Message: Expect The Unexpected | Scripture: Joshua 3:1-6 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received came on the first day of law school nearly a decade ago. I remember sitting there in a room with a bunch of bright men and women, and there at the front of the class was our professor of civil litigation, Dr. Stephen Pitel. He started by saying, “Congratulations, you’ve shown your family, your friends, and yourself that you’re smart. You’ve made into one of the best law schools in the country. You’ve impressed us with your grades, LSATS, and recommendation letters. But hear me when I say this, ‘you may have been intelligent enough to get in, but intelligence won’t be enough here. What separates those from the top of the class from those at the bottom won’t be your smarts—it’ll be your effort. The amount that you get out of law school will never exceed the amount that you put into law school. You could be the smartest person in this room and care nothing for mastering what’s contained within the halls of this building. I’m telling you now, don’t be surprised when at the end of your time here you’re either leaving without any prospects of a job or, even worse, without a degree. Law school will only be as good as an experience as you make it.”
You see, what I believe my professor wasn’t saying is that the law school I was admitted into was actually a bad law school. I don’t think he was telling us that the content that we were to learn or that we’d spend every waking hour thinking about was detrimental to us. Rather, I believe Dr. Pitel meant that what we were about to experience as students, despite being of the highest standards of academia, would benefit us only to the extent that we were willing to dedicate ourselves and give our wholehearted effort to it. What I heard was that you might receive a degree at the end of your time here, but don’t just get the degree for a degree’s sake. Don’t miss out on what law school has to offer you. Don’t blink and look the other way only to have missed out on what could have been. Use this time to truly and intentionally prepare yourself because you’ll never get this kind of opportunity again.
In other words, the key to making a great experience great for you personally is your perception of and involvement with that experience. On its own, what’s being offered might be incredible, but you’ll never know how incredible it is unless you’re invested—unless you’ve properly considered how significant the event is both to you and to those who are with you. There has to be an intentionality in your preparation and in your perception when it comes to getting everything you can out of something.
It is this exact lesson that the Israelites learn in our passage today. They have languished for 500 years wondering whether or not God will satisfy his promises—and now, on the brink of God’s answer to all of their doubts and worries, there’s a chance that they’ll miss the answer that he has to give. There’s a chance, just like their ancestors, that they might miss the significance of what’s about to take place both before and for them, and our text today tells us, as Joshua told them, to be intentional not to miss it. Remember this as we read Joshua 3:1-6. TWoL.
Then Joshua rose early in the morning and they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. 2 At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. 4 Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits1 in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.” 5 Then Joshua said to the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” 6 And Joshua said to the priests, “Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on before the people.” So, they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people.
Like I said, our passage is telling Israel and us not to miss a thing. Be intentional, pay attention, be ready for when God appears because his appearance will be as glorious as it is sure. What’s about to take place is the culmination of history, and you’ll never get an opportunity to invest yourself and consider what’s happening like this again. God is doing the work to bring you in—watch closely what he does, consider deeply its grandeur, and let it change your life forever. And how do we do this? How do we pay attention and ready ourselves for God’s glorious appearance? Well, that’s our outline this morning, so let’s look at our first point:
1) Recount Your Steps
It’s here in verse 1 that we pick up our story of Israel’s occupation of Canaan after our pause in Joshua 2 and the spies encounter with Rahab. Remember with me that the placement of Joshua 2 is almost superfluous to the story. You could read Joshua 1 with God’s command to Joshua to go into the land with strength and courage and jump right into Joshua 3 without having missed very much about Israel’s situation. But what Joshua 2 does is to bring in a magnificent array of colour. It’s in Rahab’s story that we learn the heights, depths, lengths and breadth of God’s desire to save his people. There, we find a Gentile, prostitute woman as Israel’s unlikely Saviour, and by her faith and faithfulness to God’s chosen nation, the foolish, witless spies who would have been lost without her intercession, they return to Joshua brimming with confidence that God will do exactly what he’s promised them.
Joshua 3:1 operates to remind us of the circumstances of Israel. As Joshua awaits the return of these spies and their report, Israel is camped out in Shittim. And just as the spies are limited in what they see within Jericho to a prostitute’s house, here in Shittim, Israel is reminded of the way that they prostituted themselves to the Moabite gods and women the last time they were here in Numbers 25.
There’s this reciprocity of events in these two stories. The spies of Joshua 2 are brought face-to-face with a realistic picture of their people’s sin. Israel has in its wandering and in its dealing with the nations prostituted itself, and God in his wisdom uses Joshua 2 to remind his people and us that when his people were in the deepest mess, when they faced a certain, miserable death, he snatched them from death’s grip, gave them a Saviour who loved them despite being distinct from them, and gave them a means of escape. He provided a sign for them by which, when they stand under it—as Rahab’s family stood under the cord, they are protected and reminded by its visibility of God’s faithfulness and covenant love for them, even when they least deserved it.
So, putting these two events together, as Israel sits here in Shittim wondering how God will deliver them once again from this place, while the spies simultaneously lie in wait upon the roof of Rahab’s house for God to deliver them, a sense of what God has done for their collective nation in the past comes into view.
When in Israel’s history were they backed into a corner, unable to escape? When in Israel’s history were they enslaved and made captive to their circumstances? The first thing we probably think of is Egypt, right? And what’s taking place here in Joshua 3:1 is supposed to mimic the events of Israel’s exodus. Just as Moses rose early to lead Israel out of Egypt, Joshua rises early to set out from Shittim. Just as Israel came to the Red Sea and lodged there, so too does Israel come to the coast of the Jordan, and they lodge there.
However, the circumstances are also reversed, aren’t they? Where Israel was trapped from fleeing the Egyptian army against the shores of the Red Sea in Exodus, it is here, at the Jordan, where they’re prevented from entering into the land that they are to possess—this time they’re not fleeing, they’re the ones who are to do the pursuing and possessing. Fortunes have flipped, but the same problem stands before them—there’s this body of water that cannot be crossed easily, especially when you consider that the number of people crossing amounted to 40,000 men plus their families.
It’s here, as we sit by the Jordan, that I want to note that “exodus” literally means the way or road out. And just like God led Israel on the way out of Egypt, he is to lead them into Canaan. People are right to call Israel’s exit out of Egypt the Exodus. And many commentators, in comparison, rightly call this event here in Joshua 3 and 4 the eisodus—eis meaning in or into.
So, there are these two contrasting events: the exodus, the way out of slavery, and the eisodus, the way into the land of promise. Can I just remark here that Don Carson once said that the exodus is to Israel what the cross is to the church. Without exodus, the significance of the cross and its deliverance of us from our sin and the wrath of God would be lost upon us. But the story doesn’t end with the exodus just like it does not end with Christ’s death upon a cross. The story continues to the eisodus, just as the cross leads to the resurrection. If the exodus is to Israel what the cross is to the church, then the eisodus is to Israel what the resurrection is to us. The former event leads us from our capture, the latter event leads us into our rest, and both events require the extraordinary and intervening work of God. Unless God acts in miraculous ways we aren’t just stuck with Israel in Egypt, but we would be stuck in the wilderness without any hope of reaching the golden shore that awaits us on the other side. It’s not enough to have left Egypt, Israel also needs to find its way home, and they can’t do that by themselves. They literally have to start from scratch in the oldest part of the world, and unless God intervenes—unless he helps them, there is no chance that they’ll succeed, let alone survive.
This, then, is the first way that Israel is called to pay attention and ready themselves for the coming glory of God; they are to recount their blessings and see how the Lord has been faithful to them every step of the way. As surely as God provided them with the way out of Egypt through the Red Sea, he shall surely provide them with the way into Canaan despite the rough waters of the river that stands in their way. Pay attention to the details as God has revealed them to you because he uses those details to show you vividly and intentionally the magnitude of his loving kindness for you. Take the evidence of his intervening, intentional grace in your life as his assurance that though you might be stopped from reaching that place he intends you to be for a moment, he will get you there, and history tells us that he will get you there in style.
Brothers and sisters, the only time you might have cause to fear or to doubt your circumstances is when you’ve stopped recounting your steps and when you’ve stopped paying attention to the details. When you’ve sought him out, has he ever failed you? That you sit here before me, living and breathing, shows me that he has not. Why would you doubt that he’d start now? What makes you think, through all the evidence that you have in your own life, that God won’t willingly avail himself to you in times of need? Expect God to show up and expect him to do so in unexpected ways—he’s done it since Israel, he’s done it at the cross, and he will continue doing it even after he’s brought you home. Pay attention, be ready because God has acted, and God will act to guide you miraculously to himself.
2) See the Way
Look with me at verses 2-4. Here in these verses, the officers give the people of Israel practical advice—what they’re supposed to do physically speaking when their time of waiting comes to an end. It says, “At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. 4 Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits1 in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.’”
Now, what’s meant here by, “at the end of three days” is Hebrew speak for a “short period of time.” It’s unlikely that it was actually three days’ time, and more likely that the author is telling us that they arrived at the Jordan coast, and before they could settle and make themselves comfortable in one place, the officers wanted to make sure that they knew their stop here was temporary. These people were to be prepared to go at a moment’s notice, just like their ancestors who were led by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night—this wasn’t their home. God intended not only to bring them up to the edge of the land but he wanted to assure them that he would bring them into the land. And he intended to do this by taking the lead personally. See how the instructions are for Israel to follow the ark of the covenant of the Lord. This signified not only that he was to lead them into battle but that he, himself, was to be with them. Where the ark of the covenant was, there too was the Lord.
It’s this ark of the covenant, signifying the presence of God amongst his people, that will take center stage in this story as it is mentioned seventeen times throughout. But perhaps you’ll notice that this is the first time that it’s brought up in this book, and it’s brought up rather abruptly. The reason why the author does this is to follow the tenor of our passage, namely, that Israel was to expect the unexpected from God. They were to expect God to show up, and they were to prepare for it by paying attention and by being ready, but exactly how he intended to show up was unknown to them. They didn’t know what he would do. The officers tell them to follow the ark, but to follow it from afar—about 1000 yards says some American commentator. “Don’t go near it as you follow,” the officials tell Israel. Why? Because they do not know what God is going to do, or where he’s going to go.
This is a completely foreign land, and the Israelites are being told, in this very instant, that before they move, God must move first. Unless he moves first to show us precisely where we ought to go—unless he moves first to show us the way, we would surely be lost. The Bible as a whole tells us over and over again that we, as sinners, are born with two left feet. If it were up to us, we’d drag ourselves into the pit of hell, and we’d stay their willingly because we would have no idea where else to go. Unless God shows us the way, and unless we’re paying attention to go in that way, there is no hope for us. Unless God intercedes on our behalf to do the things that we cannot and will not do, death will swallow us up.
But here stand the officials of Israel to remind the people that while this is a foreign, temporary stopping place, your God is not a foreign, temporary god. He is not a god born with two left feet. No, he is the God who is surefooted and eternally unwavering in his faithfulness. This is a God who is not only safe to follow but the only option to follow if you desire to remain safe. So, make sure you see the way that he takes! Make sure that you allow him to lead you. Make sure that you go exactly where he goes and not an extra step to the left or the right because on your own, you’ll drown, but God won’t only direct your paths to safety, he’ll lead you there himself. So, follow him as he tells you to follow him.
How is it that we’re to prepare for the glorious appearance of our God? First, we’re to recount our steps and understand how he’s been with us through it all, and second, we’re to possess in our present circumstances a decided willingness to follow him when reveals himself and his will to ust. We know he’s there, and we know he will continue to be there—so, we cannot become complacent and settled. Our task is to be constantly seeking God out. That means being in constant prayer, considering the instructions daily that he’s left us in his Word, going out to share the gospel with lost sinners whether across the world or across your property line, meditating on his precepts day and night, pleading with the Spirit, whom he’s given us, to reveal to us his will. In other words, we’re doing whatever it takes to be ready because our greatest desire—our greatest hope in life and death—is God alone! When God begins to move, we must be ready to go with him.
Let me ask you, is your gaze searching in expectation for a God who moves and directs you to go where he desires you to go, or have you decided to turn your gaze onto something more important in your life? The heart of the instructions of the officials were as important then to Israel as they are now to us: don’t lose sight of that which is most important. It’s not your money. It’s not your authority. It’s not your fame or notoriety. It’s not your friends. It’s not even your family. It’s the God who, out of sheer grace, has superintended on your behalf not to lose you. So, don’t get lost. Recount your steps and see how he’s been faithful to you in the past. See the way and consider how he is still moving among you in the present, and finally, prepare your heart for what is to come.
3) Prepare Your Heart
In verse 5, the person giving the instruction changes. Verses 2-4 involve the officials who instruct the people on what they are to do physically when the ark of the covenant comes. But then, the author includes verse 5 to remind us that the instruction to pay attention and be ready for God’s arrival isn’t just a physical instruction. You don’t just have to be ready to pack up your stuff and move when he moves, you also have to be ready on a spiritual level to understand why it is that he’s moving. And the person who gives us these instructions is the appointed prophet of God, Joshua.
On the one hand, the officials are telling the people don’t get lost—physically speaking, don’t lose your way in a foreign land. Now, Joshua is telling his people, don’t only avoid being lost physically, don’t be lost spiritually. Don’t be lost in the significance of what’s about to happen: God is going to physically lead you out of the wilderness into the Promised Land, yes, but God is also going to lead you out of your spiritual wandering and into a state of perpetual peace. But for him to do that, you can’t mistake what’s happening as something that is purely physical. What’s happening externally is good, but it is not good if you are internally separated from God. God doesn’t only intend for your physical well-being. In fact, your physical well-being falls second in comparison to his concern over the circumstances and well-being of your heart.
So, what is Israel to do? Joshua tells them to consecrate themselves. What does it mean to consecrate oneself? Well, hopefully we know the formal definition means to separate oneself to God, to be sanctified, to be cleansed, to be pure, or to pursue holiness. For Israel, consecration was often a ritualistic act of abstaining from sex, obeying the law, offering sacrifices for sins, seeking to rectify grievances between neighbours, etc. And all of this is right—all of this helps to understand the context of what Israel would have done to consecrate themselves in light of Joshua’s instruction, but the act of what they did does not answer what consecration is. And saying something like, “it means to pursue holiness and to be sanctified,” is right and good, but, again, it’s so abstract to our minds that it does not answer, truly, what it is.
So, what is consecration? Joshua tells us in the next part of verse 5: consecration is the ability to comprehend and live in light of the assurance that God intends to finish what he’s started, and he intends to do it in wondrous fashion. In other words, to be consecrated, to be set apart, to be holy, is to be in a position that understands why his works are as incredible as they are. It’s not just that what God intends to do will be miraculous as an act in and of itself. It’s not just that what God intends to do will display a power that is incomparable in all the universe. It’s not just that God is a being to be marvelled and worshipped above all other gods, though he is. It’s a recognition that in spite of our inability to recognize all of these things—in spite of our failure to worship God as he deserves to be worshipped—he not only deigns to rescue us, he does so with a fervour, an urgency, and an all-consuming desire that leaves us in awe. It leaves us transfixed on who he is and what he’s done not because of what we deserve but because of the outworking of his infinite grace. To be consecrated is to have an active relationship with the wonder of our God and his work among lowly and helpless sinners to bring us from certain death to eternal life. Consecration is the state of being perpetually astounded and amazed by a God who is perpetually astounding and amazing.
And brothers and sisters, we have to get the motivation of our consecration right. I hope God’s work among us and for us is still as wondrous to us now as it has ever been. Over 2000 years separate us from the date of when our Christ, the second person of the Trinity, the Creator God himself, came to take on human nature, to live in human righteousness, to suffer and die our sin-bearing, wrath-absorbing human death, and to rise as the glorified, human Saviour so that through faith in him we might know a God who transcends our human limitations and yet desires to have our human relationship. God does this. By the cross he’s led us out of our enslavement to sin, and by his resurrection he leads us into everlasting life. He does this as the God who is with us.
And yet, despite all of it, we very often live our lives like Israel was tempted to do at the bank of the Jordan River. We live as if this is the best that we’ll ever receive. We live as if we’ll never be able to cross that river. We live as if there is no other side being prepared for us that is more satisfying than anything we’ve ever known. And in our forgetfulness, our eyes slowly turn inward, we get caught up with our circumstances and the daily grind of life, and we stop considering what God has done, what he’s doing, and what he’s still to do.
Joshua’s instruction to Israel here in verse 5 is pivotal for us, just as it was for them: don’t miss your chance to witness the God of mercy at work for his glory and for your good. Pay attention to the details of God’s past faithfulness. See the ways in which he is currently directing your life to bring you back to himself. Prepare your heart to receive what he intends to give you as a result of what he’s already given you. The Christian life is a life lived in humble expectation. So many believers these days are taught that we are not supposed to expect anything from God because he’s already done so much for us, but nowhere in the scriptures are we taught this. In fact, the exact opposite is taught—we are to wait for God expectantly, we are to presume upon his intervention in our lives because we know without him, we’re, literally and metaphorically, dead in the water.
This doesn’t mean that we sit on our hands. No, to live expectantly means to live differently. A person who expects to receive a million dollars tomorrow will not live in the same way as a person who expects only to receive a dollar. The lives of these two people will be drastically different from one another. In the same way, when we live in light of our expectancy that God is God and that God shall act as God intends to act for us, our lives cannot be the same. We actively and fervently prepare our hearts for the wonder that is still to come so that when—not if—when it comes, whatever it is, and however he appears, we’ll be ready to receive it as we should—as sinners brought from death to an abundant life by a wondrously gracious God.
And this is how our narrative ends in verse 6, “Joshua said to the priests, “Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on before the people.” So, they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people.” Our story does not end with the people waiting—the ark of the covenant has arrived. God has come. And just as it did for them, the day is coming where our anticipation shall be vindicated. Christ shall return to bring us over that river and into the place that he’s prepared to dwell with us forever. It is as sure as the act of Exodus that leads to the Eisodus. It’s as sure as the Cross that results in the Resurrection. One day our striving shall find its rest with God. But until that day, may we heed the words of Joshua as he commanded Israel, and as our greater Joshua commands us now, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.”