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Jordan crossing

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Joshua 3:1-4:24

Thesis: We must step by faith into the purpose of God to receive the power he gives.

Goal: Step into the next stage of faithfulness as revealed to you by God.

There’s an old story about a council meeting in the halls of Hell. Satan was seeking an infallible strategy for defeating God’s Kingdom on earth. One demon stood and said, “I shall go to men and tell them there is no heaven.” But Satan said, “That will never work, for in the heart of all mankind there beats a hope of life eternal. They will not believe that there is no heaven. You shall not go.”

Another demon stood and said, “I will go and tell them there is no Hell.” And Satan said, “That will not work either. Men know that there is right and wrong, and that wrong must be punished. They will not believe there is no Hell. You shall not go.”

Finally a small demon at the back of the meeting room stood and said, “I will tell men that there is a Heaven and there is a Hell. But then I will tell them that there is no hurry.” And Satan said, “Go!”

He’s still in our world and our minds today. Joshua is calling our people and church to follow the Lord into his future by faith. If our enemy cannot persuade us to refuse the Promised Land intended for us by our Father, he will do all he can to distract us, to lead us to complacency and delay. For he knows that “later” with God means “no” today.

For each of us, there is a call of God to go forward now. We each have a flooded river to cross if we would enter the purpose of God. Where is yours? What step will you take today?

Prepare to see the power of God (3:1-13)

We must build the fireplace before God can send the fire. A couple must prepare for a baby before an adoption agency will give one to them. Joshua and his people were called by God to prepare for his power before they would see it. So are we.

Trust in his presence (vs. 1-4)

Joshua’s officers began with this word to the nation: “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests who are Levites, carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it” (v. 3). This “ark” was the most sacred possession of the people. It was first built for the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:10-22), the portable sanctuary used by Israel until they came into their permanent homeland. Overlaid with gold, it was constructed with a golden angel at either end. Only four feet long by 2.5 feet wide and 2.5 feet deep, it was so sacred that it was carried on poles attached permanently to its sides, because no human was allowed to touch it. It contained the ten commandments, as well as a jar of manna from the wilderness (Exodus 16:33-34) and a copy of the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 31:24-26).

The ark was kept at Gilgal, Shechem, Bethel, Shiloh, and Keriath-Jearim before being placed permanently in Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem. It was the most significant symbol of the Jewish nation, much more than a flag to us, for it represented the throne and presence of Almighty God himself.

When the ark preceded the people, they would know that the Lord was present with them, marching at their front, leading them into the river and the land beyond. The ark gave them courage and faith to know that their Lord would indeed never leave or forsake them. But they must follow it at a distance of a thousand yards (v. 4), for it was too sacred for their close presence. So long as the ark went before, they could follow behind in confidence.

Today the ark is no more. Lost or destroyed in the Babylonian captivity, its fate has never been determined with certainty. Some Jewish archaeologists believe that it was stored by the rabbis in tunnels beneath the Temple Mount when the Babylonians were approaching, and awaits discovery at a time when the Muslim authorities permit such excavation. Others think it was taken with Jeremiah to Egypt in exile, or to Babylon. And some think the Jews destroyed it lest it fall into pagan hands. But no one is certain.

Nor is it needed now. Jeremiah told his people not to mourn the loss of the ark, but to trust in the God it represented. When the Messiah comes, the prophet promised, “men will no longer say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made. At that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the Lord, and all nations will gather in Jerusalem to honor the name of the Lord. No longer will they follow the stubbornness of their evil hearts” (Jeremiah 3:16-17). Now that the Messiah has arrived, his followers are God’s temple, with God’s Spirit living in us (1 Corinthians 3:16). His word is no longer kept in a box, but is alive in our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).

He is just as present in our lives as he was with their ark. As we step into the water of obedience, we can trust his presence and protection. He will lead us wherever we are to go. When we follow in reverent faith, the other side is sure.

Consecrate yourself (v. 5)

In preparing to see the power of God, the people must first believe that his presence would lead and protect them. Next, they must be ready spiritually to walk in that holy presence: “Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you'” (v. 5).

To them such “consecration” meant to wash their clothes and bodies, to abstain from sexual relations, and to prepare spiritually (Exodus 19:10, 14-15). To us it means preparation which is more spiritual than physical. At issue is not what we can see with our eyes, but what the Lord can see by his Spirit. In calling the Pharisees to such spiritual consecration, Jesus had to say to them, “on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:28). We must be clean in our hearts to be close to God with our lives.

How do we “consecrate ourselves” today? We ask the Holy Spirit to show us anything which is wrong between us and God, and write down what comes to mind. We then confess these sins specifically, humbly, and honestly to God, claiming the forgiveness he offers by grace (1 John 1:8-10). We throw away the paper in gratitude, and submit our wills and ambitions to his perfect purpose. We crown him our Lord anew, placing him on the throne of our hearts. We draw close to him, knowing that he will draw close to us.

You would prepare for any task which is significant to your life. Think back to a job interview, and the attention you gave to every detail of the day. If you are married, remember all the months of work invested in 30 minutes of wedding ceremony. Does our Father deserve less? If we are not experiencing the power of God in our lives and ministries, perhaps this is an issue worth examining. When we humble ourselves and pray, seek his face and turn from our sins, then our God can hear from heaven, forgive our sin, and heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Follow his leadership (vs. 6-8)

Leaders must lead. Paradoxically, no fact is more self-evident or as easily forgotten. We cannot ask others to go where we will not. And so our leaders must follow God before their people can follow them by faith.

Every person present that day on the banks of the flooded Jordan River was required to make a courageous step of faith. First Joshua himself (v. 7). He had one last chance to turn back, to step away from the bank and the failure it might represent. But God promised he would redeem his faith and exalt his leadership, and he did (4:14).

Next the priests, who would step into the river while it was still flooded, carrying the symbolic presence of the Lord into the torrent (v. 8). Theirs would be the first lives risked in faith. And then the people, who would follow on dry land.

God here promised a repeat of the Red Sea miracle, a physical manifestation of his universal power. People in these ancient times imagined local deities who lived and ruled in particular localities. Baal was the local god of the Canaanites, worshipped because they believed he defeated the sea-god on their behalf. They often tested the truthfulness of a person’s statement by throwing him into a river; if he drowned, Baal had punished him for his guilt. And so the flooded River was part of his domain, under his direct power.

The defeat of this river and its water-god would have enormous significance for the Canaanites on the other side. It was as though their water deity had lost to the Jewish God, who won the victory so his people could cross Baal’s boundary into his territory. If our president were to fight at the front lines of a battle on our national borders, and lose, the invading army would win a battle of enormous symbolic significance.

Here God would prove his claim to the Promised Land, by going before his people into the flooded river which marked its boundaries and staying there until the entire nation had crossed over. This would be an event of historic and enduring significance for Israel.

Expect all he promises (vs. 9-13)

Joshua made clear the theological and symbolic significance of what lay before the nation (vs. 9-11). Then he led the people to choose representatives to take part in what would soon occur, so that the entire population would be included in national leadership (v. 12).

And he offered the people his promise: when the priests stepped into the flooded river, its waters would be cut off (v. 13). He did not merely state that God had promised this would occur, so that if it did not the fault would lie with the Lord. He put his own character, integrity, and leadership on the line. He made this promise as his own, on the basis of the Lord’s word and power. He staked everything on the faithfulness of his God.

Such trust is essential to experiencing all that God wants to give. Not because we must earn his favor by our faith. Rather, because such trust positions us to receive all that God wants to bestow but cannot without our acceptance. A surgeon cannot perform a life-saving procedure unless the patient will trust in his skill. Such faith does not earn the surgery, but receives it.

In preparing to see the power of God, we trust in his abiding presence; we consecrate ourselves through confession and repentance; and we step out by faith, following his leadership so that we might receive the power he wishes to give. These steps are as essential to our experience with God as they were for Joshua and his people.

Step into the miracle (vs. 14-17)

The people broke camp and marched toward their future (v. 14). What did they find? The Jordan “at flood stage all during harvest” (v. 15a). The river flows north to south, over 200 miles from Mt. Hermon to the Dead Sea. It plunges nearly 2000 feet down across its journey, but typically flows in a peaceful, meandering stream.

However, every year the spring rains and melted snow from Mt. Hermon combined to turn the stream into a raging torrent. The harvest period was roughly between Easter and Pentecost; this event most likely occurred in early April.

And at a river now a mile wide, 12-15 feet deep, rushing by so swiftly that it promised to drown any who stepped into it. The cattle and possessions of the nation would be lost. The children would have no chance to survive. Few adults could expect to live through this flood. To the Canaanites, Baal would destroy the intruders before they ever stepped foot on his territory.

Now came the moment of history, with the future of the nation suspended in the balance. Picture the scene in your mind. The priests take up the Ark, grasping the poles which support its weight. They lift these poles to their shoulders. They march toward the river. They stop. No one speaks. You can hear only the pounding of the water as it rushes by, crashing against the shore. You can feel its spray against your face and smell the mist as it rises. It’s a torrent.

They don’t have to do this. They can stay where they are, secure and at ease. But they’ll never inherit the promises and power of God. They can try to find their own way across the river, but they’ll likely fail and drown. Or they can step out in faith. And they do.

Instantly, the pounding waters stop. The foam ceases, the spray dies. The river’s roar falls silent. All is quiet and still. And where only moments before there had been a deep, torrential river, now there lies before them a dry bed anyone can cross.

How did it happen? The river “piled up in a heap a great distance away at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan” (v. 16). Adam was some 20 miles upstream. The Jordan would take several hours to flow from there to here. And so God began this miracle hours before his people knew it or could participate in it.

Some have suggested a natural explanation, such as an earthquake. As the NavPress commentary states, such an earthquake occurred in the region in 1927, blocking the Jordan River for 20 hours (p. 52). But note that the moment the priests stepped into the river it stopped flowing (3:15), and that the moment they stepped out of the river bed, the flood began again (4:18). Such timing strains the explanation of a natural phenomenon beyond credulity. If God chose to use an earthquake, he clearly retained control over its force and exact timing, which is itself no less a miracle.

Now the people were required to demonstrate their own faith (v. 17). Would the flood stay blocked? Was it safe to step into the river bed? It would take the nation half a day to cross. Imagine parents with children in hand, all their worldly possessions at their side. What would your response have been?

Theirs was unanimous—the entire nation followed God by faith. They stepped into the miracle. And only when they did, could they see its power and experience its provision. It is still the same with us today.

Remember the future (4:1-24)

We exist to glorify God and enjoy him forever, as the Westminster Catechism correctly states. And so a miracle from God must be shared with as many as possible, to bring the Father the greatest glory. Not just those in our day, but those who will come after us. They will need the same encouragement we experience when we meet the power and presence of the God of the universe.

The steps are the same for our generation as they were for Joshua’s day. First, we find a way to share our faith with those who will follow us. God called for a man from each tribe to take twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, and use them to build a permanent memorial to the history-making event of this day. Stone monuments were common in the Old Testament era (24:26; 1 Samuel 7:12; 7:26; 24:26-27; Genesis 28:18-22; 31:45-47). And so each representative brought a stone which signified his tribe’s faith and faithfulness. And Joshua used them to build a monument to a miracle.

Note the courage required by this act. The flooded river was still stopped. The men were to walk in the river bed, holding a rock. No activity would be more disastrous if the flood returned. But they believed that God had not brought them this far to abandon them. So should we.

After the priests and their people crossed the river into their future, God anointed again their leader for the days and battles which would come (v. 14). For the rest of his life, Joshua and his nation would remember this day. Whenever fear about the future attacked, they would hearken back to that pile of stones made possible by the miraculous power of their God. And they would be encouraged.

After the stones of remembrance were secured, and the last person of the nation had left the river bed, the priests brought the ark of the covenant to the shore of the Promised Land. And immediately the Jordan returned to its flooded place, further proof that God was the director and orchestrator of the events of this epochal day. It all occurred “on the tenth day of the first month” (v. 19), evidence of the historical nature of this narrative. When biblical writers wish to speak in analogy or symbol, they avoid historical references such as dates and geographical locations. Here the writer makes clear the fact that these events are facts.

Joshua then presided over the service of remembrance, securing the miraculous nature of this day for all who would come after them. And he taught them the ultimate significance of the event: “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” (v. 24). God’s purposes are always global in significance. He cares not just for Jewish tribes on a riverbank 35 centuries ago, but for “all the peoples of the earth” this day.

He wants us to trust his power. And he wants us to “fear” him. To “fear the Lord” means to revere, to yield to or respect supremely. Such “fear” is the beginning of all true wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). And it is essential to the spiritual life. God can only give us what we will receive. Our hands must be empty of pride and self to be filled with the glory and presence of the Lord.

In 1961, J. B. Phillips published a small book which became a classic, Your God Is Too Small. According to him, some of us see God as a kind of policeman or parent, regulating our lives. Others see him as a grandparent, kind and benevolent but not very active in life. Others view him as the “grand old man” of heaven, waiting for us there but not much good down here. Still others identify him with a church building—a one-day-a-week sermon or religious event. And still others see him as the giant Clockmaker who made the universe and now watches apathetically as it all runs down.

How do you see God? As the creator of the universe, the One who still rules it today? The God who can stop any flooded river on any continent, at any point in history? The God who will guide, protect, and empower every child of his who is willing to walk in his purpose and will? What floods stand between you and your life purpose? Remember your future: the One who stilled the Jordan will calm your heart and change your circumstances this very day. Unless your God is too small.

Conclusion

You and I have only today to follow the Lord. Yesterday is gone and “tomorrow” does not yet exist. We cannot lead our classes or congregation further than we are willing to follow. Is there a step of faith before you just now? A commitment to which the Lord is calling you? A sacrifice of finances, time, or prestige? A greater work to be done for his greater glory?

The instant the priests stepped into the torrential flood, the waters stopped. Not a moment before. We must step by faith into the purpose of God before that purpose will come to pass. It has ever been so.

Noah builds an ark as God requires, when it’s likely never rained before. He spends a century at the task. He steps into the river by faith and saves a race. Abraham leaves his family, his home, and goes out “not knowing.” He doesn’t know where he’ll be until he arrives. He steps into the river by faith, and begins a nation. Moses stands before Pharaoh king of Egypt, and shouts, “Let my people go!” He doesn’t know what will happen until it does. He steps into the Red Sea by faith and leads a nation. Jesus heals a blind man after he washes in the river by faith; he heals a paralytic in the instant he takes up his mat to go home; he sends his Spirit at Pentecost only after his people have prayed in faith. We must step into the river before it will part.

Now you and I are led by another Joshua—Yeshua, Jesus—to the edge of a land and purpose promised to us. A land of abundant life, joy, and power, and the thrill and privilege of fulfilling the reason for our existence. But we must step out in faith, first. What is this step for you today?

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye

To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie.

All o’er those wide extended plains shines one eternal day;

There God the Son forever reigns and scatters night away.

I am bound for the promised land, I am bound for the promised land;

O who will come and go with me? I am bound for the promised land.

If you’ll step into the waters, they will part. This is the promise of God.