After 40 years and the death of Moses, Israel finally entered the land they’d been promised back at the beginning of their Exodus from Egypt. Led by the Ark of the Covenant, they had to cross the Jordan River, and the moment the soles of the priests who were carrying the Ark touched it, the Lord caused the waters to stop far upstream and pile up in a heap. Just as their fathers had crossed the Red Sea, this generation of Israelites crossed the Jordan dry-shod (Josh 3-4)
This experience doubtlessly made a lasting impression on all its participants, but the Lord wanted it remembered past their lifetimes. Joshua set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan where the priests had stood with the Ark, and a representative from each of the twelve tribes of Israel carried another stone out of the Jordan River. At the Lord’s command, Joshua also set up these stones, in the town of Gilgal, so children could “ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’” (Josh 4:21) They were to be told not only of the crossings of the Jordan and the Red Sea, but what those crossings meant: “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Josh 4:24)
There’s nothing unusual about this. As far as I know, every civilization of any appreciable size or self-regard has erected memorials to significant persons and events; ours certainly has. I went to high school outside of Washington D.C., which as the nation’s capital has more than its fair share of monumental memorials. Some, like the Lincoln Memorial, centered on a statue of the fourteenth president, require little explanation as to their meaning. Others, such as the Washington Monument (a giant obelisk), are like the twelve stones set up in Gilgal: they are in themselves incomprehensible absent a name and a description. Then there are monuments like the Marine Corps Memorial outside Arlington Cemetery, a statue of Marines raising the American flag after Battle of Iwo Jima during the Second World War: on their own, these evoke a strong response which is only heightened when one learns about the events they memorialize.
The Lord had other memorials. Joshua 4:21’s phrase, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?,’” is an echo of Exodus 12:26 and 13:14. When the Lord institutes the Passover in Exodus 12 as a perpetual feast to commemorate the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, he expects future generations will want to know, and thus need to be told, the meaning of the meal they eat. In Exodus 13, the Lord knew children would ask what was going on when first-born animals were sacrificed or first-born sons redeemed at the Temple. As with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, also instituted in Exodus 13, the Lord wanted the meaning of the ceremonies explained so his people would always understand the significant events by which he had redeemed them from captivity and set them free to be blessed in the Promised Land. A memorial need not be a stone monument: these festivals were memorials enacted in space and time, whose purpose was to help the Israelites always fear their Lord and testify of his might to all the peoples of the earth.
Those Old Testament festivals prefigured our New Testament sacraments, which are also memorials. The actions performed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper certainly have symbolic value by themselves, but are always accompanied by an interpretation from the pastor. We call these “the words of institution,” and the Apostle Paul gives us an example in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Our Lord said “Do this in remembrance of me.” In other words, what we do in the Lord’s Supper is a memorial to his saving work on the Cross just as the act of eating the Passover was a memorial to Israel escaping the death of the first-born sons in Egypt. Similarly, baptism is a memorial to Christ’s blood washing sin away.
Like the memorials God had constructed during the Old Testament period, the meaning of the sacramental memorials must be explained not only to our children, but to everyone around us. When we witness and participate in the sacraments, we call to mind the fullness of Christ’s saving work on the Cross. We remember our sins have been washed away and we walk in newness of life with Jesus by the power of his Spirit. We remember we have died with him, shall be raised with him, and even now are united to him by the Holy Spirit. Through the sacraments, we not only remember to fear the Lord: we actively fear the Lord as we worship him with reverence and awe (Heb 12:28).
But like the memorial of twelve stones at Gilgal, the Church’s worship is not for us alone. That monument told all the peoples of the earth that the hand of the Lord is mighty. Likewise, our worship services are open and public. All peoples should be invited to come and see what the Lord has done for us. Because those outside the Church cannot participate in her sacraments, they will need their significance explained both in the preaching and in the witness of the Christians who invited them to the worship service.
It’s not enough for the peoples of the earth to simply know the hand of the Lord is mighty. Each generation of the Church should ask “What do you mean by this service?” (Ex 12:26), and each member of the Church should live so that unbelievers will ask it as well. Through the memorials of our worship services, we pray all peoples will come to know that the hand of the Lord is mighty to save.