Crossing the Jordan

(Originally published September 29, 2016)

This week, in our third lesson studying the book of Joshua, we covered chapters 3 and 4, in which Joshua and the Israelites cross the Jordan River into the Promised land.

We dipped our toes into this subject by considering the conditions in which this crossing was made.  According to Joshua 3:15 the river was overflowing its banks, which, for an army, might not be a reason to cancel the expedition, but for approximately two million people wishing to cross with women, children, baggage, flocks and herds, it was an overwhelming proposition.  Furthermore, they were within sight of the enemy’s walled city.  Their enemy was, as we found out in our last lesson, quaking in fear, but still, an army preparing to attack its enemy gives away no battle plans or movements.

And yet, God has called them to move out.  This generation, unlike their parents’ generation who rejected God’s plan and rebelled against him at the first opportunity to cross into Canaan, is ready to move.  They are ready to move because they are ready to trust the God who is calling them to move.  God encourages Joshua and the people in this trust by reminding them in 3:7-10 that he will be with Joshua just as he was with Moses; he, the Living God, is indeed among them; and he will, without fail, drive out the inhabitants of Canaan before them.

Before they cross the river, however, they must wait for three days.  When God calls us to wait, how are we to wait?  Trust, patience, and obedience are to be the hallmarks of our waiting.  As we wait we are not to be idle, we are to prepare ourselves for what we will be called to do.  We are to wait with restful spirits, not fretfully and anxiously.

John Calvin observes in this passage: “That, in such apparently desperate circumstances, they calmly wait…, though (the means of the crossing is) doubtful, and to them, incomprehensible, is an example of faithful obedience, proving how unlike they were to their fathers,… This change was not produced without the special agency of the Holy Spirit.” [Commentaries on The Book of Joshua, by John Calvin, Volume 4, Reprinted 2009 by Baker Books]

Furthermore, we see in verse 5 that during this period of waiting they were to consecrate themselves.  Keil explains that, since there was no time to follow the various rituals of purification prescribed in the Mosaic law, this consecration refers to inward spiritual purification…turning the heart to God, in faith and trust in his promise and willing obedience to his commandments, that they should lay to heart in a proper way the miracle of grace which the Lord was about to work in and for them.”  [Commentary on The Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Volume 2, by C. F. Keil, Hendrickson Publishers]

John Calvin helpfully observes that,

“Faith prepares us to perceive the operation of God.”

Meanwhile, we see that God is continuing to encourage Joshua in his role as leader of the nation of Israel (and the people of Israel as followers of Joshua).  Moses must have been a hard act to follow.  So, on the day that they are to set out to cross the Jordan, God assures Joshua in 3:7 that, “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.” Of this, C. F. Keil says, “Just as Moses was accredited in the sight of the people as the servant of the Lord in whom they could trust by the miraculous division of the Red Sea, so Joshua was accredited as the leader of Israel, whom the Almighty God acknowledged as he had his servant Moses, by the similar miracle, the division of the waters of Jordan.”

And so, consecrated and encouraged, the people of Israel set out to cross the Jordan River and take possession of the land of Canaan.  They are led not by Moses with his staff, but by the Levitical Priests bearing the ark of the covenant.  Our next concern is why this is, and just what does the ark represent to the people of Israel?

According to C. F. Keil,”The ark of the covenant is the appointed symbol and vehicle of the presence of the Almighty God since the conclusion of the covenant.” And in his commentary on Joshua, James M. Boice further unfolds for us the symbolization of the ark. (I’m giving you an extended quote because he says so very succinctly what verbally I attempted to convey in a much longer and confused fashion.)

“The only proper way to advance anywhere or at any time is by following God’s lead. Only he can give victory.…the significance of the ark of the covenant proceeding first into the Jordan is not merely to show that God must lead in any successful enterprise but that it is the same God who must lead and be followed. The God who led Joshua was the same God who led Moses and worked through him. The God of the conquest was the God of the exodus, and so on back to the time of Abraham and to creation. God is eternal; he is always the same in his eternal being… God was no less sovereign on this occasion than he had been forty years earlier.

The ark symbolized God’s holiness. Within… the ark itself were the stone tablets of the law that had been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The ark was the repository of the written expression of the moral character of God. It was a constant reminder that God was holy…

The ark also symbolized God’s justice… Within was the law, which the people of Israel had broken. Above, between the wings of the cherubim, was the presence of the thrice holy God. As God looked down, he saw the broken law. Thus the ark was a constant reminder of the need for the Judge of all the earth to do what was right. Judgement must follow sin.

…The ark also symbolized God’s mercy. The covering of the ark was called the “mercy seat” because it was there once a year, on the Day of Atonement, that the high priest sprinkled the blood that had been shed moments before for the sin of the people. The sin of the people was confessed over the head of the animal, the animal was killed in place of the people whose sin merited death (“the wages of sin is death” [Rom. 6:23]), and then the blood was carried into the holiest part of the tabernacle and was sprinkled on the mercy seat between the holy presence of God and the law the people had broken. In that way the ark testified to the principle of substitutionary atonement, to the fact that an innocent victim could die for those who were guilty…

Thus, the ark pointed to the unchanging character of God. It taught that God is always the same in his sovereignty, holiness, justice, mercy, and other attributes.” [Joshua, An Expositional Commentary, by James Montgomery Boice,  Published 1989 by Baker Books] (italics his, underlines mine)

We were then given a “thought question” to ponder. Noticing that the Jordan River is said in 3:16 to flow from a town called Adam, which is mentioned nowhere else in Scripture, and further noting that God’s presence represented by the ark cuts off the flood flowing from Adam and Israel is thereby delivered from the wilderness to enter the promised land, we are asked how this relates to our deliverance from the flood of evil which flows from our ancestor Adam? As I did my homework I searched in vain for any direct reference to this in the New Testament. Finding none (does not mean it’s not there, just that I failed in my search), I then looked through John Milton’s Paradise Lost, thinking that surely the poet picked up on this picture as he spun out his epic poem of our fall and redemption. Failing there I was unsure where to look next when I came upon, of all things, a post on Facebook, written by the friend of a friend. My own thought had been that our Savior did not merely save us from a distance, but stepped right into our fallen, sin-soaked world in order to save us from up close and personally. When I read the following, it brought me to tears and I knew it touched the heart of what I wanted to say.

“The humanity you share with Jesus Christ is seated next to the Father, forever bearer of Mary’s DNA with a yet-beating heart and wound-marked hands with which to embrace us and—we should not forget this—memories of his life with us as one of us.Memories of home-cooked meals and frigid desert evenings. Sawdust memories of hard work and sweat. Recollections of wine and friends and laughter at midnight. He made our sometimes brutish but always (somehow also) beautiful existence his own and did not spare himself any of our sleepless small hours, our helplessness in the face of the suffering of children, our hunger for bread, our world weariness—this endless, gnawing awareness of contingency—and our bone-tired aches at end of day. So a toast to our Maker made one of us, a real high priest who knows our justice-starved laments and our human joys, the sound of the wind in the trees and of birdsong; who is acquainted with our tears of shattered anguish; who knows our music and cuisine, our courts and our cemeteries; who loved us in the face of torture and agony. To him who rules all times and places, who made all things seen and unseen, now made judge of his human brothers and sisters by the things he suffered, be glory and honor forever.”~ Kenneth Tanner, Pastor at Holy Redeemer, Rochester, Michigan, shared with his blessing.

The final point which we considered in depth was the memorial of stones taken up from the middle of the riverbed by representative members of each tribe and set up by Joshua after the crossing. This memorial was to tell not only future generations of Israel of the wonders performed for their deliverance, but it was also for all the peoples of the earth. God’s covenant-keeping faithfulness in saving his own people called from slavery into the land of promise is a hope for salvation held out to every tribe and tongue, every nation of people the world over.

We discussed the ways in which we memorialize those things which are dear to us.  From photographs to framed documents, souvenir mugs and t-shirts, the moments in our lives which we cherish are moments we wish to remember and share with others.  It even occurred to me on the drive home that cars covered with bumper stickers are memorials of sorts, proclaiming to all the places we have been, accomplishments we have achieved, and things we believe.  We are a people who want to remember and proclaim.

For Joshua and Israel their memorial was a pile of stones. For the church, now, we have been given the sacraments to remind us of what has been done for us, to whom we therefore belong, and what we believe. The sacraments are given to the church and for the church.

And we have the cross. In the cross, my friend, we see gloriously displayed to all who look with the eyes of faith the unchanging character of God as shown forth in his Son, Jesus Christ.  On the cross our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, fulfilled the substitutionary atonement shadowed forth in the ark of the covenant.  In the cross we proclaim to all the world that God is always the same in his sovereignty, holiness, justice, mercy, to the praise of his glorious grace.

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