israel has become a glorious reality. But as things once promised become realities, this also means that the era of Joshua’s leadership is coming to an end. It will not be long before Israel enters that period of biblical history known as the time of the Judges and the story of redemption will take yet another dramatic turn–this time for the worse.
As we continue our series on Joshua, we have come to the final chapters of this remarkable book. There are still a number of loose ends to be wrapped up before Joshua says “farewell” to his people in chapters 23-24. Now advanced in years, in chapters 13-21 Joshua is given instructions from the LORD that will ensure that the people of Israel will take possession of all the land God promised to them before Joshua dies. That land will be divided among the twelve tribes, as in these chapters, legal title of the land of Canaan passes from YHWH to the people of Israel as their promised inheritance to the Lord. Even though we have briefly surveyed these chapters which are, in effect, title deeds to the land, every line in these chapters is proof that God has kept his promise. The people of Israel are now dwelling in that same land promised to them so long ago. The Canaanites have been evicted and the people of Israel are recipients of this wonderful gift from YHWH–legal title to the land of promise.
As we saw last time, Joshua ensured the capture of all the remaining land to the north and to the south, just beyond the boundary of those areas currently inhabited by the Canaanites. While in chapters 13-21, we have the legal record of Joshua dividing the land among the tribes of Israel in fulfillment of God’s promise to his people, in chapter 20, we read of Joshua establishing the six “cities of refuge” which provided legal protection for anyone who accidentally took the life of another–in modern parlance this is known as manslaughter or negligent homicide. Since nothing in redemptive history is accidental, with the establishment of these six cities, we are pointed ahead to Jesus Christ–the great high priest. In the case of someone who commits manslaughter, they must flee to one of these cities of refuge and remain there until the death of the high priest. The symbolism here is obvious and powerful.
Clearly, the death of the high priest in a symbolic sense sets the man-slaughterer free. This points us ahead to the death of Jesus, who is both the great high priest and at the same time the divinely appointed once for all sacrifice for sin. That God provides for relief from sins such as manslaughter is a good thing and demonstrates that even though Israel was under the blessing-curse principle based upon the covenant God made them at Mount Sinai, the covenant of grace (first made with Abraham) was never annulled, and still remained in force, ensuring the salvation of believers within Israel. It was Jesus after all who said that anyone who was angry with his brother or sister was just as guilty of murder as the one who actually took life (Matthew 5:21-22). Therefore, as the death of the priest in one of the cities of refuge allows the manslaughterer to go free, so too the death of Jesus frees us from the guilt of our sins, including the hatred of our neighbor. With images like this found throughout the Book of Joshua, we are reminded that the Canaanites were not Israel’s greatest enemy–sin and it wages are our greatest foe. And now, the greater Joshua (Jesus) has defeated both sin and death.
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