The last river to cross - Joshua 3

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the evening service on 8th June 2008.

Click here to read the bible passage. Click here to use larger text.

An audio recording of this sermon is available.

Click here to download and save for future listening

Well I want to start off this evening by telling you about a Christian family I know.  Not a family in Hull, but this family are strong Christians heavily involved in their local church and community.  They have 2 wonderful children; but there’s a problem;  they’re really struggling;  really struggling with parenting.  Maybe you can relate to that as well or know someone else who is?   So we’ve got a family struggling with parenting and then something else happens.  They have an accident and suddenly they’re expecting Number 3.    And the wife becomes hysterical.    She can’t cope with 2, how could she possible cope with 3?    In fact, she’s so hysterical that the doctors advise her to have an abortion.  Given her mental state, “it’s the moral thing to do”, she’s told.  “It would be unfair on yourself and the rest of your family not to have an abortion.”

But this lady’s a well taught Christian.  She knows that, whatever mess she’s in, having an abortion would be wrong.  God hasn’t promised her an easy life or a quick fix to her parenting problems;  but He has promised to be with her all the way, even in the darkest days of her despair and depression.  The Lord has promised to give us the strength to cope with whatever, in His sovereignty, he allows us to go through.  He has promised us that we won’t be tested beyond what we can bare in His strength.    So when the chips are down and obeying the Lord seems humanly impossible, are we going to trust and obey, or are we going to give up on God and give in to our seemingly impossible circumstances?

Because that’s precisely the issue going on in Josh 3. 


But before we get to Josh 3, we need to remember what’s been going on in the story so far.  So if you flip back to the beginning of chapter 1, you’ll see that Moses had led God’s people to the edge of the promised Land. But then he died.    The book of Deut closes by telling us what an amazing leader Moses had been.  No other leader had seen God face to face.  Deut concludes by telling us that “no other leader had shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”  Top that you might be thinking.  Or at least that’s what Joshua was probably thinking.  How can I possibly take on Moses’ legacy and lead God’s people onto the next stage of God’s plan for them?  Impossible!

And that’s why a key theme of chapter s 1-4 is God encouraging Joshua and the establishment of his leadership in the eyes of the people.    But as we’ve seen over the past 2 weeks, the other main theme is the Land; the Promised land that is.  The Land God had promised to give Abraham’s decedents.  And the book of Joshua is the detailed story of how God fulfils that ancient promise.  Of how God keeps his promise to give His people the Land of Canaan in the face of humanly impossible circumstances.   Circumstances like crossing the Jordan river.


Now I don’t know what your impression of the Jordan River is, if indeed you’ve ever thought about it.  Maybe it’s a bit like the river Hull you might be thinking right now:  a bit muddy, but not that deep, not that wide and not very fast moving.   And you’d be wrong.  The Jordan’s flood plain ranged from 200 yards to a mile wide.  The fords that crossed the main river channel ranged from 3-12 feet deep;  but it’s not just the river itself.  In Biblical times, all along the banks on both sides covering the flood plain would have been a tangled mass of jungle-type bushes and vegetation.  And so the fording points weren’t simply places to cross the river; no the fording points were like ancient motorways that’d been cut through the jungle to get to the river in the first place.    And that was when the river was behaving itself.  Because once at year, at harvest time, just like the River Nile, the River Jordan became a raging torrent and burst its banks.    And so in flood season, on each side of the main river channel was a flooded jungle swampland.  

No one in their right mind would have forded the river in flood season.  And any military leader who tried to lead his troops across the river at that time would have been strung up by his own troops.  Utter madness.     But look with me at 3:15

“3:15 Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest.”

And the implication of the text is that it’s harvest right now.  We’re in the flood season.   The time when it would be utter folly to try and cross the Jordan.  The people of Jericho we looked at last week, might have been scared.  But they must have thought they had at least a couple of month’s grace before the Israelite onslaught.    But God’s ways are not our ways.  Scan back to 1:11

11 "Go through the camp and tell the people, 'Get your supplies ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the LORD your God is giving you for your own.' "

And then back to 3:1

1 Early in the morning Joshua and all the Israelites set out from Shittim and went to the Jordan, where they camped before crossing over.

God’s ways are not our ways.  Indeed, God often delights in putting us in impossibly difficult circumstances so we learn a simple lesson.    We can’t get to the other side in our own strength.    Sometimes God places us in circumstances where we have to throw our hands up and say:  I can’t cope this.    I can’t cope with another baby.  I can’t cope with my job.  I can’t cope with leading this Bible study or whatever it is that God’s called you to do.  And God’s answer is often:  I know you can’t – not on your own.  But my power is made perfect in weakness.    And the more proud and self-reliant we are, the more painful that lesson is going to be when God summons us for a real-life tutorial.    And so when you’re on the edge of a flooded jungle swamp and God says, OK time to cross over, is it time to trust and obey?  Or do you look at the realities before your eyes and say:  utter madness;  you must be joking.

But of course, God’s commands are no joking matter.  And now we’ve seen the big picture,  let’s take a more detailed look at the text.     

1.      The Lord Prepares His people (v1-6)

So first of all in v1-6, we see that the Lord prepares His people for what’s ahead.  The Lord prepares His people.    And he does that in 2 ways;  first of all in v2-4, he gets them to focus on the Lord’s presence.  And secondly in v5, he gets them to reflect on the Lord’s teaching.

a.      Focus on the Lord’s presence (v2-4)

So the first way the Lord prepares his people is to get them to focus on His presence among them.  Look with me at v2:

2 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 priests, who are Levites, carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it.

But then in v4, the NIV doesn’t follow the order of the Hebrew text.  More closely to the original, v4 reads:

“Only there is to be a distance of about 2/3 of a mile;  don’t go near it, in order that you know the way in which you are to go”. 

 In chapter s 3 & 4 you can’t get away from the ark of the covenant.  Overall, it’s mentioned 17 times in these 2 chapters alone.    So what was the ark?     Well it was the visible symbol of The Lord’s presence.  The place where the infinite creator of the universe physically manifested himself and dwelt among His people.    In times of great stress and anxiety about the future, God’s people need constant reminders of the Lord’s presence among them.  And so we’ve got 17 such reminders in these chapters.  But what’s the function of the Lord’s presence in v2-4?  Well listen again to v4:

“Only there is to be a distance of about 2/3 of a mile;  don’t go near it, in order that you know the way in which you are to go”. 

When you’re driving along  a motorway you get lots of signs don’t you?  Signs telling you what’s coming up at the next junction, or those new digital signs that tell there’s heavy traffic on the M18 or whatever.  But if you get too close to the sign before you spot it, you can’t read it properly or you might miss your junction completely. 

And that’s the function of the ark here in v4.  When the Lord was leading his people out of Egypt, through the Red sea and on towards the promised Land, He manifested himself in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  And that’s how the Lord led and directed His people.  A sort of giant moving motorway signpost.  And that’s what the Lord is doing here in v4.  It’s both a reassuring symbol of the Lord’s presence.  But it’s also a challenging signpost telling them that he really did want them to cross the Jordan and move on to take possession of the Promised Land.    So the Lord prepares His people for the task ahead firstly in v2-4 by focusing them on His presence;  a presence that give reassurance and direction. 

b.      Reflect on the Lord’s teaching (v5)

 And then secondly in v5, he prepares His people by getting them to reflect on His teaching.  Because in v5, Joshua tells the people to "Consecrate themselves”, before the big day tomorrow.’

And the command to consecrate themselves come again in 7:13;  and the context there is that the whole nation of God’s people were being prepared to deal with a serious incident of sin and disobedience that had just happened.    And when this word “consecrate” is used in other parts of the OT, it’s often also connected with repentance and confession.    And the point is, that what was going to happen the next day wasn’t just another item on Monday’s to do list.  There was a danger that God’s people could get so rapped up in the detail of what was about to happen that they’d miss the main point.  The point that the Lord was leading them in the Land he'd promised their forefathers many many years before. 

But it was more than that.    Entry into the Land had something to do with repentance and confession;  or rather, how God would deal with the problem of His people’s sin.  Entry into the Promised land was like part 2 of the Exodus.  It was all part of God’s plan of redemption.  The Lord has saved His people from the slavery in Egypt, brought them through the Red sea, through the desert, on through the raging torrent of the River Jordan and into the Promised Land.  The Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan are like the slices of bread in a sandwich.  Without both slices, it’s not a proper sandwich.    And in 4:23, Joshua spells out the connection between the crossing of both the Red Sea and the Jordan to make sure we’ve got the point. 

And so back in 3:5, the point was that the night before they cross the Jordan, they were to slow down and take time to reflect:  reflect on what had happened and what was about to happen.    To reflect on God’s promises and how they’d already been fulfilled and were being fulfilled before their very eyes.  To see how it was all part of God’s plan for their salvation.  Yes salvation from the slavery of Egypt;  but ultimately, salvation from their slavery to sin and its consequences;  salvation from God’s just wrath against their sins in hell that is.  And if they didn't take time to reflect on the Lord’s teaching, then the events would wiz by and they’d miss their significance.    All through the Bible there are examples of people who see the Lords’ great miracles and deeds with their own eyes, yet still fail to be moved by them;  still fail to have trusting faith in the God behind the miracles and so miss out on the ultimate miracle of salvation.

In the traditional Anglican communion service, the confession always comes before we take communion itself.  And that’s because in 1 Cor 11, Paul says that we are to examine ourselves before we take communion so that we don’t take it in an unworthy manner.  We are to take time to reflect on what Communion is all about:  a memorial of the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross; we to remember that on the cross Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of all God’s people for all time.  We to remember that by His death on the cross, Jesus made it possible for us to be forgiven.  To remember that the cross was the great redemption event that the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land simply foreshadowed.    And so we need to come to the Lord’s table with the right attitude;  a humble, penitent and thankful heart that is reflecting on what the Lord Jesus Christ achieved for us:  forgiveness and guarantee of eternal life in the Promised Land of the New Creation.     And when we do that, we’re encouraged in the faith and prepared for our future acts of service in obedience to the Lord’s commands.   

The Lord’s prepared His people then;  firstly by getting them to focus on His presence, and then secondly here in v5, by getting them to reflect on His teaching about salvation and redemption. 

2.      The Lord encourages His people (v7-13)

When brings us more briefly to the text’s second main point in v7-13:  the Lord encourages His people.    First of all in v7, the Lord encourages Joshua. 

7 And the LORD said to Joshua [in v7], "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.

Remember the tall order Joshua has been called to take on.  To step into Moses’ shoes and lead God’s people.  To carry on where Moses left off when he died just outside the Promised Land.  And now Joshua’s about to lead his troops through the Jordan at the worst time of the year.  And the question is, would the people follow Joshua as they’d followed Moses?   ‘Was Joshua God-endorsed in the way Moses was’, they might have been thinking at the time.   Can we trust this chap to lead us properly?  And the Lord says to Joshua:  I know how you’re feeling;  how you feel you can never live up to Moses’ legacy.  I know all about the mutterings in the congregation;  I know what some people are saying about you, questioning whether you’re up to the job and all that.  So be encouraged:  I really have called you;  Moses was simply my servant and now you’re my servant.  And I will publically establish and confirm your leadership among the people so there’s no doubt.  Don’t fear the people;  be strong and courageous;  fear me;  trust and obey me and leave me to worry about getting the people to follow you. 

So the Lord encourages Joshua in v7, and then in v8 he encourages the people: 

8 Tell the priests who carry the Ark of the Covenant: 'When you reach the edge of the Jordan's waters, go and stand in the river.' "

And down to v13:

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."

When we’re in a difficult situation and we ask the Lord to help us, what do we often pray for?  Please Lord get rid of this problem or obstacle.  Please Lord heal me or get rid of whatever problem or inconvenience I’ve got in my life.  Like when Paul prayed 3 times for the Lord to remove the thorn in His flesh.    But often the Lord’s answer to such prayers is not to get rid of the problem, but to give us the grace and strength to get through the problem.   My power is made perfect in weakness he told the apostle Paul.     And that’s what’s going on here.  You've got to cross the Jordan.    There’s no way round it or over it –no bridges in those days. No they had to get through the raging torrent of the Jordan in full flood. 

So the priests carrying the ark are told to go up to the river carrying the ark and wade into it.  And as soon as they do, as soon as their feet touch the water, the river will be cut off upstream.   It seems like madness.  The ark was heavy.  They could be washed away by the current.  Would they trust God and do what seems like a crazy thing?  

But even if they got to the other side, they’d have an ever bigger challenge:  to take on the fortified city of Jericho and then drive out all the well-armed inhabitants of the Promised Land: the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites.  

And so what God’s basically saying in v9-13 is this:  I’ll get you through the Jordan just as I’ve  promised, but against all human odds.  And that will give you the confidence to trust the rest of my promises for the future:  the promise that I really will drive out the inhabitants of the Promised Land so you can move in and take it over.    

And that’s still the pattern for us under the NC.  If we’re Christians, God promises us a new and permanent home in the Promised Land of the New Creation.  A prefect world just like this one, but without the bad bits.    A perfect new world where we’ll have perfect new resurrection bodies that will last for ever;  no more heart attacks, disease and death.  Perfect. 

And some of you might be sitting there thinking:  yeah right.    But that’s what God has promised.  And if we’re having trouble believing those promises, then he tells us to look back in history:  look at how many of my promises have already been fulfilled in the past.  See how faithful I am;  faithful in every way;  or faithful in every promise as Joshua would put it.  And when we see God’s faithfulness in the past, that gives us a massive encouragement to trust the promises that are still in the future for us.  Promises like an eternity in the New Creation. 

But, just like the Israelites, we need to act on the basis of those promises.  We need to step out in obedience and take hold of what’s been promised.    Because if we disobey the Lord’s commands, then as we see in the rest of Joshua and the OT, we’ll personally forfeit the promised blessings.  The Lord always keeps His promises to His people.  But His people are defined by those who have faith in him and his promises.  So let me ask you:   are you one of His people:  are you trusting in the Lord’s promise of forgiveness and salvation; in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ alone.    And even if you are, what else is the Lord challenging you about in your Christian life?  What issue of obedience is He putting His finger on tonight?  Are there areas in your life you’re not fully trusting Him?   Because there’s no excuse.  He’s provided every encouragement we need.  The Lord encourages His people then;  both the leaders and everyone else.

3.      The Lord fulfils His promises to His people (v14-17)

And so finally, and even more briefly, in v14-17, we see that the Lord fulfils His promises.  In v14, the people break camp and the priests take the lead in carrying the ark.  And just as they were commanded, they head for the jungle;  the raging torrent of the river Jordan.  And no doubt with many arrow prayers, they step into the river.  And, just as the Lord had promised, at that precise moment in v16, the waters from upstream stop flowing and before long, the raging Jordan disappears.  And before long, the baking sun would have dried the river bed into a motorway through the jungle for God’s people;  so they followed the motorway signs at a distance to make sure they were going the right way:  on towards Jericho on the other side of the Jordan.    Look with me at v17: 

17 The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.

God kept His promise.  Because God always keeps His promises.  But the challenge for God’s people then and now is to trust and obey Him in the light of those promises.  Even when those promises and commands seem out of this world.  Utter madness even.    God always keeps His promises;  and when we’re tempted to doubt that, let’s remember Joshua and the Jordan.  Let’s remember that no obstacle is too big for the Lord to overcome.  And let’s remember that the Lord often deliberately magnifies the obstacles so we’ll trust Him even more when we see Him overcoming them.    What an amazing God we have.   And so as we close let me ask you again:  is this your God?  And if it is, are you trusting Him as you should;  not just for your salvation, but in the details of life in this world too.  Let’s have a few moments of quiet reflection before I close in prayer.   Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Dear Heavenly Father, thank you that you are totally sovereign not just over the universe you created but also over all the details of our everyday lives.  Help us to trust your promises for the future, knowing that you’ve made every necessary preparation and provide us with every encouragement we need.  Help us to focus on your presence through the Holy Spirit and to reflect on your teaching, so that we might trust you more fully and praise you more joyfully.  In Jesus name we pray, Amen. 

Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.