Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over. After three days the officers went throughout the camp, giving orders to the people: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before. But keep a distance of about two thousand cubits between you and the ark; do not go near it.” Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.” Joshua said to the priests, “Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on ahead of the people.” So they took it up and went ahead of them. – Joshua 3:1-6
Who will lead Israel across the Jordan and into the Promised Land? We might be tempted to think, “Just as Moses led Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, Joshua will lead Israel, through the Jordan, and into the Promised Land. That isn’t entirely wrong, except we should note that it wasn’t Moses but the LORD who led Israel out of Egypt. The LORD went before Israel as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day. At one point, this theophany moved from in front of Israel to behind Israel to protect Israel from the pursuing Egyptian Army. The LORD was Israel’s defense and the LORD was Israel’s guide. He still is!
This is why Joshua chapters 3 and 4 focus so clearly on the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was the sign of the LORD’s presence with His covenant people – a sign that Israel had experienced from the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai through the rest of their wilderness travels. In the wilderness, God had used the Ark to direct Israel’s movement. At the start of each stage of the journey, Moses would speak the poetic words quaoted in Numbers 10:35 as the ark set out:
Arise, O LORD!
May Your enemies be scattered;
May those who hate You flee before You!
Then, when the ark would come to rest at the end of each stage, Moses would speak the refrain in Numbers 10:36: “Return, O LORD, to the myriads of Israel’s thousands.”
Thus, the movement of the Ark not only signified the presence and leadership of the LORD, it revealed His presence and guidance to His covenant people. This is also true of the sacraments and the preaching of the word of God. Adolph Harstad writes:
As the OT ark of the covenant brought both judgment and salvation, so too the NT means of grace can be abused, resulting in condemnation – even though God desires them to bring salvation. Practices involving the means of grace that are contrary to their divine institution and purpose incur God’s wrath and punishment (e.g., 1 Cor 11:27-34). Likewise, the ark by itself is not to be thought of as a freewheeling magic box with inherent powers that can be manipulated, any more than the bread and wine of communion are to be credited with intrinsic power apart from Christ’s promises and His command to eat and drink. Later, Israel will attempt to use the ark as a kind of talisman, with disastrous results (1 Samuel 4-6). Thus the OT too shows that God’s means of grace are not ex opera operato; they must be employed reverently in faith and in concord with God’s word (e.g., 2 Sam 6:5-11), and when received in faith God pours out His blessing (e.g., 2 Sam 6:12).
MEMORY WORK – Shorter Catechism Q/A 12
Q. What special act of providence did God exercise toward man in the estate wherein he was created?
A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death.