Beyond the Lectionary Text: Joshua 4:1-24
by Sam Perry
The people of God are called to remember. To remember how good God is, how he maintains his purposes and how he keeps his promises. The people of God have already been told to tie the word on their wrists and put it on their doorposts, that they might remember the Lord their God at every moment. Here in Joshua 4:7 we have stones, which are to be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.
Humanity by nature however is very good at forgetting. We as a people are very good at forgetting. We come up with a number of mnemonic devices to assist in remembering all sorts of things from names to phone numbers, to dates, and vocabulary. And what is true of us as individuals is also true as a nation. Forgetfulness is the cause of all kinds of trouble. It is true in interpersonal relationships, marriage relationships, community relationships and in our relationship with God.
Israel long has recognized the need to remember. So God has at various points in redemptive history had his people place markers as memorials in order to remind the people of His mighty deeds. This is the case in Joshua chapter 4. God wants to ensure that His people will never forget what He has done. So he says at the end of vs. 7, “These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
This is not the first time God has asked His people to remember. After His mighty work in rescuing the people from Egypt and the Passover, God says, “When your children ask you what this means, tell them this……” You can find this call to remember in Deuteronomy, in Ecclesiastes, and here in Joshua.
The word remember doesn’t simply mean to bring to mind, it means to focus on and reflect on with love and devotion. This theme is picked up in the New Testament as Paul says to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ.” II Peter says, “It is right to refresh your memory……” And of course our Lord Jesus Christ Himself as he broke bread and gave it to His disciples said, “Do this in remembrance of me….”
Joshua basically catechizes his people at the end of chapter four by providing the question they will be asked, the answer they are to give, as well as the purpose they are to give it.
The question they will be asked is: “What do these stones mean?” Children ask lots of questions. I have five boys and at times the questions they ask fill me with delight, and at times wear me out. But few things give me more joy than when my children ask about what God has done. And I can only imagine that if my children saw the stones they would ask, “What do these stones mean?” And one day my boys, by God’s grace, will become fathers. And if I have done my job answering the question, then one day they too will be able to glorify God by giving an answer.
Joshua describes in detail the answer that should be given. I am afraid that here we run up against our post-modern culture. The truth is our culture has very much adopted the idea that every question is important, especially if I am the one asking it. In our fallenness we want to dictate both the questions that are really important and the answers that please us. But God’s word in some ways presses us. God’s word tells us the important questions. Further the answer to the question, “What does it mean?” isn’t “Whatever you want it to mean.” While that is a beloved answer in our postmodern context, it isn’t a biblical answer, and it isn’t the answer we are given in God’s word. The stones mean something. We Christians with a biblical worldview, one that begins with God in his holy majesty with power in creation, recognize that when God intervenes in His world, he does so purposefully. So Joshua says the answer to the question is that, ‘God dried up the river Jordan before you until you had crossed over. In the same way that He dried up the Red Sea when He rescued his people from Egypt, God enabled the people to cross the river Jordan.’ So the people of God are to tell their children what God has done and the uniqueness of what God has done.
It is interesting that in vs. 19 the day is mentioned. This is significant because this is 40 years to the day that the Passover was established. God performed His mighty deed at just the right time, even at a time when the river was in flood mode according to chapter 3.
So God gives the question, God gives the answer, and God gives the reason.
God in His purposes brings His people to places and points in their lives where the only possibility for salvation and victory and triumph is if He provides it. We see this in His stated purposes in Joshua 4. His purpose is that all peoples of the earth would know that the hand of the Lord is powerful, and so that the people of God would fear the Lord their God.
God leads His people across the river at just such a time that there is no way of victory crossing the river unless God Himself gets them across. It is in times like this that the people of God will sing with the psalmist, “I lift mine eyes to the hills, from where does my help come? My help is in the name of the Lord.” With the odds so dramatically stacked against the people of God, the only chance of rescue is if God Himself does it. When this happens, all the glory goes to God, the One who is due all glory. To be sure the people are obedient, but God is the power behind it. And it is no different today. God saves and calls His people to obedience. To fear the Lord your God is to reverence Him. He acts to engender faith in His people and obedience. He speaks of a reverential, awestruck wonder for the people of God living for the pleasure of God. Can you imagine being there? One day we will all stand on this side of the Jordan River in as much as it represents death. And God calls us to obedience. We will stand ready to make a safe crossing based on the promise of God and His power. So the people of God have an experience, which is the same through all generations.
It might need to be said here that this flies somewhat in the face of those who say things like, “You interpret the Bible your way and I’ll interpret it mine.” This passage doesn’t really allow for that as God gives the question, the answer, and the interpretation in stating His reason.
The ark is the sign of God’s presence and power, and purpose. It contained the law of God, framed by the mercy seat. It is the symbol of the justice and mercy of God as it contained the law and the mercy seat took the blood of sacrifice when sprinkled for the sacrifice for the sins of the people by the priest.
A favorite Sunday school answer is the answer here. “Jesus.” Just as the Ark of the Covenant represents the power and the presence of God, we know that is most clearly seen in Jesus Christ. In His life and death and resurrection. So for the people of Israel to look to the ark is for us, this side of the cross, to look to Christ Jesus, because the way we know the invisible God in human form ultimately is in the person of Jesus Christ. Ultimately we don’t look to an ark this side of the cross, we look to Christ Himself. He is the author and finisher of their faith. For us, the symbol has been replace by the reality.
Just as God wants the stones as a memorial of His great name, we as people living this side of the cross need to look to the empty cross and the empty tomb in any situation allowing us to say, “Since God raised Jesus from the dead, will he not also raise me from the dead?” Look to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The unique and dramatic interventions of God in redemptive history are there to focus our vision so that in the present they may be strengthened by His presence and His power. So that we can say to our children and our children’s children, “Our God did this for us and He will be faithful to all His covenant promises for you and yours. For He is the Living God!”
Alastair Begg tells the story of three golfers named Bill, Tom, and Fred. They used to be a group of four along with Harry, and they often played golf together over the last 12 years. But Harry had died. It wasn’t only Harry’s company that they missed, but they missed the fact that he was the only one who could see well enough to follow where their ball when after they hit it. So they went to the club pro, and said, “We need a fourth and the only requirement is that he be able to see, because none of us can see well enough to follow our tee shots.” So he gave them George, assuring them that George had great eyesight for a man of his age. So they all hit their tee shots and turn to George asking if he had seen where the ball went. “Sure did” he replied in each case. So they jumped in their carts and drove to where Bill usually hit his ball. Bill stopped the cart and asked George, “Where’s my ball?” To which George replied,…………….. “I can’t remember.”