The Best Leaders Learn from the Past to Impact the Future

Today’s reading: Joshua 4:1-24. Key verses: Joshua 4:23-24.

At the end of Joshua chapter 3 the entire nation crosses over the Jordan river while the priests hold the ark of the covenant of the Lord in the midst of where the Jordan river had formerly flowed. Now the river bank was dried up, and the people crossed over on dry ground. In chapter 4, Joshua sets up two memorials to the miracle. One is set up on the western bank of the Jordan, and one in the midst of the Jordan. Today we have just two simple principles for leadership from this chapter:

Leadership Principle 4.1: Good leaders look backward

Joshua is told by the Lord to remember the wonder of the Jordan river crossing by setting up a memorial to the event:

Take for yourselves twelve men from the people, one man from each tribe, and command them, saying, ‘Take up for yourselves twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet are standing firm, and carry them over with you and lay them down in the lodging place where you will lodge tonight,” (Joshua 4:2-3).

God as the ultimate leader directs his people in remembering this amazing achievement in coming into the promised land by miraculous means. He instructs them to take twelve [large] stones from the river and build a memorial on the western bank of the Jordan for all to see. Joshua later says that in the future they will be able to tell their children about the miracle.

Good leaders remember their history and learn lessons from their past. Joshua is no different here. He, at the Lord’s command, creates something that the people of Israel would be able to look back on generations later and recall the Lord’s power and faithfulness to his promise to bring Israel into the land.

Leadership Principle 4.2: Good leaders look forward

Just as Joshua created the memorial to help Israel remember what the Lord had done for them, he also had the foresight to realize that this memorial would help train future leaders of Israel.

He said to the sons of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever,” (Joshua 4:21-24).

Good leaders not only look backward and learn from the past, they also have the foresight to think about the future and how current events will effect future generations. Joshua was not only interested in keeping his people faithful to God in the present, he also wanted them to remain faithful to the Lord in the future. The memorials were a way to look back but also to secure devotion to Yahweh in the future.

Leadership Principle 4.3: Good leaders keep their promises

The Lord had promised to exalt Joshua in the eyes of all Israel in Joshua 3:7, and in chapter 4 that promise is fulfilled almost immediately:

On that day the LORD exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; so that they revered him, just as they had revered Moses all the days of his life,” (Joshua 4:14).

God always keeps his promises, and as the ultimate leader he gives us this great example of how leaders should be people of their word. Whether large or small, promises made should be promises kept. Promises broken communicate to followers their insignificance in the sight of the leader, and break relational trust.

Summary in a Sentence

The best leaders are those who both learn from history and have a vision for the future, all while being faithful to their word in the present.

JJ Routley

Jonathan J. Routley (JJ) serves as Professor of Bible and Theology at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa. JJ also serves on the Board of Directors for the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). He holds a PhD in Theological Studies from Columbia International University, South Carolina. JJ and his family reside in Dubuque, Iowa.
Twitter: @JJ_Routley