I blogged on this passage last year, but let’s return it it again!
Martin Luther King Jr. begins his autobiography:
Of course I was religious. I grew up in the church. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy’s brother is a preacher. So I didn’t have much choice.
He did have a choice, and he made it with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength.
Joshua has summoned the people to Shechem to renew their covenant with God. He recounts the history of this relationship. He begins by remembering their distant past, "long ago," literally "from eternity," when the ancestors of the Israelites lived "in the land beyond the river," that is, the Euphrates. He then tells what God did for their ancestors: he gave them descendents and good land; defeated their enemies and brought them out of slavery; brought them to a new land and gave them victory over the Amorites.
Joshua does not follow the normal recalling of their ancestors "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". Instead, he goes even further back in history to Terah, Abraham’s father, and includes the lesser known Nahor, Abraham’s brother. In doing so, Joshua shows that from the story’s beginning, there have always been examples of the Israelites’ faithlessness. Terah and Nahor "served other gods" (24:2). When Jacob and Laban make their covenant at Mizpah, they swear by the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor (Gen 31:53).
People did have a choice and from the beginning of history, there are those who did not choose to serve the Lord.
Against this background, Joshua exhorts the people to fear and serve God in complete faithfulness (Joshua 24:14). "Serve God" becomes the core message. He repeats the word twice in verse 14, and it appears three times in the subsequent four verses. The NEB translates the word as "worship;" other translations render it as "serve." The link is, of course, Romans 12.1; to worship God is to serve God. "
"Worship" emphasises that we should worship only God and not bow down to other gods.
"Serve" reminds the Israelites that whilst they have been freed from slavery in Egypt their freedom is not absolute. Rather than being Egypt’s servants they have become God’s servants. In Egypt there was no choice, now they must choose to serve God (24:15). To some this option is more than just "undesirable" (NIV) rather it appeared be "evil in your eyes," (ESV) and it seemed "evil unto you" (KJV).
If it is a choice — perhaps undesirable, perhaps even seemingly evil — to serve God, then why would they make it?
There are two answers:
The first one comes in verse 17. The reason to serve God is because of what God has done for them. The history that Joshua himself recounted in detail for them proves this.
The second reason comes from the first. If God has done this for us, then he is our God. In verse 15, Joshua points to the availability of other gods—the gods of the Amorites, the gods of their ancestors, or the Lord. But the people rightly acknowledge that the Lord is their God. It would be absurd to serve other gods, and to forsake God, when this God is ours!
Joshua has laid out the challenge — choose to serve God — and the people have responded, "We will serve God!" Not content with this, Joshua lays down the gauntlet, telling them that they cannot serve God, and warning them of the consequences for forsaking the Lord. To this, the people once again sound the chorus, "We will serve the Lord" (24:21, 24). The people "are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord" (22).
Jesus also recognises the necessity of "choosing to serve God," even though it will be difficult. In response to Jesus’ hard teachings, some do not make it. But, in reality,
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).
We can leave, but why would we? Jesus has brought us this far, and he is our God, with the words of eternal life.