While studying the book of Joshua, an interesting statement caught my attention. Called by God to fill Moses' place as leader of Israel, Joshua fulfilled his duty exceptionally, and brought the children of Israel to the Promised Land. As the account closes, however, Joshua is preparing to go "the way of all the earth" (23:14). He leaves his beloved nation with a final challenge?"Choose ye this day" (24:15)?and the last phrase should be familiar: "? as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." The people, affected by Joshua's admonition, reply, "God forbid that we should forsake the Lord, to serve other gods? therefore will we also serve the Lord; for He is our God" (24:16, 18). Following that reply is the statement that caught my eye: "And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the Lord: for He is an holy God; He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins" (24:19). Surely God does not mean that it is literally impossible for Israel to serve God and for God to forgive their sins; there must be an explanation that with some investigation would become clear. And indeed there is.
The most obvious clue that another explanation is necessary has already been noted: "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (24:15). Would God admonish His people to do something which it was impossible for them to do? Surely not. Paul states by inspiration: "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, Who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it" (I Corinthians 10:13). God does not place before us the impossible and ask it to be accomplished; His expectations "are not grievous" or hard to undertake (I John 5:3). If God asks something of us, we can do it.
A close inspection of the context reveals what Joshua meant by his inspired statement, "Ye cannot serve the Lord." After the people again affirm their allegiance to God, Joshua tells them, "Ye are witnesses against yourselves that ye have chosen you the Lord, to serve Him. And they said, We are witnesses. Now therefore put away, said he, the strange gods which are among you, and incline your ear unto the Lord God of Israel" (24:22-23). Surprisingly (or perhaps not, based on the usual performance of the Israelites), Israel was stating their desire to serve God while all the while infested with idolatry! How brazen they were to assume that God would accept their defiled, sin-tainted allegiance! In such a context, the likely meaning behind Joshua's statement is: You cannot serve the Lord with sin present and active in your life.
Today, the same is true. Jesus' statements to the seven churches of Asia prove without equivocation that God will not accept congregations spoiled by sin (Revelation 2-3). First Corinthians proves the same for the individual: "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Despite the denominational views that some hold regarding God's acceptance of sin, His holiness demands that only those who have "washed their robes, and have made them white in the blood of the lamb" may come to Him (Revelation 7:14).
Consider, as well, the extended context of this passage. As the book of Judges opens, Israel attempts to defeat the inhabitants of Canaan and claim for themselves the promised possessions. However, they fail to heed God's commands. They "put the Canaanites to tribute" (Judges 1:28) despite God's specific prohibition (cf. Judges 2:2a). They fail to utterly drive out the inhabitants because they "have not obeyed [God's] voice" (Judges 2:2b). It is as if Israel never really intended to fully do as God said. Can we not thus see in Joshua's statement a condemnation of half-hearted allegiance? Joshua might have stated, "Ye cannot serve the Lord half-way." God demands total subservience, dedication of no less than 100%. No fence-straddling, no "be-like-the-world-but-still-be-a-Christian" philosophy can please our Father. As Jesus said time and again: "No man can serve two masters" (Matthew 6:24); "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit" (Matthew 7:18); "He that is not with Me is against Me" (Matthew 12:30), etc.
The context of Joshua 24 makes Joshua's statement of his own convictions all the more incredible: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." Notice the finality, the certainty with which Joshua said these words. Are you that certain of your allegiance to God? Have you put away the world and its sinful influences? Have you given your entire will to God's service? If not, "ye cannot serve the Lord."
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