Crossing the Jordan

Joshua 3-4

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
August 2019

Today, we will be covering two chapters, because they go together.  Joshua 3 is a sign miracle.   Joshua 3 is a sign memorial.  One chapter is a miracle and the other chapter is a memorial of the miracle.

The Bible is full miracles.  There are miracles in the OT and miracles in the NT.  Joshua 3 brings us to one of the greatest events in Jewish history, the crossing of the Jordan River.  It is one of the great water parting miracles of the Bible and it takes place in the Jordan River.

Some have been to Israel and have seen the Jordan river.  It is a river that borders many countries (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, West Bank, Israel).  It is an important river in biblical history.  This river is important to both Jews and Christians.  Fourteen hundred years after Israel crossed the Jordan River, Jesus was baptized in this river by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:13-17).  It is where the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove and He began his public ministry.

The crossing of the Jordan River is one of the great miracles of the Bible.  It is one of the most climactic events in all biblical history and yet today many do not even know that this miracle is in the Bible.  Most of the Jews in Joshua 3 were not even alive when it took place.  Many of them were born in the wilderness.

Everyone knows the story about the parting of the Red Sea by Moses.  Every child in SS knows that story.  Every child in VBS has heard it.  Not everyone one knows that story about the parting of the Jordan River by Joshua forty years later.  It is not quite as popular.  Many people do not know about this one.

We all know the story about the first miracle.  God calls Moses to lead the Jews out of slavery.  Pharaoh says no but after ten devastating plagues, he finally says yes.  Two million slaves escape Egypt.  They leave the country.  They are rejoicing.  They are cheering.  They are celebrating.  They are on top of the world.  They think that their problems are over.

They are traveling and God is with them.  They have the pillar of fire and cloud.  They are in the will of God.  They are doing what God wants them to do.  All is good until they hear a loud noise.  They look back and see a massive army on the horizon.  Pharaoh changed his mind.  He had second thoughts.

The most powerful army on the planet is now coming after them, along with six hundred of the best chariots (Exodus 14:6). This army had weapons of war.  It had firepower.  It had chariots.  That is like having tanks today.  This was a war machine.  Pharaoh sends the special forces against a bunch of unarmed slaved.  The Jews were terrified.  Their backs were against the wall.  They were completely trapped.  They had nowhere to go.

They think they are all going to die and then Moses says, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:13-14 NIV).  Moses raises his staff, stretches it over the Res Sea and the waters supernaturally part.

The Red Sea and Jordan Miracle Compared

God does the same miracle again in Joshua 3 but there are some important differences here.  This event is not quite as dramatic or suspenseful.  The Egyptians were not chasing the Jews.  No one dies in this miracle.  Israel saw Egyptians lying dead on the shore (Exodus 14:30). There were no dead Canaanites floating in the river after this miracle.

The Jews are NOT leaving a country.  They are entering a country.  They are NOT leaving Egypt.  They are entering Canaan.  The enemy is not behind them.  The enemy is in front of them.  Israelites were not on the run.  God was on the move.

There is another difference.  Joshua does NOT use a rod to part the Jordan River like Moses did, when he stretched his staff over the Red Sea (Exodus 14:16).  Joshua sent the priests into the river carrying the Ark of the Covenant and the water parted.  The ark contained the power of God.

Today, we want to look at this miracle three ways: historically. symbolically and practically.

The Miracle Historically

This was a real event in history and we know when it happened.  We know the month and the year.  biblical scholars tell us that the Exodus took place in 1446 BC.  This event took place forty years later around 1405 BC or 1406 BC.  Joshua 4 tells us that it took place in the tenth month (Match-April) which is when Passover takes place.

What is the background of this passage?  God made a covenant with Abraham and promised that his descendants would inherit a land. Abraham lived in 2100 BC.  The Jews are now crossing over to inherit that land in 1400 BC.  It is seven hundred years later but God is keeping his promise that He made to Abraham.

The Jews became slaves in Egypt for four hundred years.  They escaped Egypt.  They miraculously delivered by God at the Red Sea.  They wandered around in the wilderness for forty years.

Moses died and now Joshua takes over.  God calls him to leadership.  Joshua leads them right to the edge of the Jordan.  Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over. (Joshua 3:1 NIV)

The Jews travel from Shittim to the Jordan.  In Hebrew, the city is pronounced shi-team, not shit-em (the way many ignorant preachers pronounce the word).   That sounds like a swear word.  No one knows where Shittim is but when they got to the Jordan, they stayed there for three days, and camped out.  The Jews now had the Promise Land BEFORE them, the wilderness BEHIND them and the Jordan River BETWEEN them.

They were so close that they could can see the Promise Land.  They could see how green it is.  They could smell the fruit, but they cannot get there until they pass through the Jordan River. In order to get INTO the Promise Land, they have to go THROUGH the Jordan.

Their inheritance was on the other side of the river, but the people did not know exactly where they were going.  They did not have a map or GPS and they did not know how they were going to get across this river.  It was impossible to get across the river.  River and the Jordan River is at that time at flood stage (Joshua 3:15).  They did not have any boats and or a bridge to get across the river. What was the plan?

After three days the officers went throughout the camp, 3 giving orders to the people: “WHEN YOU SEE the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and FOLLOW it. 4 THEN YOU WILL KNOW which way to go, since you have never been this way before. BUT KEEP A DISTANCE of about two thousand cubits between you and the ark; do NOT go near it.” (Joshua 3:2-4 NIV)

The plan is to follow the priests. The priests were out in front, where God’s leaders were to be.  There was no leading from behind foolishness.   Priests went first and were bearing the ark.  God’s leaders were up front and the people were to follow them.

The priests were the first ones in the water, but what they were really following was a box. The priests were carrying a box called the Ark of the Covenant. It was a SMALL BOX.  It was only three and a half feet long.  It was a SPECIAL BOX.  It was covered with gold.  It was gold plated.

It was a SACRED BOX.  This box was made forty years earlier at Mount Sinai.  It contained two tablets of stone written by the finger of God.  It was a SUPERNATURAL BOX.  The ark was not magical.  It didn’t have special powers, but it was supernatural.  It symbolized the very presence of God.  It was also a SCARY BOX.  You did not want to get too close to it.  We have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.

If you touched it, you died.  The ark was so holy that it could NEVER EVER touched by human hands.   They could not even touch it accidentally.  In fact, if you did touch it, you would die.  The Bible tells a story about a time the ark was being transported somewhere and it started to fall.  A man reached out to grab it, so it did not fall, and he dropped dead (II Samuel 6:1-7).  The priests could not even touch it.  they carried it with poles.

The people were not supposed to get too close to this box.  But keep a distance of about two thousand cubits between you and the ark; do not go near it. (Joshua 3:4 NIV).  They were to stay 2000 cubits behind it.  That is 3000 feet which is more than a half a mile.  A mile is 5280 feet.  The priests were to go on ahead of the people (Joshua 3:6).

Why weren’t the people to get too close to the ark?  Why did they have to walk a half a mile behind?  Why were they not supposed to go near it?  The ark represents the presence of God.  There is a barrier between a holy God and sinful people.

The priests moved to the center of the Jordan River and stood there holding the ark until all the children of Israel passed over. The ark was the first thing to go into the river and the last thing to come out of it.

Now then, choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. 13 And AS SOON AS the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap.”

14 So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. 15 Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet AS SOON AS the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, 16 the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho. (Joshua 3:12-16 NIV).

As soon as the feet of the priests touched the water, something miraculous happened.  Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, 16 the water from upstream stopped flowing (Joshua 3:15-16).

When their feet touched the water’s edge, three incredible miracles took place.  One, the waters of the Jordan stopped flowing.  Two, the Jordan River was parted.  Three, ground was dried up.

God stacked the water up on both sides of the river.  He piled it up.  How do you stack water?  You can stack solids.  You can’t stack liquids.  God built an invisible dam on both sides of the river.  He suspended water in air for hours and the text says that the people crossed the river “in haste” (Joshua 4:10) because they did not want this wall to fall on their heads.

God didn’t just stop the water and stack the water.  He also dried up the ground (Joshua 3:17). They did not cross a shallow river.  They did not cross a muddy river.  The water was completely gone, and the ground was dry.  No muddy shoes for God’s people.

Three Things this Miracle Did

1) This miracle demonstrated the power of God

For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”  (Joshua 4:23-24)

God is given a special name in this section.  He is called “the Lord of all the earth” (Joshua 3:11), not just the God of the Jews.  When he did this miracle, everyone could see his power.

God was glorified by this miracle, just like he was glorified by the Red Sea miracle. When the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant. (Exodus 14:31 NIV)

God was even glorified in the death of the Egyptians. This is a difficult concept for some Christians, but it is what the text says.  And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.” (Exodus 14:17-18 NIV). What did this miracle say to the Jews?

Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God. 10 THIS IS HOW YOU WILL KNOW THAT THE LIVING GOD IS AMONG YOU that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites. 11 See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you. (Joshua 3:9-11 NIV).

This miracle proved not only that God was not only PRESENT among them, but that God was AT WORK among them and He was POWERFUL.  This was an act of God and they knew it. They saw it happening.

2) This miracle authenticated God’s leaders

This miracle authenticated Joshua as a leader.  This was a sign miracle.  It was meant to teach some things.

Today I will begin to exalt you in the eyes of all Israel, so they may know that I am with you as I was with Moses” (Joshua 3:7 NIV).

That day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they stood in awe of him all the days of his life, just as they had stood in awe of Moses. (Joshua 4:14 NIV)

Some of Jesus’ miracles were sign miracles.  The miracles of Jesus in the Gospel of John are specifically called sign miracles.  Those signs were intended to lead to faith in Him (John 20:30-31)

3) This miracle empowered God’s people

God’s people were able to do the miraculous.  They were able to do something completely miraculous.  They were able to do something that could not have been done on their own.  Two million people (including children, the elderly and livestock) were able to cross the Jordan river quickly at flood stage.

There was no way humanly speaking that they could have done this but God made a way across.  This miracle empowered God’s people but brought fear to the Canaanites (Joshua 5:1)

The Miracle Symbolically

This miracle has a lot of meaning symbolically.  What does Egypt represent?  It represents the unsaved life.  Before salvation, we were slaves.  We were slaves to sin.  We were in bondage. The Red Sea miracle represents salvation.  It represents deliverance.  God redeemed them out of Egypt.  What does the Promise Land represent?

It represents prosperity.  It is the land of milk and honey.  Christians are not promised a physical land.  The church is not a nation.  We have a spiritual inheritance, as Ephesians teaches.  We inherit all spiritual blessings, although one day we will rule and reign with Christ on the earth.

The Promise Land also represents God’s will for your life.  The Promise Land was on earth, not heaven.  It represents living the life God intended for you.  The problems is that you can be a Christian and not be living in the Promised Land.  Many Christians have been redeemed out of Egypt and have never entered the Promise Land.  Even famous Christians have not entered into this blessing.  Moses did not get in.

Many churches just focus on salvation.  They focus on getting out of Egypt, rather than on getting into the Promise Land.  Many Christians are living in the wilderness.  They are living out of the will of God.  Their life is barren and desolate spiritually.

In order to get to the Promise Land, you have to cross the Jordan, but you can’t cross it on your own.  You can’t do it in your own power.  It takes a miracle to cross this river.  It takes the Holy Spirit to empower us to live the way he wants us to live.

The question is this:  Where are you?  Are you in Egypt spiritually?  Are you in the wilderness or are you in the Promised Land?  Are you redeemed or unredeemed?  Are you in the will of God or out of the will of God?  Are you living the life that God intended for you to live or are you living on a much lower level?

The Miracle Practically

How does this apply to us today?  In many ways it does not apply.  We do not have any sacred furniture.  We do not have any sacred relics in the church today that are so sacred that we cannot even touch them.  We do not have to walk a half a mile behind priests today or our pastor.  We don’t have to make a big pile of stones in our yard for our neighbors to see.

God wants to work in our life. He did wonders among the Jews on that day and He wants to do wonders among us.  How many Christians have seen any wonders?  Many Christians are satisfied with living on a lower level.  That is probably the majority of the church today.  God is not doing much in their life.  They miss out on seeing God work in their life.

Did you know that not all of the tribes crossed over the Jordan River?  Ten crossed over but two and a half (Gad and Reuben and the half tribe of Manasseh) stayed behind (Numbers 32:1-5; Joshua 1:12-16) and were given that land on the east bank of the Jordan river.

They asked for land on the other side of the Jordan.  The land looked pretty good where they were, so they did not want to cross over.  They were allowed to stay there, as long as they sent their army to help fight (Joshua 4:12-13), but they missed out on some of the blessings of God.

God still works miracles today, but He does not always do them the same way.  He likes to use variety in his miracles.  He does not always do things the same way.  God worked differently in Joshua’s life than He did in Moses’ life.  He parted the waters by a rod in Moses’ day but not in Joshua’s day.

He rained manna fall from the sky at one time but is not doing that today.  He led people by the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire at one time but is not doing that today.  Why not.  Isn’t He the same yesterday, today and forever?  Yes.  God does not change but His program does.  The way He does things changes.  What is God doing in your life today?

1) Prepare yourself for God to work

Joshua 3:5 says, Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you” (NIV).  We need to be spiritually prepared to see God work.  We need to be spiritually prepared to be used by God.  We need to be sanctified, set apart.  That is what the word means in Hebrews (qudosh).

What that will look like today is different from what it looked like then.  They were living in the wilderness for forty years and did not all have a copy of God’s Word.  Back them it meant something like change your clothes and take a bath (cf. Exodus 19:10-11).

That is still a good idea today but now it means something different, but the principle is the same.  Now, it is more than a ritual.  Many people today are not spiritually prepared.  How are you preparing yourself for God to work in your life?

2) Follow God’s leading for your life

These Jews did not cross the Jordan when they thought it was the right time to do so.  They didn’t cross when the majority people wanted to do so.  They didn’t take a vote.  They did it when God told them to do so.   They waited for a command.

They waited until their saw the ark.  They did not move and do anything until God moved and God went first.  They did not run ahead of God.  They waited before Him (two thousand cubits behind) and followed Him.  This is a good way to find the will of God.  Are we following God’s leading in our life?

3) Be willing to take a step of faith

This is very interesting.  We may never walk across a river on dry land.  We may never walk on water but we can take a step of faith.  Red Sea was divided before they stepped into it.  This time, they had to step into it first.  This time, God did not part the water first.

The priests had to get their feet wet before God would open the waters.  The miracle only took place when they stepped out in faith and got their feet wet.  The water did not recede until the first priest touches the water with his feet and that was done in obedience to what God said.  What steps of faith are you taking?

4) Remember what God does in your life

That is the message of Joshua 4.  It is the message of the memorial stones, the stones of remembrance.  This miracle was not to be forgotten.  They were to make a marker of God’s faithfulness, for them to remember and to be a lesson for their kids.

In Joshua 4, we see that not only did they KNEW what God, and Saw what God did, they were to SAY what God did and SHOW what God did by these stones.  They were to celebrate it.  They were to commemorate it.

How many times do we pray for something, God answers our prayers and we forget about it?  God does something amazing in our life and we do’t even remember it.  We need to think of ways that we can set up a memorial to the Lord for the incredible things that he has done in our lives.

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