There is an interesting story in the book of Joshua that I think relates to our church situation today. The book of Joshua, of course, is the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan, entering the land of promise and defeating the Canaanites who lived there.
The story actually begins in the book of Numbers, because the Israelites began to conquer land even before they crossed the Jordan River. Numbers 21:21-35 describes military victories over Amorite kings who lived north and east of the Jordan. This was good grazing land, and the Gadites and Reubenites, who had large herds and flocks, asked Moses for this land (Num. 32:1-5).
It may have been an innocent request, but Moses was harsh with them: “Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites?” (vs. 6-7). Moses then compared their request to the fiasco at Kadesh Barnea, which resulted in an entire generation dying in the desert (vs. 8-13). “And here you are, a brood of sinners, standing in the place of your fathers and making the Lord even more angry with Israel” (v. 14).
Moses thought they wanted to enjoy safety while the other tribes fought the Canaanites — that they wanted to quit fighting and not help their brothers, even though their brothers had helped them. They then promised to Moses that they would help fight the Canaanites, leaving their wives and children east of the Jordan (vs. 16-19). Moses accepted this suggestion, but warned them of the consequences of reneging on their promise (vs. 20-24).
That brings us to Joshua 1:12. Joshua reminded the Reubenites, Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh of what Moses had told them: “The Lord your God is giving you rest and has granted you this land¼ . All your fighting men, fully armed, must cross over ahead of your brothers. You are to help your brothers until the Lord gives them rest, as he has done for you¼ . After that, you may go back and occupy your own land¼ east of the Jordan” (vs. 13-15).
So the two and a half tribes promised to fight — and they were true to their word, apparently fighting for seven years to help the other tribes acquire their lands. Joshua 22 concludes the story: “For a long time now — to this very day — you have not deserted your brothers but have carried out the mission the Lord your God gave you. Now that the Lord your God has given your brothers rest as he promised, return to your homes¼ on the other side of the Jordan” (vs. 3-4).
It was a story (in contrast to the time of the Judges) of tribes working together to help each other. The people were faithful to the commands Moses had given them, and faithful to what they said they would do.
What does it have to do with the church today? I believe it is fair to compare the Reubenites and Gadites to Christians who, by God’s grace, have weathered the storms well and whose congregations are strong and stable. Now, a few of them would like to “stay home” and enjoy their blessings, being independent and no longer contributing to the general good and needs of the whole denomination through which God brought them to where they are. I believe, like Moses believed of the tribes who secured their territory early, that these congregations have the responsibility to “stay in the battle” and work until their brothers and sisters can enter “the promised land” and also enjoy their rest.
Most congregations are eager to “stick it out,” and I am thankful for them. However, it grieves me that a few congregations have begun to think, in effect, “Thank you for helping us understand the gospel. We are glad you taught us about grace and led us out of exclusivism and legalism. We are glad you have taught us about the priesthood of all believers and the importance of evangelism in our local area. We appreciate all this, but now we want to go on our own. We aren’t going to help you teach anyone else. We are glad you helped us, but now that we are where we are, we aren’t going to help you any more.”
In many ways, I understand how they feel. They are happy for the benefits and for the new vision of ministry, but now they want to begin implementing those benefits in their local area, and they see the rest of the denomination as an impediment to their goals. They have what they need, so they no longer want to put their goals on hold in order to help the rest of the congregations. I believe this is the sort of attitude that Moses so strongly warned against.
In the time of the judges, everyone did what was right in their own eyes, and the nation suffered tremendously for it. We see this attitude in American churches today, too, in our highly individualistic culture. Many people in every denomination think of their own desires first, and give the church the crumbs that are left over. In both time and money, they are short-changing the church. Ironically, even on a individual basis, wealthy Christians (on average) give smaller percentages than less financially blessed Christians do!
Friends, there is work to do — incredibly important work. It is not easy, but it is the job that Christ sets before us. If you have received benefits from the church, I urge you to help others receive them, too. If you have received spiritual benefits, I urge you to give material benefits (1 Cor. 9:11).
If you have received a spiritual harvest, do not just take the benefits and run away. Stay to help your brothers and sisters until we conquer the “Canaanites,” and all of us can enter the rest that God has promised (Heb. 4:1-11).