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The Altar of Witness

This is a teaching I was asked to do for Proverbs 31 Ministries on Joshua 22 that was just published last Saturday. I planned the content for the entire 40-day Joshua study and over 300,000 people across the world have participated! I’m sharing this because I sometimes don’t feel like I’m doing as much as I could, and I’ve been encouraged today that I am making an impact, and I hope you also will be encouraged. I loved learning more about this “altar of imposing size” in Joshua and saw application for our own lives in the areas of conflict, unity, remembering God, and the legacy we leave of being remembered for how we honored God. Enjoy!

Audio Transcript:

Originally published here.

EG = Eric Gagnon

HS = Hannah Schindler

Hannah Schindler: Hi, First 5 friends. Today we are bringing you a weekend audio teaching connected to the chapters we studied this past week in the First 5 app. We just finished Week 7 of Joshua: Choosing Obedience Even When You Are Afraid. My name is Hannah Schindler, and I get to serve on the First 5 team here at Proverbs 31 Ministries. Today we have joining us a special first-time audio teacher, our Theological Content Manager, Eric Gagnon. How did I say it? Did I say it right, Eric?

Eric Gagnon: That’s perfect. Thank you, Hannah. [Laughter].

HS: Yay! Honestly, I hear filet mignon in my mind and that’s how I remember your last name. I’m so excited that we’re getting to do this today. So how are you, Eric?

EG: I’m doing really well. Thank you, Hannah. How are you?

HS: Good. I’m so great. So y’all, just for all our First 5 friends, you may or may not know this, but we frequently give Eric a shout out. So, Eric is always on the audio teachings. He’s listening, making sure what is being said is theologically accurate. He’s taking notes for us in case we need to pause and do a reset. But Eric’s now in the teacher seat today. So, I’m super excited. But let me read our Major Moments, Eric, and then we’ll jump in.

EG: Sounds good.

HS:

● Joshua 19: 49-51 | Joshua’s inheritance was described.

● Joshua 20: 1-9 | The Cities of refuge were provided.

● Joshua 21: 1-45 | The Levitical cities are described.

● Joshua 22: 1-8 | Joshua said farewell to the tribes east of the Jordan River.

● Joshua 22: 9-20 | The tribes east of the Jordan built an altar of witness.

Alrighty, Eric, where are you taking us today?

EG: All right. I probably need to come up with a title for this but I haven’t yet. If I had to do one on the spot, I might just call it The Altar of Imposing Size, because that’s kind of an interesting phrase that we find in Joshua 22. But first, I just want to thank you for this opportunity. It really is an honor for me to do this. I wasn’t expecting this. I was just asked. I’ve been at Proverbs now for three years and this is the first time I’ve ever done this.

HS: I’m so excited.

EG: Yeah. And it’s also kind of sweet sorrow here, because not only is this my first teaching, it’s also my last recording with you, Hannah.

HS: Oh no, I know.

EG: You’ve been a friend. I think I even have the job I have because of you.

HS: I did go to bat for you. I was like, “He’s our guy.”

EG: So, I thank you for that. Let’s jump into Joshua here.

HS: Let’s do it.

EG: I’ve had the experience a few times now of attending someone else’s family event.

HS: Hmm.

EG: Where it’s the first time I’ve ever seen family interact with each other. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in these cases, but I look around and observe, because they’re strangers. Sometimes it’s kind of shocking the things they’ll say or do to each other, because I would have never done that because they’re strangers. But then I come to realize, “Oh, there’s this long term relationship there.” There’s mutual respect.

HS: Mm-hmm.

EG: People can sometimes be more direct and things like that. Have you ever been in a situation like that?

HS: Oh, yes. There is an example that comes to mind. The very first time I met my husband’s family was at Thanksgiving several years ago when we were dating. He’s one of four, and I watched two of his brothers get into an argument. I have four younger siblings, the youngest of which is 14 years younger than me, so I’ve never seen two adult siblings argue. It really messed with my head for a little bit. I was like, “This is normal? This is not normal.” But apparently it is. [Laughter].

EG: As the older one, you’re probably used to refereeing that more than –

HS: 100%. But it’s like calling each other stupid but it’s not it’s not adult fighting. You know?

EG: Well, I think that God’s people as a family can sort of be like that. As Christians, we really are a huge family, and we can sometimes bicker about a lot of little things. And when it comes time to Jesus, though, remarkably, we’re actually pretty unified on some very important things like His death, His virgin birth, His life, the resurrection. It’s why I think a show like The Chosen, for example, can be so popular. Because people from all kinds of theological backgrounds love this show about Jesus. It’s pretty much just retelling the gospel stories, and it’s amazing to see that we agree on so much. But sometimes our internal conflicts can be damaging.

I remember going to my friends’ houses as a kid and hearing my friends say some really disrespectful things to their father. To be honest, at the time, it was kind of funny. But at the same time, it could get really uncomfortable. And, in some cases we may lose respect for some family members, which is sad, but it’s true. It happened. And I think the same thing can happen when we see conflict within the people of God.

So today, I’m going to share from Joshua 22, which is, it’s a story both of conflict and unity. And it’s also a story of remembering God. And it sounds funny but being remembered for remembering God.

So first, just really quick, I want to describe the landscape. I think it’s good if you start developing a map of Israel and where these things are. In my head, I sort of draw a map and we’re talking about the 12 tribes. There are 12 tribes, 10 of them are on the west side of the Jordan River, but on the east side of the Mediterranean Sea. So, you kind of picture those 10 tribes, sandwiched between water, right? Then on the east side of the river -so east of everything else, the Mediterranean, the 10 tribes, and the river- there’s two full tribes, Reuben and Gad, and part of Manasseh. Manasseh kind of spans all the way from the west, from the Mediterranean all the way past the Jordan river and into the East a little bit. So that’s the landscape. I just want us to have that in mind.

HS: Hmm.

EG: And in Joshua 22, I’m going to begin telling the story by reading scripture, because it is a story and it’s narrative. So, let’s go ahead and get in here. It says, and this is Joshua speaking to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and he says,“… You have kept all that Moses, the servant of the LORD commanded you and have obeyed my voice in all that I’ve commanded you. You have not forsaken your brother’s these many days, down to this day, but have been careful to keep the charge of the LORD your God.” (Joshua 22: 2-3)

It’s important to remember something that happened back in Numbers. They had wanted this land, Gad and Rueben wanted this land. They saw it before they went in to spy out the land, west of the Jordan. They were east of the Jordan and saw this land and said, “This is actually great land, let’s take this land.” But they were given a stipulation: “You can have this land, but when it comes time to take the land, you need to help us fight for the land in the West.”

HS: Hmm.

EG: And tribes in the East kept their part of the bargain, and they did that. So, Joshua’s commending them for that. Another thing to remember is the land in the east sometimes wasn’t seen as part of the Promised Land. It was not seen by everyone as part of the land that was promised to Abraham. Remember, he was promised the land of Canaan, which was west of the Jordan.

Let’s continue. Verse 10 says “And when they came to the region of Jordan that is in the land of Canaan, the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh,” remember that part of them are east of the Jordan, “built there an altar by the Jordan, an altar of imposing size.” (Joshua 22: 10). Imposing means great, large, impressive. And an altar is something that typically, you would have sacrificed an animal on. It would have been a large cube like structure and animals were sacrificed on top of that. That’s what altars were used for. But its size would have allowed it to have been seen from vantage points across the river, and, therefore, would have been visible by the tribes in the east across the Jordan to show them where the true altar was.

And I like this quote by D. M. Howard, he says about this altar, “It beckoned the Trans-Jordan tribes,” those are the tribes on the east “to cross the Jordan to offer their sacrifices at the altar of which it was only a copy.” Verse 12, says, “And when the people of Israel heard of it, the whole assembly of the people of Israel gathered at Shiloh to make war against them.” (Joshua 22: 12) I just want to note where it says the whole assembly of the people of Israel. It’s talking about the tribes to the West, which is really interesting, because you think “Well, that’s not the whole assembly.” That’s what’s in question here: What is the whole assembly of the people of Israel?

Verse 13, says they sent for Phinehas. Now, remember, Phinehas is mentioned in Numbers. And he took really drastic measures to stop a plague that had broken out because of Israel’s disobedience. And you should go and read it, Numbers 25. He goes in, rushes in with a spear, kills a couple people, and a plague is stopped. Now, that whole story needs an explanation and a teaching in itself. [Laughter]. But I just wanted to point out that a drastic measure was taken to stop judgment of God from happening.

Another thing, I want to note is that representatives were sent to the east and there are 10 of them, because it’s for all 10 tribes on the west of the Jordan. So, let’s keep reading.

Here’s the accusation that they have against the tribes in the east. This is what they say, “Thus says the whole congregation of the LORD, ‘What is this breach of faith that you’ve committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the LORD by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the LORD? Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which there came a plague upon the congregation of the LORD, that you too must turn away this day from following the LORD? And if you too rebel against the LORD today then tomorrow, he will be angry with the whole congregation of Israel. But now, if the land of your possession is unclean, pass over into the LORD’s land, where the LORD’s tabernacle stands, and take for yourselves a possession among us. ‘” (Joshua 22: 16-19a)

So, from their perspective, in the west, it was better that these Trans-Jordan tribes, these east Jordan tribes, abandon their possession and pursue true worship than to keep their land and engage in what they saw as apostasy, or turning away from God. It also shows that these tribes in the west, didn’t even consider the land of the eastern tribes part of the Lord’s land. They said, “… to pass over into the Lord’s land.”

And then they continue, “Only do not rebel against the LORD, or make us rebels by building for yourselves an altar other than the altar of the LORD our God.” (Joshua 22: 19b) So, there’s this way in which they want what’s right to be done, but they’re also fearing for their own lives in this case. And it continues, they bring up Achan. They say, “Did not Achan, the son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things,…

HS: Mm-hmm.

EG: … and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity.” (Joshua 22: 20) And if you remember Achan’s whole family suffered capital punishment.

HS: Right.

EG: Joel mentioned this in one of the previous teachings.

HS: Mm-hmm.

EG: So, the basis for their anger is actually justified. In Leviticus 17: 8-9 the law is against offering anything other than at the location of the tabernacle. So, the Israelites were actually authorized to put to death offenders. This is not just people angry and killing each other. This is a formal, legal, capital punishment that is being enacted here.

So, here’s the response from the people. Verse 21, “Then the people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh said in answer to the heads of the families of Israel,” this is what they said, “‘The Mighty One, God, the LORD! The Mighty One, God, the LORD ! He knows; and let Israel itself know! If it was in rebellion or in breach of faith against the LORD, do not spare us today…” (Joshua 22: 21-22).

I just want to pause there and say, those are some strong words. Suddenly they’re saying, “Strike me dead.” You know? “If we did something wrong. May God just strike me dead if we were in the wrong.” And verse 23 continues, they say “…for building an altar to turn away from following the LORD. Or if we did so to offer burnt offerings or grain offerings or peace offerings on it, may the LORD himself take vengeance.” (Joshua 22: 23)

HS: Hmm.

EG: And I also like this quote I read, again from D. M. Howard, he says, “Their attitude demonstrated a refreshing transparency which came from their certainty of their innocence.” I think we can kind of hear that in their voice.

And they continue, “No, but we did it from fear that in time to come your children might say to our children, ‘What have you to do with the LORD, the God of Israel? For the LORD has made the Jordan a boundary between us and you, you the people of Reuben, and people of God. You have no portion in the LORD. ‘ So your children might make our children cease to worship the LORD. Therefore we said, ‘Let us now build an altar, not for burnt offering, nor for sacrifice, but to be a witness between us in you, and between our generations after us, that we do perform the service of the LORD in his presence with our burnt offerings and sacrifices and peace offerings, so your children will not say to our children in time to come, ‘You have no portion in the LORD. ‘” (Joshua 22: 24-27)

So, in verse 27 there is the use of this term witness for the first time in this book. It reveals a legal status like I mentioned earlier, this is legal. They see this as an actual legal event. And they feared, not just for themselves, but that their children would be rejected. And more importantly, they feared that their children wouldn’t be able to worship the true God.

And so, they said, verse 28, continues, ‘ If this should be said to us or to our descendants in time to come, we should say, “Behold, the copy of the altar of the LORD, which our fathers made, not for burnt offerings or sacrifice, but to be a witness between us and you.” ‘ Far be it from us that we should rebel against the LORD and turn away this day from following the LORD by building an altar for burnt offering, grain offering, or sacrifice, other than the altar of the LORD, our God that stands before his tabernacle.” (Joshua 22: 28-29)

So, here’s the resolution. Verse 30, continues. “When Phinehas the priest and the chiefs of the congregation, the heads of the families of Israel who were with him, heard the words that the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh spoke, it was good in their eyes. And Phineas son of Eleazar the priest said to the people of Reuben and the people of Gad and the people of Manasseh, ‘Today, we know that the LORD is in our midst, because you have not committed this breach of faith against the LORD. Now you’ve delivered the people of Israel from the hand of the LORD. ‘” (Joshua 22: 30-31)

And notice they say, “the people of Israel,” and they’re talking about all 12 tribes there. In verse 32, it continues, “Then Phinehas, the son of Eliazar the priest, and the chiefs, returned from the people of Reuben and the people of Gad in the land of Gilead to the land of Canaan, to the people of Israel, and brought back word to them. And the report,” listen, “was good in the eyes of the people of Israel…”

HS: Hmm.

EG: “…And the people of Israel blessed God, and spoke no more of making war against them,…” because that’s what they’re getting ready to do, they “spoke no more of making more against them to destroy the land, where the people of Ruben and the people of Gad were settledThe people of Reuben the people of Gad called the altar Witness, ‘For’ they said, ‘it is a witness between us that the LORD is God. ‘” (Joshua 22: 32-34)

And that word LORD, is referring to Yahweh. We’re talking about the God of the Bible, He is God. And their response, this defense of theirs … if you look at the syntax in the original Hebrew, it’s really passionate and choppy in places. There’s repetition and it kind of shows that they were in this agitated state of stumbling breathlessly over this accusation and trying to justify themselves. What’s amazing is how this all came to a happy conclusion, with the western tribes praising God and going home.

It’s interesting to see that the western tribes could have chosen not to believe their response, or the eastern tribes could have acted upset and responded violently, even if they were in the right. There are at least four applications I think we can take away from this.

The first thing is that we should seek unity. When things look clearly wrong to us, it’s still good and wise to seek to understand. This is true, in general, with all people, but since this was a conflict within the people of God this applies primarily to conflict within the body of Christ. The people of God. The western tribes were confident in their accusation. They thought they knew something was wrong. What would have happened if the western tribes acted swiftly assuming they were acting in God’s name without going to the eastern tribes and talking it through? What would have been the result of not seeking to understand? After it was finished, by God’s law, they would have appeared justified.

I think it’s really easy for Christians to point fingers and, in God’s name, call out sin. But we need to slow down, I think, and not be too eager about it. The world outside of Christianity has enough fighting of its own. The world is in chaos. Right? I think, Hannah, you’ve even said, “The world is in fight mode.”

HS: Hmm.

EG: As Christians we need to show the world that we’re actually quite united in Christ. There’s something really beautiful I’ve personally experienced by working at a parachurch ministry. Because parachurch ministries aren’t “churches.” They have people who are from all denominations, who share all sorts of varying opinions. To be honest, that in the past has made me pretty nervous at times. I mean, how are we all supposed to get along? [Laughter. ]

HS: Mm-hmm.

EG: What’s remarkable is that parachurch ministries have to focus on what they can agree on. And what we can all agree on as Christians tends to be the gospel.

HS: Mm-hmm.

EG: The Apostle Paul called the gospel, “the very power of God” in two of his letters: In Romans 1 and in 1 Corinthians 1. In both of those he says the gospel is the power of God. It’s the good news that God made the world and He made it very good. He made mankind good, and upright, and all of us have sinned and continue to battle sin. We’ve fallen very short, measuring up to God’s standards.

I’m glad that God has perfect standards because that means God is always good and right. We can count on Him to do away with evil. That means that without some remedy, God would have to do away with me and you. God loved us so much, that without ceasing to be God, He became the man Jesus Christ and died in our place for our sins and rose again from the dead. And God, through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, paid the fine for the crimes of all who would count on Jesus for their righteousness. I love that news.

I love the quote by Martin Luther where he sums up and says (I’m paraphrasing here) but he says, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look at Jesus and what He has done, I don’t see how I could be lost.” That’s the good news that Christians all over the globe can rally behind, despite our differences. Much of the world, even many of those who would call themselves Christians, don’t even realize how truly we are in agreement about this, the gospel, the main story and point in the Bible. Jesus said, The Scriptures are all about Him (John 5; Luke 24). I think as Christians, it’s important to show off our unity in that we’re united around Christ and there are a lot of us across the world. We stand together. And we say Jesus is the Lord. That’s amazing.

So, the second thing is not just seeking unity, but seeking truth. The second piece of the story shows us that conflict is not bad, it’s the other side of the coin. I don’t think we could be so unified that we never have any conflict. What if the western tribes were actually right? What if these tribes were about to worship the golden calf like they did during the Exodus? It was good for the western tribes to confront the eastern tribes because, in the end, it strengthened all of Israel.

HS: Hmm.

EG: In the case of the golden calf, for example, lives were at stake. It’s either God’s judgment or from a civil war, lives were in danger from this. So the truth was sought and peace was achieved. I think that sounds fine and good when you’re the one who’s seeking the truth, but as Christians, what happens when we ourselves are questioned by other Christians?

HS: Hmm.

EG: Do we get defensive about it? Or do we actually trust that God’s in that process, and that conflict is an opportunity for God to be glorified? So, I think between those two things, unity and conflict, there’s a balance. Because problems arise. When there is an imbalance, I think some seek unity to the point that sin is never dealt with, or it’s swept under the rug. That doesn’t help anyone. Our church recently had to remove someone from membership. While that’s really uncomfortable I was happy to see biblical principles being followed.

HS: Hmm.

EG: Why is that important? Well, lives again, are at stake. Eternity is at stake. But this example of correction and all correction should always be done for the benefit, not just of the people of God, but the person being corrected. We see that in scripture even in the most extreme cases, like 1 Corinthians 5 where the apostle Paul says things like “Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh…” He continues, “… so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

So, we need to be serious about sin because sin leads to death. But I think some seek truth so much, and I’ve been guilty of this, it’s almost like they enjoy conflict. You know? Sometimes people are just bored with the everyday mundaneness of life and want to strike up an argument. Some people think they’re doing people a favor by always speaking truth without any care or concern for those who are listening. It makes me think of blogs, maybe you’ve seen, where pretty much everybody is labeled the false teacher.

HS: Mm-hmm.

EG: They may be right in many of these cases, but sometimes they are wrong, and I feel like saying, “Why don’t you get a life and maybe go for a walk and find a new hobby?” [Laughter. ] I’m not against calling people out. Ephesians 5: 11 says, “Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them.” (ESV) We’re told to expose darkness. That’s not written just to pastors. It’s written to the people of God, that’s Ephesians. Everything that we do can be done, and should be done, in love.

HS: Mm-hmm.

EG: That doesn’t mean we will always sound nice. I think sometimes, we like to add an 11 commandment, “Thou shalt be nice.”

HS: Hmm.

EG: That’s not in the Bible. Sometimes love is having some conflict and conflict is not nice. It’s hard, but it is worth it when love, edification and restoration is the aim.

The next application is remembering the Lord. The altar of imposing size was actually a good thing. After all this conflict, I’m sort of surprised they didn’t tear it down.

HS: Hmm.

EG: Why would they want to remember they almost had a civil war. But they left it up. They said it was a good thing. And I think memorials are a good thing. Even memorials that remind us of times of conflict. They left that altar there. Scripture said they agreed that the report was good, they blessed God.

And I think visual aids help us to remember the past. They help us to remember God and what He’s done. Visual aids help our children to remember God. Visual aids can keep us and others from sinning. And one easy, practical way is just hanging up scriptures in your home, for example. God’s Word is the best evidence. It’s a constant witness and a miracle that we get to look at every day.

If you’re listening to this, and you don’t get how that’s true, you are missing out. God’s Word says you have to be devoted to the Word (Acts 6; 1 Timothy 4). Not just remembering the Lord but seeking to be remembered for remembering the Lord. This was the other aspect of remembrance. It’s really interesting. It’s not just that they wanted to remember God, but they themselves wanted to be remembered for loving God.

Remember that this report was a good thing. I want to be remembered, and sometimes it’s not for good reasons. But ultimately, I don’t want to be remembered for how smart I am or how athletic I can be, which is really good, by the way, because I’m neither of those things.

John 13: 35 says, “‘By this,… ‘” this is Jesus speaking, “‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (ESV) It doesn’t matter how many degrees I have or Bible studies I’ve been a part of creating, or even how good my theology is if people aren’t seeing that I have love for the people of God. I want people to know Jesus. And that can’t happen through me if I don’t love people.

Again, that doesn’t mean I sound nice all the time. Sometimes a stern warning, for example, is the kindest thing that I can say to my kids. It does mean we’re devoted to the people of God. Galatians 6: 10 says “So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith.” (ESV)

Sometimes we have a tendency to love the lost really well, and those who don’t know Jesus, even more than the people in our church. But God’s Word says that the way that the lost will know Him is when we love the people in our church. So, love the people in your church well. For some that may be finding a church. Good churches are out there. All of them are imperfect but where you have the people of God, you have the body of Christ. If you need help finding a church, by the way, you can email me, I would love to help you. I know that’s maybe welcoming lots of emails.

In conclusion, seek unity. Seek truth, even if that means conflict. But we’re aiming for a mark and it’s really hard. We’re not seeking conflict. We’re seeking love and restoration, the glory of God, the joy of the saints. Remember the Lord with visuals, particularly the Bible, God’s Word. And be remembered by loving, especially the people of God gathering with them. I thought I would end with Galatians 6: 10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of faith.” (ESV)

HS: That’s so good. I love, Eric, how you reminded us to seek the truth. Here at Proverbs, you’ll hear us say this, I’m sure you’ve heard us say it before, and we’ll say it again. But we believe that when you know the truth- the truth of God’s Word- and you live the truth, that truly it changes everything. So, in a world that is loud, and telling us a lot, and giving us a lot of opinions, seeking the truth is so vital to seeing the Lord and seeing how good He is even in the midst of unforeseen circumstances or whatever you’re walking through.

Eric, thank you so much for this teaching. Thank you for really breaking down Joshua 22 for us. I feel like I’m going to have to go back and listen again just to really take it all in and soak it all in. So, thank you so much. Let me go ahead and close us in prayer.

EG: OK.

HS: Father, God, we thank You so much for Your Word. God, we thank You that there is purpose behind every word that is in front of us in this Bible, that I’m holding. And that the truth of Your Word is what can set people free. It’s what can change everything. Jesus, I just pray that we seek unity, that we seek the truth, seek love and restoration and that we remember You, God, that You are Yahweh. Lord, we thank You. We thank You, Jesus for coming to this earth and living a perfect sinless life, and for going to the cross for our sins so that we can have eternity with You. You died on that cross and You were raised from the dead three days later. You ascended into heaven several days after that. God we’re so thankful. We’re so thankful that we get to have an eternity with You. We love You, Lord, and thank You and give You all the honor and glory. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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