You know, when I was younger, I never much liked studying history. It always seemed so full of names, places, and dates that seemed so long ago and far, far away. But something about the experiences of life, I’ve grown to love the study of history. Perhaps it helps that my wife is a veracious reader. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to enjoy the stories that are found in history. But perhaps, most of all, I’ve come to see more and more how the stories of history have a profound significance to the lives we live today—to who we are, where we’ve come from, and to the patterns of life that have repeated themselves for generations and for centuries.
It has been said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. And there is much truth to that saying. Although often, those who do study history also end up repeating the mistakes of the past.
As you read the Bible, time and again, you can see people making the same mistakes, over and over again. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just want to scream back at those people, “When will you ever learn?” How many times did the children of Israel begin murmuring, complaining, and rebelling against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness? How many times did they experience the consequences of their sin, turn and repent, but then later go right back to doing the same things again?
But every time they sinned—though they experienced judgments—they turned to Him again and repented. And God, through Moses, led them through to the borders of the promised land.
Yes, there were sad times during the time of the Exodus. There were sad times in the conquest of Canaan. But these were not the saddest times for Israel. Despite the trials, Israel always came through. Not because of themselves, but because of the Lord’s mercy, and because of the faith and courage of the leaders—Moses and Joshua—whom God had placed to guide them.
But the saddest part of the story, I believe, begins in the 2nd chapter of Judges:
7 So the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord which He had done for Israel. 8 Now Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died when he was one hundred and ten years old. …
11 Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals; 12 and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. 13 They forsook the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel. So He delivered them into the hands of plunderers who despoiled them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. 15 Wherever they went out, the hand of the Lord was against them for calamity, as the Lord had said, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were greatly distressed.
16 Nevertheless, the Lord raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them. They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do so. 18 And when the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them. 19 And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way.
And this summarizes the story of Judges, all the way through chapter 16. The children of Israel would abandon God, judgments would come, and they would cry out for deliverance. Then God would raise up a mighty leader, who would deliver Israel and lead them back to God. But then, the leader would die, and predictably Israel would return to idolatry. Time and time again.
Finally, by Judges 17, even the leaders of Israel had become so corrupt that the nation had degenerated into anarchy. The sad commentary of Judges 17:6 says:
“In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
In fact, most of the history of the Old Testament is not the history of Israel, in general, but the history of Israel’s leaders. So predictably did the people follow their leaders, that the history of the leaders was the history of the nation.
The same pattern follows, through the subsequent prophets, and the kings of Israel, and later the kings of Israel and Judah. The leaders lead—sometimes in the right way, sometimes in the wrong—and predictably the people follow.
But perhaps the saddest stories, are no the stories of the wicked leaders, but the stories of great leaders, like Joshua and Samuel, who left no one to follow in their footsteps.
1 Samuel 8:1-5:Now it came to pass when Samuel was old that he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beersheba. 3 But his sons did not walk in his ways; they turned aside after dishonest gain, took bribes, and perverted justice.
4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
Looking back through the pages of sacred history, you almost want to shout back to some of those great leaders and say “Hey! Wake up! You’re not going to live forever. When you’re gone, then what? Who’s going to take your place?”
Of course, it would be wonderful, it would seem, if these great leaders could live forever. But of course, that doesn’t happen, this side of heaven. And perhaps it wouldn’t be good, because the temptation to abuse power would probably corrupt even the best of good leaders, given enough time. But what if—what if the greatest leaders could somehow leave a legacy of greatness to their posterity? What if the greatest leaders could somehow pass on the essence of their faith, courage, and wisdom to someone else, who could carry on the work that they leave, or take that calling to other parts of the world?
Hundreds—yes, perhaps thousands of great men and women have come and gone from the stage of this world, like so many shooting stars, streaking across the night sky. A star the lights the way, if but for a moment, along the path of life. But how much greater in this world are the men and women who, rather than a star, become a like a flickering candle. A candle, held in the hand, that lights another candle, and still another, until a thousand torches burn brightly—illuminating the path for the untold millions passing aimlessly through the midnight of this world. This, my friends, is true leadership.
In the Old Testament, we see but few examples of this. But the few that we see stand out as a shining model for those who, today, seek to carry forward a movement in this world that is larger than ourselves.
One such example is the example of Moses. Early in his ministry, as he led the children of Israel, he accepted the counsel of his father-in-law, Jethro, and organized a system of elders—leaders—in Israel, who could learn to judge the smaller cases. In doing this, he multiplied his influence, and allowed other leaders to build valuable leadership skills.
We often picture Moses as standing alone, or he and Aaron, as the sole leaders of the rebellious people of Israel. But he did not. There was a young man by the name of Joshua who, early on, became an assistant to Moses. He was there fighting the battle against the Amalekites in Exodus 17. He is mentioned multiple times as Moses’ assistant, or Moses’ servant. Joshua is probably best known, early on, as one of the two faithful spies, who along with Caleb brought a favorable report from the land of Canaan, while the other 10 brought an evil and faithless report.
What made the difference in Joshua? Why did he have so much faith, while the others doubted? Truly he was a man of character, but I have to wonder: what impact did it make of Joshua, to have been with Moses so closely for so many years? How much did that build his faith, so that when he saw the giants of the land, he had no fear?
And when Moses died, right on the borders of the promised land, it was Joshua who took the reigns of leadership, and with courage and faith he led Israel—under the leadership of Jehovah—into the conquest of Canaan. And even after his death, Israel still remained faithful for a time. Not until the last of the elders who had been with him died, did Israel finally depart from God and serve heathen gods.
And so, as I turn the pages of history, I have to wonder: what have we learned? How is it that, in a nation where people would forget God in a matter of weeks, it seems, how is it that the godly influence of Moses lived on for another generation after his death?
I believe, my friends, that is was a direct result of the time Moses invested in his young servant, Joshua. You see, for 40 years, Moses was leading Israel. For 40 years, Moses had to deal with the murmuring and complaining, the rebellion and unfaithfulness of the multitudes. But for those same 40 years, he had at his side the young man, Joshua. Joshua heard the complaints. He saw the rebellion. He felt the pain. But he also witnessed the miracle-working power of God, and at the end of those years Joshua’s faith had grown to the point, that God could use him to lead Israel into the promised land.
In Moses’ parting words to Israel, he gave Joshua a special commission, in Deuteronomy 31:7-8
7 Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and of good courage, for you must go with this people to the land which the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall cause them to inherit it. 8 And the Lord, He is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.”
So my questions for you today is this: who are you, in this story? Are you, like Moses, a leader in God’s cause? You may think, “Oh, no, I’m just a church member. I’m not a leader. I’m like the multitude of Israel.” Really? Really? I don’t know if that’s possible. If you are here on a Saturday morning, worshiping God in a church that doesn’t have any band, or church choir, or outstanding programs for every age of kids, or well-to-do community members—if you’re here, I don’t believe it’s by accident. You’re here because of a choice, and that choice, I believe, makes you a leader.
As a young man, I loved the Lord, and I attended church regularly with my family. But I wasn’t involved in church, in much of an active way. That changed when our church held an evangelistic series, and the head elder, Kevin, asked me to help run the sound system at the convention hall. He not only asked me to help, he sat with me and showed me how to operate it. We talked. Soon, I was also running the sound system at the church each week.
It wasn’t long before he was taking me along when he went to give Bible studies. I knew the Bible, but I’d never given Bible studies before. He never gave me a class or a lecture on how to give Bible studies; we just jumped in the car together, rode over to the home of the Bible Study contact, and we studied together. At first, he would ask me to look up some of the texts. Pretty soon, I was helping to give the lesson, and even leading out in the discussion.
It was because of his faithful mentorship and wise counsel that I became an active member in the church. Eventually, I was asked to serve a local elder. I went overseas as a student missionary, where I worked closely with a missionary/pastor couple in Africa, who mentored me in cross-cultural ministry. Today, I serve as a full-time pastor, largely because of the wise mentorship of others.
So what kind of leader are you? Are you, like Moses, among the senior leaders in the work? Then I want to ask you: who are you mentoring? Who are you taking with you, as you work—teaching them the ins and outs of ministry?
Or perhaps you’re more like Joshua—the younger leader—who worked for 40 years with little recognition, but who humbled served Moses, and through his serve was able to witness first-hand God’s mighty work through the meekest man who ever lived. Are you like Joshua? If so, who is your “Moses”?
Perhaps you may be in both positions. Even Moses, the great leader in God’s cause, was not above taking counsel from his father-in-law, Jethro. Even age doesn’t necessarily make a difference, so much as ones experience and willingness to be used in God’s cause.
But my appeal to you today is this: will you be a leader in God’s cause? Let’s not let the tragic history of Israel repeat itself today. As we lead, let us commit to intentionally teaching, or mentoring others in leadership. Don’t just be a leader who burns brightly for a time, but eventually burns out. Let us carry our candles into the darkness, and one by one, light the candles of others, who can light still others on our journey home.