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Joshua 3-4: Crossing the Jordan and the Call to Remember Print E-mail
Sunday, 10 February 2008

My Old Testament professor in college, Dr. Kelvin Moore, used to tell us stories about his visits to Israel.  One story that I heard a number of times involved the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.  Dr. Moore told us about the museum and his visit there and the great impact that it had on him.  He always concluded the story by telling us about leaving the museum.  As you exit the memorial, there is a single word in Hebrew above the door: zacharu (transliterated).  The word simply means ‘remember.’  It is a command to those who have visited the museum to remember what they have seen.

The call to remember is important, not just when we are talking about the horrors of the holocaust, but when we are talking about the wonders of God as well.  We see this emphasis throughout the psalms and other Old Testament books as the writers are commanding Israel to remember all that God has done for them.  As we saw in Psalm 77, which we read to begin our service, the psalmist finds comfort in remembering the deeds of the Lord and His wonders of old (v. 11).  One of the ‘wonders of old’ that Israel was called to remember is the crossing of the Jordan River.  The stage is set for Israel to begin the battle for the Promised Land.  Joshua has been appointed the leader by the Lord and the spies have brought back a good report.  The only barrier remaining is the Jordan River.  As we consider this passage together, I want to break it into two sections: the crossing of the river (ch. 3) and the call to remember (ch. 4).

The Crossing of the River (3:1-17)

The story begins with the preparations for crossing.  Look at 3:1-6.  For the first time in book of Joshua, the Ark of the Covenant is mentioned.  The Ark symbolized the very presence of God for Israel.  It housed the Ten Commandments and was a constant reminder to the people of God’s covenant with them.  We see here that the Ark will lead the people over the Jordan, again, symbolizing God’s presence going before them.  The people are to follow at a distance out of reverence and fear for the Lord.  We will be reminded later of why this reverence is important with the story of Uzzah and his fatal mistake of touching the Ark (see 2 Samuel 6:5-15).  Joshua also tells the people to prepare themselves by the act of consecration.  This would involve abstaining from sexual relations and certain foods as well as possibly other actions.  The point of this action is similar to the reason why Israel must maintain a distance from the Ark, namely reverence for the Lord.  What the Lord is about to do among His people is great and they must prepare themselves for it by being holy and maintaining their fear of the Lord.

In verses 7-13 the story shifts to the purposes for crossing the Jordan.  Look at those verses with me.  This is not just about getting to the other side.  Sure, that was an issue, but it was not the only purpose or even the primary purpose for Israel crossing the Jordan in this way.  Rather, the text points out two other important purposes.  First, the exaltation of Joshua among the people is a major purpose behind the miraculous crossing of the Jordan.  We have already seen that the people have accepted Joshua as the replacement to Moses.  Yet, will the Lord really be with Joshua as He was with Moses?  This important question is answered by this miracle.  Just as the people of Israel recognized Moses as their leader after they made it through the Red Sea (see Exodus 14:31), so will they recognize Joshua after this crossing (see 4:14). 

It should be noted at this point that the ground for Joshua’s rule was not something that he did, but was something that the Lord did for him.  A second purpose of this crossing is to encourage the people of Israel for the upcoming battle for Canaan.  Joshua says it this way: Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the people of Canaan.  In other words, the miraculous crossing of the Jordan will stand as a reminder to Israel that they will defeat their enemies.  Not only this, but it will fill their enemies with great fear and prepare the way for Israel’s invasion (see 5:1).  As believers, we see this same idea with the resurrection of Christ.  The Lord has filled our enemies with great fear through the resurrection of Christ.  Just as the miraculous crossing of the Jordan went before the people into Canaan, so does the miraculous raising of Christ from the dead go before us.

Yet, all of these preparations and purposes mean nothing unless the miracle actually occurs.  Of course, this is exactly what we see in verses 14-17.  Look at those with me.  Notice a couple of things here.  First, the river is at flood stage.  The Jordan River is not the Mississippi River.  Yet, at flood stage it is a hard river to cross.  This detail highlights the miracle.  Second, the people cross on dry ground.  Can you imagine that.  It is not just that the waters are held back and Israel struggles to cross through the muddy ground.  No, the Lord actually dries the ground.  As we are told in 4:11-18, all of Israel, including the two and a half tribes from the east of the Jordan are able to cross.  As soon as everyone has crossed and the priests bring the Ark out of the midst of the Jordan, the text tells us that the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before (4:18).

The Call to Remember (4:1-24)

Chapter four begins with the emphasis being shifted from the miracle itself to remembering the miracle.  In 4:1-10 the Lord instructs Joshua to get twelve men to gather twelve stones from the midst of the Jordan.  Why are they to do this?  Look at verses 5-7.  These stones are to serve as a memorial for the people of Israel.  Every time they see these stones they are to remember the Lord’s miracle of drying up the Jordan River as they crossed.  When future generations ask them about these stones, they are to tell them the story of what took place on the day they came into the Promised Land.  These stones are to be stones of remembrance.  There is an old hymn that always should remind us of this passage. 

Take your hymnals and turn to page 15.  Look at the second verse of ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.’  “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; Hither by Thy help I’m come.”  What does that mean?  The word for stone in Hebrew is ‘ebon,’ thus ‘Ebenezer.’  What the author of the hymn is conveying is that he is raising a stone of remembrance for God’s aid in saving and rescuing him.  We raise such stones to remember God’s work in delivering us, just as Israel raised these stones to remind them of God’s work at the Jordan.  Thus, we see this clear calling for God’s people to remember His mighty deeds.

Of course, we should ask at this point: why is it so important that we remember?  Look at 4:19-24.  Israel is given two reasons to remember this event in verse 24.  First, they are to remember so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty.  As we saw with the story of Rahab, the Lord often used His past actions of rescuing Israel as a way of proclaiming His glory to the surrounding nations.  We have already noted from 5:1 that this is what happens in this case as well.  The Lord is not just rescuing Israel for Israel’s sake, but for His own glory.  He delivers His people that the world may know that He is mighty.  Indeed, one of the ways that we know that He is mighty is by remembering this story.  For believers, we could say it this way: the Lord delivers Christians from their slavery to sin to show to the world that He is mighty to save.  He transfers us from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light that all may know that He is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love for His people. 

Second, Israel is to set up these stones of remembrance so that they may fear the Lord your God forever.  In the difficult days ahead, the people will need to be reminded that the Lord is fighting for them and that they will overcome with Him.  I get this mental picture of Joshua, struggling to go on in the fight for Canaan, catching a glimpse of those twelve stones at Gilgal and resolving to press on.  We will even see the prophet Micah recalling this act to encourage his generation to fear the Lord.  He writes: O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord (6:5).  What did happen from Shittim to Gilgal.  Notice where we began the story in 3:1 (Shittim) and where it ends in 4:19-20 (Gilgal).  Israel is to remember this mighty act of the Lord that they might fear Him in the days ahead.

Thus, the Lord is acting for the sake of His glory and for the sake of Israel’s good.  He dries up the Jordan so that the nations may know that He is mighty and so that Israel may know that He is good to those who fear Him.  The Lord is still doing the same thing among us through Christ.  God saves us from our sins for the sake of His glory and our good (see Romans 3:21-26).  He is glorified because the riches of His grace is put on display in our forgiveness and redemption.  It is for our good in that we are saved from the wrath to come and given the great privilege of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.  All this was justly accomplished at the cross.  Christ bore the wrath that we deserved and gained our victory over sin, Satan, and death through His miraculous resurrection. 

So then, the question comes to us: how are we to remember this mighty act of the Lord?  Let me close with three ways.  First, we can remember the mighty acts of the Lord, particularly the work of the cross, by memorizing and meditating upon Scripture.  You may find yourself wondering at times: ‘Why study the Old Testament?’  We study the Old Testament because it teaches us about God and His mighty acts of saving His people while at the same time preparing us for the mighty act of our salvation at the cross.  We need to memorize and meditate on the Scriptures that we might constantly remember what God has done, is doing, and will do for us through Christ.  Second, we can remember the mighty acts of the Lord by singing songs that celebrate these acts.  As we saw last week, Moses responded to the crossing of the Red Sea by composing a song and teaching it to the people. 

This morning we started with Psalm 77 which calls for God’s people to remember what God has done.  The act of singing together each week should cause us to be encouraged as we remember the mighty acts of the Lord.  Likewise, when I find myself struggling throughout the week, the Lord often encourages me through great songs of the faith.  Third, we can remember the mighty act of the Lord at Calvary by observing the Lord’s Supper each week.  When the Lord instituted the Lord’s supper He told His disciples to do this in remembrance of me.  Thus, we close our service each week by keeping that command: we take of the bread and the juice to remember Christ’s work at the cross.  When our children ask us why we do this, then just like Israel before us, we should tell them of God’s mighty act of redeeming us through Christ.  Our stones of remembrance are the bread, symbolizing the broken body of Christ and the juice, symbolizing His blood that was shed for us.  As we come to the table this morning, may we remember all that God has done for us and has promised to do for us through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 20 February 2008 )

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