The Real Meaning of the Most Viral Verse
Dr. James Emery WhiteJames Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
- 2018 Jan 18
Once again the most viral verse in the U.S. is:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9, NIV)
The most popular Bible app is called YouVersion, and at the end of every year it releases a report on the millions of users who engaged the Bible. And, as it has in the past, Joshua 1:9 came out on top as the most bookmarked, highlighted and shared verse.
At first glance, it’s not hard to see why it is so popular. There are so many times we need an encouraging word to just hang in there.
If you’re in a tough stretch of your marriage,
… if you’re in the high octane years of child-rearing,
… if you just got laid off,
… if you’re fighting an illness or disease,
… if you’re faced with a tough, potentially life-changing decision,
… if you’re starting a new job, going to a new school, moving to a new city,
… if you just broke up with someone or are going through a divorce.
How many times do we need to be strong? To have courage? To not be scared? To not give in to discouragement? If you want a verse that can speak to almost every challenge we face in life, it’s Joshua 1:9. It tells us we can be strong and courageous, unafraid and encouraged, because God will be with us wherever we go and come through for us in whatever way we need.
Or does it?
The actual context of the verse is about a specific mission given by God, to a specific man named Joshua. Throughout the wider passage, three times God says, “be strong and courageous.” And God was very specific about where that strength and courage should be applied. Joshua was to be strong and courageous as he led the people. He was to be strong and courageous in obeying God’s word. And finally, in Joshua 1:9, he was to be strong and courageous in terms of endurance.
If Joshua would exhibit these three areas of strength and courage, then God promised success in every aspect of the mission he had been given.
So is Joshua 1:9 a verse that applies to you and your situation? Your job, your school, your business, your goals? Is it meant to be applied in the ways it is often tweeted, hashtagged and bookmarked?
You can’t just read yourself and your situation into every passage, every story, every byline. This is about God’s call to Joshua to take the Promised Land.
You’re not Joshua. Neither am I.
And you can’t call just anything your “promised land” and then start taking those verses as if they apply to you.
Be strong and courageous with your new start-up company because that's your “promised land” and God will show up and make it a success.
Be strong and courageous with your new real estate license because that's your “promised land” and God will show up and help you sell homes.
The personal application to your life and mine is that we can always be strong and courageous that God will be with us when we pursue His mission, obey His word and remain steadfast in our calling.
And, specifically, with the call given us in the New Testament that mirrored the one given to Joshua.
What God said to Joshua was very specific to Joshua and the Promised Land. But Jesus repeated almost the exact same call – and the exact same promise – to everyone who would follow Him in regard to a new mission and a new promised land:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in? the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)
Do you see how that mirrors what God said to Joshua? A clear mission was given by Jesus: a call to stay true to living by the Scriptures along with the promise that He will be with us as we do it. In fact, this is the fulfillment of Joshua. You can’t read Joshua 1:9 apart from Matthew 28:18-20.
What started with one man getting a mission central to the expanding Kingdom of God and being promised the power and presence of God, led to all of us receiving the mission and being promised the presence and power of God.
What started with one man leading a people into being a community of God has resulted in all of us being giving the privilege and responsibility of leading people into community with God.
As God told Joshua to go and enter the land and take it, so we are told by Christ to go into the world and take it with the message of Christ. And when we do, just as God told Joshua that He would be with him, Christ tells us that He will be with us.
And that’s an understanding of Joshua 1:9 worth bookmarking.
James Emery White
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “‘Do Not Be Discouraged’: YouVersion Bible App Tops 300 Million Downloads,” Christianity Today, January 3, 2018, read online.
Listen to the series, “Viral Verses,” given by James Emery White at Mecklenburg Community Church.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.