The Lord Parades His Faithfulness Before His People
*Message starts at approximately the 27 minute mark.
I invite you to turn with me to Joshua chapter 3. In our passage today we are going to pick up again with Joshua and the Israelites. Chapter 1 told us that Joshua took over in the place of Moses. And Joshua began getting the tribes ready for taking the promised land.
We spent a couple weeks in chapter 2 studying Rahab. We got a sneak peek into what was going on across the River in Jericho.
But chapter 3 brings us back to Joshua and Israel. And we see them beginning to move forward on their conquest. Really, chapters three and four go together as they are telling one story. But this morning we’re going to just read chapter three.
But before we do, let me give you a little orientation to the text.
The Israelites are on the east side of the Jordan River, in the area of Moab. The Jordan River is barrier between them and Jericho. They are camped at a place called Shittim. And our passage is going to tell us that they move about 10 miles west to the Jordan River. And they are going to camp there, about a mile away from the Jordan River. You are going to hear that they will stay there for 3 days. Then on the 3rd day, they are going to make their advance across the river.
Now that you have a general orientation to what’s going on, let’s get into the text and hear what God says there.
[Read Joshua 3]
Well, the conquest of Canaan is about to commence. The Israelites end their wilderness wandering by camping out at the edge of the Jordan River. Chapters 3 and 4 tell us how the Israelites enter the Promised Land through the Jordan River. And it’s interesting that it comes with a bit of pomp and circumstance.
I don’t know if you caught this or not, but this passage is all about a parade.
The whole passage is about how the priests are to carry the ark, that most sacred piece of furniture for Israel, down to the Jordan River. And the Israelites are basically made to watch the whole thing. It’s a lot like a parade you might watch downtown.
Really, this box (that’s what the ark is), is the central focus of the passage. As a matter of fact, the ark is mentioned 17 times in these two chapters. While there is a lot that goes on in the text, the real focus is on this sacred piece of furniture.
So visually and literarily, God wants you to zero in on this one item. And he does so because he wants to highlight himself. He doesn’t do this because he has some ego problem. He does this for you. He wants his people to understand that He is a faithful God. That He’s a God who is keeping his promises to His people.
Really, in this passage the Lord parades his faithfulness. And he does so that we might be made to trust and follow him all that much more.
So what I want to do is study this Ark of the Covenant. Since it is so central to what’s going on, I want us to zero in on this box and consider its name, nature, and nearness.
I. It’s name
In verse 3 you see that it mentions the “ark of the covenant of the LORD your God.” And throughout this passage, almost every time it mentions the ark, it is called “Ark of the Covenant.”
Now, keep in mind that whoever wrote this book had done it with his hand, using something like a quill and ink which he had to keep dipping into the ink well. And he’s writing on a precious piece of papyri. He didn’t just pick up a ream of papyri at Walmart. This stuff would have cost money and or time to make.
Now think about that as he writes these two chapters. Each time he has to write out “Ark of the Covenant….ark of the covenant….ark of the covenant.” There are only two or three times that he shortens it to just the word “ark.”
So you have to ask, why is he taking the extra time to spell out the whole name “ark of the covenant?” Why not abbreviate it and save some ink and paper, not to mention time. There’s got to be a reason for this.
And what other reason can it be for the simple fact that he wants to stress our God keeps his promises. You may say that this is not just a box that is paraded by the people, but the words “ark of the covenant” are a verbal parade. It is flaunting the fact that God has entered into a covenant with his people and the promises he had made to them and to their forefathers are being kept. God had entered into a covenant with Abraham and Moses and all the other patriarchs; he promised that he would give them the land. And now we are seeing him make good on these covenant promises.
All in all, this is just a way of reminding us that God does not forget his promises. God does not renege on what he has said. He is faithful, and he will do what he has sworn he would do.
You know, we live in a world where promises are broken as easily as they are made. We’ve gotten to the point where we hear politicians making their campaign speeches and we just assume that they are going to promise us the moon. And we know better. We’ll even say, “Wow, that was a great speech!” But we don’t believe a word of it. Because we know that there’s no way they will do the half of what they say they will do.
And we have to reinforce our promises with all kinds of silly antics because so many promises are broken. We can’t just say, “Hey, I’ll be there on Thursday and I’ll make sure to fix it.” Nobody believes that anymore. So we have to say, “I cross my heart and hope to die; stick a needle in my eye.” We set alarms and send out reminders and do all kinds of attention getting things because the words, “I’ll do it” just don’t carry any weight. We’ve been disappointed and let down way too many times.
And that can make us a little skeptical when it comes to God and his promises. When you throw in a bunch of sin, you kinda expect God to bail on his word.
Just this week I happened to pull out a notebook from an old class of mine. I was looking at the section on parenting and there was a list of 25 ways that fathers can provoke their children to wrath. You know that verse in Ephesians where it says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” I read down through that list and it was like a spiritual beating. Each line was like an arrow ripping right into my chest. You provoke your children to wrath when you discipline out of anger. When you yell. When you are inconsistent with enforcing rules or making punishments. A critical or negative attitude. On an on it went. By the time I got to the end I felt like I had just gotten taken to the shed spiritually. It was a real beat down on my heart to remind me how great a sinner I really am.
And it is in the face of such realities that we wonder if God will be true to his promise to us – to deliver us from sin and bring us into the Promised land of heaven.
And the answer that he gives is a profound Yes. Our God knows our tendency to dismiss it. And he is gracious not only to be faithful, but here in this passage and with the name of the ark of the covenant he flaunt before you the fact that He will never turn his back on His word. He verbally parades his faithfulness so that you may be assured that he will remain true to the covenant he has established with you.
But this parade of grace is not just seen in the name of the ark, we may see it in its nature too.
II. It’s nature
We’ve been talking about the Ark of the Covenant, but it might be a good idea simply to pause for a second and think about what this thing really is. After all, that probably would have been reinforced to the people of Israel.
Now, there is a sense in which the people of Israel would be somewhat familiar with the ark. It had been with them every day for the last 40 years as they traveled through the wilderness. Everytime the Ark moved, the whole nation would pack up and move with it.
But this time was different. In verse 5 the people are told to consecrate themselves. They were to bath and make sure that they did other ceremonial procedures to get themselves ready. Of course, bathing in the desert is no small chore. The cleansing process may have been a whole day’s process in and of itself.
But the Lord was having them go through all these little hoops to reinforce the fact that this event was going to be special. And when that ark set out and was marched down the main street of their camp, people would have taken special note.
Even though we live in a somewhat small town, we get to see the fire trucks pretty often. We hear the sirens and will sometimes see them heading down the road with their lights flashing. But we’ll also see them at the parades we have downtown. And there’s always something unique about that. As that large, red vehicle slowly marches down the street, you get to marvel at it a little more.
That’s kind of what’s going on here. People would have really noticed it this time. They weren’t busy packing, but they would be watching. And as they had their eyes fixed upon it, they would have opportunity to gaze at it and recall what that thing stood for.
There it was, a golden box. Imagine it shimmering in the sunlight as those rays reflected off the shiney yellow surface. There were the angels on its top, with their wings stretched out towards each other. Right above that. There between those angels is what was called the mercy seat. It was the place where God was said to meet with his people.
And it was on this mercy seat that the blood of a goat would be sprinkled. Each year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would go in and shower it with that animal’s blood, right there on that spot.
So you have two images being put on display. The people would be seeing that God was their leader. It wasn’t just Joshua or Moses who was leading them. God was their leader. And as they gazed at this box they would remember that their God was one who dispensed mercy.
All in all, it is a replay of the covenant. You people just got cleaned up. The message there is that they are sinful and in need of cleansing. They do not in any way deserve to be standing there. They should have perished in Egypt or in the wilderness. But here they are. They are walking forward towards their inheritance. And the reason was right there before them: Their God had been merciful to them and was mercifully leading them.
I would assume that here at the end of their journey the words of John Newton’s hymn would have been floating through their minds. Grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
We today do not have the ark. But we do have a solid witness to the same message. It’s the Lord Jesus. As a matter of fact, in Romans 3 it says that Jesus is said to be set forth by God as our “propitiation.” That word propitiation is the Greek word that is used to translate the Hebrew word mercy seat. It is in Jesus that we find our atonement for sin. The cross of Christ is the dispensary of God’s mercy, so to speak.
And we have the added bonus of having Christ paraded before us every week. Every Sunday the goal of this pulpit is to lift up Christ. And here in the Lord’s Supper there is a visible procession before your eyes of the mercy offered at the cross. And it is to remind you that you are here today not because you’re all that special. Not because you’re all that wonderful or good. But solely because we have a covenant keeping God who has dispensed his mercy in Christ to you.
- There’s one last item that we should notice about the Ark. We’ve talked about its name and nature, we should not miss it’s nearness.
III. It’s nearness
Now when I say nearness, I mean that it’s not very near at all. It’s actually quite far away. In the passage that we read it talks about how the people of Israel had to stay back a fair distance from the ark after it passed by. Verse 4 tells us that they had to keep a bubble of 2000 cubits between them and the ark. That’s about a half a mile, or about 9 football fields.
So imagine it this way. If we were the first tribe to set out behind the ark, we’d have to wait until the priests got past the fairgrounds to start walking.
Now, keep in mind they have been camped out by these waters for 3 days. And the river is said to be at flood stages. The funny thing about the Jordan River is that it is one of the fastest flowing rivers in the world. It’s not by any means the widest river. It’s not that wide at all. But the currents are pretty strong because it flows from a height of almost 10,000 feet above sea level and drains into the dead sea, which is about 1,500 feet below sea level. That’s a pretty significant drop; almost 12,000 feet. And so you can image how fast the water flows as it makes that kind of descent. And that would only be greater when the volume of water is increased during the flooding season.
So God makes the people sit by this raging river for 3 days. They are made to stare at the water. And they, of course, made to contemplate, “How in the world are we going to get over there?” Imagine three days of looking at the water. For three days there was the constant roar of the flood waters running by in the background. They got to be wondering what they were doing there and how they were going to get across. You can’t swim across it. It’s not like we can get some boats and truck all these people across. What are you going to do?
Then one morning the priests start carrying the ark down towards the bank of the river. Being that they have to stay at a distance, they are just sitting there watching. They are looking down at the bank of the waters. And from a good distance they see all the water immediately stop.
Do you see what I’m saying? It’s all a show. This is just part of the parade. It’s like God says, “Stand back and watch what I’m going to do. I really don’t need you for this. I just want you to watch. I just want you to see that there’s nothing that’s going to stop me from fulfilling my promises.”
And immediately it all runs dry.
God makes a clear statement to his people that he’s the one who is bringing them into the land. It’s not by their expertise or participation in any way. They are passively watching it all unfold.
I think this is the Old Testaments’ way of summarizing Ephesians 2. By grace you have been saved through faith. It’s not of works, lest any man should boast.
This is God’s way of saying, it’s by grace alone, and it’s by faith alone. It’s in Christ alone. How is it that we come into the kingdom? How is it we inherit the promised land? It’s all God’s doing, and we merely have to receive the gift he gives.