We received it as a wedding gift and didn't think twice about putting it up. I'm so used to seeing these familiar words from Joshua 24 displayed on household walls that I hadn't really considered the significance of the verse until Steve and I discussed it a while back. But the more I think about it, the more I am ready to take it down.
"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
What could possibly be problematic about having these words over my doorway? Isn't this a helpful reminder? Certainly there's nothing wrong with the plaque; it's a noble aspiration. My earnest desire and fervent prayer is that I and my family will serve God wholeheartedly and faithfully!
But when we skim over the rest of Joshua 24 and pull out those eleven words as our family mantra, we put ourselves under law instead of grace. We rely on commands to do what only Jesus can do. We miss the point.
Think with me about the larger context of this declaration. Israel has finally come into the land God promised their forefather Abraham all those centuries ago. They have conquered their enemies. Their leader, Joshua, addresses them:
"And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed." (Joshua 23:14)
He gathers the tribes together and recounts a familiar story. "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel," Joshua proclaims, and he tells the story in God's own words:
I called Abraham and made him a father, impossibly.
I led Jacob and his children into Egypt.
I sent Moses and Aaron, and plagued the Egyptians, and brought My people out.
I led you through the wilderness and into the Promised Land and gave your enemies into your hand.
At the end of the telling, God pointedly reminds them whose work brought about this success, this divine favor:
"...it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant." (Joshua 24:12-13)
It's only after all this that Joshua delivers his famous exhortation:
“Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:14-15)
After this rousing reminder of their national history, how could they not affirm their commitment to God? Not a single one of His promises to them had failed to come true! And so they are quick to assure Joshua: "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods...we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God" (v.16, 18).
Interestingly, Joshua warns them: "You are not able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God...If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you" (v. 19-20).
Still they insist: "No, but we will serve the LORD. ...his voice we will obey" (v. 21, 24).
At this point, let's remember how this bold declaration turned out for the Israelites. Joshua died, and thus began the era of Judges: a depressing downward spiral of disobedience, destruction, crying out for mercy, receiving another chance, and disobeying again. After that came the briefly glorious rule of King David...followed by centuries more of disobedience, superficial repentance, more disobedience, and finally judgment and exile from this Promised Land.
Wow, that bold covenant declaration really worked out well for them.
Israel's history makes clear that determined human words don't take anyone very far. The problem is their hearts--their forgetful, wayward, stony hearts. And the truth is, my lofty-sounding words aren't worth much more than theirs.
But the good news is, God's words are much more potent. His promises never fail, in spite of how many times mine do. And in the centuries since the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and journey into the Promised Land, Joshua's speech still rings true: Not one word of all that God has promised has failed to come true.
He promised to send a Redeemer--and He did. He promised to remove hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh--and He has. He promised to send His Spirit to dwell within our hearts--and He does. Every promise of His is YES in Christ Jesus. And it's these realities--God's words, God's actions, not mine--that provide a foundation for my faith and my family to stand on.
I don't need a plaque to remind me of my duty; the law is powerless to transform the heart. But what the law could not do, God did! He sent His Son to meet every requirement of the law, to obey in ways we were utterly incapable of doing. And after Jesus perfectly feared the LORD and served Him in perfect sincerity and wholehearted faithfulness--after He utterly rejected all other gods and followed the LORD alone, never forsaking Him...then He went to the cross, where He endured the wrath we deserve for our insincerity, our faithlessness, our chasing after idols and forsaking the LORD.
This good news--this glorious gospel of grace--THIS is what I need plastered on the wall in my house. Like the Israelites, I am easily forgetful. And guilt is not an effective motivator; merely telling me what I'm supposed to be doing isn't going to get me very far. No, tell me what God has done. Tell me who He is and who He has made me to be in Christ. Replace the guilt with good news; that's what will motivate me to rise up and serve the Lord. That's what will keep me going when I fail.
We see it modeled right here in Joshua 24: The declaration of faith comes only after the reminder of God's character and saving work. And it's the latter that we are so prone to forget.
So I think I'd like to take down that plaque, and adorn my walls with the gospel instead. All I'd have to do is back up a verse:
"I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant."
These words that literally described the Israelites' entrance into the Promised Land serve to describe my own life, too--both my present privileges and my eternal inheritance. I received salvation I could not accomplish. I did not build this sweet 80-year-old house; I did not earn this loving husband, these beautiful sons. I not only didn't plant vineyards but worse, I actually fail to tend the orchards provided to me. Yet still they bear the fruit of grace. All this and more beyond (my inheritance in Heaven) has been deserved and paid for by Another. And I will live up to what I've been freely given only when I fix my eyes on Him and what He's already done.