What do we learn from the farewell speeches recorded in Scripture? If we compare the parting words (or nearly so) of Joshua, Samuel, and Stephen, there are common themes. Noting these, are there lessons for believers in these discourses? There are at least two important things that as Christians, one never outgrows.
Remember Your Redemption
Joshua 24 finds him gathering all the people at Shechem. He rehearses the history of the nation, beginning with the call of Abraham, and then into the Egyptian slavery. The exodus from Egypt and their deliverance feature prominently. If we pause at this point in the story, fast forward to Samuel, and he too presents similar themes. Samuel is not near death, but as the last judge of Israel, his time of leading the nation is coming to an end, because the people had asked for a king. “And Samuel said to the people, “The Lord is witness, who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Sam. 12:6) He, too, hearkens back to the exodus and to their deliverance from slavery. Fast forward still more to the New Testament and Stephen’s testimony in Acts 7. Stephen’s speech is much longer than either Joshua’s or Samuel’s, but it includes the same theme: deliverance from bondage by the hand of God. “This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.” (Acts 7:36)
The common theme in these addresses and the important one for us is this: Our relationship with God is tied to our redemption, our deliverance. When Israel left Egypt God said to them, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months.” (Ex. 12:2) The clock restarted, it was a new thing. So it is for the Christian. The one who trusts in the Lord Jesus has a new beginning. Israel was in need of frequent reminders about their deliverance, about the redemption God effected on their behalf (hence the annual Passover.) We do not outgrow our need to dwell on our deliverance from the bondage of sin. Indeed, it is safety to dwell upon that deliverance and the deliverer. We do not move on from the gospel, from what brought our redemption.
Remember Your Tendency to Sin
The other aspect of these speeches is that they all contain reminders of the people’s propensity to sin, of their wayward hearts. Joshua charges the people to choose whom they will serve, but when they say “We will serve the Lord” his immediate reply is “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” In other words, God is holy, you are not. Part of their history was the wandering in the wilderness, which was due to their lack of trust in God’s word. Samuel, too, rehearses the many deliverances of the people through the years of the judges. These deliverances were necessary because the people had turned from following the Lord.
Finally, Stephen also reminds the people that the Golden Calf was idolatry. The culmination of that speech is Stephen’s bold confrontation: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7: 51)
In all these instances we can see that the speaker draws attention to the sin of the people. We are, as Luther said, both justified and sinner at the same time. If we think we have outgrown the need for vigilance against sin, we have lost the battle. If we think we have no need to guard our hearts because we are “mature” we have fallen into the same trap as the Israelites did. Israel was warned as God’s people, to beware of their tendency to idolatry, of looking to the surrounding nations for any pattern to follow. Instead, the surrounding nations were the example to Israel of what not to do, what not to pursue. Similarly, the warning passages of the New Testament are addressed to Christians to be watchful, careful, and to put no confidence in the flesh. Believer, remember your redemption from sin, but remember as well that we are yet striving to become holy, and that our hearts are prone to sin, as sparks fly upward.