January 20, 2010

Crossing the Jordan River: Joshua 3:1-17


In our study of the initial chapters of the book of Joshua, we are in the final days of one of the great “sagas” found in God’s word: the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and their journey to the land God had given them.

The study of the exodus and the entrance into the promised land is valuable not only for its history and seeing God work in the lives of His people, but also is valuable for us in learning how the people of God responded appropriately, as well as inappropriately, to His guidance and care.

In Egypt, we see God stopping at nothing to gain the release of His people while reminding all creation that He is the creator and sustainer of all that exists. At the Sea of Reeds, we are reminded that God can make a way when there seems to be no way. In the wilderness, we read that God provides all the necessities of life. When the people came to Sinai, God revealed Himself, His standards for living as His people, and established His laws. Through the pages of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, we can track the steps of these people, and in doing so we can see God’s hand of direction and care all along the way.

The people coming out of Egypt were headed for the promised land, but a big change of direction came at Kadesh-Barnea. That is where 12 men were sent to spy out the land, and two of the 12, Joshua and Caleb, reported, “We can take the land.” The other 10 spies, however, reported that the inhabitants of the land are too strong and would defeat them. So the people complained and refused to enter the land at that time. Therefore God turned them out into the wilderness. Everyone older than 20 when this took place died in the wilderness over the next 40 years of wandering, except the two faithful spies—Joshua and Caleb. (See Numbers 13 and 14).

We should take note that disobedience can make God angry. In fact, God’s initial reaction to their disobedience was to “strike them all dead.” After Moses interceded for the people, God agreed to let all the adults over 20 years old to die naturally in the wilderness. Numbers 33 gives a bird’s eye view of the wilderness wanderings. The book of Deuteronomy gives a more complete picture. At the end of that book, 40 years have passed, the generation that refused to enter the land had all died, and Moses died after getting a glimpse of the land but not having entered it.

While Moses was a good leader, he could never quite get the people of Israel to the “finish line.” Moses died with the knowledge that the Children of Israel were still on the wrong side of Jordan. And then, with Moses gone, God chooses Joshua to lead the people. In chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Joshua, we read the account of God getting them ready to cross Jordan.

That brings us to Joshua chapter 3:

1 Then Joshua rose early in the morning; and they set out from Acacia Grove and came to the Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they crossed over. 2 So it was, after three days, that the officers went through the camp; 3 and they commanded the people, saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests, the Levites, bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it. 4 Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure. Do not come near it, that you may know the way by which you must go, for you have not passed this way before.”

5 And Joshua said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” 6 Then Joshua spoke to the priests, saying, “Take up the ark of the covenant and cross over before the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people.

7 And the Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. 8 You shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, saying, ‘When you have come to the edge of the water of the Jordan, you shall stand in the Jordan.’”

9 So Joshua said to the children of Israel, “Come here, and hear the words of the Lord your God.” 10 And Joshua said, “By this you shall know that the living God is among you, and that He will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Hivites and the Perizzites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Jebusites: 11 Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is crossing over before you into the Jordan. 12 Now therefore, take for yourselves 12 men from the tribes of Israel, one man from every tribe. 13 And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, the waters that come down from upstream, and they shall stand as a heap.”

14 So it was, when the people set out from their camp to cross over the Jordan, with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, 15 and as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest), 16 that the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam, the city that is beside Zaretan. So the waters that went down into the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people crossed over opposite Jericho. 17 Then the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan; and all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan.
—Joshua 3:1-17


Can you imagine what it was like to stand on the “wrong side of Jordan” and look into the land which God had promised? Can you imagine the anticipation, all of the stories of God’s faithfulness in the past and His promises for the future? But here is a catch: Did they now have enough faith to follow God into the promised land? They would not get there if they did not step out and cross the Jordan River.

The metaphor is obvious: it takes faith to follow God’s leading in our lives, especially when there are obstacles in our way. Like the Israelites, we are called on to step out into the waters, sometimes when we don’t see how the waters—that is, the obstacles—will be dried and we are able to cross. But when we do step out to cross our Jordan, we can know that we might see and do and go in ways we had never thought possible.

I am sure many of the people wondered how they were going to get across the Jordan. The situation was reminiscent of their flight from Egypt, but no one present at this time, except for Joshua & Caleb, had actually experienced the exodus and saw the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the pillars of cloud and fire leading the people, and many of the other acts of God caring for the people as they were in the wilderness.

The situation in Joshua three also is reminiscent of the people’s decision 40 years before, after the first 12 spies returned from spying in the land. In Joshua two we read about the spies being sent into the land, where they were housed and protected by Rahab, who helped them to escape. Forty years before, 12 spies had entered the land, 10 of whom returned and reported that the people in the land were giants, sure to defeat the Israelites if they tried to take the land. But now the two spies Joshua sent into the land, reported “They are fainthearted; the Lord has delivered the land to us” (2:24).

The Lord gave Joshua four specific instructions about crossing the Jordan River. We must remember these principles when we face obstacles in our lives.

Wait for God before stepping out (3:2-3)

The Israelites were on the east bank of the Jordan, about five miles north of the Dead Sea. They undoubtedly were anxious to cross the Jordan. But there was a problem. In the dry season, the Jordan is about 100 yards wide, shallow, and easy to cross. But this was the rainy season, and during the rainy season the Jordan in this area was up to a mile side, with deep, sticky mud and wide, marshy banks. It was one thing for the two spies to wade and swim across the river, but not for a group of a million or more people. The options were simple: either wait until the dry season, or do the impossible.

We can trust God to lead us (4)

Joshua’s instructions to the people were clearly anticipating the impossible, the direct intervention of the Lord to make it possible for all the people to cross the swollen river. When you see the Ark move, he told them, move out and follow it. It must have been a bit confusing for the people, because no one had explained how the river was going to be passable. Joshua had an answer for them, however: Move out and follow the ark, because you’ve not traveled this way before.

As the people of Israel were to find out as they stepped out to cross the river, we can trust God even in times when we are facing something we know we can’t handle ourselves. That is the great analogy in this passage: We can trust God to lead us when we know He wants us to act, even when we do not see clearly the path before us.

Sanctify (purify) yourselves for the Lord (5)

“And Joshua said to the people, ‘Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you’” (verse 5). Joshua was referring to spiritual cleansing, which was represented through ceremonial washing by the Israelites, tabernacle sacrifices, and which represents confession and repentance for us. This purification process is analogous to our own spiritual walk: the need for confession of sins, repentance, and faith as we step out to follow our Lord and seek to do His will.

There is a time to step into the water (8, 14-16)

“You shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, saying, ‘When you have come to the edge of the water of the Jordan, you shall stand in the Jordan’” (verse 8).

“So it was, when the people set out from their camp to cross over the Jordan, with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, and as those who bore the ark came to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests who bore the ark dipped in the edge of the water (for the Jordan overflows all its banks during the whole time of harvest), that the waters which came down from upstream stood still, and rose in a heap very far away at Adam, the city that is beside Zaretan. So the waters that went down into the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, failed, and were cut off; and the people crossed over opposite Jericho.”

Notice when God parted the water. It was not before the priests stepped out into the water, but after they took that first step. The lesson we understand from this passage is simply that we can trust God to lead us, to handle the obstacles when we want to do His will, and perhaps not all the obstacles will be removed at the time we step out in faith.

There is a time when, knowing God’s will, that you are called on to step out even before you clearly see obstacles in your way. All you know is to pray, which is where we should turn first. And when you step out, maybe all you will know is that you remember the people on the banks of the Jordan. And you will remember that you can trust Jesus to bring you through and remove the obstacles in the path. And maybe you won’t know much more than it is God’s will for you to abandon all selfishness and step out into the waters with pure motives.

And finally, remember Jesus defeated death, probably the scariest river any human being contemplates. If we can trust Him in this great promise, surely we can trust Him with all the other rivers we will be called upon to cross.

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