Joshua 24:2, 3
And Joshua said to all the people, Thus said the LORD God of Israel, Your fathers dwelled on the other side of the flood in old time…
Your fathers... served other gods, is an incidental statement of the utmost value. It throws a light on Abraham's antecedents in which we do not always see them, and enhances the significance of his abandonment of home and country, and his clear faith in a living God, in a degree which nothing else does. Observe first of all -
I. THE FACT THAT ABRAHAM WAS ORIGINALLY A HEATHEN. He was not merely born and bred an idolater, as we might have gathered from the story of Bachel's teraphim, but was a pagan in exactly the same condition of belief as many in India or in China are today. Some, in later times especially, and indeed in all times, worshipped the true God, but employed an idol to assist their imagination of Him; that is, they simply sought ritualistic and sensuous aids to religious thought and feeling. But Abraham began life far lower down in the religious scale. His fathers served other gods; the deified powers of nature representing little more than the forces and tendencies of life. Primitive tradition had lost any brightness it ever had. The religious sentiment had lost that reverence and habit of attention which soon begins to perceive God and to feel that the God constantly appealing to it is one and the same. The worship of several deities is always a mark of a superstitious ingredient blending with faith. Terah's family were in this condition. They were not only idolaters but polytheists - without Bible or sacrament, promise, or law. Abraham was precisely in the same sort of spiritual circumstances, and had been taught the same sort of religious ideas, and trained in the same superstitions, as are found in all pagan lands today. Yet with advantages so slight, he became the spiritual father of the religious nation of antiquity - type of all saintliness, of everything bright in faith and unquestioning in obedience. There is some reason to suppose that a god of vengeance was one of those deities most reverently regarded by his people; and yet he finds and worships a God of love! He, like all of us, had Christ, the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He, unlike most of us, followed the Christ light within him. Following the Divine light, it grew ever clearer, and his vision became stronger to perceive and his heart to follow it. Amongst a multitude of silent deities, One spoke to him through his conscience, with more and more of frequency, and, in the devotee in which He was obeyed, with more and more of clearness, both in the comforts He whispered and the commands He enjoined, till gradually he felt there was but one great God, who governed all, and should receive the homage of all; who was the friendly refuge as well as the omnipotent Creator of men. Gradually his life began to revolve around this unseen Centre, and the outward aspect and inward purpose of his life stood out in palpable difference from that of his fellows. Doubtless he preached his deep conviction, gathered about him some kindred spirits; perhaps had to endure persecution; till at last he got a strong impression borne in upon his conscience that his path of duty and of spiritual wisdom was to leave his native land and seek a new home for what was a new faith amongst men. His coming to Ur of the Chaldees, and then to Canaan, may be compared with the expedition of the Pilgrim fathers. Like them he sought "freedom to worship God," and like them founded a great nation in doing so. In any view of his character, his decision, his devotion, the clearness of his faith, the promptness of his obedience, are marvellous. But they become much more so when we mark the fact that Joshua here brings out, that Abraham began his career in heathen darkness - that the father of the faithful began life as a mere pagan. Observe -
II. SOME LESSONS OF THIS FACT. For evidently it has many. We can only suggest them.
(1) A little grace and a little light go a long way when well used. How little had Abraham to begin with! But, using what he had, it grew more, and was enough to do more for him than light a thousand times as clear does for some of us today. A man who has light upon his next step of duty has really an "abundance of revelation." Do not go in for being omniscient, postponing all obedience until you get light on all truth. Use your little light well whatever it is, and so you will get more.
(2) Obedience is the mode of self enlightenment. "If any man will do God's will, he shall know God's doctrine." So says Christ. Doing duty is the way of discovering truth. Since the creation of the world there has been no other. Take this.
(3) All the sacraments are means of grace, not conditions of salvation. The Church has always been tempted to exaggerate the helpful into the essential, until it says, "Extra ecclesiam, nulia salus." Paul, in the Epistle to the Romans, arguing with those who held the sacrament of circumcision essential to salvation, quotes Abraham as reaching all his spirituality and acceptance with God, "not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision," i.e, not by sacraments, but without them altogether. Sacraments are aids. The mercy that gave them to be such will, in the absence of them through error or inadvertence, use some other way of enriching and enlightening the obedient heart.
(4) However sunk in superstition the heathen may be, they are capable of religion. The difference between the Christian and the heathen in the matter of spiritual advantages is not a difference between having all and having nothing, but between having more and having less. They have the Christian inward light - movings of God's spirit, lessons of God's providence. God speaks to them, and "wakes their ear in the morning." They lack the testimony of God's saints, their examples, the revelation of God's highest law, a clear light on immortality; above all, the light which comes from the life and death of the Son of God - "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." This fuller light would multiply vastly the number of the devout amongst them, and give a higher character to their devotion. But they may be saved, as we are taught explicitly both by Peter and by Paul, by a Saviour they feel and follow, though they do not know the story of His love.
(5) The heathen being thus capable of religion, and our higher advantages being influential to produce it, we ought to extend to them the full light of the Saviour's glory. Our neglect of Christian missions grows from our despair of heathen men. We ought to think of the millions in heathen darkness as Abraham's brethren, and capable of appreciating and responding to all that is true and gracious. If we rightly reverence them, we should not eat our morsel of the bread of life alone, but should share it with them. Let us seek to extend the knowledge of the gospel of Christ, and we shall yet behold many an Abraham rising up in heathen lands. - G.
Parallel VersesKJV: And Joshua said unto all the people, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods.
WEB: Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, 'Your fathers lived of old time beyond the River, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor: and they served other gods.