So close, and yet so far …
Moses had led God’s people this far – from Egypt to within sight of the Promised Land – but he forfeited the privilege to lead them in to their new home. And it will never be his home.
God had told Moses to speak to the rock at Meribah, and water would gush out. But Moses – in his anger and frustration with the rebellious Israelites – smacked the rock twice with his staff. Specifically, Moses’ sin was not honoring God as holy in front of God’s people. Water still came out of the rock – but God told Moses that he would not enter Promised Land.
In Deuteronomy 3, Moses pleaded with God to let him at least walk through the Promised Land without settling in it, but God told him never to mention it again.
It feels almost cruel to us, doesn’t it? God tells Moses to climb Mount Pisgah so he can see the Promised Land – and then die without setting foot in it. Or was it God’s mercy to let Moses at least see it? It certainly was God’s mercy to forgive Moses’ sin so that Moses would enter the ultimate Promised Land.
This seems especially harsh coming right on the heels of God’s mercy shown to the daughters of Zelophehad. These women or girls would have an inheritance in the Promised Land – but Moses would not.
Carelessness and neglect in spiritual things will not cost us eternal life – but they may cost us dearly in this life, and they certainly affect our usefulness to God.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, Moses, David, Solomon – just to name a few of the heroes of the Bible – all sinned grievously against God. They were all forgiven and we will see them in eternity, but they suffered in this life for their sin in terms of heartache, family strife, and even plots against their lives. And no one can say how much it hurt their ability to serve God.
Moses seems to have accepted God’s sentence rather matter-of-factly. That could be because God had spoken and he knew he could not change God’s mind. But I think it’s because Moses always knew God to be just – and he knew that God’s decision was just, even if it seems the severity of the punishment exceeded that of the sin.
Moses, though, instead of complaining about the seeming unfairness of it all, instead of asking God to reconsider his harsh punishment, instead of cursing God and dying, he asks God to name a successor for him – someone to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. He does not want the people to be like sheep without a shepherd, especially since they still had to capture and settle the land.
This is why God did not simply strike Moses dead for his sin at Meribah – because God also wanted His people to have an uninterrupted line of leadership, with the mantle being passed down from one to the next. The sheep had to have a shepherd, and God provided that shepherd.
Charles Wesley once said that “God buries His workmen, but God carries on His work.” And that was what is happening here.
And Moses was content with what God decreed – because that meant he would not have lived in vain. The people would have a shepherd – and it would be one who would be close to his heart.
Joshua and Caleb were the only two out of twelve Hebrew spies who came back from Canaan with confidence that – with God on their side – the people could go in and take the land.
Both Caleb and Joshua offered “spirited testimony” when the people balked at entering the land: “do not rebel against the Lord, and do not be afraid of the people of the land because we will swallow them up.”
They had been the two bright lights shining in the darkest time of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. But only one was chosen to lead them. Joshua had been Moses’ assistant from his youth – so that may be why God chose him and not Caleb. We don’t know for sure.
We do know that God’s hand had been on Joshua from the beginning.
And God described Joshua in verse 18 as “a man in whom is the spirit …”
I take that to mean that God had sent the Holy Spirit do dwell in Joshua in the way that God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in believers like us.
He was not a blood relative of Moses – so this was nothing like a royal right of succession. Joshua was chosen by God for his courage, his honesty in the face of opposition, and his faithfulness to God. He was God’s choice for the job – not simply someone who was born into the right family. And Joshua was not chosen by Moses or the people. This was no popularity contest. He was God’s sovereign choice.
To drive home the point – not only did God tell Moses that Joshua would take his place as the leader of the Israelites, but God also told Moses to consecrate Joshua as his replacement. Moses’ laying of his hands on Joshua was a tangible demonstration that this man was being set apart for leadership. It was as though the authority flowed from one man to the other.
Moses did this in the presence to Eleazar the High Priest, as well as in front of the entire assembly of Israelites. This was a crystal-clear sign to them that Joshua was not a usurper, but God’s chosen success for Moses.
It was to be a smooth transition, for neither God nor Moses wanted the people to lose their momentum as they moved into the Promised Land.
And there were to be no challenges to Joshua’s authority. In fact, in verse 20, God tells Moses, “Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him.” The transition was to be gradual – not immediate. The people would see Joshua in leadership and see the Spirit at work in him, building their trust. This was essential since Moses had been their only leader during their entire lives – with the exception of Joshua and Caleb. Such a change would take some getting used to.
And yet – Joshua would not be the same kind of leader as Moses. God spoke with Moses face-to-face, but God would communicate with Joshua through the high priest Eleazar and the mysterious Urim and Thummim.
So the commissioning or consecration service took place in the presence of Eleazar – who would be Joshua’s chief advisor. Joshua had the Holy Spirit, but he still needed godly advice.
The commissioning of Joshua reminds me of something that happened the day I was installed as pastor here almost a year ago. Tom came up to me during the reception in the pavilion and said, “I didn’t realize this would be such a big deal.” He specifically mentioned my kneeling on the floor and having the hands of elders and pastors placed on me – which made a strong impression on him.
I didn’t think of it that way at the time – but it should be a big deal. And if you think that installation was, you should have been at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Bridgeport a few Sunday ago. They have been through some tough times in recent years – and they installed Rolland Owens as pastor. The ceremony ran three and a-half hours!
I had the privilege of participating. My part came near the end and took less than two minutes. But the people in that packed church with no air conditioning on a sweltering July afternoon believed that God had called Pastor Owens to lead his flock there – and they showed it.
God wants His people to have a shepherd. A pastor.
The word pastor means shepherd. Jesus warned his followers to be shepherds and not hired hands who just watch sheep for the money. He wants them to be personally invested in their flock – to laugh with them, to cry with them, to suffer with them, to rejoice with them, to lose sleep over them.
It is not a position of power – and it is not a position of perfection – but it is a position of frightening responsibility. Pastors are called by God to shepherd His people. May God give all pastors the Spirit to lead them well.