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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor: Joshua 1:8

Part of the process of preparing a sermon is deciding what to leave out and what to keep.  God’s Word is so rich that diligent study inevitably leads to more material than can be crammed into a 40-50 minute exposition of a text.   Often, good stuff is left on the cutting room floor.
So I’m starting a new blog series expounding some of the good things that did not make the cut in the previous Sunday sermon.  Some weeks there may not be anything, some weeks several things.  We’ll see.
This time I’d like to take a closer look at Josh 1:8: 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 success.
This is a very familiar verse to many of us, often memorized and quoted.  However, there is much confusion concerning the last part of the verse.  Many in the church use this verse to support a prosperity gospel, that is, that God grants health and material prosperity to those who find favor with Him.   It is argued that since the context indicates that the prosperity and success mentioned in Josh 1:8 refers to the taking of the Canaan land – physical real estate, a land flowing with milk and honey – the truth to be applied to our lives today is that if you stick to God’s Word and are careful to obey, God will bless you with material wealth.
Conversely, if you are struggling financially or are in poor health, you can know that you are living in disobedience or have a lack of faith.  Thus, your health and wealth become barometers for your spiritual condition.
Unfortunately, most of the figures we see on religious television espouse this teaching.  Indeed, it is the backbone of their ministries, the primary source of their funding.  “Plant a seed of faith by sending a donation to this ministry and the Lord will turn that seed into a harvest of plenty for you.” 
However, the fact that the charlatans on TV use such passages as vehicles for their own greed does not in itself mean the interpretation is wrong.  Truth spoken by heretics is still truth.  We need to look to the text itself, comparing Scripture with Scripture, to know whether this interpretation is valid.  Does Josh 1:8 promise that Christians will enjoy good health or prosper materially as long as they are closely following God’s Word?  There are several reasons to say, "no."
First, such an interpretation would seem to clash demonstrably with the teaching of the book of Job.  In the very two chapters, God Himself describes Job as “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3).  It would be difficult to achieve a more sterling commendation, especially from the mouth of God.  And yet, in those first two chapters, we read of Job losing all his wealth, all his children, and his own health.  Truly, this grand demonstration of God’s sovereignty over suffering is accentuated by the fact that Job suffered in spite of his virtue.  Job suffered not for his sin, but for the glory of God.  That alone should be enough to conclude that there are at least some cases in which godliness does not lead to material prosperity.
But we also know that the apostles did not enjoy lives of wealth and comfort, as one would expect if obedience always resulted in temporal, physical blessings.  Paul in Phil 4:12 says, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”  It could also be said that Paul’s faithfulness to the Lord was actually hazardous to his health – he was beaten within an inch of his life numerous times (2 Cor 11:24-27).
Peter, in his writings, assumed the presence of persecution and suffering in the lives of believers, exhorting them to focus not on the things of this world, but on their inheritance “that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” for them (1 Pet 1:4).  The teaching that material wealth can be expected as a result of a life of obedience is simply absent from both the teachings and the lives of the apostles.
And what about Jesus?  If you want to find the perfect example of someone who was “careful to do according to all that is written” in God’s Word, how about Jesus, the only person who ever lived a sinless life?  If someone deserved to get rich due to personal holiness, it was Jesus.  So how did Jesus make out materially?  By all accounts, Jesus was the picture of lowliness, from his humble birth in Bethlehem (Luke 2:7) to his vocation as a carpenter (Mark 6:3) to his death among criminals (Matt 27:38). In Matt 8:20, Jesus revealed that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”  And what about His health?  It could be argued that His obedience to God resulted in His death, not His good health.
It does not hold water that if we obey God’s Word, we can expect health and wealth.  Rather, in this life persecution and suffering are more to be expected.  For this reason, a prosperity gospel interpretation of Joshua 1:8 does not fit.
Also, the Hebrew words speaking of prosperity and success in Joshua 1:8 are almost never used in the Old Testament to refer to financial success.  Instead, they speak of success in the pursuit of proper endeavors.  In fact, the use of the English word “prosperous” is misleading because of its English connotations.  The two Hebrew words are simply close synonyms for “success”.  Translators, in their desire to preserve the use of two synonyms, chose “prosperous” and “success” because of their semantic overlap.  The Hebrew word translated “prosperous” is used 78 times in the Old Testament, but only once is it even remotely referring to material wealth – Ezekiel 16:13 – and in that instance the prosperity wasn’t earned, but refers to God’s gracious blessing on Jerusalem.
Finally, to interpret the taking of the land as merely a temporal, material blessing is to completely miss its New Testament significance.  Our inheritance as believers is an imperishable salvation to be given to us in Glory (Mat 19:29; 1 Cor 15:50; Eph 1:14, 5:5; Titus 3:7; Heb 9:15, 1 Pet 1:4).  It is only then that we can expect perfect health (1 Cor 15:51-54).  Sticking close to God’s Word and striving for obedience keeps us focused on that future reward, free from the desire for worldly gain that would hamper our struggle against the flesh. 
Those who apply Joshua 1:8 expecting health and wealth will be stuck with fool’s gold in the end.  The true blessing is spiritual help in this life as we wait for our eternal reward in the next.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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