Forty is a notable number in the Bible.
- In Noah's day, it rained 40 days and 40 nights.
- Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai receiving the Law.
- The Israelite spies scouted the land of Canaan for 40 days.
- Jesus, at the inauguration of his public ministry, fasted for 40 days in the wilderness.
- In our text, Joshua 4:1-7, the Israelites have just completed 40 YEARS of wandering in the wilderness.
In 1446 B.C., the Lord raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Israel across the Red Sea.
By Joshua 4, it's 1406 B.C.
Moses has died, and Joshua has been appointed to lead the next generation of Israelites into the Promised Land. To date, they've been a wandering people without a home. But they were on their way to being a settled people with a home.
And yet, to enter that land, they would have to cross the Jordan River.
Normally, the Jordan is about three to five feet deep. But in the spring, with rains and snow melt, the river swells to over ten feet deep and expands to a half mile wide.
It's in this flood stage context that the LORD miraculously stopped the waters of the Jordan, allowing the Israelites to pass across the river into Canaan on dry ground—just like he had with Moses at the Red Sea.
What happens next takes place in Joshua 4:1-7.
1When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, 2“Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3and 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.’” 4Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. 5And 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, 6that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ 7then 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.”
I. In ancient times, stone memorials were built to remember something from the past that was to influence life in the present.
For example, the prophet Samuel used a stone to commemorate the LORD enabling Israel to defeat of the Philistines.
We read about this in 1 Samuel 7:12,
"Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the LORD has helped us.”
Ebenezer is a Hebrew word comprised of two smaller Hebrew words eben, which means stone, and ezer, which means help. Together, they mean "stone of help."
Now you know what the strange line in the hymn Come Thou Fount means when it says, "Here I raise my ebenezer." 🙂
To raise an ebenezer is to build a VISUAL REMINDER of the LORD's faithfulness to his covenant promises.
Memorials like stone pillars help us remember something from the past that influences how we live in the present.
We still build these monuments today. If you visit Washington DC, you'll find numerous stone memorials honoring veterans and leaders who played key roles in American history.
That was the role of the stones in Joshua 4.
II. Although they had crossed the river, the process of inhabiting their new home would be fraught with challenges.
There would be times when it would seem as if the LORD were against them, had forgotten them, or just didn't care.
You see, after forty years in the wilderness, crossing the Jordan wasn't the end of the journey.
It was a new beginning—a new chapter—where faith and grace would need to walk hand-in-hand.
The same is true for us.
If you are in Christ, you've crossed the Jordan.
- You've crossed over from death to life,
- from condemnation to adoption,
- from a future of despair to a future of hope.
But like the Israelites, on this side of the Jordan, unforeseen challenges remain.
We still live in a fallen world.
And we are still fallen people.
- We stress over financial insecurity.
- We experience the anxiety of parenthood.
- We suffer the loss of folks we love.
- And we suffer the loss of battles with the flesh as our personal sinfulness continues to wreak havoc in biological families and church families.
There will be times when it feels like the LORD is against you, has forgotten you, or just doesn't care.
And if you're like me, when God feels distant, I easily drift into a kind of spiritual amnesia. I forget the LORD is my Abba, Father, and think of him more like an angry Zeus—which leads me down paths of anxious fear, spiritual cynicism, discouragement, and even anger.
You may be there now.
If so, what you need (what WE need) is a clear, convincing, and undeniable visual reminder that the LORD not only hasn't forgotten nor forsaken you, but that he is with you, is for you, and he cares more deeply than you can possibly imagine.
III. For the Israelites, that visual reminder would be the story of the stones. For us, it is the story of the cross.
Incredibly, the story of the cross is revealed in the story of the stones. We see this in verses 6-7.
"When your children ask, 'What do those stones mean to you?’ 7 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?"
The two-word phrase "cut off" in our English Bibles is one word in the original Hebrew—the word, karath.
Jewish rabbis would use this word to describe the most severe form of excommunicating someone from the covenant community.
This is what the prophet Isaiah describes in Isaiah 53:8, a text which the New Testament explicitly connects to Jesus. It reads,
8By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.
Just as the story of the stones reminds us that the waters were cut off, the story of the cross reminds us that Jesus was cut off.
As the waters of the Jordan were cut off and held back, estimates are that a wall of water a couple of hundred feet high would have raised up as the people passed by.
Can you imagine the paralyzing fear? What if the wall of water were to give way and collapse?
But it didn't collapse. Their feet walked on dry ground.
In the same way, even though we see the wall of our sins mounting against us, there is no condemnation for us to fear.
The heap will not crash down upon us because it has already crashed down upon Jesus.
IV. Because he was cut off, we can walk through this life not stuck in the mire of our sin but with freedom, walking on dry ground of pure grace.
You see, the story of the stones begins at a river and flows to a cross. But eventually it finds its way to a tomb, where a massive stone designed to contain the King of grace was rolled away, allowing Jesus to become the ultimate Ebenezer—the Ebenezer that God raised for us... to be THE clear, convincing, and undeniable LIVING reminder that the LORD not only hasn't forgotten nor forsaken you, but that he is with you, is for you, and cares more deeply than you even dare to dream.
And yet, it may be that you've realized you're on the wrong side of the river.
You haven't crossed over. But you want to.
In that case, simply confess your cut off-ness and believe upon Jesus as the one cut off in your place, so you may cross over from death to life with absolute confidence that you are now a fully forgiven, reconciled, and dearly loved son or daughter of God.
NOTE: I delivered the content in this article for the 40th Anniversary of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Greenwood, Mississippi, the congregation I served as Lead Pastor from 2003-2007.