Joshua 3:1-17

Then Joshua rose early in the morning and they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. At the end of three days the officers went through the camp and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.” Then Joshua said to the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” And Joshua said to the priests, “Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on before the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. And as for you, command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’ ” And Joshua said to the people of Israel, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God.” 10 And Joshua said, “Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites. 11 Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. 12 Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. 13 And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap.”

14 So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, 15 and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water (now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest), 16 the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho. 17 Now the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and all Israel was passing over on dry ground until all the nation finished passing over the Jordan. [1]

The title of the sermon this morning comes from verse 5 where Joshua calls to people to consecrate themselves, “for the Lord will do wonders among you.” The New International Version translates this phrase as “amazing things.” Literally, the phrase means “things at which to be astounded.” Those translations help us to understand the sense of amazement and wonder this chapter intends to convey as God provides a way through the Jordan for his people to enter the land.

This is a major event in Israel’s story arising from the promise given to Abraham so long ago: “To your offspring I will give this land.” This is also a major steppingstone in salvation-history as the next stage in God’s covenant relationship with Israel swings into action. Whatever we learn from these two chapters that cover the crossing of the Jordan, we must never forget the wonder of God’s mighty acts and never stop recalling and proclaiming them.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the details of the river crossing and its memorialization. A quick read of the text also appears somewhat repetitive and slightly confusing. That is partly intentional. The verb meaning “to cross” has been used 22 times. The storyteller’s technique sometimes involves returning to a part of the narrative that he closed earlier, so he can develop the instructional purpose of his writing. Also, there is a pattern to the units that form a whole.

First, God takes the initiative by giving his word and commandments to Joshua. Next Joshua passes on the word of the Lord to the people, telling them what God is going to do. Then the writer tells us just how God fulfills what he has promised, and at the end of each section there is a summary looking back to God’s faithful fulfillment and forward to the next stage of the storyline. In this way the author sustains the excitement and astonishment as the details of the events are described and unpacked.

In chapter 3 we see the preparations that the people had to make to cross the river, followed by the crossing itself and God’s miraculous provision. Chapter 4 also divides in two, with the focus of the lifting of the memorial stones from the riverbed being followed by the memorial at Gilgal.


Then Joshua rose early in the morning, and they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over.” Behind this rather plain description in 3:1, the author intends for us to sense the mixture of anticipation, excitement, and suspense running through the Israelite camp. They have spent considerable time at Shittim. Now, they are on the move towards the flooding river. But no word has come as to how they are to cross it.

Then there comes a three-day pause (3:2). The pause allows the impossibility of the task before them to sink deeply into their thoughts. Seeming delays can have the greater purpose of refining and deepening our faith. We cannot underestimate the challenge that the river presented to them. In verse 15, we read “now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest.” This river is no babbling brook. It is a fast flowing, swirling flood, probably between 10 and 12 feet deep during this season.

Walking across or swimming are not an option. Rafts are an impossibility since wood is scarce, and engineers are not yet able to create an arched stone bridge or tunnel under the channel. Remember this is an entire nation. There are wives and children, animals and baggage and a total of about 2.5 million people that need to cross. The command to cross was given and Joshua began to obey. They have no idea how it will happen, but they take the next logical step forward in obedience to God’s command and leave the outcome with him. This is a great lesson on how to live out Christianity in trust and obedience.

There is an old preacher’s saying that God often opens his hand one finger at a time. We see that happening here. It is enough to see the next step and to trust God for what we cannot yet see. In fact, that is the essence of true faith – to trust what we cannot see because “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2nd Corinthians 5:7). Isaiah sang, “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10). Two ingredients can and do coexist: walking in darkness and trusting in the Lord’s name (his nature).

In verse 3 we read, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it.” The ark of the covenant is the symbol of the Lord’s presence among his people, acting in the role of leader and guide. The ark is carried by human agents, but the One whose presence it symbolizes is the One who gives instructions to the bearers.

Again we see this continuing principle for covenant fellowship. It is not our job to second guess what God will do, any more than it is to argue about how he could possibly do it. We simply have to follow. Trust gathers up all our cares and anxieties in the knowledge that God has taken responsibility for our future and every step ahead of us. Faith leaves it all with God.

We must never give up what we do know because of what we don’t know. Even though we don’t know how God’s faithfulness and power will be revealed or how he will work out our circumstances, we do know that he is our God and that he is committed to us by his unbreakable covenant promise and that his love is as great as his power, knowing neither measure nor end.

In 3:4-6, The author draws our attention to three specific ingredients of Israel’s faithful waiting for and on God. The first is that they submit to his instructions, which meant looking to the ark and not at the river. In that gold-covered ark were the tablets of the law, the covenant God made with his people, the outward invisible sign of the very terms on which God lived in the midst of his people. They have to keep their distance (about a half-mile) for reasons of visibility, but also as a reminder that God is holy and that sinners cannot freely come within his presence.

Second, they are commanded to “consecrate” themselves (3:5). The author doesn’t tell us what they did to consecrate themselves, but in Exodus 19:10 consecration involved washing their clothing as well as concentrating on and renewing their dependence upon God. They are about to have a new experience, so they have to submit to God and follow, with their eyes focused on the ark.

Third, they must specifically obey (4:6). The priests show this obedience. They do what Joshua tells them to do. Our society doesn’t like to wait. Sometimes we don’t want to set our lives apart for the Lord, for his exclusive use. Often, we don’t want to allow any sort of distance because we imagine that we know our own way and don’t need step by step guidance. Three days of consecration seems especially difficult for our instant generation where we want everything sorted out and guaranteed before we start.

This chapter reminds us that we are not writing our own agenda. That is the Lord’s job. What he demands from us is submissive obedience that desires his glory rather than our own and is content to fulfill whatever role he is pleased to assign us.

GOD’S WAYS (3:7-13)

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” The past tense here (the Lord said) likely places this more detailed instruction before the events about which we have just spoken. God had already said these words to Joshua as the basis for verses 3 through 6. He clearly revealed more to Joshua than his recorded, but the emphasis is on God’s purposes in orchestrating events in this way.

For Joshua, it is further confirmation of the promises we read in chapter one that the Lord will be with him as he was with Moses. That carries the assurance to the nation that he is the divinely appointed successor as God “begins to exalt” him (3:7). God is going to park the waters of the flooding Jordan river to enable Israel to cross into the promised land, just as he parted the waters of the red sea to enable their exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14).

But wait, there’s more! God could have brought them over in the dry season or at a different point where the river fords would be comparatively shallow. But God chose the most improbable time and location because his deeper purpose was to show himself trustworthy to his people. They come into the land solely because of the miracle that is about to be described, and this is designed to teach them the essential principle that only by the same supernatural, divine power of their covenant God will the whole land be conquered and become their possession.

The priests, carrying the ark, are to advance to the river’s edge and “stand still” there (3:8). The people are now told that the ark of the Lord will be their forerunner, going over the Jordan ahead of them. They have to physically follow behind it. They are taking the first steps in the long journey that will lead to the expulsion of the seven tribal groups named in verse 10. That may seem like an even more impossible task, but the God who piles up waters can most certainly give them the land.

Remember that driving out the nations was an act of righteous judgment. God promised Abraham that his descendants would return to the land of Canaan centuries later when the sins of the Amorites had reached their fullness (Genesis 15:16). So the Israelites are to be the instrument by which the land is judged and purged of the gross immorality and idolatrous occultism that characterized all of Canaanite culture.

It is because the entire earth belongs to God, as do all souls alive in it, and because he has purposes of unimaginable grace for Abraham’s seed and all the families of the earth that the time for the conquest had arrived. He is in practice, as well as in affirmation, “the Lord of all the earth” (3:11).

Finally, in 3:13, the author describes the nature of the forthcoming wonder, a manifestation of supernatural creative power. Soon as the priests’ feet touch the rivers flow, the waters “shall be cut off from flowing.” For the first time we readers are given a glimpse of what God is about to do, and it is amazing. All miracles by definition are extraordinary, but this is beyond human ability or comprehension and has no explanation except divine power. The fact that it is announced before it happens is confirmation of its divine origin. Nothing in the text indicates a natural cause for the dry river.

It stretches us to imagine this scene, but trying to account for it in human terms is impossible. God is going to prove himself as Lord of all the earth, powerful above all the elements of nature, so that the Israelites will have no doubt that the waters, though naturally liquid, become stable in obedience to his will.


Consider for a moment the faith and courage of the priests as they advanced carrying the ark toward a raging river. The banks are muddy and slippery, they could easily slip or be swept away by the current. The author pictures this for us in 3:14, 15. “14 So when the people set out from their tents to pass over the Jordan with the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people, 15 and as soon as those bearing the ark had come as far as the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water….”

Pressing on in trust and obedience, the priests reached the river. Nothing had changed. The river was still flooding. But as soon as they took the next step of obedience and put their feet in the river, the promised miracle happened exactly as predicted, the Spirit of God hovered over the raging waters and the priests “stood firmly on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan” (3:17) as God separated the waters and the land.

The entire nation of Israel passed over in safety as the waters remained heaped up. Imagine the fear and wonder of the Israelites who were being saved in the midst of death. For what was that collected heap of water but a grave in which the whole multitude would have been buried, had the waters resumed their torrent? Surely, they recalled the Egyptian army being drowned in the Red Sea when God removed his protective hand that held back the waters.

Adam, the village beside the town of Zarethan (3:16) was thought to have been about 20 miles upstream from Jericho, which would have created a very wide crossing for the whole nation. But 2.5 million people, animals, and property would have taken at least several hours to make the crossing. The final portion of chapter 3 focuses on the role of the ark in this supernatural event. While the ark is in the river and the priests stand firmly on dry ground, the nation is safe, and they swarm across.

It’s reasonable to assume that spies from Jericho, hidden in the hills, would have rushed home that day to talk about seeing all those people crossing the impossible barrier on the dry riverbed. God does wonders for his people, and what he promises by his Word, he accomplishes by his power, sealing his predictions by his actions. Who could imagine a more magnificent, glorifying beginning to the conquest of the land?

What we call a miracle is simply God being God. It is his universe and there is nothing that can stand against his will. God can and does perform miracles. But we should not presume that our particular set of difficulties will melt away by divine intervention. The fact that God can do the seemingly impossible does not mean that he always will. We cannot draw an unconditional promise from this text that will be valid for all God’s people in all the varied challenges and complexities of life in this broken world.

After the Israelites crossed over the Jordan, they had to use normal human methods to carry on their lives. That particular miracle never re-occurred. It remains a singular miracle. It’s easy for us to read the Old Testament incorrectly and suffer disappointment. When we continue to do that, it can begin to shipwreck our faith. Our tendency is to read ourselves into this story, looking for some point of similarity or coincidence with our present circumstances.

Life in this sin cursed world will always present difficulties, and sometimes these seem impossible, like a river in full flood barring our way to the fulfillment and enjoyment we tell ourselves must be God’s best for us. So, we read ourselves as the children of Israel in our interpretation of the story, and we put ourselves in their sandals on the brink of our “river,” believing that God will miraculously intervene remove our impassable barriers.

But then he doesn’t. And we ask why. Maybe we have not consecrated ourselves enough, or our record of obedience is not impressive enough, or perhaps God isn’t really interested in us after all, or perhaps the promises have no real benefit for me. That is what happens when we try to draw the line directly from a unique event in salvation-history to our everyday individual experience.

That is the wrong line to draw. The question we should be asking primarily in any Old Testament narrative like this is, what is God teaching us about himself? That is the strong and direct line from the biblical text to our own lives. Whatever God reveals of himself in the narrative remains true for us today. His character is eternal and unchanging, so we are to allow the story to instruct us about God before we rush to put ourselves in the picture. The Bible is God’s book about God long before it is God’s book about us.

No Bible narrative was written specifically about you. You can learn a great deal from these narratives, but you can never assume that God expects you to do exactly the same things that Bible characters did, or have the same things happen to you that happened to them. It is not a measure of our faith as to whether or not we can convince ourselves that God will part the waters for our “Jordan” by some divine intervention.

That may not be his best purpose for us at all. New Testament promises are clearly intended for God’s people at all times are there for us to claim in faithful prayer, expecting that the Lord will be faithful to his word. But we are not free to construct promises of miraculous intervention for ourselves from a narrative like Joshua 3 and 4. So, what does this passage have to say to us? The answer is very much.

It teaches us that our God is the Lord of heaven and earth, of time and eternity. He works all things in the history of planet earth according to the purpose of his will, and “all things” includes every circumstance of our individual lives. Romans 8:28 makes this point perfectly: “and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Sometimes we fail to see that verse in its immediate context and misunderstand or forget what God’s purpose actually is. We want to assume that it must be our own well-being and happiness as his dearly loved children. But the next verse shows us that it is richer and deeper than that: “for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son” (Romans 8:29). His purpose is to restore the defaced image of God in us, his redeemed human creation, to make us more like the Lord Jesus Christ.

That is how we are to face our crises and adversities. We see them as the transformation process that God knows we need to become increasingly dependent on him and so he may produce the fruit of Christ’s life within us. Seeing our lives from that perspective, Joshua 3 is immediately strengthening, both in our understanding of God’s purposes and our confidence in his total wisdom and ability to bring them to a glorious and successful conclusion.

That will also change our view of the world around us, in our own moment in time, as we see our little lives caught up in something much greater than our immediate needs or circumstances. We are part of the universal kaleidoscope of the purposes of the sovereign Lord as he carries out the plans by which his eternal Kingdom will be revealed and established. And he is the God of the impossible, as this chapter reveals.

The tide of anti-God forces may be in full flood in our time and in our place, but it is not outside God’s control. The same is true of the overwhelming problems and pressures that may impact any local congregation of God’s people or any individual believer. God still makes a way for those whom he moves to consecrate themselves to him and to trust and obey him. Our job, like the Israelites, is to keep our eyes on the symbol of God’s covenant mercy and faithfulness that leads us in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has promised never to leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the ark of the old covenant. He is not the symbol of God’s presence with us, he is Immanuel; he is God with us.

As St Author of Hebrews wrote: “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.[2]

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jos 3:1–4:7. In verse 15, we read “

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 12:1–2.