Message: Simply to My God, I Cling | Scripture: Joshua 3:1-10a | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
There’s this movie about a girl and a guy. And in this movie, the guy and girl have a brief romance before they’re unexpectedly split by life’s circumstances. It’s not until much later in their lives that they’re reunited, sort of by happenstance, and discover that they still love one another. Now, as a lot of people get caught up in the arc of the love story between the two main characters in their youth, the actual love story is what takes place when they have become aged, and when their bodies have begun to fail them. It turns out that the female lead, at some point in her life, begins to show signs of Alzheimer’s and knowing about her condition and the suffering that she caused her, now, husband the first time she left him, she begins to record the story of their lives in a … let’s call it a journal.
What’s remarkable about this story, despite the fact that it’s fiction and overly sentimental, is the effect that this journal has on both our leads. Not only does it serve to remind the male protagonist about the fact that the love of his life came back to him, but it also reminds him that no matter what her state of mind is, she will never leave him—that every time he reads this journal to her, she promises to remember who she is in the context of their marriage, and she returns to the love that he has waiting for her.
Now, I imagine that some of you are rolling your eyes thinking, I can’t believe Pastor Stephen is using this movie about a journal as an illustration on Sunday morning. But I ask you to give me pardon, because while this movie portrays everything that is wrong with the sentimentality and fictionalization of love in Hollywood, it serves as a good reminder for us as Christians that the ailment to our perpetual spiritual amnesia—the thing that keeps us Christian—is our ability and intentionality to remember. Remembering is the key to this happy, blessed life, and it’s when we forget that we tend to lose our way. Praise the Lord, then, that he gives us exactly what we need in his Word so that we don’t lose our way, and he does this for us in our text, specifically, today. So, let’s turn our attention now to the reading of his Word in Joshua 4:1-10a. TWoL.
When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So, these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” And the people of Israel did just as Joshua commanded and took up twelve stones out the midst of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, just as the Lord told Joshua. And they carried them over with them to the place where they lodged and laid them down there. And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day. For the priests bearing the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua.
As Christians, as the people of God, we need to be awakened on a regular basis from our spiritual amnesia. One writer once said that the greatest enemy of faith is forgetfulness. And like a journal that brings a woman with Alzheimer’s back to the one she loves, we are called to have patterns, traditions, means in our lives that cause us to regularly reflect upon God’s complete deliverance of us. We’re to do things so intentionally in this life, and so obediently to the way God commands us to do them, that when we see the product of our intentionality, we remember every time the depths to which our God has gone to save us. In other words, we need to be doing three things to maintain our state of grace—to keep ourselves from falling away—we need to be retrieving, preserving and digesting upon the supernatural work of God in our lives to bring us to rest in himself. And we’re not to waste that work by forgetting. So, let’s look to our first point in how we are to remember and reflect—we’re to reflect by:.
1) Retrieving the Memory
See how the words are given to us in verses 1-3: “When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’”
Our initial reaction when we read these verses is probably to think that they are a continuation of Joshua 3:12 when Joshua, while telling Israel what was about to take place here at the Jordan, randomly interjects with a command to the people to “take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man.” The language seems very similar, but this is when good, close reading becomes very important, because Joshua 4:1 tells us that we’re in a different part of the story. It says, “when [or after] all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan.” 3:12 takes place before the miracle, whereas 4:1 takes place near its end.
I’m going to return later on to explain what I think the purpose of Joshua’s request in 3:12 was, but I want to focus here on the events in 4:1 first. In 4:1, the people had already or were in the process of passing through the Jordan. The priests were standing in the midst of this miracle where the water of the river had been cut off and stacked up upon itself, and Joshua is tasked with choosing twelve men from each of the tribes of Israel to go back into its midst to pick up twelve stones. And these twelve men are not just to pick up any stones, they are to intentionally retrieve twelve stones that lie at the feet of these stationed priests.
So, even if we know nothing else about these stones, what we know is that their location was important. They were directly involved in God’s act as part of the land that ought to have been drenched by the flood, and yet, there they sat, dry. And while these stones couldn’t speak, they testify to the fact that this amazing act took place because their final resting place was not in the Jordan where they would have lain on their own, but outside of the Jordan in the land of promise.
I’m choosing how I phrase this very carefully because these stones are not, in themselves, significant. The only difference between these stones and the others around them are that they are brought out of the Jordan by the twelve men. And yet, they are, in a way, significant because these twelve men are enacting for Israel God’s act of deliverance for them. Israel is not a significant people. In fact, the Bible seems to suggest that they’re very insignificant and common because they do all the same things that the rest of humanity does—they sin, they forget to be thankful, and they would be nothing without God. And yet, they are the people whom he chooses among all the peoples of the earth to be the sign and vessels of his faithfulness.
You see, the point is God. The task that these men are undertaking—it’s not just to remind them of this event, it’s to remind them of the significance of God and the impossibility of Israel’s existence apart from him. God must actively and intentionally retrieve his people from obscurity, bring them through the river, and deposit them into the land of rest. Is this not the same message as our gospel? In Christ, who is the second person of the Godhead, he actively and intentionally comes to retrieve his people, plucks them out from obscurity, and, by the shedding of his own blood, breaks the tide of our depravity so that we might find an eternal rest with him in his resurrection. All of Israel’s and all of our existence is owed to nothing other than him, and we’re to remember this and give thanks for it forever.
Did you know that the number one reason as to why marriages fall apart is not because of infidelity or a lack of trust between husband and wife? No, the reason why so many marriages fall apart is because the husband and the wife over time stop reflecting upon the preciousness of the other person. We get so comfortable with how things are and how well we know the other person that we stop asking questions, we stop pursuing them, and we stop thinking about this other person as God’s appointed gift to me. We are deeply forgetful. We naturally, because of our sin, take one another for granted. We naturally, because of our sin, take God for granted.
And God is telling Israel and us here in this text not to do that. Don’t forget about the gift of your life. Don’t forget about the gift of himself—how he brought you out of obscurity, ruin, despair, wretchedness, and depravity all by his own initiative. There needs to be an active response to our salvation every day. It’s not just a simple act of remembering. I’m not telling you to sit in a chair in a dark room and think to yourself about the magnitude of your salvation. No, I’m telling you to do the hard work that these twelve men were called to do. To dig deep and retrieve the evidences and habits of grace. It’s in our fasting, praying, meditating, communing with Christians, giving, reading of scripture, silence and solitude, and our other intentional acts that cause us to remember what’s been done for us. These are signposts for God’s active involvement in our lives. They don’t justify us, but they do remind us that we would have been swept away in your sin apart from God’s grace. We’re not to be idle with grace. It is the grace of God that fuels us. Grace energizes us to do those things that ensure us that we will continue to know him day-after-day.
We live in an age that is in love with the idea of working smarter and not harder. Rest as much as you can. Do the best job you can with as little effort as possible. This is why there are more apps today than ever to make it easier for you to read and memorize your Bible. There are more books today that guide you through saying a prayer than having you sit there and think of what to pray on your own. Think of our own church, we have an offering program where you can set up your weekly giving so that you don’t have to think about it. Now, I’m not knocking these apps, nor am I telling you not to pray through the prayers of other saints, nor am I saying not to use the resources available to you in order to be faithful in your giving—it’s good to use these things, especially if you find it difficult to remember to do them. But we must see why they exist. They exist because we’ve become unaccustomed, unwilling, and forgetful of the work that needs to be done.
It is the work fueled by grace that brings the kind of rest that God intends in our lives and in eternity. There is no quick fix to God’s redemptive plan of glory. There is no smarter way than doing that which is difficult—not because we are saved by our doing, but because by our doing we grasp and better appreciate the immensity of his saving.
And I’m not just making this up. If we just look at the text, the command in verse 3 is to take these twelve, likely extremely heavy, stones out of the Jordan, bring them to the first camp of Israel in Canaan, and lay them down in that place. The word used in Hebrew that the ESV translates as “lay them down” is more literally translated as, “you will cause them to rest.” Do you see the progression? It is grace, work, rest. It’s salvation then active remembrance then peace. There is no shortcut to godliness. Our initial salvation was never God’s end-plan. He wants to save, and he wants to do so completely. How does he do it? He calls us to revisit the act, to mine its treasures, to grow in greater fondness of him—reminding ourselves over-and-over again that we can’t keep going unless he keeps us going.
The work isn’t about us. It’s always been and always will be about the God who is for us. This is how we stay saved. We don’t persevere in faith by some magical, mystical force. We persevere because God has given us the means and strength to persevere in himself. As we remember him—as we retrieve the memory of what he’s done as our foundation for what he shall do—we’re drawn into greater fellowship with him, and it is in our remembrance that we are assured that he will, undoubtedly, bring us into our eternal rest.
2) Preserving the Memory
Now, it’s in verses 4-7 that we learn that we are not only to retrieve the memory. The story does not stop with the twelve men taking the stones, bringing them into Canaan, and leaving them there. No, the retrieval of these stones is to have a preserving and sustaining effect, and it’s not an effect that is only borne out in our lives but in the lives of those who follow after us.
I want you to understand this very clearly from the text. See, verse 6 tells us the purpose of the twelve men going to collect these stones from the ground of the Jordan, which is that the stones might serve as a sign. But notice who the sign is for. The sign isn’t just for these Israelites who have crossed the Jordan. More important than their individual, personal remembrance is their ability to remember for the purpose of communicating the details of this event to those who shall come after. This is, perhaps, an obvious observation, but what is probably less obvious is the method in which we’re to communicate these things.
Do you see the question that Joshua says the children will ask? The question is not only what do the stones mean. No, the question is what do those stones mean to you? Inevitably, you would have to tell them the truth of where these stones came from, but these details were never meant to be given as mere details . The question isn’t “what are the facts?” The question is “how have the facts defined your life?”
Our remembrance of the event is not supposed to be devoid of our experience, nor is it meant simply to be an evangelistic tool. No, as we are declaring it to the next generation, as we are sharing the truth with others, we are to immerse ourselves in it. God has not saved us to be unaffected beings who are completely cold and calculated in the way we win people to himself. God’s salvation of us was not an impersonal act either to us or to him. It means everything to us just as he meant to give everything for us. In our communication of the truth, we’re to be winsome, zealous, personal, intentional, persuasive, and we’re to be present in the story as those who, ourselves, were saved. The reason why so many Christians today are ineffective in their ministry and evangelism is because they’ve forgotten that the event they’re describing took place on their behalf. Gone is the pleading and praying because we remain unaffected in our hearts by the things God has done for us.
Why is it that we reminisce and retrieve these memories regularly? It’s not only so that we don’t forget but also so that in our remembrance, we might rejoice with exceeding faithfulness and gladness. All of Israel is to marvel and worship the God who saves as they look upon these stones. The children are not to be drawn into their story only because the stones represent a remarkable event but because the remarkability of the event is measured and declared by those who actually observed it, lived it, and have been transformed in their beings by it. This is what makes for effective evangelism and for effective perseverance—not only the facts of what someone should believe, but that you, in your declaration of it, believe it yourself.
Let the story of God’s transforming work in your life transform others. What we learn in these verses from 4-7 is that we’re not meant to reflect upon God’s deliverance on our own. We’re to pass on what we remember. We’re to let people know. Let our children know. Let our wives know. Let your husbands know. In every circumstance as you are reminded of God’s intentionally gracious act of salvation, we are called not to keep it to ourselves. But we share all of it with others not only because it benefits and affects them but also because, by our speaking it, we rehearse for our own hearts our love for it—our love for God. He has not left us to ourselves. Our sin and death will not destroy us. No, we’ll be kept to the end. We will make a difference in the lives of our children and in our children’s children. Why? Because this isn’t a story belonging to someone else somewhere else. No, it’s our story—it’s our heritage, and it’s how he brings us back from our forgetfulness, laziness, and lostness constantly.
We are to do the work of retrieving. We are to do the work of preserving because God has retrieved us. Because God is preserving us. Reflect personally, affectionately, and corporately upon God’s complete deliverance because by it you may bring others to see this grace renewed or established in their lives. And yet, just as importantly, your effort to remember is also the means by which God restores you to the joy of your own salvation. Don’t lose out on the joy. Don’t lose out on the fullness of God’s work to save you. Remember what he’s done for you and remember it with one another regularly.
3) Digesting the Memory
Our remaining verses from 8-10 open with telling us that these twelve men, along with the rest of Israel, were obedient not only to Joshua but, ultimately, to God himself. And this detail is not insignificant because Israel has a history of being disobedient to both God and his mediator, Moses. Their obedience is something to be celebrated and recorded in Scripture because it shows us that they trusted God, and that in their trust, he delivered them according to his promise.
But then we get to verse 9, and we hit a speed bump as we read, “And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.” What are we to make of this text? Did Joshua ask the twelve men to bring twelve stones out from the Jordan as a sign, and then go and reinstall another twelve stones in their place? And the answer to that is no.
What’s happening here is that the author of Joshua is providing us with an aside. The right way to read this text is to couple the end of verse 8 with the end of verse 9 like this, “And they carried [the stones] over with them to the place where they lodged and laid them down there. And they are there to this day.” Then, as an aside, we read, “these twelve stones were set up by Joshua in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood.”
So, what am I saying? I’m saying that these stones weren’t in the Jordan to begin with. No, these stones came from the land east of the Jordan where Israel awaited God’s deliverance of them into Canaan. In fact, some of your Bibles might have a note in verse 9 beside “Joshua set up twelve stones” that says you can read the text as, “Joshua had set up twelve stones.” And what I believe the author is doing here is connecting us back with Joshua 3:12. Remember there, Joshua commands Israel to appoint twelve men from each tribe, but we’re not told why, and I believe it’s because after the priests touch the water with their feet and go into the midst of the Jordan, these twelve men, at the command of Joshua, carried these stones to the place where the priests stationed themselves and laid the stones at their feet. Then, after Israel had crossed, Joshua commissioned these twelve men to go back into the midst of the Jordan, pick up these stones, and carry them into Canaan.
The question, then, before us about these stones is why? Why twelve stones from the east of the Jordan? Why have the stones placed at the feet of the priests? Why have the twelve men lifted the stones into the Jordan and then out of the Jordan? And the answer is quite simple: it’s to show that the entire thing—before the crossing, during the crossing, and after the crossing—was accomplished by God alone. Recall with me that these twelve men were to be any men as long as each one was from each of the tribes of Israel. They were not particularly holy men. They were not important men. They were the “any” man—the man who represented the common interests of their own people.
In other words, these stones represented all of Israel-at-large. They were to be taken from the place where Israel awaited God’s deliverance, they were to be set under the place where God was working, and they were to be brought into the land that God had promised. At all points, and from every angle, Israel was to know that the whole story belonged to God.
Not only had God saved them from the torrent of the Jordan, but God is responsible for the entire journey. These stones weren’t just Jordan stones, they were foreign stones. They were stones that did not belong in this land until God brought them into it. They were stones stuck on the distant shore until God found them a proper resting place. They were stones that would have drowned had God not acted to deliver them. And just as God did for Israel through these twelve men and this visible picture of deliverance with these stones, he has done more clearly and fully for us in the one God-man, Jesus Christ.
It is Jesus who would come to fulfill the entirety of Israel’s journey. It is Jesus who would come out of Egypt and cross over into Jerusalem as the perfect vessel of God’s faithfulness. It is Jesus who would bear upon his own shoulders the full weight of our corruption and guilt. It is Jesus who, despite having every right to conquer, would allow himself to be conquered and slain for our wretchedness, disobedience, and sin. It is Jesus who in his death has left us a memorial forever. It is Jesus who would call twelve men to himself out of obscurity, have them witness his crucifixion, then, in his resurrection, send them out into the world to point us ever so passionately and relentlessly to the cross. The Christian life, just like the Israelite life, is a constant acknowledgment that all of this, all of us, all of our boast from our state of pre-grace until our ascension in glory—all of it belongs to God. Jesus took our sin. Jesus bore our wrath. Jesus assures our rest. And look at how our passage ends in verse 10, “For the priests bearing the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua.” As the priests and the twelve men were faithful to the task until the very end, so too, in greater measure, shall our Great High Priest and our true Israel remain faithful to the task until everything is finished. He has born us up upon himself. He has carried us through. He is preparing for us a place of glory. This is the Lord who directs our paths and makes our way straight. This is the Lord who takes every measure upon himself to bring us out of our spiritual amnesia, and because he has done this for us, he alone is worthy to be remembered.