“Be Strong and Courageous”
Deuteronomy 31:6-8, Joshua 1:1-9
August 30, 2015
Our fears try to paralyze us, but we can be strong and courageous because God is always with us.
I. In the presence of the Lord who cares for you (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)
II. In doing the work that is before you (Joshua 1:1-6)
III. In clinging to the Word that is given you (Joshua 1:7-9)
When I was a kid, I loved Charlie Brown’s Christmas. I identified with Charlie Brown, the kid who always feels like he’s on the outside, always feels like he can’t do anything right. I still feel that way at times. So Charlie Brown thinks he ought to talk to someone. And who better than Lucy, the strip’s self-appointed psychologist. “All right now, what seems to be your trouble?” “I feel depressed. I know I should be happy, but I’m not.” “Well, as they say on TV, the mere fact that you realize you need help indicates you are not too far gone. I think we’d better pinpoint your fears. If we can find out what you’re afraid of, we can label it. Are you afraid of responsibility? If you are then you have hypengyophobia.” “I don’t think that’s quite it.” “How about cats? If you’re afraid of cats you have ailurophobia.” “Well sort of, but I’m not sure.” “Are you afraid of staircases? If you are then you have climacophobia. Maybe you have thalassophobia. This is a fear of the ocean. Or gephyrobia, which is the fear of crossing bridges. Or maybe you have pantophobia. Do you think you have pantophobia?” “What’s pantophobia?” “The fear of everything.”
Do you fear everything? I don’t think most of us would say we did. I personally have no fear of crossing bridges or climbing stairs. But fear of responsibility? Yeah, I’ve got some of that. Fear of failure? Fear of insignificance? Fear of rejection? Fear of conflict? Fear of bodily harm? Fear of incompetence? Fear of pain? Fear of change? Fear of wrong choices? Fear of losing those closest to me? Fear for my loved ones? Yeah, I’ve got fears. I suspect we all do.
A few months back I was talking to my daughter Hannah and the conversation turned to fears that she has. Now Hannah’s done a lot of brave things; going to A&M to become an aerospace engineer, moving across the country to Pennsylvania with only her giant dog for company, buying her own house. But she still has fears, fear of disappointment, fear of inadequacy, a fear of making choices and decisions. So I happened to mention that the most common command in Scripture is ‘fear not.’ And she was like ‘really?’ Yeah, it’s true. It’s as if God knew that his frail, fallen creatures would be living in fear and decided from the beginning to offer them comfort and hope in the midst of those fears. He offers, over and over, not only the command not to fear, but good reasons not to fear. Depending on what you count, commands like ‘do not fear,’ ‘do not be anxious,’ ‘do not be afraid,’ and the reciprocal command ‘fear God only,’ occur about 500 times in the Bible. Some have seized on this to say that there is a ‘fear not’ command for every day of the year, because we need to be reminded every day. Some of us need it more often than that.
Starting from that conversation, I began to toy with the idea of this series – sixteen lessons, including Christmas, on the simple command, “Fear Not!” My wife thought it might end up being repetitious, and it could have been. But it turns out this command is given in so many different circumstances, addressing so many different fears and pointing to so many different aspects of God’s character and promises, that the hard part was narrowing the options down. I’ve left out a bunch of really good ones. But I’m excited about the sixteen we’ll look at together this fall. And I’m trusting that God will use this time to make us a less fearful and more trusting people than we’ve ever been before.
We begin with one of the most well know passages on fear, Deuteronomy 31 and its companion passage, Joshua 1. This text addresses Joshua’s fears as he takes leadership of God’s people in preparation for their entry into the promised land. These verses have a well-earned reputation. They give key principles for addressing our fears, principles which form the foundation for many of the other passages we’ll study. Today we’ll see that our fears try to paralyze us, but we can be strong and courageous because God is always with us.
Deuteronomy 31:6-8: “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” 7Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. 8It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Moses is near the end of a long, adventurous life in which he has learned that God is going to do amazing things despite his fears. Remember the episode with the burning bush? The word fear is only used in that text when Moses fears God, which is the good fear. But Moses’ objections are a litany of fears: I’m not good enough; you’re not good enough; what if they think I’m crazy; I’m not eloquent enough, etc. God answered those fears, in the conversation and even more over the next forty years. So when Moses tells the people of Israel why they shouldn’t fear, he’s got good personal experience to back it up.
And he is talking, in Deuteronomy 31:6 to the people. The whole of Deuteronomy is a reminder to the people of Israel of what God has done, what he expects, the promises he has made and the consequences of disobedience. In this chapter Moses tells the people that they are going to go in and conquer the promised land under Joshua. Moses is 120 years old, and because of that, and his sin, he will not be allowed to enter the promised land.
But the people will enter. They will conquer the land they had refused to brave 40 years before, the tribes that had seemed like giants, the walled cities that had seemed unconquerable. All this will be theirs as God keeps his promises.
So, verse 6, Moses says to the people, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” There are two key principals here. First, it makes perfect sense for the command ‘do not fear or be in dread’ to be accompanied by the command ‘be strong and courageous.’ But somehow that feels harder to us. I might be convinced I shouldn’t fear, but that doesn’t mean I want to be strong and courageous. I’m just looking for peace. I don’t want to actually jump into the things I fear. But so often in life that is our only alternative.
One of the great fears people report in surveys is the fear of public speaking. Not one I experience much anymore. But if you were to say “I’m no longer scared of public speaking,” and then refuse every opportunity to do it, you haven’t conquered the fear. ‘Do not fear’ implies ‘be courageous.” “I have a fear of rejection,” I might say, “so I won’t risk opening myself to anyone.” But then I say “God, you’re right I won’t be scared of that anymore.” But I still won’t risk opening myself to anyone.” I’m actually still living in the fear.
So here are the people of Israel, camped at the place where fear conquered them forty years earlier. If they say ‘You’re right Moses, we’re not afraid anymore. No dread here,” but they never gather their courage and break camp to cross the Jordan, they are lying. ‘Fear not’ implies ‘be courageous,’ and obedience to the one has to lead to obedience to the other. That’s the first principal.
But the more important, and foundational principal is found in the second half of the verse “Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” The foremost Biblical answer to any fear is the promise of the presence of God. I’ve said often that this is the key promise of the Bible’s big story, from Leviticus to Revelation. God wants relationship, intimacy, presence with his people, and he is willing to go to the greatest extremity, the sacrifice of his Son, to make that presence possible. And within that big picture there is this frequent personal promise that he is with us when we are afraid, and because he is with us we need not be afraid. Somehow we need to get this into our heads and hearts. The God who made the universe loves us, and is for us, and is with us. The whole fallen universe can line up against us, intending us harm, shame and death. And if we are alone the only sane response would be terror. But if God lines up on our side of the line, the rest of the universe is what needs to be scared. God is with us. What shall we fear? What can man, or even Satan do to us? Nothing.
But we are creatures of time. We may understand that God is here at this moment, but ten minutes from now we may lose that assurance in a wave of worry. So Scripture often makes this bonus promise: “He will never leave us or forsake us.” God is eternal, his character is eternal, and he doesn’t change. If God says he’s going to be with you, he’s going to be with you always. He doesn’t leave when things get tough, though we may think he has. We’ll hear this promise again in Joshua 1. It’s the promise David makes when his son Solomon is fearful. It’s the promise the writer of Hebrews makes to those struggling with covetousness and materialism. God won’t leave. He won’t leave. God won’t leave you. God won’t forsake you. I don’t know how many times I need to hear this before I’ll believe it, but it’s a lot. God doesn’t leave.
Joshua needed to hear this. He’s about to take over for Moses. What’s that got to be like? Scary. He’s about to enter the promised land, go up against the Canaanites, do what his whole generation refused to do. Terrifying. So Moses calls him over and says ‘It’s okay guy. Yeah, the circumstances are daunting, but what I said to the people applies to you as well: Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. 8It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” Be strong and courageous. Don’t just not fear, but take the step you fear. Go with this people, lead them and put them in possession of what the Lord has promised.
What’s fun about this is how individual it is. Most of the promises in Scripture are made to a community. But this one is made to an individual. In fact it’s a great model. Moses takes the promise to the community and says “this applies to you, Joshua.” We can receive God’s promises individually. Not every promise in every detail, but those that reflect a principle and reflect God’s unchanging character – those apply to us, not just to others.
But Joshua, like us, does not learn this lesson the first time it’s given. Over and over in the book that bears his name, God has to remind him not to be afraid, and why. Even as Joshua takes steps of courage and faith, God comes alongside to tell him again, “Do this work; don’t be afraid.” Joshua 1:1-6 After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, 2“Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. 3Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised Moses. 4From the wilderness and this Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun shall be your territory.
5No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. 6Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.
Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy, chapter 34. The book of Joshua picks up immediately, and the Lord speaks immediately to Joshua, just as he spoke to Moses. But Joshua is still referred to as Moses’ assistant, whereas Moses is ‘the servant of the Lord,’ an honor given to most of the key leaders in the Old Testament. Joshua himself is given the title at the end of his book.
Joshua has one job, but it’s a daunting one. Go through the Jordan, which at flood stage was a challenge in itself, and into the promised land. Every place the sole of Joshua’s foot was placed would be given to the people of Israel. And the territory described is huge, from Lebanon to the Euphrates, from the Mediterranean Sea to the farthest west. The actual division of the land ended up being much smaller, but God is saying that whatever Joshua conquers from this larger area will be Israel. And no one will be able to successfully stand against Joshua. No pressure? Conquer the nations the previous generation had run away from, spread far and wide in this land, make sure everything God promised to Moses came to pass, and lead this great, stubborn, reluctant sinful people who had so often frustrated and exasperated Moses. No problem.
What is this like? Sports analogies come to mind. Peyton Manning has just gone down with a knee injury and you’re the back-up quarterback, down by eight with two minutes left in the game. LeBron James just fouled out and you have to go in at power forward. Biggio just struck out and it’s the last out of the ninth inning with the tying run on first. And you’re up to bat. A rookie. Catcher. You get the idea. I mean you’re following the greatest of all time and your job is at least as big as his. You are understandably nervous.
But God has promises for you, repeating the two foundational truths we saw in Deuteronomy. “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you.” Yeah, I’m a rookie, a backup, but God is calling the plays, running the offense. A rookie and God will beat the New England Patriots every time. I will not leave you. Verse 6 “Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.” There it is again. I will be with you, but you’ve got to handle the snap, you’ve got to throw the pass, you’ve got to take the three point shot, you’ve got to swing the bat. So often in the Christian life the command is not only ‘don’t be afraid,’ but ‘be courageous.’ As I’ve said a thousand times, go out on the limb and saw the limb off behind you, and see what God does.
Michelle Murray is in the process of writing a book about our friend Iveta Surovcek. I’ve told some of that story before. She grew up in Communist Czecho-slovakia, became a Christian, and felt the Lord calling her to get out. Through a series of miracles she ended up on a boat tour of Western Europe. And when the boat reached West Germany, she just got off, went to the train station, bought a ticket to a town where she’d heard she might find refuge. Was she scared? Terrified. Was she courageous. Incredibly. And God sustained her into her promised land. Now Iveta needs courage of another kind. She’s in constant pain from a series of unsuccessful abdominal surgeries. It’s grating, it’s wearing, it’s almost unendurable. But she’s still serving God through the pain, hearing him say ‘Be strong and courageous. I will never leave you or forsake you.’
And this promise is transferable. You and I can count on it today. The same Lord who says ‘Come to me and rest’ says ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” It’s also scary. If the Christian life was easy and without trial, God would never need to say ‘don’t be afraid’ and ‘be full of courage.’ The fact that he has to say that to us means that life in this fallen world will be difficult, scary and trying. But that we will see his promise fulfilled. I will never leave you. I will never forsake. If God is for us who can be against us?
But we have to take hold of the promise, as Joshua did. Verses 7 to 9 show us how God told Joshua to do this, and how he tells us to do it. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. 8This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. 9Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Joshua didn’t have very much of the Bible, but it was good stuff, the first five books, written down by Moses and giving the account of the creation, the fall, God’s calling out of a people for himself in Abraham, His incredible rescue from Egypt and his rules and laws for the new nation Joshua was to found. So Joshua is told that the path of courage is found in being “very careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you.” Don’t just be a hearer of the word, Joshua, but do what Moses laid out. And this law that Joshua carried into the promised land included not only rules for right living and good government, but rules for sacrifice, ceremonies that illustrated and applied God’s character of forgiveness and atonement.
Moses knew that the people of Israel wouldn’t keep the whole law- he told them so in Deuteronomy. But he also knew that the God of mercy would forgive their sins and restore them when they turned back to him. And that obedience was the path to success. Do not turn from the law to the right or the left that you may have good success wherever you go in this huge promised land. Make the word of God your focus, your preoccupation and you will have courage.
Verse 8: This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” This book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth – say again and again what God says, not what fallen human nature inclines you toward, compromise and accommodation. And meditate on this law day and night. Let God’s Word be the pre-occupation of your soul to the exclusion of all other trains of thought. Think about what God has said, and what it means and how to live it. Because by meditating on the Word you become careful, someone who begins to do all that is written in it. And notice it’s not just ‘do what it says,’ which could be a rote, mechanical obedience, but it’s do ‘according to all it says,’ taking what it says as principle and applying the principles to every facet of life and circumstances. What do the principles of God’s law tell me to do right now in this situation?
So God’s command is ‘do not fear. Be strong and courageous.’ His promise is ‘I will be with you. I will never leave you or forsake you.’ Do you believe that? And his method is ‘be pre-occupied with my word.’ Be a fanatic for my word. Get it in you. Get it in your mind. Get it in your heart. Get it on your hands. Get it on your calendar. Get it on your daily schedule. Go as in depth with God’s Word as you possibly can, so that you see the world through the lens of the Word. That’s where you’ll find the intestinal fortitude, the guts, the backbone to be strong and courageous in a sick, sad, dying, fallen world that is rapidly running to ruin. Don’t be afraid. Be courageous. Those are attitudes that are hard to self-generate. But time in the Word –this is something you can do.
Verse 9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’ God believes in repetition. Especially repetition of this command: Fear Not. We’ll see it, we’ll study it, all fall. We’ll see different circumstances, addressing different fears, pointing to different promises and characteristics of God. But the foundational promise is ‘I am with you. I will never leave you or forsake you.’ Be strong this fall. Be courageous this fall. Soak in the Word this fall. Obey it this fall. Because the promise is for you.