Joshua stands gazing across the Jordan River into the illusive Promised Land. This moment is 40 years in the making. The Israelites are finally here, but things have gone terribly wrong. A potentially short journey became a decades long trudge through the desert. An entire generation is gone. And Moses, the faithful and humble leader of the Israelites, is no more. Why? Disobedience. Idolatry. Unbelief. The people of God have a short memory. The stories of yesterday’s miracles quickly dissolve under tomorrow’s uncertainties. Will this ever change? Isthere a chance that Israel will grasp on to what God has done in their past and, in turn, trust Him for their future? When it comes to human hearts, nothing is for sure. All Joshua knows is that he has been given the charge, by God Himself, to do what even Moses couldn’t — lead this obstinate people on an impossible mission into the land flowing with milk, honey and endless opportunities to rebel yet again.
Once the Israelites are in Canaan, kicking butt and taking names, Joshua receives bits of specific instructions when needed. But on the east side of the Jordan, his orders are daunting and vague. “Cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites,” God tells him (Joshua 1:2). “Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Mediterranean Sea in the west” (1:4). In other words, “go in and take what I’m giving you.”
This sounds great, but what are grasshoppers to do in the face of giants? How will Joshua and his people succeed? “As I was with Moses,” the Lord reassures him, “so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you” (1:5). Over and over again, God commands Joshua to “be strong and courageous,” to have unwavering faith in the face of impossibility.
Joshua, however, is merely dust and bone. How is he supposed to do this when so many others have failed? God answers that question as well: “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (1:7–8). Remember the Law.
Remember the past. Remember God. It’s Romans 10:17 laid out in an Old Testament context. No wonder, then, that before the Jordan even closes behind them, Joshua instructs a man from every tribe to contribute to a permanent memorial. Your children will ask about these stones, Joshua tells the people. And when they do, “tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord” (Joshua 4:7). Of course, this isn’t just about the Jordan. The miracle of the river points to the miracle of the Red Sea, which is the story of Israel’s deliverance and God’s protection under the blood of the Passover lamb.
This is supposed to work. It doesn’t. The entire book of Judges is the ghastly proof. So why, then, do I still keep a journal and encourage my congregation to do the same? Why do I document the wonders, revelations, and intimate moments God has so lovingly poured out upon me? If monuments of remembrance couldn’t motivate the Nation of Israel to stick with God, what hope do I have? Or, even more importantly, why waste time reading the Bible? “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night…” We see how effective that was for God’s people. I say it again – if the stories of God’s faithfulness and his Word could not keep Israel’s heart faithful to Him, why should I bother? Because the miracle at Pentecost changed everything.
Unlike the Old Testament saints who yearned for what we now possess, the Church of Jesus Christ has God in us rather than just with us. For us, to hear the Word isn’t just a cerebral exercise to prompt forced obedience. When a Spirit-filled child of God hears the Word, it comes alive within. Jesus tells His disciples that they can’t handle all He has to say, but when the Holy Spirit comes, He will guide them into all truth. Paul tells the Corinthians that the Holy Spirit will show them the very thoughts of God. For a Christian, to read the Word is to be drawn, by the Holy Spirit, to a deeper place in Christ. The same applies to “historical markers” as we reflect on what God has done. When a person or congregation intentionally revisits a God moment from the past, it isn’t just a mental exercise. These times of reflection give the Holy Spirit opportunity to take us back, not just in our minds, but in our spirits, to relive His wonders all over again. Isn’t this what Holy Communion is all about? Do this “in remembrance of Me.”
In Joshua, we remember two things about memorial altars. The first is that they are important landmarks that remind us of God’s goodness and power when life seems tragic and impossible. The second, sadly for the Israelites, is that our remembrance is virtually impotent without the igniting power of the Holy Spirit bringing it to life. There is no force – internal or external – which can bond a human heart with the Father except the Holy Spirit.
The last chapter of Joshua reflects the first. Canaan is now Israel’s new home. Thousands of enemies have been vanquished. God has been with them. Miracles have happened – God altered the course of the earth around the sun for crying out loud! And yet, Joshua knows his people. In his farewell address, the valiant leader walks Israel all the way back to Abraham and reminds them of all that God has done. He tells them to “choose. . . this day” whom they will serve – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the gods of the pagans. The people respond emphatically, “We will serve the Lord.” Sadly, Joshua knows better. In light of his people’s tendency to stray, he sets up yet another memorial stone. “’See!’” he tells them. “’This stone will be a witness against us. It has heard all the words the Lord has said to us. It will be a witness against you if you are untrue to your God.’”
And it is. Judges is a biblical orgy of decadence, violence, and idolatry as everyone forgets God and does “what is right in his own eyes.” The cycle is so predictable it almost seems ridiculous. The Israelites throw their collective middle finger in God’s face, nightmarish judgment comes, they cry out for forgiveness and help, God anoints a judge to deliver them, all becomes right with the world, and the middle finger finds a way to rise again.
The judges are a diverse bunch. Men, women, mighty, weak, confident, timid. Yet they all have one thing in common. The Spirit of God is upon them. Unfortunately, this is as far as it goes. At the time of the judges, Jesus has not yet come. Redemption has not been paid for. And the Holy Spirit has not been poured out. God with us has not yet become God in us. This is what makes the New Testament so beautiful and the Old Testament so tragic.
The judges certainly had a purpose. They were beacons of light reminding Israel that God still loves them and is still willing to set them free. Much like pastors today, they had no kingly authority. They didn’t dictate commands from a palace or operate within a governmental system. They simply showed up in the power of God, did some cool, supernatural stuff, and called people to repent. Sounds very pastoral to me. Thank God, however, that in every facet of the Christian life, the Holy Spirit is the great equalizer. As pastors do much of what the judges did – minus the violence, sexual escapades, and burning fox tails – we have the hope of seeing much more fruit than they ever dreamed.
The books of Joshua and Judges themselves serve as a memorial altar for God’s people today. As Christians, we accept their truth – God really did these things. As we read them, the Holy Spirit affirms that truth within and ignites our spirits. As our renewed minds choose to direct our bodies to live in light of our ignited spirits, incredible things can happen. Thank you, Joshua, for trusting God to the end. Thank you, judges, for continually calling God’s wayward people home. And thank you, Holy Spirit, for breathing these events through your prophets so that I can read them and be transformed.
Adam Stuck is the senior pastor of the Rivesville Free Methodist Church in Rivesville, West Virginia.