Joshua 3:1-4:24; Matthew 2:14-15; 3:13-17; 4:1-2; 5:1-2
Congregation of Christ: After the Twin Towers were destroyed by Muslim terrorists in 2001, Muslims proposed a mosque to be built on the Ground Zero site. Former President Obama, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, the media, and many other politicians supported the building of the Ground Zero Mosque.
This mosque was planned by Muslims to be a middle finger to the American people. Why is this? Because throughout its history, Muslim invaders have always built mosques on the ruins of churches they destroyed. In 634 A.D., the Umayyad Mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica in Damascus built in 391 A.D. and dedicated to John the Baptist. In 691 A.D., the mosque on the Dome of the Rock was built on the site of the destroyed Jerusalem Temple. And in 1453, the Basilica of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, built in 532 A.D., was converted to a mosque.
This Ground Zero Mosque would have been insane. It would be like building a memorial to Emperor Hirohito at Pearl Harbor. Or a memorial to Hitler on the ruins of Christ Church Greyfriars in England, built in 1326 but destroyed by Hitler’s air force during World War II.
How is all these related to our text today? The first two chapters of the Book of Joshua take us to the Israelites encamped on the plains of Moab on the eastern shore of the Jordan River. There, God encouraged them to be strong and courageous, because he will be with them when he gives the Promised Land to their hands. Joshua then sent two spies into Jericho, where Rahab helped them. When the two spies came back to Joshua, they gave an encouraging report that the Lord will surely give them the land.
We now come to Chapters 3 and 4 where we read about the events before, during and after Israel crossed the Jordan River. After crossing the river, they built a memorial to the event.
Preparing for the River Crossing
Verses 1-6 of Chapter 3 detail the preparations commanded by God to Joshua and the people before crossing the Jordan River. The ark of the covenant would lead the procession of the people, a very familiar arrangement during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. The ark carried by the priests would lead them to the exact crossing point. The rest of the priests would march behind the ark. This is significant because the ark symbolized God’s presence among them. The people would be more assured of their security and victory when the Lord himself leads them.
It’s worth noting that the ark of the covenant is mentioned 17 times in Chapters 3 and 4. This means that God’s might has the central role of the river crossing. In fact, throughout their wilderness travels, the ark of the covenant led them. In Exodus 40:34-38, we read about the Lord’s leadership of Israel after the tabernacle in the wilderness was built. The glory of the Lord covered it in the form of a cloud, and the cloud signaled whether the people would break camp and go, or stop and make camp:
Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
As the ark of the covenant led the procession, the people were to stay behind it about 1,000 yards. Why? There are two views. One is that the ark of the covenant is so holy because it represented God’s dwelling-place that no one can touch it or even go near it and live. This is how the NIV translates verse 4, placing the distance clause at the end of the verse followed by “Do not go near it.” The second view is that the ark is to go well ahead of the people so all the people can see from a vantage point the mighty wonders that the Lord is about to do for them. This is the more accurate sense of verse 4: they were to go 1,000 yards behind the ark “in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before” (ESV; also KJV, NASB).
So the first important command was for the ark of the covenant to lead the people. The second important command is in verse 5, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” How would they consecrate themselves? We find the answer by going back to Exodus 19:10-15, when God assembled the people before Mount Sinai. Moses “consecrated the people” by commanding them to wash their garments and abstain from sexual activity. On the day before they crossed the river, they were to wholly devote themselves to the Lord. Purity is symbolized by washing their garments and keeping away from sexual relations. This was because God had chosen Israel to be his “treasured possession among all peoples … a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo 19:5-6). The list of people in the land that God promised to conquer includes “Canaanites” and other “ites.” All of them worshiped idol-gods such as Baal and Asherah. But Israel was a chosen people set apart by God from all other peoples of the world.
You also, together with all the saints in all the nations, “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet 2:9). Whenever we gather together for worship on the Lord’s Day, we have a foretaste of entering the Promised Land, the new heaven and new earth. What do we do to consecrate ourselves to God before we worship? A good way to prepare for Sunday worship is to pray, read the Bible readings, and study the songs. These can be done on Saturday evening or early Sunday morning, or even while you sit quietly a few minutes before the service. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Puritans prepared themselves in this manner beginning sundown on Saturdays after dinner. So in the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 117, they wrote, “we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.”
Exalting God’s Appointed Leader
Israel had a daunting task ahead of them: crossing the Jordan and then conquering the mighty cities in Canaan. For this great and difficult work they faced, God assured them, “I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Jos 1:5). God not only assured them with words, but also by giving them Joshua, a leader and mediator after Moses died.
So in verse 7, the Lord assured Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” Later, after Israel had crossed the river on dry ground, the writer confirms God’s faithfulness, “On that day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life” (Jos 4:14).
When the ark reaches the edge of the Jordan River, one man from each of the 12 tribes would join the priests carrying the ark. As soon as the priest “dipped”[footnote]The Hebrew word for “dipped” is translated in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, as bapto.[/footnote] their feet in the water, the river would be dammed upstream at a place called Adam, about 18 miles to the north of Jericho. The river would dry up where the Israelites would cross directly opposite the city of Jericho. In verse 15, the writer adds a footnote saying, “now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest.” Why was this added? Because it shows that God is so powerful that he could dry up the river even during its highest flow. It’s also a strategic time to cross since the people of Jericho would least expect the crossing during the river’s flood stage.
And so, God exalted Joshua their leader in the sight of all Israel. We too exalt our Leader, the Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us in our wilderness pilgrimage toward the heavenly land. All that we do in our worship service is to be God-centered and Christ-centered. Nothing should be centered on us. God himself exalted his own Beloved Son in the sight of the whole world when he rose from the grave and ascended into heaven. This was because he humbled himself by leaving his divine glory in heaven and assuming lowly human flesh and blood,
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:8-11).
Make sure that you will be a part of the great multitude in heaven who will be exalting our King of kings, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11).
Memorializing God’s Might and Goodness
After God dried up the Jordan River, all of Israel finally crossed over into the Promised Land. Just as God had parted the Red Sea 40 years before, he again did the same mighty work in the Jordan River. These two water crossings were two of the greatest and most glorious events in the history of Israel.
In our readings in the Gospel of Matthew, we first read of the family of the infant Jesus fleeing Herod the Great into Egypt. Matthew connects this event to Israel’s escape from Egypt through Hosea’s prophecy, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1). Matthew then tells of the baptism of Jesus about 13-14 centuries later, most probably near the same place where the Israelites crossed over into Canaan.[footnote]Since the feet of the priests “dipped” in Joshua 3:15 is translated in Greek as bapto, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River alludes back to the crossing of the river.[/footnote] And just as Israel was tempted by the devil for 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus was then taken by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness to be tempted by the same devil for 40 days and 40 nights (Matt 4:1-11). Next, in Matthew 5-7, Jesus goes up to a mountain where he taught his disciples, just as Moses taught the Israelites at Mount Sinai after they crossed the Red Sea. And as Isaiah 53:4 says, he “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” so also Matthew says Jesus “took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matt 8:17).
Therefore, the whole narrative of Israel’s first exodus – the escape from Egypt, the Red Sea crossing, the covenant at Mount Sinai, the wilderness wanderings, the crossing of the Jordan River, and the conquest of and settlement into the Promised Land, are all pictures of a second exodus. This second exodus is the life of Jesus on earth – his birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension. And it also points to our life here on earth. This is a great comfort to us because of our hope that, after all our sufferings and afflictions in this world, Jesus will return to settle us into our own heavenly Promised Land.
The same 12 men who followed behind the priests in crossing the river were also the ones assigned to each pick a big stone in the middle of the river crossing. They will set these 12 stones in Gilgal where Israel would camp across the river to be a memorial forever to God’s might works and love for Israel. Generations later, when their families visit Gilgal Historical Monument, and the children ask, “What do these stones mean?” then the fathers would teach them that the Lord dried up the waters of the Jordan so their forefathers can pass over on dry ground, just as he did to the Red Sea. This memorial was not only for Israel to remember and fear the Lord forever. It was also “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty.” And so all believers in the world today do so.
When your grandchildren visit you, and you took them to The Living Memorial Sculpture Garden in Highway 97, they will probably ask, “What is this memorial garden for? And why are there 58,000 pines in the garden?” And you will answer, “Because we want to remember 58,000 Americans who sacrificed their lives in the Vietnam War. And by this memorial, we also remember thousands of other Americans died for our country in other wars.”
Therefore, teaching our children the mighty works of God from the Bible is also one of God’s commandments. The catechism, in Question and Answer form, is a proven tool you can use to train them up in the way they should go, and to nurture and disciple them in the Lord.
But when we gather together as God’s people, we remember milestones in our Lord’s exodus here on earth. We commemorate his birth at Christmas; his death on Good Friday; his resurrection on Easter Sunday; his Ascension into heaven; and his outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday. These Sundays are holy days. And these events are important markers in the salvation he accomplished for us. But the most important and the only holy memorial he commands us is the partaking of his body and blood signified by the bread and wine every Lord’s Supper.