Stones of Remembrance.

1 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 of 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. 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.

The people passed over in haste. 11 And when all the people had finished passing over, the ark of the Lord and the priests passed over before the people. 12 The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh passed over armed before the people of Israel, as Moses had told them. 13 About 40,000 ready for war passed over before the Lord for battle, to the plains of Jericho. 14 On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life. Joshua 4:1-14 ESV

centered-stones-largeGod’s  people have a tendency to forget, and nobody seems to know that better than God Himself. Their collective ability to recall and rejoice in His wondrous acts was spotty, at best. So, God was constantly reminding His people to remember. He knew their particular tendency toward forgetfulness and the human proclivity to take credit for their own accomplishments.

Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. – Deuteronomy 4:23 ESV

10 “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12 then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. – Deuteronomy 6:10-12 ESV

11 Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… – Deuteronomy 8:11-14 ESV

Their entrance into the land of promise was a memorable experience. As soon as the feet of the priests carrying the ark of the covenant entered the Jordan River, the water ceased to flow. Somewhere up river, a wall of water formed, preventing any further water from reaching the spot where the Israelites would pass over. One minute the river was there. The next, it was gone. And the priests found themselves standing on dry ground. Joshua commanded the 12 men he had chosen earlier to each take one stone from the river bed and carry it to the other side. Those 12 stones would become a memorial, a permanent reminder for the people of Israel, recalling the miraculous provision of God. The stones were to provide a visual history lesson, prompting their children, yet born, to ask for an explanation as to the meaning behind the stones. And the answer was simple: “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” (Joshua 4:7 ESV). Notice that the answer doesn’t mention God. It’s almost as if the question elicits a response which is intended to create even greater curiosity on the part of the child asking the question. “How were the waters cut off?” “What made this happen?” And the answer to those questions was, “God.” The miracle had a source. The action had an agent behind it.

But remembering can be difficult work, and forgetfulness comes easy. As amazing as this particular event was, the day would come when the people would fail to remember what God had done for them. The stones would be neglected. The memory of crossing over the Jordan would be replaced by the more pressing concerns of taking over the land. The attitude of that-was-then, this-is-now would take over. The people of Israel would learn to live in the moment, rather than in the memory. But failing to look back and recall what God has done, will dramatically weaken our ability to look ahead and trust God for what He can do. Our recollection of God’s past provision is the fuel for our future faithfulness. When we fail to remember what He has done, we tend to doubt what it is He can do. He becomes out of sight, out of mind. And that is exactly what eventually happened to the people of Israel. If we fast forward to the book of Judges, it opens up with the news of the death of Joshua. It also tells us that the people were still trying to possess the land God had given them. But they had been less-than-successful because they had been far from obedient. They had failed to do things God’s way. And then, we read these sad words:

10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.

11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. – Judges 2:10-12 ESV

Not only had they forgotten what God had done for them, they forgot God. They abandoned Him. The one who had delivered them from captivity in Egypt, who had led them through the wilderness and who had miraculously made a way for them to cross the Jordan River on dry ground, had been forgotten and forsaken. How in the world do you forget God? You simply fail to remember what He has done for you. Memorials are memory pegs that provide a solid foundation for our faith. One of the reasons we take the Lord’s Table is to remind us of what God has done for us. It is to stir in us the memory of Christ’s sacrificial death and atoning work on our behalf.

He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.” – Luke 22:19 NLT

When we remember what He has done, we are far better prepared to trust Him for what we need Him to do. But time has a way of fogging our memories and causing us to forget God’s past acts of mercy. Immediately after crossing the Jordan, the people of Israel were enthusiastic and filled with faith. They even afforded Joshua the same respect they had shown to Moses.

On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life. – Joshua 4:14 ESV

But would it last? Would their excitement linger and their faith hold? The stones of remembrance would still be wet from the waters of the Jordan. The memory of crossing over on dry ground would be fresh. But in time, that memory would fade, the stones would be forgotten, and the goodness of God would become overshadowed by the next pressing issue of the day.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Remember.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands — remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:11-13 ESV

In these verses, Paul seems to be contradicting a statement he made in his letter to the Philippian believers. There, he told them, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14. Yet, here we hear him telling the Ephesian believers to “remember” – not once but twice. So which is it, Paul? Are we to remember or forget? Should we look back or press forward? Truthfully, I believe Paul would simply say, “Both.” As always when reading Scripture, context is critical. In his letter to the believers in Philippi, Paul was stressing “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9 ESV). He was contrasting human merit with God’s grace. He had spent years of his life trying to earn favor with God and make himself acceptable to God. He boldly professed, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6 ESV). But then he confessed, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7 ESV). In other words, all his past achievements and efforts at self-justification before God were worthless when compared to the free gift of grace made available to him through faith in Jesus Christ. Which led him to conclude, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:8-9 ESV). So, for Paul, when it came to his right standing with God, there was no looking back. No need to dwell on his past efforts or put hope in his own attempts at righteousness. They were worthless to him. So he chose to look ahead and press on to the goal of righteousness made possible through faith in Christ. His past accomplishments were of no value when it came to his future righteousness.

But when he wrote to the Ephesian believers, Paul had a slightly different goal in mind. In verse 10, he reminded his readers, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). Good works were not a means for achieving a right standing with God, but they should be a reflection of and response to our right standing with God made possible by faith in Jesus Christ. Good works were not to be meritorious, done in hopes of earning favor with God, but were to be done out of gratitude for all He has done for us. When it comes to works, grace is opposed to earning, not effort.

In the verses above, Paul is specifically addressing the Gentile converts who were part of the local church in Ephesus. He wants them to remember that their salvation had nothing to do with works. As a matter of fact, they weren’t even circumcised. He told them, “Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called ‘uncircumcised heathens’ by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts” (Ephesians 2:11 NLT). Prior to coming to faith in Christ, they had been on the outside looking in. Paul told them, “You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT). And to make matters even worse, he reminded them, “You lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT).

Notice the difference in Paul’s emphasis from his letter to the Philippians and his letter to the Ephesians. One is calling them to get their minds off their thoughts of self-righteousness or any hopes of earning a right standing with God based on human effort. The other is reminding them to never forget what they were before God showered them with His grace. What makes grace so amazing is our total undeservedness. None of us is righteous. None of us deserved to receive God’s grace. And yet, in spite of our undeserving status, God made His Son’s sacrificial death and gift of redemption available to us. Which is why Paul places two simple, yet powerful words right in the middle of this section of his letter: “But now…”

It should remind of us of what Paul had written just a few verses earlier. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV). God stepped in. God intervened on our behalf, out of His love and according to His rich mercy. And Paul wanted them to remember just how bad things had been, so that they would fully appreciate all that God had done for them. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 ESV). Far off…brought near. Outsiders…insiders. Enemies…friends. Condemned…justified. Dead…alive. Lost…found. Sinful…blameless. Guilty…forgiven.

Paul would have us never forget our past. We are not to dwell on it or feel any pangs of guilt because of it. But there is value in recalling just how bad things were before we heard the good news of Jesus Christ. The glory of grace always shines brightest against the dark backdrop of human sin and hopelessness. It is in considering what God has done for us that we gain assurance and confidence in all that He has promised to do in the future. Paul put it well in his letter to the Colossians.

You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault. But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. – Colossians 1:21-23 NLT

Genesis 45-46, Matthew 23

Our Unforgettable God.

Genesis 45-46, Matthew 23

And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. – Genesis 45:5-8 ESV

I love this passage. In it we have one of the most clear, real-life illustrations of the sovereignty of God. Through the life of Joseph we are given a glimpse into the sometimes unseen and incomprehensible ways of God when it comes to the lives of men. For Joseph, it had become clear that God was behind all that had happened in his life. To his brothers, it was all a mystery. They knew nothing of Joseph’s life since the day they had sold him into slavery, and they were oblivious to God’s larger plan for them and their father’s household. But despite their ignorance of God’s ways, He was still at work.

What does this passage reveal about God?

Joseph gave God the credit over and over again. He clearly saw the hand of God controlling and directing His life, from start to finish. He saw his position as second-in-command over all of Egypt as God’s doing, not a result of his own talent or hard work. He told his brothers, “God has made me lord of all Egypt” (Genesis 45:9 ESV).

“God sent me before you to preserve life…” – vs 5

“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors…” – vs 7

“So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” – vs 8

“God has made me lord of all Egypt…” – vs 9

It was all God’s doing. What an incredible outlook to have on life. What a refreshing perspective to have on the things that take place to us and all around us as we live on this planet. Joseph knew that God had been at work behind the scenes every step of the way in his life. And God would assure Jacob that all that happened had been for a greater purpose. “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4 ESV). God wanted Jacob to trust Him. There was much that Jacob did not know, but he could lean on the fact that God was knowledgeable of ALL things. He was in complete control of all situations and circumstances. There had been a reason behind Joseph’s sudden disappearance and years of painful absence. There had been a reason for the famine. There was a perfectly good explanation for the need for Jacob and his entire family to relocate to the land of Egypt. And while Jacob had been ignorant of much of the explanation behind these events, he now knew that his God could be trusted.

But the story does not end there. Moses records that when Jacob and his family arrived in the land of Egypt, there were only 70 of them. This small fact would prove significant to the rest of the story. The warm welcome by and generosity of Pharaoh would also prove an important factor in all that would happen next. God was at work. He was once again orchestrating events and individuals in such a way so that everything could take place just as He had planned.

What does this passage reveal about man?

There are those who have learned to see God’s hand in all the circumstances of life. Over time, they have developed the capacity to look for God’s involvement in even the worst of situations. They live by the perspective that God is all-seeing and all-knowing. There is nothing that escapes His sight. He is never asleep and never caught off guard by the events of life – either good or bad. They live by the words of the psalmist: “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:3-4 ESV). Those individuals don’t just know about the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, they believe in it and live their lives according to it.

But there are those who live as if God is not there. They view the circumstances of their lives as if they are somehow out of God’s control and He is out of touch with what is going on in the world. When bad things happen, their view of God seems to be that either He is unaware of what is going on or He simply doesn’t care. But the prophet Isaiah reminds us: “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear” (Isaiah 59:1 ESV). Difficulties in our lives do not prove the weakness of God, but simply expose our lack of faith. A life lived without an awareness of God’s sovereignty results in a life lived with self as god. One of the greatest illustrations of this is provided by Jesus in chapter 23 of the gospel of Matthew. Here Jesus gives His seven woes against the Scribes and Pharisees – the religious elite of His day. They had made themselves the authorities of their day, living according to their own set of standards, rather than in keeping with God’s commands. They had become hypocrites, saying one thing and doing another. They had no fear of God in their lives. Claiming to be experts in the law of Moses and knowledgeable of God’s Word, they were blind to all that God had said and all that He was doing in and around them. They even failed to recognize the very one for whom they had been waiting for generations. Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, but they failed to see Him for who He claimed to be. Rather than recognize Jesus as the Christ, they simply viewed Him as competition. They had no place for the sovereign hand of God in their lives. They were too busy playing god themselves.

How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?

I need to develop a healthy awareness of God’s activity in and around my life. A cognitive understanding of God’s sovereignty is of little use if I don’t put it into practice each and every day of my life. I must learn to look for the hand of God in the everyday affairs of life. Sometimes His activity will be a mystery to me, hidden from view. It’s at those times I must trust. I must recall the stories of Joseph and remember the moments in my own life when He was there even though I was unaware. They say hindsight is 20-20. Looking back is a wonderful practice for the believer. It pays to periodically reflect on our lives and look for those moments where God showed up. I’m sure Joseph had plenty of opportunities while sitting in Pharaoh’s palace to look back on all the events of his life and see God’s sovereign, all-powerful hand at work all along the way. Just prior to the people of God entering into the Promised Land, Moses gave them a series of warnings. He knew what was about to happen and he also knew what they were going to be prone to do: Forget God. So he told them, “when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God…Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deuteronomy 8:12-14, 17-18 ESV). As God’s people, our lives are in God’s hands. And we should never forget it.

Father, forgive me for the many times when I fail to see Your hand at work in and around my life. So often, I forget what You have done time and time again in my life. I tend to take credit for what You have done. I dismiss Your work and mistakenly assume that I am in charge of my life. But You are the sovereign God of the universe. My plans can never trump Yours. Help me to have the perspective that Joseph had. May I increasingly learn to see You actively at work in my life, promoting Your plan to perfection. Amen.