Forgetting something important is one of the most frustrating experiences in life. If we forget an appointment, a birthday or directions we become painfully aware of how damaging to relationships forgetting can be. The act of remembering is vital to our making progress in life. In the same way, so much of our Christian life is stunted by the act of forgetting and is fueled by the act of remembering the promises, presence, power and provisions of God in Christ.
In the Scriptures, the first example of the call to remember is found immediately after God delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt. In Exodus 13:3 we find Moses telling the Israelites, ‘Remember this day in which you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out of this place.'” The exodus (i.e. the typical Gospel in the Old Testament) became the redemptive-historical event that Israel was repeatedly charged to call to mind throughout their pilgrimage through the wilderness and toward the Promised Land. The antitypical exodus (i.e. in our deliverance from Satan, sin and death in the exodus of Jesus) is what we are to constantly call to mind as we make our way through the wilderness of this world and onto the Heavenly Promised Land (Luke 9:31; Romans 6:11; Galatians 3:1-4; Colossians 1:5-6; 2 Peter 1:9; Revelation 1:5-6).
God commanded Israel to remember the typical Gospel of the exodus in Deut. 5:15 where, immediately before Moses tells Israel to “keep the Sabbath day…,” he said, “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm…” The holiness of the people of God is fueled by a remembrance of the Gospel. God was calling Israel to remember His redemptive grace and power when they heard the call to obey Him. When Israel faced the prospect of conflict with the Canaanites in the land that the Lord promised to give them, God told them, “If you should say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I; how can I dispossess them?’— you shall not be afraid of them, but you shall remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (Deut. 7:17-18).When God told Israel to let their indentured servants go free with possessions after 7 years, He told them, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today” (Deut. 15:15). We see this over and over again throughout God’s dealings with the Old Covenant church (e.g. Deut. 6:12; 8:11-14; 16:3, 12; 24:18, 22)
When Israel finally came to the point of taking possession of the land, Joshua charged them to remember the promises of God. He said, “Remember the word which Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is giving you rest and is giving you this land” (Joshua 1:13).
So much of the revelation of God in the Psalms is founded on this very same principle. In Psalm 77:11 we read, “I will remember the works of the Lord; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.” This is one of the chief ways that the Psalmist stirs up his soul in praise to God. In Psalm 111:2, the Psalmist wrote, “The works of the Lord are great, studied by all who have pleasure in them.” Surely to “study” the works of the Lord is to remember and meditate on the redemptive power and grace of God that was operative in the first generation of Israel.
Isn’t it wrong to live in the past? Doesn’t the apostle Paul tell us to forget what is behind and to press forward? What Israel was actually being called to do was remember the LORD who had redeemed them according to His promise. Behind the redemption was the promise of God and the God of promise. The God of redemption and the act of redemption must always to take center stage in the minds of God people. Whenever Israel forgot the redemption that they had experienced, they were forgetting the LORD who had redeemed them. Whenever they forgot the LORD they lived in sinful rebellion. We see this clearly in Judges 8:33-35, “So it was, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the children of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-Berith their god. Thus the children of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; nor did they show kindness to the house of Jerubbaal (Gideon) in accordance with the good he had done for Israel.” There is a direct correlation between Israel’s remembering the previous gracious and powerful dealings of God and their rebellious idolatry. When they remembered, they trusted Him for present grace and power; and, when they forgot, they lived in sinful rebellion.
Forgetting God is the sinful default setting of our souls. Even believers often forget the goodness and power of God and live with contentions and anxiety rather than turn to Him for grace and provision. We see this in the disciples’ response to Jesus’ call for them to feed the 4,000 in Mark 8:1-21. Just a few days prior they witnessed Jesus miraculously more than 5,000 with five loaves and a few fish. Now, there was a crowd that had been with Jesus for three days and had nothing left to eat. Jesus told His disciples, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar.” The disciples should have said, “Well Lord, we have seven loaves and a few small fish. You can certainly turn these into enough food for the people–just like you did a couple of days ago.” Instead they said, ““How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?” Even as the statement came out of their mouths it should have called to their minds the unbelief of Israel in the wilderness after having seen God’s redemptive power and grace. Richard Trench explained this when he wrote:
All former deliverances are in danger of being forgotten; the mighty interpositions of God’s hand in former passages of men’s lives fall out of their remembrance; each new difficulty appears as one from which there is no extrication; at each recurring necessity it seems as though the wonders of God’s grace were exhausted and have come utterly to an end. He may have divided the Red Sea for his people, yet no sooner are they on the other side, than because there is no water to drink, they murmur against Moses, and count that they must perish for thirst, crying, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not’ (Exod. 17: 1-7)? Or, to adduce a still nearer parallel, He who opens his hand and fills all things living with plenteousness may have once already covered the camp with quails (Exod. 16:13), yet for all this even Moses himself cannot believe that He will provide flesh for all that multitude (Num. 11: 21, 22). It is only the man of a full-formed faith, of a faith which Apostles themselves at this time did not possess, who argues from the past to the future, and truly derives confidence from God’s former dealings of faithfulness and love (cf. 1 Sam. 17:34-37 ; 2 Chron. 16: 7, 8). Nothing then but a strange unacquaintance with the heart of man could have led any to argue that the disciples, with their previous experience of one miracle of this kind, could not a second similar occasion have been perplexed how the wants of the multitude should be supplied ; that we have therefore here an illustration of the general inaccuracy which prevails in the records of our Lord’s life, of a loose tradition, which has told the same event twice over.1
Simon Peter brought this home to bear on the everyday quest for growth in grace in the Christian life when he wrote: “Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Peter 1:5-9). Notice that he lays the blame for a failure to grow in grace at the feet of “forgetting that you have been cleansed from your old sins.” When we forget the Gospel we become spiritually paralyzed and backsliden. All of this can be summed up in the Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David” (2 Timothy 2:8). If we forgot who He is and what He has done, we will fail to make the progress in the Christian life that God calls us on to by His grace.