Summary: We cannot be neutral. When God calls us, He demands strict and exclusive loyalty. We're to renounce all God-substitutes. We have a choice to make.
Knowing he is near the end of his life, Joshua assembles the elders to give one last charge to Israel. It is a solemn moment, and the climax of the book. Joshua's last words are rooted in history, and in the wondrous works of God the children of Israel witnessed themselves. Joshua reminds his people of all God did for them in bringing them out of slavery and idolatry and to the Promised Land. He cautions them against taking credit for their success. There is no place for pride. God did it all; He gave them victory. It was not by their weapons or tactics. They might boast of their achievements, but Joshua doesn't permit such boasting. They crossed the Jordan, defeated Jericho and Gibeon because God fought for them. The enemy was powerful, but no match for God. We are what we are by God's grace; we're dependent on Him, and we need to remember that!
Joshua reminds the people that this Land of Promise was a gift. It was filled with orchards, olive groves, wells and vineyards. It was theirs for the taking. However, these blessings came with a condition: They've got to serve the Lord! And the Book of the Law is their standard. Israel did not operate on the basis of some arbitrary, vaguely defined moral code. They weren't having to find their own truth. They had God's direct, written revelation. They are to hold fast to God and His law.
Joshua also cautions them that they once followed after idols in Egypt, and were again living in a land full of idols. But the Lord God brought them out of idolatry. Still, some of the people privately served other gods. Joshua calls on them to remove all idols. You mean some of the people still prayed to idols? Apparently so. As do some of us. Calvin observed that the human heart is a factory of idols. An “idol” is anything we love, fear, desire, or depend on--more than God. When God’s love captivates us, we spurn all other lovers. We swear allegiance either to God or to some God-substitute. Madeline L'Engle writes, “Anything we love to the exclusion of the Maker of us all is a golden calf.” To “put away other gods” means to renounce loyalty to these counterfeits; to exclusively embrace the Lord God Almighty.
Francis Schaeffer asks, “What are your gods? What gods did you leave when you made the great first choice to become a Christian? You must continue to choose between the old gods and the living God.” When we turn from our sin to Christ, we take on a new life, a new master, a new direction, with a new destination. Paul the Apostle reflects this when he compels us in Romans 12:1, “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”
Joshua warns Israel to be separate, to be distinctly set apart and uncontaminated by the ungodly Caananite culture. He tells them to develop their own unique identity as the people of God. As such, they are to cling firmly to God, to “hold fast.” Are we serious about our faith? We're to be faithful and committed to our God.
Joshua also urges Israel to “love” God...you'd think that should go without saying, yet many world religions focus on submission, and love for God isn't part of their theology. God wants a loving relationship with His people, and that will result in obedience. God desires and deserves our loyalty and love. Jesus said that if we love God, we will keep His commands (John 14:15). We'll want to please Him.
Sad-to-say, since Israel was not wholeheartedly devoted to God, Joshua lays out two options: either serve idols or God; you can't do both. Mixed loyalties was not an option. There's no neutrality with God. He is not another deity to add to one's list. He demands exclusive, personal devotion--a pattern of continued obedience. Make sure you understand who you're dealing with. The Lord is a jealous God. He's not a grandfatherly, Santa Claus. God restricts allegiance to Himself alone: “You shall have no other gods before Me.” He expects complete devotion, and deserves it.
Joshua charges Israel to make a decision: “Choose this day whom you will serve,” verse 15. The word “choose” indicates an on-going, continuous action. You might look back on your faith journey, and say: “I chose to serve the Lord, I'm choosing to serve Him now...and by God's grace I hope to keep on serving.” That is a sacred commitment, not done lightly, and not an emotional decision we might one day revoke. Every day our secular culture is parading its idols. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24). Bob Dylan was probably thinking of Joshua when he sang: “You're gonna have to serve somebody; it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you got to serve somebody.” Our life is the result of the choices we make. Joshua tells Israel—and us—to choose.