Joshua 4:19-24 (text); Mark 4:36-41
September 18, 2011
On the Third Anniversary of Pasig Covenant Reformed Church
Every nation in the world has monuments to its heroes and history. What are they for? The answer, obviously, is to remember their glorious past, and for some, even their not-so-glorious past. Wherever you go, there are monuments commemorating people, places and events, the most prominent ones being the Rizal Monument, the Balintawak Monument, and the EDSA Shrine in Ortigas. They remind the nation of the past, of heroes who gave their lives for their freedom, of events marking turning points in its history, and of mistakes that are not to be repeated.
Monuments and altars are scattered throughout the Biblical history of Israel. What were they for? They were erected to be visible and tangible reminders of God’s faithfulness and mighty works in the past. They serve to assure the people that even in the future, God will fulfill his promises made to their forefathers. A common theme in Scripture is of God remembering time and again his promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to King David.
These monuments often mark turning points in redemptive history. Noah built an altar where he offered animal sacrifices after the great flood. Abraham built an altar in obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his covenant son Isaac. By the river Jabbok, Jacob set up the stone he used as a pillow for his head as a pillar to remind him of God’s provision and promises to his father Abraham. He called it Bethel, because that pillar represents the house of God. King David built an altar at the site of the great temple that his son Solomon would build.
In addition to monuments, every nation has holidays to commemorate various victories—and even defeats—and heroes’ birthdays and deaths: Day of Valor, ironically commemorating the fall of Bataan and Corregidor in World War II; Independence Day after three centuries of Spanish tyranny; and the birthdays and deaths of Andres Bonifacio, Jose Rizal, and Ninoy Aquino, in addition to a National Heroes’ Day.
Today, we are gathered here to commemorate the third anniversary of Pasig Covenant Reformed Church. We started as a Bible study group at our small apartment on a stormy Saturday afternoon, June 21, 2008. Out of the six who came, only three are here today, because the other three are now in different parts of the world. It was a rather inconspicuous, small beginning, but we continued meeting every Saturday until the group decided to start assembling for Lord’s Day worship a couple of months later on August 17.
Our reading from Joshua 24 tells us of another historical commemoration in Israel’s history. Forty years before this narrative, Moses led the people in the exodus out of Egypt into the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land of Canaan. That event was remembered in the Feast of the Passover, which God commanded them to keep “throughout your generations” (Exod 12:14). Now, they have reached the banks of the Jordan River, and on the other side lies the fertile land where their families would settle.
Normally, the Jordan River is small and shallow, no more than 100 feet wide and 3-10 feet deep. But Israel arrived at its banks “at the time of harvest” when the river “overflows all its banks” (Josh 3:15). What wrong timing! Just when the river is unfordable—too wide, too deep, and too fast. How would one to two million people and livestock ever cross this raging river? They had only two options: trust the Lord and cross into Canaan, or disobey and just settle right there in the plains of Moab.
Who Glory in the Lord
The people who were waiting for marching orders on the banks of the Jordan River were second-generation Israelites. Remember the first-generation of Israel? As God had told them, none of them, including their leaders Moses, Aaron and Miriam, would be able to enter the Promised Land because of unbelief and disobedience. Repeatedly, they grumbled, complained and rebelled against God’s commandments. So they all perished in the wilderness, just as they wished when they learned from the spies of the giants and well-fortified cities in Canaan.
But of this generation, we hear no grumbling, complaining and rebelling. On the second day after they arrived on the banks of the river, Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you” (Josh 3:5). Remember when the Lord gathered the people of Israel at Mount Sinai? He gave similar orders to Moses before they came close to the mountain, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow … and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people’” (Exod 19:10-11).
In Scripture, the third day is a very important day, and most of the time, it signifies a day of redemption. Abraham arrived at Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son Isaac on the third day of his journey. When Hezekiah pleaded to God to extend his life, God commanded him to go to the Temple on third day, and he will be healed. And the greatest event in Biblical history happened on the third day, when Jesus arose from the grave. Today, and every first day of the week, we gather to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection, and this is why we prefer to call this day “the Lord’s Day” instead of Sunday. The apostle John says he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” when Christ appeared to him (Rev 1:10).
The Israelites on the banks of the Jordan were confident this time. The Lord assured them of his presence and leading as they crossed the river:
“Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites [and other peoples] Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan” (Josh 3:10-11).
The ark of the covenant, where God dwells between the cherubim, will lead the way with the people crossing behind it. The Lord promised that as soon as the “the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord … shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap” (Josh 3:13). This is exactly what happened—the priests bravely stepped into the raging waters, and the waters were dammed by God and were gathered in a heap. All the tens of thousands of people followed the ark of the covenant on dry ground. Thus, every time Israel sang Psalm 66 during their Temple worship, they remembered the Jordan drying up:
Come and see what God has done:
he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.
He turned the sea into dry land;
they passed through the river on foot.
There did we rejoice in him (Psa 66:5-6).
And this is what we also sang earlier. We sing Psalms of praise because God granted us grace and mercy in saving us from sure eternal death. When the six of you, committed to attending the Bible study three years ago, you did not know what God had in store for your little group. You did not know that it would grow to several families who would commit to hearing the preaching of the Word and partaking of the sacraments on the Lord’s Day. There were times when you were discouraged that ten of those who came regularly during the first two years left, most of them to relocate overseas. Sometimes, only a handful of you met for worship, but you persevered.
Today, we are still a very small church compared with others around us. Our meeting place can hold no more than 20 people. But every Lord’s Day you come to hear what awesome deeds God has done, and you rejoice in the Lord. Because he has redeemed you from sin and death, and is nourishing you to a holy life in the Word and sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Israel rejoiced in the Lord for safely conducting them across the flooded river wearing their sandals on dry ground. And they rejoiced in their salvation from sure death and glorified the Lord through a memorial. God commanded them to choose twelve men from each of Israel’s tribes and each of these men would bring a stone from the exact place in the river bed where the priests stood while all the people crossed on dry ground. Then the men were to carry these stones to the place where the ark would lead the people to set up camp, which was in a place called Gilgal.
A question, unimportant to the whole narrative, but still a question, arises from verses 3 and 9. In verse 3, Joshua commands the men to “lay [the stones] down in the place where you lodge tonight.” But verse 9 tells us, “Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan.” Were there two stone memorials? It is not clear, so that many scholars believe that the stones were set up first in the midst of the river while the people passed through, and then were later picked up by the same men and laid down in Gilgal, “And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal” (verse 20). Whether there were one or two memorials, what is important is that they obeyed the Lord’s commands.
At Gilgal, the people not only testified that they wanted to rejoice and glory in the Lord, but they also evidenced their fear of the Lord.
Who Fear the Lord
The timing of the entrance of Israel into Canaan after crossing the Jordan River and encamping at Gilgal has all kinds of historical significance. Verse 19 tells us, “The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal.” At first glance, the mention of the date may be a mere, “By the way, they entered the Promised Land on the 10th day of the first month,” but this date happens to be the same date when Israel inaugurated the Feast of the Passover in Egypt. On that day (which usually falls on our March and April), the people selected the Passover lamb, “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this [first] month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household” (Exod 12:2-3). This lamb will be slaughtered for the celebration of the Feast four days later.
Joshua chapter 5 also tells us that after they encamped at Gilgal, the first order of business was the reinstitution of the Feast of the Passover and the rite of circumcision. Apparently, during their 40 years of wilderness wanderings, the people forgot about these two institutions. Now, before they set out on their conquest of Canaan, they were commanded by God to make themselves holy before him as his covenant people. This was a covenant-renewal ceremony at Gilgal. By the sign of circumcision, God reminds them of their status as his chosen, holy nation. By the Feast of the Passover, they were to remember their redemption out of slavery in Egypt by God.
Obedience to this covenant renewal ceremony was a severe test for them. Why not immediately go on to the conquest of the first city nearby, Jericho? Why circumcise able-bodied men who make up most of the army of Israel? What if the Canaanites attacked them in the next few days when they were physically vulnerable and had to wait until they were healed? (Josh 5:8) They had to completely trust the Lord for his protection.
How often we neglect trusting God when we need to trust him most! When we’re at the end of our ropes, we often rely on our own strength and wisdom, our families, our friends, our money, our jobs. We forget that God is always looking out for us, for our nourishment. Just as he assured Joshua as God commissioned him to lead Israel after Moses died in the wilderness, so he likewise assures us, “I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Josh 1:5). Just as the Lord tested Israel in the wilderness, but then provided a way of escape for them, so he does so with us, “He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). The saying is true, “This too will pass,” if we believe that the Lord will not tempt us, and will always deliver us from the evil one.
Just like Israel, our fear of God is at times insufficient. We often forget that it was Jesus himself who went through his own exodus for us. At his birth, his parents fled to Egypt so Herod would not kill him, and as the new Israel, his heavenly Father said, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt 2:15). Just as Moses, Israel’s mediator, was to be killed by Pharaoh, so did Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, was sought to be killed by Herod. Israel was baptized into Moses in the Red Sea; Jesus was also baptized in the Jordan River. After crossing the Red Sea, Israel received the old covenant law of Moses at Mount Sinai; Jesus, after being baptized in the river, delivered the law of the kingdom of God on another mountain. While Israel was tempted in the desert for 40 years, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.
This is why in the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah referred to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as another “exodus,“ ”Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure (exodos),which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). God’s chosen people passed from slavery into freedom, and figuratively, from death into life. With the death and resurrection of Christ, we too pass from death into life, symbolized by Israel passing through the Red Sea and then the Jordan River. Jesus himself assures us of this new life in him, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). He is our Passover Lamb, because through his own bloody sacrifice, God’s wrath passed over us, sparing us from sure death and translating us into new life in Christ (1 Cor 5:7).
After crossing the Jordan, Israel’s life of slavery was behind them. Before them was new life in God’s Promised Land. All of this because they feared the Lord and did all that the Lord had commanded them as they crossed the Jordan River, “Everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua” (Josh 4:10). This stone memorial, the first of seven such stone monuments in the book of Joshua, was a fixed reminder of God’s faithfulness to them in delivering them from slavery to freedom, from death into life.
Israel built a memorial to remember the miracle of their powerful God when they crossed the rive Jordan on dry ground. But notice as well what Joshua 4:7 says: “the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord.” The waters were said to be “cut off,” the same word that is used when God “makes” a covenant with his people. “Making” a covenant is literally “cutting” a covenant. Circumcision, the sign of membership in God’s covenant people, is also described as “cutting off” of the foreskin (Exod 4:25), and anyone who breaks this covenant sign commandment must be “cut off from his people” (Gen 17:14), which means the death penalty (Exod 31:14).
All of these point to the connecting threads between the Jordan River crossing, circumcision and covenant-making. The river was cut off so the Israelites would not perish crossing it. The foreskin was cut off in order to become a member of God’s covenant people who are the only ones given the benefits of salvation from sin and death. When God makes a covenant with men, it always involves a “cutting off” ceremony to ratify it.
In time, these connections point forward to Christ the Lord who was “cut off out of the land of the living” in order to become the better mediator of a better covenant (Isa 53:8; Heb 8:6; 12:24). And since Christ has taken upon himself the bloody penalty of our covenant-breaking as our Passover Lamb, we now do not have to go through a bloody cutting off ceremonial sign, but only a bloodless sign—baptism—which is the sign of covenant membership in the new covenant.
With the stone monument at Gilgal, Israel gave glory to the Lord. The memorial reminded them of their obedience and devotion to God in performing the covenant renewal ceremonies of the Passover and circumcision. Just as during the Passover Feast, their children will ask them, “What do these stones mean?” (Exod 13:14), they would be able to answer them that the Lord did his mighty works for the people in the Red Sea and in the Jordan River, “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty.”
Who Proclaim the Lord
Another purpose of the memorial stones is for a reminder to all the unbelieving nations of the power of the hand of the Almighty Lord. It was not only Israel who saw God’s miraculous deed at the river crossing, but the Canaanites heard about it and their hearts melted in fear (Josh 5:1).
But many today in the churches also do not fear the Lord because they do not remember God’s mighty works in the past. In this third anniversary, Pasig Covenant Reformed Church remembers the faithful prayers and support of many brethren here in the Philippines and overseas. Once, we almost lost this venue because of the financial crisis in the United States. But the building manager encouraged us to stay by cutting the rent by 40 percent! During the first two years, our small numbers became even smaller because ten of our brethren left for work transfers or personal reasons. But he has called other believers to replenish our numbers, some from far away places. We remember all of these mercies of God, and we are strengthened as we face spiritual battles ahead of us.
In Biblical history, there were many who did not remember and acknowledge God’s mighty works in the past. They were too absorbed in themselves, in their own fame and fortune. The builders of the tower of Babel had proud hearts, “Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Gen 4:11). Nebuchadnezzar gloried in himself, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan 4:30). King Herod Agrippa I persecuted Christians and acknowledged the people’s acclaim of him as a god, so God struck him dead and he was eaten by worms (Acts 12:21-23).
Today many people build monuments to themselves. Here, I’m reminded of the Marcos years. The Marcoses built many infrastructure: roads, bridges, buildings, and monuments. There is the Marcos Highway, Imelda Avenue, Marcos Bridge. And then there is that infamous stone monument carved on a mountainside on Marcos Highway going up to Baguio City, which was destroyed after Marcos was ousted from power.
But even in the churches, we see and hear of similar things. Pastors are proud of their great buildings, but what and where today is Oral Roberts’ City of Faith, or Jim Bakker’s Heritage USA, or Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral? They are but long-gone memories of proud men and women who built memorials for themselves and not for glorifying God. This will assuredly be the destination of many megachurch buildings today as well.
These powerful men and women are not like the disciples who feared Jesus when they saw he had power even over nature, “Peace! Be still!” he commanded the raging wind and sea. In the same way that the Lord commanded the Jordan River to be cut off and pile up in a heap, Jesus also had the power and authority to command the storm to cease. And the disciples were filled with great fear, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:39-41)
Famously rich pastors and churches build monuments to themselves. Even these same disciples who were but lowly fishermen had dreams of grandeur to be given higher status, “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matt 20:21). But the Bible commands us to proclaim not our own wisdom and accomplishments, but the gospel of Christ to the unbelieving world, to make known his deeds among the people. When we sing Psalm 114, about Jordan River being turned back, we proclaim the Lord’s mighty works to others:
The sea looked and fled;
Jordan turned back.
What ails you, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
Jesus is the greater Joshua who performed so many miracles during his public ministry that John said, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30). Why did Jesus perform miracles? To impress those who see, just like sports celebrities who perform amazing feats of athleticism? No, John says, Jesus performed these miracles “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). For the unbeliever, his miracles were to show him salvation through faith in him and to warn him of eternal damnation if he does not believe.
For the believer, Jesus’ miracles were for strengthening his faith, because God’s mighty deeds attest to his faithfulness to his covenant promises. This is the same reason why God did mighty works for Israel: to redeem them from slavery to sin by believing in him so they too might have eternal life. Just as God provided a way for them to escape death symbolized by the Jordan River, he will also provide a way of escape for us through all kinds of sufferings, trials and temptations. He is even able to turn evil into good.
God does not command Pasig Covenant Reformed Church to build stone memorials every church anniversary. Instead, he commands our church to preach the gospel and the mighty deeds of God to all who are listening. And we leave the rest of the work of salvation to the Holy Spirit.
Church anniversaries are memorials to God’s mighty deeds in our lives, individually and corporately. The only memorial services that God commands us to perform are the hearing of God’s Word preached and the partaking of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This is what the covenant renewal service at Gilgal after the crossing of the Jordan River signify to us.
In this our third anniversary, let us remember that daily, we are to give glory to God alone for his salvation and his mighty deeds for us. We show devotion to and fear of the Lord in our lives. And by doing so, we proclaim Christ to others. And every Lord’s Day, we renew our covenant vows before him.