3. Facing Challenges With Caution And Courage: Crossing Over The Jordan (Josh. 3:1-4:24)Related Media
At various times in our lives we all face obstacles – spiritual, psychological, moral, and physical. To face them is one thing; to overcome them is another. Obstacles that we face can easily instill a certain amount of trepidation in our hearts as we think about the possible unknown dangers and anticipate the challenges. To face such obstacles without fear, we need confidence - confidence that God is in control and will mark out our path as we move forward in faith. To overcome obstacles, on the other hand, we need courage – courage to make a plan, trust the Lord, and move forward in wisdom and dependence on God.
In our expository sermon series on O.T. characters, we are continuing our study of “Joshua – A Faithful Warrior.” Our subject in today’s passage is: Facing obstacles with courage and faith. And the primary theological lesson is that God opens up the way for us when we are obedient to him, even when there are significant obstacles.
Last time we considered the experience of the two spies whom Joshua sent into Jericho to check out the place before the Israelites enter Canaan (Josh. 2). This was wise planning since Jericho, a strongly fortified city, was the first obstacle they would face in taking possession of the Promised Land. Earlier, God had assured Joshua that (1) He was giving the land to the Israelites 1:2); (2) that no one would be able to stand against them (1:5); (3) that I will be with you just as I was with Moses (1:5); and (4) that they were to be strong and very courageous (1:6-7, 9). These must have been very encouraging and motivating words. But nonetheless, they still faced the reality of the challenges that taking the land would incur. Now the time has come for the Israelites to face their biggest challenges yet – crossing over the Jordan into Canaan and fighting their first battle against Jericho, which, with all its fortifications and troops, posed a formidable obstacle.
Remember that, other than Caleb and Joshua, most of the Israelites who are now crossing over the Jordan into Canaan have not faced obstacles like this before. Most of them can only remember, at most, the last 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Most of them had not experienced God’s powerful deliverance at the Red Sea crossing. And for those who had, they were probably either too young to remember the experience or it was just a distant memory. Now, all those years of wandering because of their unbelief at Kadesh Barnea, in which all those 20 years old and above died under God’s judgement (Num. 14:27-30), are over and the land that God had promised to them is before them. All they need to do is cross the Jordan and fight Jericho. That’s all! Surely that must have caused them a certain degree of fear, understandably – fear of the unknown and the future. But surely, at the same time, it must have filled them with a sense of excited anticipation that their long looked-for destination is at hand. Their days of wandering are coming to an end. They are about to cross over into Canaan, the Promised Land. This would be the beginning of a whole new way of life, which would bring with it a whole new set of challenges.
These two conflicting emotions (fear and excitement) are hard to reconcile sometimes, aren’t they? They are both emotions that are given to us by God to act as response mechanisms. Fear wants us to hold back – that’s caution; and excitement pushes us forward – that’s courage. When we face obstacles and difficulties, let’s try to experience both those emotions in godly and wise ways - on the one hand, caution because we have not travelled this way before (1:4), and on the other hand, courage because God is in control and leading us to our promised destination.
When we face challenges in our Christian lives, first of all…
I. We Need To Be Prepared By God (3:1-13)
Early on the morning after the spies returned with their positive report (2:24), Joshua leads the Israelites to the river Jordan where they stay three days before crossing (3:1). These are evidently days for preparation and instruction. After all, organizing perhaps 2 million people to cross a river is a huge task. But consider that, at that time of year, the river floods over its banks and the task just becomes a whole lot more difficult, if not insurmountable to human capabilities. The preparations seem to have two stages…
A. Instructions concerning the ark of the covenant (3:3-6). First, the instructions from the officers to the people: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God carried by the Levitical priests, you are to break camp and follow it” (3:3). Previously, throughout their wanderings in the wilderness, the people were guided by the cloud during the daytime and the pillar of fire at night. But not anymore. Now, they are to follow the ark of the covenant carried by the Levitical priests. When the priests carry the ark forward, the people are to follow. This would be their signal that they are to move on. But they are to keep a significant distance, “about a thousand yards” (3:4a), between themselves and the ark. Three factors come to mind for the purpose of this separation between the ark and the people:
1. Spiritually, the separation between the people and the ark remind them that God is utterly holy and they were sinful. Thus, they must maintain a respectful distance between themselves and God so that they never trivialize nor take for granted his presence among them. This separation between them and the ark is a reminder of the previous demarcation between the people and Mount Sinai where God met with Moses (Ex. 19:12, 23-24).
While there is intimacy between God and his people (he dwells among them), nonetheless we need to be constantly reminded that he is utterly other than we are.
2. Practically, it would allow people far back in the crowd to “see the way to go” (3:4b), so that they could have a clear view of the priests up ahead, holding up the ark to encourage and guide them as they enter the Jordan river.
3. Wisely, it would help to prevent the people from stumbling or falling, “for you have not travelled this way before” (3:4c). This is unfamiliar territory in two senses:
(a) It is unfamiliar geographically - they are crossing the boundary into foreign territory.
(b) It is unfamiliar spiritually - they need even more to depend on and trust the Lord as they venture into pagan country. In other words, the officers are instructing the people to move forward with boldness but exercise caution because this is new territory for them.
That is wise advice for them and for us. The admonition that “you have not traveled this way before” (3:4) rings loud and clear in our ears. This isn’t intended to create fear but to advise caution. Caution is wise when we face unknown obstacles, isn’t it? Tread slowly and carefully along paths where you have not travelled before, seeking God for wise discernment, insight, clarity, and courage.
The ark of the covenant takes centre stage in this passage. The ark contained (1) the stone tablets on which were inscribed the 10 commandments that Moses had received on Mt. Sinai from the Lord (Ex. 25:16); (2) Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17:10); and (3) the jar of manna (Exodus 16:33-34; see also Heb. 9:4). Thus, the ark of the covenant symbolized God’s presence among his people. It reminded the people constantly of their covenant relationship with God and how God had faithfully led them and provided for them during their long years of wandering in the wilderness. This reminder would accompany them across the Jordan in this new venture. Just as God had faithfully protected them in their journey from Egypt to Canaan, so now he would protect them and direct them as they entered the Promised Land.
Second, Joshua’s instructions to the people: “Consecrate yourselves, because the Lord will do wonders among you tomorrow” (3:5). Little do the Israelites know what they are about to experience. They are about to cross over the Jordan river into Canaan and begin a whole new way of life in a brand new country – the Promised Land. But in order to do so they need to “consecrate” themselves to the Lord, cleanse themselves ritually and spiritually from anything that could defile them and thus interrupt their relationship with God. They need to separate themselves from the sinful culture around them so that they are holy and acceptable to God (cf. Ex. 19:10-11).
Consecration has in view the “wonders” which the Lord will do the next day when he stops the waters of the Jordan from flowing, a miracle that would quickly be followed by the miraculous demolition of the walls of Jericho. These are acts which could only be performed by God and which cause wonder and worship (e.g. the 10 plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea).
Like the Israelites, we also need to consecrate ourselves to God. God calls us to be a holy people because He is holy (e.g. Lev. 11:44-45; 1 Pet. 1:16). It is hypocritical of us to claim to be followers of Jesus if we are knowingly living with unjudged sin in our lives (1 Jn. 1:6-10). God’s people must be a separate people, set apart from the world around us, so that our lives reflect the life of Christ. We cannot expect the Lord to do wonders in us and through us and for us if we are not living according to his commandments, according to his nature and character.
From time to time, we all face experiences like the Israelites here at the Jordan river, don’t we? Those times when we take steps that radically change our lives. Perhaps it’s getting married. Or, perhaps it’s moving to another country for your job. Or, perhaps it’s transitioning into fulltime vocational ministry. Whatever it might be, those are the times when we are at the edge of a Jordan, when we need to exercise both caution and courage. Probably for most of us, courage is what we often lack – courage that we have made a good decision as before the Lord; courage that He will enable us to face whatever obstacles might be ahead; courage to adjust and adapt to our new circumstances.
At times like this, we need to remember the comforting words of Isaiah 43:16-21, where Isaiah reminds us that the Lord is the One who 16 makes a way in the sea, and a path through raging water, 17 who brings out the chariot and horse, the army and the mighty one together (they lie down, they do not rise again; they are extinguished, put out like a wick). Then come these words of comfort and encouragement: “18 Do not remember the past events; pay no attention to things of old. 19 Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Do you not see it? Indeed, I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. 20 Wild animals—jackals and ostriches—will honor me, because I provide water in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people. 21 The people I formed for myself will declare my praise.”
What a comfort this promise is to us whenever we face major changes in our lives, those times when we are prone to think back to “past events” and long for the “things of old” (the “good old days”), because we have a certain fear of change and the unknown future – we prefer the old and the familiar. But God says, “I am about to do something new.” Let’s have the courage before God to embrace new challenges and face them with the courage that God provides. I have had many of these experiences throughout my life. Sometimes I have wondered whether I made the right decision to cross over this “Jordan” or whether I should have stayed on the other side where I was. But each time, God makes a way and shows us his powerful hand, just when we need it.
Then Joshua’s instructions to the priests: “Carry the ark of the covenant and go on ahead of the people.” So they carried the ark of the covenant and went ahead of them (3:6). Thus, the move forward into the Promised Land finally begins. The priests go first and the people follow. It’s always nice to follow someone who can show us the way. Of course, at a spiritual level this means following the Lord. But at a practical level this may mean obtaining advice from someone who has had more experience than us, someone who has gone this way before.
The instructions concerning the ark of the covenant are followed by…
B. Instructions for crossing the Jordan river (3:7-13). Before any action is taken, God affirms and instructs Joshua. 7 The Lord spoke to Joshua: “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so they will know that I will be with you just as I was with Moses. 8 Command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant: When you reach the edge of the water, stand in the Jordan” (3:7-8).
Joshua is Moses’ replacement in the leadership of the Israelites and the intermediary between God and his people. And God is now going to affirm Joshua and his authority over the people through the miracle that is about to take place, just as He had, on many previous occasions, affirmed Moses in the eyes of the people. God’s exaltation of Joshua takes place entirely through God’s sovereign, powerful act and no action on the part of Joshua other than obeying the Lord. The purpose of God’s affirmation of Joshua is that “they will know that I will be with you just as I was with Moses” (3:7). God’s exaltation of Joshua is not for Joshua’s sake but for the people’s, so that they will have confidence in Joshua’s leadership, knowing that God is with him.
The first step in this marvelous endorsement of Joshua is for him to exercise his God-given authority by commanding the priests to stand in the Jordan when they reach the edge of the water (3:8). In other words, they are to enter the edge of the water and to stand in it. As the readers of this narrative, we might ask “Why? What is the point of this instruction.” The purpose of this instruction is not disclosed right away but will become clear soon. We do not find out until 3:13 that God will miraculously stop the downstream waters of the Jordan so that the people can safely pass over. Clearly, the narrative is designed to build up tension about what is going to happen as this event progresses.
After God instructs and affirms Joshua, Joshua conveys the words of the Lord to the people. 9 Then Joshua told the Israelites, “Come closer and listen to the words of the Lord your God.” 10 He said, “You will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly dispossess before you the Canaanites, Hethites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites 11 when the ark of the covenant of the Lord of the whole earth goes ahead of you into the Jordan” (3:9-11).
How the entrance of the ark into the Jordan is going to give them comfort and assurance that God will dispossess the land of these seven pagan nations is still not disclosed. Nonetheless, Joshua assures them that, by what is going to happen “you will know that the living God is among you” and that he will drive out the inhabitants of the land “when the ark of the covenant of the Lord of the whole earth goes ahead of you into the Jordan” (3:10-11). The power of God will be so evident and demonstrated so clearly and miraculously that they will know without any doubt that the living God is among them. In other words, what God is about to do is designed to do far more than just aid the Israelites across the Jordan. It’s primary purpose is to assure the Israelites of God’s presence among them. And they would know this certainty “when the ark of the covenant of the Lord of the whole earth goes ahead of you into the Jordan” (3:11). Although what will happen has not yet been disclosed, that will be the moment when all will become clear. The “wonders” of 3:5 will be performed in front of their eyes.
Undoubtedly, the term “the living God” is used purposely to contrast with the dead gods of the pagan nations. The inhabitants of the land are divided into seven nations but the people of God are united. The people of the land are godless but the God of Israel is alive and dwelling among his people. The pagan gods are powerless but the God of Israel is all-powerful. God is going to demonstrate to the Israelites that his power at the Jordan is more than sufficient to act on their behalf to drive out their enemies from the land that he is giving them. Their God is “among” them and “goes ahead” of them. His presence is with them and leads them in this campaign. As a result of what God is about to do, “you will know that the living God is among you.” This will instill in them confidence in God’s presence. This will give them courage to move forward in God’s power. And this will generate in them respect for, and obedience to, the leadership of Joshua whom God is affirming by what is about to happen.
When God calls us into new experiences and environments, trusting God for his provision, protection, and guidance are paramount. This gives us confidence and courage in the midst of change, for He does not change nor does He fail. And, for our benefit, God gives us trustworthy, godly leaders, who are called and gifted by God for just this moment and experience. We are not lone rangers - God has given us leaders who instruct us, go ahead of us, and mark out the way.
Finally, Joshua reveals a glimpse of the first “wonder” to take place (3:12-13). In addition to Joshua and the priests, the Israelites will be led by a representative from each tribe: “Now choose twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one man for each tribe” (3:12). These men will lead the way as they cross the Jordan and enter the land. This would undoubtedly have been a nervous time for the Israelites. They had never travelled this way before. In fact, the last time they had come close to this was when Moses sent the twelve spies into the land, ten of whom came back with a bad report, which convinced the people to not go in (Num. 13-14). That decision cost them another 38 years of wilderness wanderings under God’s judgement. Now, they are back here again and this time they will enter into the land God had promised to them. This time they will confidently follow their leaders.
The first obstacle in their journey forward was crossing the river Jordan. For that the instructions are clear: “When the feet of the priests who carry the ark of the Lord, the Lord of the whole earth, come to rest in the Jordan’s water, its water will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand up in a heap” (3:13). Notice that the focus shifts back again here to the ark in 3:11 and 13. It’s “the ark of the covenant of the Lord of the whole earth” (3:11), “the ark of the Lord, the Lord of the whole earth” (3:13). The ark and the Lord and his covenant are deeply and inseparably intertwined. Thus, the ark not only symbolizes God’s presence among them but also his power – He is “the Lord of the whole earth,” the Creator and Sustainer of all things (Col. 1:15-20).
When we face challenges in our Christian lives, first of all we need to be prepared by God. Second…
II. We Need To Move Forward In Obedience (3:14-17)
When the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carried the ark of the covenant ahead of the people (3:14). This is the sequence of how the crossing will take place, the details and the purposes for which had been described earlier (3:3-6). To add further tension and to heighten the extent of the miracle, this background note is added: Now the Jordan overflows its banks throughout the harvest season (3:15). This will be no ordinary crossing – they are facing a flood! They could never cross over by wading or swimming. What they need is a miracle, for only a miracle could give the people passage over the Jordan at this time of year.
A. When we move forward in obedience, God acts on our behalf at just the right time. Notice what happens now. Despite the time of year and the flooded conditions, as soon as the priests carrying the ark reached the Jordan, their feet touched the water at its edge (3:15b) and two miraculous events happened:
1. The water stopped flowing in both directions.
a) It stopped flowing downstream from higher up. The water flowing downstream stood still rising up in a heap that extended as far as Adam, a city next to Zarethan (3:15b-16a).
b) It stopped flowing downstream to the Dead Sea lower down. The water flowing downstream into the Sea of the Arabah—the Dead Sea—was completely cut off, and the people crossed opposite Jericho.
2. The people crossed over. The priests carrying the ark of the Lord’s covenant stood firmly on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel crossed on dry ground until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan (3:17).
The detail that “as soon as” the priests’ feet touched the edge of the water it stopped flowing (3:15b) leaves no room for debate as to the cause and effect of this miracle. This is the moment to which the prior thirteen verses have pointed. What Joshua had predicted in 3:13 comes to pass in 3:16-17. This is the “wonder” that Joshua promised the people in 3:5. Now the presence of God among them and the power of God for them is revealed in all its splendor and awe. The people cross the flooded Jordan on dry land by God’s miraculous intervention. By this miracle, not only do the people cross an otherwise unnavigable river, but, more importantly, they witness the goodness of God on their behalf. The focus here is on the miracle more so than the crossing. Their crossing was the consequence of the miracle. Everything points to God’s work on their behalf.
Notice also the repeated and emphatic wording in these two verses. First, the comparison between the waters and the priests. The water flowing downstream from above stood still…rising up in a heap (3:16a), and the water flowing downstream to the Dead Sea was completely cut off (3:16b), while at the same time the priests stood firmly on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan (3:17).
Second, the contrast between the priests and the people. The priests stood firmly on dry ground and the people crossed over on dry ground (3:17). The priests were stationary like soldiers guarding the way, while the people moved across in front of them. That the priests stood still, during what would have undoubtedly been a long period of time, indicates that they had no fear – no fear of the waters returning and drowning them; no fear that this was a temporary phenomenon in nature. This was not merely an aberration in the normal course of weather patterns. No! This was a complete overriding of nature by the God of creation himself. They were in God’s hands completely.
Third, the repeated emphasis on the entirety of the Israelite nation moving into the Promised Land – all Israel crossed on dry ground until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan (3:17).
B. When we move forward in obedience, God tends to every detail. The author emphasizes the fact that all Israel crossed on dry ground…the entire nation. No one was left behind, no one got wet, and no one drowned. No one had to try to wade across the raging torrent nor did anyone have to try to swim across – that would have been deadly. No, miraculously, what had moments before been a raging flood is now dry ground both for the priests and for the people. And it remained that way until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan.
Of course, what the author also wants us to do is reflect back on the Red Sea crossing. What had been experienced by the former generation of Israelites at the Red Sea is now experienced by the current generation at the Jordan. Both instances are designed (1) to reveal God to them in a spectacular way, giving them assurance of who He is and what He can do, and (2) to affirm Joshua as their leader, the one appointed by God for this new venture.
I think the point that the author is making with these details is to emphasize the supernatural aspect of this event, that only God could do this, and that God cares about every person individually and the nation collectively. Isn’t it wonderful how God gives them such a miraculous demonstration of his power even as they cross the river and before they ever face Jericho? What a boost to their faith and courage this must have been.
When we face challenges in our Christian lives, first of all when need to be prepared by God. Second, we need to move forward in obedience. And third, when the challenge is complete…
III. We Need To Remember What God Has Done (4:1-24)
Here the details of the story of crossing the Jordan are reiterated and fresh details are added. Such an awesome event as this had to be memorialized as a testimony to the present and future generations of the mighty power of God.
In the grammatical construction of 4:1, the author not only connects back to 3:17 but also indicates progression to the next stage of the narrative: After the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord spoke to Joshua (4:1) concerning...
A. The memorial stones gathered from the Jordan for Gilgal (4:1-8). 2 “Choose twelve men from the people, one man for each tribe, 3 and command them: Take twelve stones from this place in the middle of the Jordan where the priests are standing, carry them with you, and set them down at the place where you spend the night” (4:2-3).
While the author had earlier made reference to choosing twelve men (3:12), seemingly without connecting them to any specific task, it seems that now in 4:2 he describes what their task is - to select twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan and carry them with you, and set them down at the place where you spend the night (4:3). Soon we will discover where their camp is and what the stones’ purpose is (cf. 4:20-24). By splitting the story into these non-chronological segments, the author not only heightens the tension of the narrative as we wait for it to unfold, but he also expands the details as the story progresses.
In all of the movement of people and stones that is taking place here in and across the Jordan, everything and everybody is protected from the return of the waters by the ark, held by the priests who are standing in the middle of the Jordan right where the stones are to be selected (4:3). Thus, the ark, the symbol of God’s presence, does not move so long as the waters are cut off. God dwells with his people; he does not abandon them.
In 3:7-8, the Lord gives Joshua the instructions for the priests to carry the ark to the edge of the Jordan. When Joshua repeats this to the Israelites, he adds the details about the waters of the Jordan being cut off when the priests’ feet come to rest in the river (3:13). Similarly, now the Lord tells Joshua to choose twelve men who are to select twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan “where the priests are standing” and to carry them to their camp (4:2-3). But, again, when Joshua repeats this to the twelve men (4:4-5), he adds the details as to the purpose for, and significance of, these stones: “6… so that this will be a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ 7 you should tell them, ‘The water of the Jordan was cut off in front of the ark of the Lord’s covenant. When it crossed the Jordan, the Jordan’s water was cut off.’ Therefore these stones will always be a memorial for the Israelites” (4:6-7).
Now we know the purpose for these stones. They would be a “sign among you” (the current generation), pointing them back to, and constantly reminding them of, this moment and this experience of God’s grace and presence and power. And these stones would also be a permanent memorial for future generations (“your children”) when they ask: “What do these stones mean to you?” (4:6). The current generation is thus charged with the responsibility of telling and re-telling the story of their experience here to future generations who did not experience or cannot remember this moment. These stones would “always be a memorial for the Israelites” (4:7), giving the current participants of this mighty deed the opportunity to testify to the saving grace of God - who God is and what He did at the Jordan.
That’s what memorials do – they give permanent visual and verbal reminders of the past. Such reminders are so vitally necessary for us, not only to remember what God has done and who He is but also to encourage us when circumstances get tough. The Israelites would need this reminder when they face tough times ahead as they take possession of the land. And it’s a good practice for us to remember our past experiences with God, to look back constantly at what God has done in our lives. It’s so easy to forget how God has intervened, provided, defended, and guided us over the years. This, of course, is what our church communion services are all about. They are designed to remind us of what the Lord has done for us at the cross so that we never forget.
Notice that, even though 21/2 tribes of the Israelites had been assigned their land inheritance on the other side of the Jordan (in accordance with Moses’ agreement with the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh in Numbers 32), Joshua makes clear by the selection of these twelve men from each tribe and the number of stones to be collected that Israel is still one people.
So, the Israelites did just as Joshua had commanded them (4:8a). Joshua was God’s mouthpiece to the people, just as Moses had been before him. Notice the chain of command here: God commanded Joshua, Joshua repeated those commands to the people, and the people (through the agency of the twelve representative men whom Joshua had chosen) carried them out. The twelve men took stones from the middle of the Jordan, one for each of the Israelite tribes, just as the Lord had told Joshua. They carried them to the camp and set them down there (4:8b).
After gathering the memorial stones from the Jordan for the camp at Gilgal, another set of stones is set up.
B. The marker stones set up in the middle of the Jordan (4:9). It has been suggested that both these sets of stones are actually only one set, but I don’t think that suggestion fits with the text. The text specifically states that the first set of twelve stones was carried by the twelve men from the middle of the Jordan to the camp (4:8), where they would be set up as a permanent memorial (4:20). Whereas the second set of twelve stones was set up by Joshua as a marker in the middle of the Jordan where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant were standing (4:9a). Furthermore, the text states that those stones (the second set) are still there to this day (4:9b) – i.e. in the middle of the river, not at Gilgal. So, these are two different sets of stones. The first set would be a permanent memorial to remind the people of this experience and what God did, and the second set would be a permanent marker of the very place where God stopped the waters of the Jordan from flowing, the very spot where the priests stood holding the ark of the covenant while the people crossed over.
In conclusion (and by way of summary), 4:10 states that the priests carrying the ark continued standing in the middle of the Jordan until everything was completed that the Lord had commanded Joshua to tell the people, in keeping with all that Moses had commanded Joshua. The priests were obedient to God’s word, which was communicated to them through Joshua and which, at the same time, fulfilled Moses instructions to take possession of the land (cf. Deut. 31:3-8; Num. 32:28-30).
Having established the marker stones in the middle of the Jordan and the memorial stones at the camp at Gilgal…
C. The people cross the Jordan (4:10b-14). In keeping with earlier evidences that this author’s account does not necessarily follow a chronological sequence, what is described in 4:2-9 seems to have taken place after the people crossed over and before the priests crossed over and the waters returned. Thus, connecting back to 3:17 (all Israel crossed on dry ground) and 4:1 (After the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan…), the text now says, 10b The people hurried across 11 and after everyone had finished crossing, the priests with the ark of the Lord crossed in the sight of the people (4:10b-11). Now, the attention now shifts from the stones (4:2-9) back to the crossing, the last step of which was the crossing of the priests.
This step highlights the climax and completion of this marvellous and miraculous crossing, pointing forward to the battle of Jericho to come. The question it raises in the minds of the readers is, “Will the Israelites’ possession of the Promised Land be as miraculous as the crossing of the Jordan? Will the taking of Jericho be as powerful and dramatic as the crossing of the Jordan? Will God give the people victory over the walls of Jericho as he gave them victory over the waters of the Jordan?”
In accordance with their earlier agreement with Moses, the 2½ tribes, who received their inheritance from Moses on the other side of the Jordan (cf. Josh. 1:13-18; Num. 32), now assemble near Jericho, ready to assist their brethren in the assault on that city. 12 The Reubenites, Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh went in battle formation in front of the Israelites, as Moses had instructed them. 13 About forty thousand equipped for war crossed to the plains of Jericho in the Lord’s presence (4:12-13). As we have seen repeatedly in this episode, the emphasis seems to be (1) on the people’s obedience to God’s word, to Joshua’s word, and here to Moses’ word, and (2) on the people’s unity, despite geographical separation on either side of the Jordan.
D. God exalts Joshua (4:14). What God had promised Joshua in 3:7 now is confirmed. On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they revered him throughout his life, as they had revered Moses (4:14). Everything comes about just as God said. It’s instructive to see not only the people’s obedience to commands from God and Joshua, but also that God himself always keeps his word. God must be obeyed because his word is totally trustworthy.
After setting up the marker stones in the middle of the Jordan and the memorial stones at the camp at Gilgal, the people cross the Jordan. This is followed by God exalting Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and…
E. Then, the waters of the Jordan return (4:15-18). Again, the narrative seems to back up in order to make connection with what has already been mentioned (i.e. the priests’ crossing in 4:11) and to complete the chronological sequence of events. In accordance with the Lord’s instructions, Joshua commands the priests to “come up from the Jordan” (4:17).
This is the final step of the crossing and its dramatic finale when the priests carrying the ark of the Lord’s covenant came up from the middle of the Jordan (4:18a). The priests are still faithfully carrying the ark, that visible and powerful testimony to the Lord’s presence among them and his covenant with them.
That the Lord had supernaturally withheld the waters of the Jordan and not any other “natural” explanation is evident in that as soon as the priest’s feet stepped out on solid ground, the water of the Jordan resumed its course, flowing over all the banks as before (4:18b). When the Lord withdrew his presence, his intervention was also withdrawn – nature resumes her course. And finally…
F. The memorial stones are set up in Gilgal (4:19-24). This episode cannot end until the memorial to God’s power and goodness are set up in Gilgal where the people were camping on the eastern limits of Jericho (4:19b). That this took place on the tenth day of the first month (4:19a) is significant in that it connects this “exodus” from their wilderness wanderings on the east side of the Jordan to their earlier exodus from Egypt at the time of Passover (cf. Ex. 12:3).
20 Then Joshua set up in Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken from the Jordan, 21 and he said to the Israelites, “In the future, when your children ask their fathers, ‘What is the meaning of these stones?’ 22 you should tell your children, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground’” (4:20-22). Joshua mentions three distinct purposes for this memorial at Gilgal…
First, this memorial would be a permanent testimony to future Israelite generations of the miracle God performed in stopping the waters (as Joshua had mentioned before in 4:6-7), just as He had at the Red Sea: “For the Lord your God dried up the water of the Jordan before you until you had crossed over, just as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up before us until we had crossed over” (4:23). Now Joshua links together the stopping of the waters of the Jordan with the dividing of the waters of the Red Sea, both of which made possible the Israelites’ crossing from one side to the other. This is a testimony to God’s goodness to them and his miraculous intervention on their behalf, an experience that would surely give them courage in the imminent battle of Jericho and all the subsequent battles as they take possession of the land.
Second, this memorial would be a permanent testimony to the world (i.e. the Canaanites) of the power of Yahweh: “…so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord’s hand is strong” (4:24a). Let all nations and enemies beware that if they oppose God and his people, they do so to their own peril for the God of Israel is all-powerful; no one can withstand him.
Third, this memorial would remind the Israelites to bow before God: “…so that you may always fear the Lord your God” (4:24b). It’s so easy to forget who God is and what He has done, even after an experience as dramatic as the crossing of the Jordan. It’s so easy to fail to give God thanks and to attribute such experiences to His intervention on our behalf. This memorial would never let the Israelites forget and, in so doing, it would cause them to bow before Yahweh in reverence and to worship Him, the one true God who alone is worthy of all praise.
I hope that this study has given you a greater understanding of what is involved in facing challenges in our Christian lives. Remember our summary statement for this message: God opens up the way for us when we are obedient to him, even when there are significant obstacles. Here are three principles we have learned from this episode in the Israelites’ experience...
First, in facing challenges, we need to be prepared by God (3:1-13). Preparation means spending time in prayer and reading God’s word. Perhaps it also includes wise and godly advice from a trusted friend. Here we need to exercise caution and dependence on God before making any decisions or taking any action.
Second, at the appropriate time we need to move forward in obedience (3:14-17). When the preparation work has been done and we see with clarity the way God is leading us, then we need to move forward with courage, trusting God for the outcome and that he will see us through.
Third, we need to constantly give God thanks for what He has done (4:1-24). When the trial or challenge is over, we need to establish “memorial stones” to remind us of his intervention on our behalf and to give him the thanks. Knowing how easily we forget, Jesus instituted the memorial supper (the Lord’s table) for us, to constantly remind us of what He has done at the cross.
How easy it is for us to get through a particular challenge and promptly forget what happened – forget how God prepared us and enabled us to face the challenge; forget how God laid out the path ahead for us to move ahead in obedience and faith; forget the evidences of God’s mighty power which he exercised on our behalf. That’s how prone we are to accept God’s blessings – his deliverance, his provision, his power - without ever remembering to give God the glory (cf. Lk. 17:15). May this never be true of us. We are to be grateful people (cf. 1 Thess. 5:18; Phil. 4:6); yet, sometimes I think we are so ungrateful. God intervenes for us time and time again, and yet we do not erect memorial stones as a reminder to ourselves and as a testimony to others who ask, “What do these stones mean?”
Worse yet, perhaps other people don’t ask us that question because they don’t see any memorial or marker stones in our lives at all. Perhaps there is no evidence that we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7); no evidence that we are seeking to be obedient to the Lord (1 Jn. 5:2-3). In fact, perhaps there’s no evidence in your life that you are a Christian at all! If that’s the case, according to the Bible, you’re not a Christian for the Bible says that “you will recognize them by their fruit” (Matt. 7:16). I think that there are so many people who go to church regularly, talk like Christians, look like Christians, enjoy fellowship with other Christians, listen to the preaching of God’s word, think they are Christians but they are not regenerate – they do not have spiritual life in them (cf. Heb. 6:1-8; 1 Jn. 3:6, 9; James 2:19-22). Well, if that describes you, may this study encourage you to get right with God through repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:21).