It’s almost impossible to overstate just how important the third and fourth chapters of Joshua are in the history of the people of Israel. These two accounts record for us that momentous scene when God’s people are finally able to cross the Jordan River, entering the Promised Land after four decades of aimless wandering. In more ways than one, they were stepping into a new era. This event was a thousand years in the making, which is roughly how long it had been since God first told Abraham, “To your offspring, I will give this land” (Gen. 12:7). And now, that promise was finally coming true. Like any good storyteller, though, this scene’s tension is purposefully prolonged, inviting us into the action and allowing us to feel the weight of the moment. In all honesty, the crossing itself is somewhat underwhelming, barely occupying a single verse (Josh. 4:10), and that’s it. The real significance of this scene, then, is found in all the details leading up to and following the events of the actual crossing itself. This is especially true of chapter 4, where all the attention is on a bunch of stones that were supposed to help the people of God remember (Josh. 4:1–7).
It’s telling that God refers to this pile of stones as “a memorial forever” (Josh. 4:7). This brings to mind the dozens of memorials that are scattered across the United States, each of which is pregnant with meaning and symbolism. Any memorial you visit has the same essential function — namely, to allow visitors who were not there when a particular event happened to experience the meaning of that event as if they were. As kids, families, and classrooms walk through some such historical monument, they are invited to grapple with the same sets of emotions and feelings that were felt by those who actually went through it. We can think of the memorial of Joshua 4 (or “memorials,” depending on how you interpret it) in the same manner. The stones that God commanded Joshua to collect and construct welcomed generation after generation to remember, to participate in that groundbreaking event, even if they weren’t alive when it actually happened. And what does he want them to remember, specifically?
Remember his Presence
It’s not by accident that “the ark of the Lord” is referred to some seventeen times in these chapters. The Ark of the Covenant or Ark of the Testimony is, perhaps, the most compelling artifact in all of Israel’s history, and that’s even before a certain whip-wielding archaeologist rescued it from the hands of the Third Reich. In reality, though, it was nothing but a wooden chest that had been overlaid with gold, in which was placed an urn full of manna, the staff of Aaron, and the stone tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments in God’s own handwriting (Heb. 9:4). But more than just a “mobile museum,” the ark was a visible token of the presence of Yahweh himself. As the people carried the ark with them during those days of wilderness wandering, they were, in effect, being carried by the very presence of God. This idea is brought to bear later in Israel’s history, which saw the ark continually fall into the wrong hands. When that occurred, it was an unmistakable sign that the people of God had turned their back on the presence of God. Here, though, God was undeniably present for his people.
The Ark of the Covenant is the unmissable symbol of the covenant of God’s presence and faithfulness.
God’s orders concerning the ark were crystal clear: when they saw the ark move that was their signal to move as well (Josh. 3:1–6). Following the ark, then, was akin to following the presence of their covenant God. It was his presence in them and with them and for them, after all, that had guided them to this juncture. Even after all those years of living like nomads all across the Sinai Peninsula; even after decades of griping and pining for Egyptian cuisine, God was still present for his people. He hadn’t abandoned them. Neither had he cast them off. Despite how quick they were to complain, God promptly showed them who he truly was: a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6).
The Ark of the Covenant is the unmissable symbol of the covenant of God’s presence and faithfulness (Josh. 4:10–11). As they neared the banks of the Jordan, God’s people could be confident because of who was with them. They weren’t moving forward on their own, in their own power and ability. As the ark went before them, it was a demonstrable sign that they owed all their hopes to the God who was present with them. And as they crossed over and the stones were put into place as “a memorial forever,” they were invited to remember the patient and persistent presence of God that was with them and for them through every dead-end.
Remember his Power
Even with the ark going before them, though, the prospect of crossing the Jordan would’ve seemed an impossible feat. This is what the parenthetical note in Joshua 3:15 tells us: “Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest.” There couldn’t have been a less ideal time to try and ford that river since the water was high and moving at raging speeds. Approaching the banks of the Jordan must’ve been a worrisome sight, even with God’s guarantee of how things were going to shake out (Josh. 3:11–13). But it’s one thing to be told that when they get to the river’s edge that a way would open before them to cross over, and it’s another entirely to actually believe that. The strength of the current surely would’ve made that seem more than a little absurd. And yet, the priests take the Lord at his word. They barely get their feet wet when the river is suddenly split open, forming, as it were, two heaping walls of water (Josh. 3:14–17).
The raging waters of the Jordan are “cut off” — literally, “amputated” — allowing God’s people to cross the Jordan not on a path of mud and sludge but on “dry ground” (Josh. 3:17; 4:18, 22). This is nothing but God’s power on display, not only splitting a river in half but also making it essentially “waterless.” God’s boundless might and unlimited authority took care of everything. The one who spoke nature into existence made nature stop in its tracks in order to deliver those he loved. And this is precisely what he desires his people to remember (Josh. 4:6–7, 20–24). Those memorial stones were an invitation for God’s people to remember God’s power, and not just God’s people but “all the peoples of the earth” (Josh. 4:24). They served to signify, as Arthur Pink puts it, that “Israel had not crossed the Jordan by their own ability, but because of the miracle-working power of God” (114). They were a witness to the world of the awesome omnipotent grace of God, which meets people in their need and delivers them out of all their distress and difficulty. This is Yahweh’s way. He takes delight, as Dale Ralph Davis puts it, in showing “his might in the face of our utter helplessness, apparently so that we cannot help seeing that we contribute nothing to our deliverance” (38).
Remember his Promise
Perhaps the most evocative detail in this scene, though, is found in that verse where the historian tells us when this event actually happened: “The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho” (Josh. 4:19). At first, there’s nothing overly impressive about this fact; it’s just a date on a calendar. But nothing is preserved in Scripture by accident, and that’s certainly the case here. It “just so happens” that this was the exact date, forty years prior, that the Lord gave the word to his people to prepare for the first Passover.
Everything that’s done in the church is, essentially, a “living memorial,” an active testimony inviting every sinner and saint to participate by faith in the remembrance of God’s deliverance in Christ.
It’s no coincidence that both of these events occurred on “the tenth day of the first month.” God deliberately connects both of these scenes in order to show how in both the Exodus and the Crossing, his people have nothing to do with their deliverance. Those memorial stones were an unmistakable visual reminder that God’s promises are always true (Josh. 4:20–24). Just as in the days of the Exodus, God’s people were made to see that God’s Word of promise and deliverance is perennially trustworthy, though it comes about in ways that exceed expectations and transcend understanding. And, in a spectacular way, this is what happens in churches, too.
Everything that’s done in the church is, essentially, a “living memorial,” an active testimony inviting every sinner and saint to participate by faith in the remembrance of God’s deliverance in Christ. Even though we weren’t there when Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, leaving sin and death in his wake, Sunday after Sunday we are invited to remember that life-giving announcement as if we were. “The mighty acts of God are not over,” writes Gerhard Forde, “not relegated to the past or to some philosophy or theology of history. The proclamation itself is the mighty act of God in the living present” (30). When God’s people gather around God’s Word, they are made to rejoice in God’s good news as a present reality. The Bible not only calls us to remember God’s past acts of deliverance; it also invites us to recognize that God in Christ is still in the business of delivering sinners from bondage and bringing them into “newness of life” through his passion and death.
The church is a “living memorial” built upon the “living stone” of the Christ of God (1 Pet. 2:4–6). When sinners and saints assemble in the sanctuary of the Lord, they are invited to remember the One who went before them into the waters of death, the One whose presence and power made a way for sinners everywhere, in every generation, to share in his eternal life. The cross is our eternal memorial, a blood-soaked monument of grace that stands forever as the emblem of our deliverance — deliverance we had nothing to do with. “Grace,” Robert Capon attests, “takes the agency of salvation out of human hands . . . grace makes all our efforts to legitimize ourselves irrelevant because it proclaims us already legitimated by the work of Someone Else, without a single effort on our part” (105). This is Jesus, the “living stone” of our faith, the true and better memorial at which we are invited to remember the power and presence and promise of God for us.