First Covenant Services in the Promised Land


Joshua 5:1-12; Acts 2:38-47; Heidelberg Catechism 75 & 76
July 2, 2017 ● Download this sermon (PDF)

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Congregation of Christ: As we continue our study of the Book of Joshua, we found the Israelites crossing the Jordan River. God stopped the flow of the river upstream so the people made it safely across on dry ground. And God melted the hearts of the Canaanites on the other side in fear so they did not oppose the crossing.

Today, we come to the scene at Gilgal where Israel camped after crossing the river. Jericho was just a few miles to the west. God then commanded them to build a memorial of twelve stones there so future generations of Israelites would remember God’s might and mercy shown to their forefathers in this great event.

Verse 1 of our text serves as a summary of Chapters 3 and 4. When the kings and the people in Canaan heard that God dried up the river to let Israel cross, “their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.” Verse 2 begins with the preparations for the conquest of the Promised Land.

Covenant of Grace

But what did the Lord command them to prepare for this conquest? We don’t hear of training the 40,000 Israeli troops for a great battle. We don’t see of making swords, spears and shields and making them sharp. We don’t hear of generals meeting to strategize how they would attack the well-fortified city and their well-trained army.

No, what do we read? In verses 2-9, we read of God’s command to circumcise all the male Israelites. Then in verses 10-12, God commands them to celebrate the feast of the Passover. These two ceremonies were two of the most important commemorations in Israel’s history. These were matters of great significance before they could embark on the conquest of the Promised Land. Perhaps this was on the mind of the psalmist when he wrote, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psa 20:7).

Circumcision and Passover reminded them that they’re God’s “covenant people.” We too on this side of the cross are called God’s covenant people. But why are we called “covenant people?” And what is a “covenant”? The word for “covenant” is found 285 times in the Old Testament and 33 times in the New. So it is a key Biblical word. In fact, we say that “covenant theology” is the framework of the Bible. Why? Because all Biblical history can be outlined in God’s covenants with his people. The story of the Bible is the story of God’s covenants with man. God’s covenants with man are divine commitments initiated by God binding himself with an oath which he confirms with seals and/or signs. Covenants also contain God’s sovereignly imposed terms on man: blessings for obedience, but curses for disobedience.

As early as in the Garden of Eden, we find God initiating a covenant with Adam. The command: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (Gen 2:17). The stipulations: certain death for disobedience, and by implication, eternal life for obedience. The sign: the tree of life, representing Christ who gives eternal life. This is why this covenant is called the covenant of works. Obedience to the Genesis 2:17 command is the way to eternal life. That God made a covenant with Adam is plain when he compares disobedient Israel with disobedient Adam, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant” (Hos 6:7).

God created Adam with a perfectly righteous nature, able to sin or not to sin. He could resist temptation and completely obey God’s commands. But we know what happened. Adam disobeyed so he lost this ability to be perfectly righteous. And because he represented all his children, all human beings inherited his sinful nature.

But Adam’s disobedience was not the rest of the covenant story. It was only the beginning of another covenant story: that of the covenant of grace. On the day that Adam sinned, God revealed his plan to save Adam and all mankind from sin and death. God cursed Satan the ancient serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). God promised Adam that Eve would bear a “Seed,” a Son, Jesus Christ, who would destroy Satan. This was a gracious covenant because Adam and all sinful human beings did not deserve this promise. God’s covenant promise in Genesis 3:15 was totally unmerited. This is why this covenant is called a “covenant of grace”: grace is undeserved and unmerited by all sinful human beings.

From that day, God revealed his eternal plan of salvation for sinners through different covenants with man. The Lord appeared to Abraham in Genesis Chapters 12, 15 and 17 revealing different aspects of the covenant of grace. He will be a father of many nations, blessing those who would have faith in his Offspring (singular) with an eternal dwelling-place. What was the sign of this covenant? We find this in Genesis 17:10-11, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised … and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.”

God fulfilled his promise to Abraham, giving him 12 great-grandsons who multiplied to a great nation of 600,000 men even when they were slaves in Egypt for 400 years.

Covenant Membership

All of these men representing their households were given the sign of circumcision on the eighth day after birth, in obedience to God’s covenant with Abraham. This sign set them apart from all the other nations of the earth, and it was a command throughout the generations of Abraham’s descendants. Why then do we read in verses 2-9 of our text that Joshua commanded the circumcision of all males who crossed the river? The reason is that all the men who crossed the Red Sea were circumcised, but all the men who crossed the Jordan River 40 years later were not. Those who came out of Egypt died in the wilderness because of disobedience. And their disobedience included not giving the sign of circumcision to their children. So their sons arrived in Canaan uncircumcised.

This was a most serious offense against God, because in the covenant with Abraham, all men who were uncircumcised were considered outside of God’s covenant promises. They were to be “cut off” from God’s covenant people, which meant death (Gen 17:14). God even sought to kill Moses when he did not circumcise his second son (Exo 4:24-26). It’s striking that the same word for “cutting off” is used in circumcising and punishing with death. So the first-generation Israelites who came out of Egypt were “cut off” in the wilderness, never entering the Promised Land. They were circumcised physically, but their hearts were not, so they were punished with being “cut off” from God’s covenant of grace (Jer 9:26).

So the Lord wanted to start the Israelites on the right track before they embark on the conquest of the Promised Land. They were to obey God’s covenant circumcision first. And by obeying, they will be set apart from the surrounding pagan nations for God. This was God’s declaration to them 40 years before at Mount Sinai, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo 19:5-6). This is why God calls pagan nations as “uncircumcised” and “unclean” people who are not allowed to participate in appointed covenant ceremonies like the Passover (Exo 12:48).

Circumcision then was the sign of membership in God’s old covenant people Israel. This covenant sign is therefore applied to members of God’s new covenant people: those who believe in the Son of Adam, who is also the Son of Abraham and the Son of David. What is our covenant sign? It is water baptism, a non-bloody sign, because Christ has shed his blood on the cross once for all. In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul makes the connection between the old covenant sign of circumcision with the new covenant sign of baptism. Therefore, baptism is not a testimony of our decision to accept Christ. Rather, it is the other way around. It is God’s testimony of what he has accomplished in us through Christ: the washing away of all our sins.

Notice also that all of God’s covenants with Adam, Abraham, then with Moses and David and Christ – which we will discuss in later sermons – always included their children and their households. This is why we apply the sign of baptism even to our infants and young children. God sets them apart from the children of unbelievers, calling them “holy” (1 Cor 7:14).

We know that in the old covenant with Israel, many Israelite infants, children and adults – who received the sign of circumcision – were not true believers. Yet, God always called them “my people.” Even after God destroyed them through Babylon, he declared, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos 4:6). The Lord was patient and kind to his unfaithful and rebellious people, always promising restoration after judgment. So the Apostle John exclaims in wonder of God’s great love for us his people who daily disobey his laws, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).

Covenant Renewal

The Lord’s second command to Israel before their conquest of the Promised Land is the reinstitution of the Passover (verses 10-12). This was instituted first when Israel escaped in haste from Egypt (Exo 12:1-48). On that night, the Lord commanded them to slaughter a lamb and paint their doorposts with its blood. When the Destroyer goes through the land of Egypt, he will “pass over” all the Israelite houses with bloody doorposts. But all Egyptian houses without the blood will lose their firstborn children and animals, including the Pharaoh’s son.

We find this memorial feast in Exodus 12, where in verse 14 we read, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” In Joshua 4:19, the people crossed the Jordan River “on the tenth day of the first month.” Four days later, in 5:10, we read that the covenant people kept the Passover “on the fourteenth day of the month.” This is the exact same day that God commanded Israel to keep the annual Passover festival, “Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening” (Exo 12:17-18).

Verses 11-13 serve as the end of an era in Israel’s history. In their 40 years of wilderness wanderings, God provided manna from heaven for them. They grumbled often that they were tired of eating manna, and God sent plagues upon them for their unbelief and rebellion. But now, the day after the Passover, the manna ceased, and “they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain.” As God promised, the land flowed with milk and honey with plenty of produce. They did not even plant this produce, but God gave it to them. The change in their status as God’s covenant people has started: from manna in the wilderness to the abundant produce of the land. The annual Passover festival is a fitting celebration of this most important day in Israel’s history.

Dear friends, this is why Jesus himself kept the Passover. It is a celebration of the redemption of God’s covenant people Israel from slavery to Egypt, a pagan nation. Paul calls Christ our Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7), because he offered his own blood so that we may not be condemned to eternal death in hell.

When God made a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, Moses sprinkled the blood of sacrificial animals on the people, saying, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exo 24:8). When our Lord Jesus Christ kept the Passover meal with his disciples, he said, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28).

There are two important reminders for us in studying these 12 verses in Joshua 5. The first is one difference between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism, like circumcision, is a one-time ceremony. It symbolizes entrance into the covenant of grace with God as members of his covenant people. But the Lord’s Supper, like the Passover feast, is repeated often. It is a renewal of our covenant vows before God when we were baptized as adults, or parents’ vows when their children were baptized as infants. This is why our Lord’s Day worship service is also often called a “covenant renewal service.”

A second reminder is that whenever we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we are keeping our Lord’s command to remember him until he comes again. And whenever we celebrate this feast of bread and wine, we actually partake of his broken body and shed blood sacrificed for all our sins. The elements remain as bread and wine, but Christ is really present in them spiritually by faith, not physically. We read this in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

Paul also reminds us in the next verse, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” We are united as one body to each other and to our Lord Jesus Christ, Israel’s manna in the wilderness, and our one Bread from heaven in our own pilgrimage on this earth. We have already started eating and drinking the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. But when we enter our heavenly Promised Land, we will be eating and drinking bountiful produce of the land in the presence of God and our Passover Lamb. So come to the table prepared for you. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

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