When an effective leader steps down from any organization or ministry, it is always a challenge to replace that leader. Like me, you may have witnessed this firsthand when your beloved pastor at your church retired or moved on to another ministry, or when your CEO, superintendent, or supervisor left your organization. And then everyone entered into a period of anxiety, wondering what would happen next. Unless . . . someone had been appropriately prepared to step into the now-vacant leadership role.
The relationship between Moses and Joshua provides an illustration of this concept in action. We are first introduced to Joshua in Exodus 17, when the Israelites are preparing to go to battle against the Amalekites. The description of the story may be familiar to you – this is the battle in which Moses stood on a hill overlooking the scene of the conflict, holding his hands in the air. As long as his hands were raised, the Israelites were winning, but if his hands dropped, the Israelites would begin to lose ground. Eventually, Aaron and Hur (who were with Moses), arranged a place for Moses to sit, and these two stood on either side of Moses, helping him to keep his hands held up. In this way, Joshua was able to lead his army to victory.
But then an interesting statement follows this story, in Exodus 17:14, when the Lord said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.” This statement is interesting because it begs the question of why it was so important that Joshua hear and remember the details of the source of the victory. At this point, we are not given any indication of why this matters so much, but the picture begins to be filled in a little later in their journey through the wilderness.
When the people then arrive at Mt. Sinai, God puts the journey on pause and takes time to provide the law to Moses. It is here that we are finally given an understanding of the nature of Joshua’s relationship to Moses, in Exodus 24:13, which says, “Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide.” Aha! Now it begins to make more sense! Joshua is Moses’ assistant! And then, further clarification comes in Numbers 11:28, which tells us that Joshua had been Moses’ aide since youth. So it seems that Joshua has been by Moses’ side since the journey began, and therefore it becomes understandable that God wanted Joshua to learn from his experiences with Moses.
Now, from the time of the exodus from Egypt until the entry into the Promised Land, I am sure that there was much that Joshua observed, experienced, and learned from Moses’ example and leadership. Several of those learning opportunities are specifically mentioned: the battle against the Amalekites, described in Exodus 17; the giving of the law to Moses, In Exodus 24; Moses’ response to two elders who were prophesying, in Numbers 11; and the task of spying out the land, given to Joshua, Caleb, and ten other men, in Numbers 13. Each of these events provided specific learning experiences for Joshua, and certainly he also learned from the other events that took place during the 40-year journey, but what is the significance of this? It is that Joshua was being prepared to replace Moses, whether he realized it or not.
This eventually became evident when Moses had to face the fact that he would not be leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land. At this point, Moses approached the Lord with his concern, in Numbers 27:15-23 –
Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” So the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit of leadership, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him. He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the Lord. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in.” Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He took Joshua and had him stand before Eleazar the priest and the whole assembly. Then he laid his hands on him and commissioned him, as the Lord instructed through Moses.
And then Deuteronomy 3:28 further makes God’s intentions quite clear, when He says, “But commission Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, for he will lead this people across and will cause them to inherit the land that you will see.” All along the way, for 40 years, Moses had been training his replacement! Joshua had observed Moses’ successes and failures. He had led projects and missions. He witnessed personal moments. And he had been prepared to take over the leadership.
But then, a curious thing unfolds toward the end of his life. Joshua was a tremendous leader for the nation of Israel, and Scripture makes it clear that he had the spirit of leadership (Numbers 27) and the spirit of wisdom (Deuteronomy34:9), and that the people willingly followed his leadership. Yet, for all that he learned from Moses, it appeared that the one thing he did not do was train his replacement! At the end of his life and leadership, Scripture records (in Joshua 24:31 and again in Judges 2:7) that the people served the Lord throughout Joshua’s lifetime; but then Judges 2:10 makes this statement: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.” It seems that Joshua had not invested in developing someone to succeed him and to continue to lead the people in serving the Lord, and the nation paid the price.
This story offers great application for any leader, reminding us of the importance of training our replacements and developing new leaders, but what a lesson for Christian leaders! Regardless of the work to which you have been called, you must be developing others to carry on after you, investing in the spiritual growth and discipleship of the next generation of leaders who will impact the world for Christ. They need to be able to observe your example and learn from your experience. They need to have the benefit of a personal relationship with you. Ultimately, if you are not doing this, your leadership will end with you. So, are you training your replacement? More pointedly, are you training your spiritual replacement? For effective Christian leadership, you must!