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28. A Healthy Transition (Deuteronomy 31:1-13)

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Life of Moses (28)

September 16, 2018

In his book, Crisis: the Last Years of the Carter Presidency (cited in Newsweek [10/4/82]), Hamilton Jordan, who was President Carter’s Chief of Staff, tells about the jarring transition from being at the center of historic world events one day and being out of office the next day. The day before Carter left office, he and his team were working feverishly to free the American hostages in Iran. The next day, Carter and his staff flew to Plains, Georgia, as Ronald Reagan became the next President.

It was raining in Plains as President Carter and Jordan got off the helicopter. After Carter announced the breaking news that the hostages had been freed, the crowd cheered and a country music band burst into song. But it was over in a moment. Carter and his men adjourned to a barn behind the peanut warehouse where the staff had assembled a woodworking shop for the President. Jordan was struck with how strange it was that the man who the day before had been orchestrating the rescue of American hostages and leading our great nation was now poring over drills, saws, and screwdrivers in an old barn in rural Georgia.

Jordan decided to stay that night with his mother in Albany, Georgia, about 40 miles away. But he hadn’t made arrangements to get there. It had been years since he had to think about such matters. Soaking wet, carrying his briefcase and a suitcase, he wandered around for an hour trying to find someone who could give him a ride home. Finally, he went to the pay phone at Billy Carter’s old service station and tried to call a taxi, but they were all busy taking VIP’s to the airport. He finally found a Georgia State patrolman he knew who agreed to drive him to his mother’s house. He wrote, “It really is over, I thought as I loaded my luggage into his trunk, climbed into his front seat and headed home.”

Transitions aren’t easy. The bigger the transition, the more difficult it is. Going from being the Chief of Staff for the President of the United States, to being an unemployed man from a small town in Georgia, must have been traumatic!

As you probably know, we’re facing a major transition here at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship. Pastor Stan Johnson, who served on staff here for about 30 years, retired on April 1st. And I’m retiring soon after serving here as senior pastor since May, 1992. The church has called Dave Berry as the next senior pastor. He will begin in the next few months, after getting his family relocated here. My prayer is that the transition will go well and that all of you will warmly welcome Pastor Dave and his family and be as supportive of him as you have been of me.

You may wonder, “Does the Bible have anything to guide us through a healthy transition?” I believe that Moses’ handing his leadership baton to Joshua provides some wisdom for us. (Although I’m not implying that I’m like Moses or Dave is like Joshua!) Deuteronomy 31:1-13 teaches us that …

For a healthy transition, God’s people need to trust Him in the battle and follow new godly leaders who keep His Word central.

These are almost the final recorded words of this great man of God, and thus we should weigh them carefully. Four principles:

1. For a healthy transition, trust in God and His presence, not in human leaders who will pass off the scene.

Moses spoke to all Israel (Deut. 31:2-3),

“I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I am no longer able to come and go, and the Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan.’ It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the Lord has spoken.”

Moses’ life was marked by three very different 40-year periods. For his first 40 years, Moses lived in Pharaoh’s palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He would have enjoyed all the comforts of life, with servants waiting to do his every wish. Acts 7:22 states, “Moses was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds.”

But then Moses killed the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite man. He had to flee to the remote desert area of Midian, where he married a shepherd’s daughter and tended his father-in-law’s sheep for the next 40 years. Then God met him at the burning bush and called him to return to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from bondage. That began the final 40 years of Moses’ life, leading these mostly stiff-necked people through the wilderness to the edge of the Promised Land. But because he did not treat God as holy when he disobediently struck the rock, God told Moses that he could not lead the people into the land of Canaan.

As Moses realizes that his time on earth is short, he reminds Israel of the crucial fact that the Lord is with them and will go with them as they face the people of Canaan, whom they must dispossess of the land. Note how he repeats this essential truth to drive it home: Verse 3: “It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you.” Verse 6: “The Lord your God is the one who goes with you.” Verse 8: “The Lord is the one who goes ahead of you.” And in verse 23, the Lord says to Joshua, “I will be with you.” Then after Moses’ death, the Lord says to Joshua (Josh. 1:5), “Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” He repeats (Josh. 1:9), “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

This emphasis on God’s presence with His people takes us back to Exodus 33, where after the incident with the golden calf, the Lord told Moses that He would send His angel with Israel, but He Himself would not go up with them or He would destroy them because of their stiff necks. But Moses prayed, in effect, “Lord, if you don’t go with us, we aren’t going anywhere. It would be better to die in the wilderness with You than to go into the Promised Land without You!” The Lord relented and promised (Exod. 33:14, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.”

In the New Testament, Jesus’ final words to His disciples before He ascended into heaven were (Matt. 28:20), “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Writing to a suffering church, the author of Hebrews (13:5) cites Deuteronomy 31:6, “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’”

It is vital at all times, but especially in a time of change, to know that God is present with you. He is the one great unchanging constant in life! Don’t do anything that would put a distance between you and God. After David had sinned with Bathsheba, in Psalm 51:11 he pleads, “Do not cast me away from Your presence and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” I’ve heard Bible teachers say that we shouldn’t pray David’s prayer that the Lord would not take His Holy Spirit from us, since the Spirit permanently dwells in every believer. Technically, that’s true, but practically, sin will rob you from experiencing the Spirit’s presence and blessing.

Also, Moses repeats the theme of God’s faithfulness to His promises. He had promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants (Deut. 31:7). Now Moses reminds them (Deut. 31:6), “He will not fail you or forsake you.” He repeats (v. 8), “He will not fail you or forsake you.” At the end of Joshua’s life, echoing Moses’ words here, he reminded Israel (Josh. 23:14), “Now behold, today I am going the way of all the earth, and you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one word of all the good words which the Lord your God spoke concerning you has failed; all have been fulfilled for you, not one of them has failed.”

So as a church facing a time of transition, God’s word to us is, trust in Him and His faithfulness, not in any human leader, since leaders will pass off the scene. And, don’t do anything that would rob you of knowing God’s presence. It is vital that the Lord goes with us through a time of change.

2. For a healthy transition, realize that there will be battles to fight, but with God’s strength, we can overcome.

In verse 3, Moses reminds the people of what they knew very well, that there were frightening enemies that they would have to conquer to take the Promised Land. But he assures them, “It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you.” He reminds them (v. 4), “The Lord will do to them just as He did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when He destroyed them.” Those powerful kings lived on the east side of the Jordan River, and God had already given Israel victory over them and given them their land. Then regarding the future enemies in Canaan, Moses repeats (v. 5), “The Lord will deliver them up before you.” So he was reminding Israel that there would be battles against these powerful enemies, but no enemy could stand against the Lord’s presence and His strength through His people. The Lord easily could have sent a plague on the Canaanites so that they all dropped dead and Israel just moved into their cities. But He didn’t do that. The Lord would deliver these enemies to Israel, but they had to fight in dependence on the Lord’s strength.

The Christian life is often depicted as a fight. We’re called to put on the full armor of God so that we may be able to stand firm in the battle against the unseen forces of darkness (Eph. 6:10-18). Paul exhorted Timothy (1 Tim. 6:12), “Fight the good fight of faith!” Our enemies are the world, the flesh, and the devil. At the end of Paul’s life, when he could have listed all the people he had led to Christ and all the churches that he had planted, instead, he told Timothy (2 Tim. 4:7), “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” Jude 3 appeals to us to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.”

When I first began as a pastor over 41 years ago, I thought that most of the battles I would face would come from outside the church. It’s true that the subtle forces of worldliness constantly creep into the church. During my years of ministry, our godless culture has normalized no-fault divorce, pervasive pornography, profanity, homosexuality, and most recently, transgenderism.

But many of the battles have come from those inside the evangelical camp. In the late 1970’s, the inerrancy of Scripture was a major battle. The call to arms came through Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible [Zondervan], which exposed some of Fuller Seminary’s faculty who taught that the Bible contains errors.

In the 1980’s, John MacArthur wrote several books against those who teach that saving faith does not include submission to His lordship. At the same time, the so-called “prosperity gospel” was spreading all over the world. These false teachers claim that it is God’s will to heal all of your diseases and make you financially prosperous, if you claim it by faith (and send a nice donation to their ministries!). Also, the “New Apostolic Reformation” claims that we still have apostles and new prophetic revelation from God (MacArthur, Strange Fire Thomas Nelson], pp. 86, 89-103).

In the 1990’s, many evangelicals became enamored with the ancient rituals of the church and were drawn back to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Churches. Several evangelical leaders produced and signed a document, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” which affirmed that we should come together on the many areas where we agree and set aside our differences. Of course, that meant setting aside the central Reformation truth that we are justified by grace through faith in Christ, apart from works!

In the late 90’s and early part of this century, the “new perspective on Paul” asserted that the Reformers were mistaken to understand justification as God imputing forgiveness of sins and Christ’s righteousness to us by faith. Rather, this false teaching claims that justification didn’t pertain to the doctrine of salvation, but rather to being a part of the covenant community (Phil Johnson, chapter 4 in Fool’s Gold [Crossway], ed. by John MacArthur).

Now, controversy over “social justice” is threatening to confuse the gospel by making racial reconciliation, ministry to the poor, and economic equality the mission of the church. While the church should help the poor and denounce racism, our main mission must be the gospel (see Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? [Crossway]). Otherwise, we’re trying to fix problems that stem from sin with external solutions that cannot transform human hearts.

So my point is, there have been battles over my four decades of ministry and those battles will continue because the enemy is alive and active. But I’m confident that Pastor Dave is knowledgeable about these battles and will stay abreast of those that erupt in the future. He is committed, as I have been, to the truth that an elder must (Titus 1:9) hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” Relying on God’s strength, we can stand firm in the battles ahead.

3. For a healthy transition, older leaders need to pass the baton to courageous younger leaders who will carry on the fight of faith.

Moses recognized (Deut. 31:2) that at this point he was not able to lead Israel in the conquest of Canaan, both because of his age and because the Lord had told him that he would not be the one to do it. Every leader should be able to “do the math” and see that he won’t be around forever. Paul knew that his “outer man [was] decaying” (2 Cor. 4:16) and that the time of his departure had come (2 Tim. 4:6). Peter recognized that “the laying aside of [his] earthly dwelling [was] imminent” (2 Pet. 1:14). And so older leaders should be ready to pass the baton to courageous younger leaders who will carry on God’s work.

Moses did not hand-pick Joshua. Rather, Moses asked God to appoint a leader to follow him, and God told him that Joshua was that man (Num. 27:15-23). Joshua had served Moses from his youth (Num. 11:28). He had a shepherd’s heart (Num. 27:17). Joshua had the great privilege and responsibility of leading God’s people into their long-promised inheritance.

But Joshua was very different in gifts and style than Moses was. That’s true of every leader of God’s people. They all have different strengths and weaknesses. The church should not rally around one man or another, as if he were the only one capable of leading. The Corinthians were doing that with Paul, Apollos, Peter, and some sanctimoniously claiming that they didn’t follow any leader except Christ (1 Cor. 1:12). But Paul asked rhetorically (1 Cor. 3:5-7),

What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.

But, while different leaders will have different strengths and gifts, all leaders need courage to fight the good fight of faith. Moses charged Joshua (Deut. 31:7a), “Be strong and courageous ….” When he formally commissioned Joshua (Deut. 31:23), he repeated, “Be strong and courageous ….” When Joshua began his leadership, God challenged him four times to be strong and courageous (Josh. 1:6, 7, 9, 18). To lead God’s people, which includes confronting error and sin, godly leaders need to fear God and desire to please Him more than anyone else.

Thus, for a healthy transition, trust in the Lord and His presence, not in human leaders. Realize that there will be battles to fight, but with God’s strength, we can overcome. Older leaders must pass the baton to courageous younger leaders who will carry on the fight of faith. Finally,

4. For a healthy transition, God’s leaders and people need to keep His Word central and pass it on to their children.

In verses 9-13, we learn that Moses wrote down “this law,” referring at least to Deuteronomy, but probably to the entire Pentateuch, and told the priests to read it to all Israel, including women, children, and aliens, every seven years when they gathered for the Feast of Booths. The objective was (Deut. 31:12b-13), “so that they may hear and learn and fear the Lord your God, and be careful to observe all the words of this law. Their children, who have not known, will hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live on the land which you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” Commentators point out that the priests were charged with teaching God’s law not just every seven years (as stipulated here), but at all times (Mal. 2:7; Neh. 8:8).

The application for us is that God’s Word must be central to everything we believe, teach, and do as God’s people. We are privileged to have the written Word of God so widely available in our language! Most of you own more Bibles and Bible study helps than the majority of pastors around the world. But, we are charged with the important responsibility of teaching God’s truth, especially the gospel, to our children. But, to do this, you must have genuine faith in Christ as your Savior and then learn God’s Word, so that you fear and obey Him. Kids learn more from your life than from your lectures. You can’t impart to your kids what you yourself do not practice, not just on Sundays, but throughout the week.

Note also the repeated emphasis here on fearing the Lord (Deut. 31:12, 13). Proverbs 9:10 states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” The fear of God is a biblical truth that is often lacking in modern evangelical churches. The fear of God stems from knowing that He is the Holy One. While He is our loving Father who invites us to draw near in fellowship with Him, we should always do so “with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28b-29). As long as we keep God’s Word central we will fear the Lord and pass that reverence on to our children.


The change of transitions can be difficult. Stanley Arnold (source unknown) wrote, “The essence of human life is change, but for too many of us, change does not excite, it disturbs. If success is what we seek, we must make change a partner in our pursuit.”

God knew that after Moses and Joshua, Israel would abandon the Lord for idols, causing Him to forsake them (Deut. 31:16-18). The threat of apostasy is always present. The Bible predicts and warns us about widespread apostasy in the end times (2 Thess. 3:3-12; 2 Tim. 3:1-5). But it’s not inevitable that we follow false teachers or defect from the faith. We can have a healthy transition if we will trust in the Lord and His presence, not in human leaders who will pass off the scene. Be ready to fight together in God’s strength against the many schemes of the devil. When your leaders courageously stand for the truth and against error, stand with them. And, keep God’s Word central, live it, and pass it down to your children.

Application Questions

  1. What major transitions are you facing personally? Do these excite you or cause anxiety? Discuss with a good friend.
  2. Why are many pastors afraid to confront false teaching? What happens to a church when a pastor does not expose false teaching?
  3. What are some current issues where leaders must be courageous?
  4. Which biblical truths are worth fighting about? Which are matters to debate, but not divide over? What determines the difference?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership

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