Crossing Jordan

Joshua 3

May 5, 2019 | Ray Pritchard

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The Jordan River occupies a unique place in Christian music. For centuries poets and musicians have used the river to represent great spiritual truth. For instance, we have this Welsh hymn written by William Williams in 1771:

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death and hell’s Destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.

Samuel Stennett of England penned these familiar words:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.

 Then there are the spirituals:

Deep river,
My home is over Jordan.

Deep river,
My home is over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord.
I want to cross over into campground.

 And this one:

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.

 Johnny Cash made this song famous:

When I come to the river at the ending of day
When the last winds of sorrow have blown
There’ll be somebody waiting to show me the way
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone

I won’t have to cross Jordan alone

I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
Jesus died all my sins to atone

In the darkness I see he’ll be waiting for me
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone

 Finally, we have these familiar words:

And when my task on earth is done,
When, by thy grace, the victory’s won,
E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
Since God through Jordan leadeth me.

Joshua 3 tells the story of the crossing of the Jordan River. We can begin by asking an important question: Why does this particular river matter so much? The answer is that the Jordan River serves as a boundary marker. The people of God had to cross that river to enter the Promised Land. In fact, that’s the very first thing God said to Joshua:

Moses my servant is dead.
           Now then, you and all these people,
get ready to cross the Jordan River
           into the land I am about to give to them” (Joshua 1:2).

 Joshua 3 emphasizes a great truth: God’s work must be done God’s way in order to receive God’s blessing. It’s not just getting across the river that matters. It must be done in such a way that God receives the glory. God will bless anyone who does his work his way. And that blessing will be withheld from those who think they have a better idea.

Joshua records the miracle of the crossing in seven steps. Let’s see how the story unfolds.

1) They waited three days.       

Early in the morning Joshua
           and all the Israelites set out from Shittim
and went to the Jordan,
           where they camped before crossing over.
After three days the officers went throughout the camp (vv. 1-2).

Waiting may be the hardest discipline of the Christian life.
Most of us would rather do anything than wait.
Some of us would rather do the wrong thing than wait.

Waiting may be the hardest part of the Christian life

God makes his people wait in order to teach them that if he doesn’t’ come through for them, they will never make it on their own. We need to remember that truth. What would have happened on Day 1 or Day 2 if Joshua had decided to go ahead on his own? It would have been a total disaster.

Waiting time is never wasted time if you are waiting on the Lord.

2)  Joshua put the ark in front of the people.

 “When you see the ark of the covenant
           of the Lord your God,
           and the Levitical priests carrying it,
you are to move out from your positions and follow it.
Then you will know which way to go,
           since you have never been this way before.
But keep a distance of about two thousand cubits
           between you and the ark; do not go near it” (vv. 3-4).

Joshua 3 mentions the ark of the covenant nine times. That means the ark is more important than anything else in the story. It was a chest with a gold top called the Mercy Seat. The ark contained the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod that budded, and a pot of manna. It represented the gracious presence of God with his people.

The Lord instructed Joshua to keep a distance of 2000 cubits (about a half-mile) between the people and the ark. This emphasizes the holiness of God. If Israel truly wanted God’s guidance, the people must learn to treat the Lord with respect.

Treat the Lord with respect!

Note the reason given in the text: “Since you have not been this way before.” Let’s be clear on the main point: Only God knows where we should go. We make our plans, but God determines our steps. Everyone reading this message has some idea about the future. We have our hopes and dreams and our big ideas. But when all is said and done, only God knows which way we should go. That’s a crucial point because, like the ancient Israelites, we have not been this way before.

It is a great advance spiritually to come to the place where you admit how little you know about the future. You’re not as smart as you think you are, and neither am I. But that’s okay because Jesus knows where we are, and he knows where we need to be tomorrow and the next day and the next, all the way to the end.

3) The people consecrated themselves. 

“Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you’” (v. 5).

To consecrate means to set apart as holy. In the Old Testament, it often involved external cleansing. The Jews were to remove dirty garments and replace them with clean ones. Why does that matter? Why should God care what the people wear? Outward consecration pictures the need for inner cleansing. You clean up on the outside because you need to clean up on the inside.

We must first consecrate ourselves to the Lord

God is telling the Jews they aren’t ready for the miracle yet. God has work to do in them before he can do work for them. Is this the reason we don’t see more “amazing things” from the Lord? Are you ready for God to do “amazing things” in your life? Consecrate yourself by confessing your sins and rededicating your life to the Lord.

4) They crossed when the river was at flood stage. 

“So when the people broke camp to cross the Jordan, the priests carrying the ark of the covenant went ahead of them. Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest” (vv. 14-15).

This miracle happened during the spring when the snowmelt from Mount Hermon and other mountains raises the level of the river. If you’ve ever been to the Holy Land, you know the Jordan River is not particularly impressive. During most of the year, it is only 100 feet wide and 5-10 feet deep. But during harvest season in ancient times, the water stretched perhaps a mile across and 40 feet deep in places. When Jeremiah wrote about the Jordan River, he mentions the “thickets of Jordan” (Jeremiah 12:5), referring to the tangled growth of the willow and the tamarisk that formed an almost impenetrable barrier. During harvest season, the river plain became a vast marsh. You’ve got a raging current in the middle of the river, and then you have water that spreads out for nearly a mile, encompassing the thickets and creating an impassable barrier.

That’s the situation Joshua faced as he contemplated the crossing. There was no human strategy that would get the people to the western side of the river. But if they did not cross somehow, the Promised Land would forever remain out of their reach.

Joshua had no secret plan

Joshua had no secret plan in his back pocket. The Jews didn’t know how to navigate the dangerous waters of the Jordan. They only had God’s promise, and they had the memory of what the Lord did at the Red Sea. But that happened 40 years ago. Could they trust God in this situation, as their ancestors had trusted when the Egyptian army had them cut off, and the Red Sea stood between them and their deliverance?

What does faith look like when we can’t find a way forward? Faith means trusting God when your circumstances make no sense to you. We all come to crisis moments sooner or later. The “how” is none of our business. God is not obligated to explain himself to you. He arranges life that way on purpose. What do you do when God hems you in? Keep your eyes on him!

5) The priests entered the water before the miracle took place.

“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’” (v. 8).

Suppose you are one the priests appointed to carry the ark of the covenant. That’s a high privilege and the greatest honor you can receive. You feel great about it until you hear the Lord wants you to go and stand in the river.

The raging river.
The overflowing river.
The river bounded by thickets.

Why stand in the river?

That makes no sense. Why stand in the river? Why not stand near the river? What if the water washes you away? What if you can’t swim?

But there will be no miracle until the priests enter the water carrying the ark of the covenant. God arranged it that way so that their faith would move them from safety to danger. It was a test: “Anyone can trust me on dry ground. Will you trust me enough to stand in the water?”

It is the same for us today. There will be no miracle until we move. My favorite definition of faith goes like this: Faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part. Sure, we all have doubts. Who doesn’t? Nothing in life is certain. We pray and pray, but we’re not sure how things will turn out. If you wait for 100% certainty, you will wait forever. So how does faith work? God responds to those who partly believe, partly doubt, but take their heart in their hands and act on the belief part.

Why go into the water? If God wants to work a miracle, he can do it just as well when we are standing on dry ground. That’s true, of course, but God often asks us to do the impossible. When Jesus worked the miracle of feeding the 5000, he began by telling his disciples, “Give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). That was impossible. They found a lad with five loaves and two fish. That’s all they had, but that was enough. Jesus took the little they had and multiplied it until they fed everyone and had 12 basketfuls left over.

God routinely asks us to do the impossible

God routinely asks us to do the impossible, so that when it is done, he alone gets the credit. That’s what is happening here.

“You want a miracle? Go stand in the water!”
“That’s crazy, Lord.”
“Just do it.”

Remember, they don’t know what’s about to happen. When we read the story, we know how it ends so this may not seem like a big deal. But it’s all to their credit that the priests did not hesitate to obey the Lord.

6) The water stood in a heap.

“The water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away, at a town called Adam in the vicinity of Zarethan, while the water flowing down to the Sea of the Arabah (that is, the Dead Sea) was completely cut off” (v. 16).

It’s early in the morning. Light streaming from the east fills the sky. The vast waters of the Jordan roll onward, the river standing between God’s people and the Promised Land. Two million Jews prepare to cross the river, not knowing how they will do it. Silence settles on the people as they consider the mile-wide river. The walls of Jericho shimmer in the distance.

A little group emerges and begins to march toward the river. The priests in white robes carry the ark of the covenant on poles resting on their shoulders. Everyone watches as the men come closer and closer to the water.

They march in a straight line. Down the bank they go, with the water flowing before them. As their feet enter the water, the river stops flowing from the north. It is as if the Lord reached down and turned off the spigot. It was a pure miracle of God. The water stopped flowing because it was heaped up at a place called Adam, approximately 17 miles north of the crossing. Meanwhile, the water to the south continues to flow into the Dead Sea.

The miracle happened after they obeyed, not before

This miracle happened after they obeyed, not before. If the priests had not stepped into the raging torrent, no one would have crossed that day. Only after they obeyed did the water back up in a heap.

How exactly did this happen? Perhaps the best explanation comes in Joshua 3:11 where Joshua calls God “the Lord of all the earth.” That’s the first time this phrase is used in the Bible. It’s a statement of God’s absolute sovereignty. When the Creator speaks, the Jordan River obediently rolls up in a heap. It’s as simple as that.

7) The entire nation crossed on dry ground.

“While all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground” (v. 17b).

If there were over 2 million people, it would take hours to get everyone across. But no matter. The miracle lasted until every single Jew crossed the river. No one was left behind.

We come to the end of the story in Joshua 4:17-18:

“So Joshua commanded the priests,
           “Come up out of the Jordan.”
And the priests came up out of the river
           carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord.
No sooner had they set their feet on the dry ground
           than the waters of the Jordan
returned to their place and
           ran at flood stage as before.”

The miracle lasted as long as it was needed, and not one second longer. If a visitor happened to pass that spot the next day, he would see footprints stretching down to the river, but the river would once again be a mile wide. That visitor would have no idea what had happened the day before.

God had two specific purposes for this miracle. First, he wanted to exalt Joshua as his appointed leader (Joshua 3:7). Just as Moses led his people across the Red Sea, now Joshua leads their descendants across the Jordan. Just as God had been with Moses, he would now be with Joshua.

If God can roll up the Jordan like a heap, the Hivites are a piece of cake.

But there is a second reason for this miracle. It prepared the Jews for the battles to come. Very soon the people would embark on seven years of warfare as they conquered the Promised Land. When Joshua explained the miracle to the people, he gave this reason: “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and that he will certainly drive out before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites and Jebusites” (Joshua 3:10). If God can roll up the Jordan like a heap, the Hivites are a piece of cake.

Got Any Rivers

 Let me suggest one final thought from this story. Until we yield ourselves to God, we are not ready for the miracle we need. Joshua had to give up any plans of his own. The priests had to have the courage to step into the rushing water. The people had to walk across the riverbed to get to the Promised Land.

Yielding means giving up our right to give God advice. It means when the time comes to move, we step out in faith, leaving the results in his hands.

Don’t give God advice!

When we dare to follow God, we will often find ourselves walking new paths. What God said to the Jews, he still says to us: “You have not passed this way before.” God’s command to his people is always, “Forward!” There will be new service, new songs, new ministry, new land to conquer, new people to reach, new prayers to pray, and new challenges to face.

Following God always leads us out of our comfort zone.

If you want some good news, here it is. When God calls us to move forward into the unknown, we need not fear because he is already there. God never asks us to go anywhere without going before us as we travel by faith. When we say, “God, I’m afraid of the future,” the Lord replies, “Afraid of the future? My child, I invented the future!”

“Afraid of the future? My child, I invented the future!”

Why be afraid of crossing Jordan when Jesus has crossed it already for us? He went into the dark waters of death and came out victorious on the other side. And that’s why “We won’t have to cross Jordan alone.”

There are moments when we may feel alone, but there is never a moment when we are truly alone. Just as the ark led the people of God into the river and protected them while they crossed over to the Promised Land, Jesus our Savior will lead through the darkest moments and bring us safely to the other side. When the time comes to die, he will not abandon us. Jesus will lead us home to heaven.

I began by talking about the Jordan River and the music associated with it. In 1940 Oscar Eliason wrote a song based on this story called Got Any Rivers. It goes like this:

“Be of good courage,” God spake unto Joshua,
When o’er the river God pointed the way;
Jordan uncrossable! things seemed impossible,
Waters divide as they march and obey.

Jesus will not abandon us

Got any rivers you think are uncrossable?
Got any mountains you can’t tunnel through?
God specializes in things thought impossible
He does the things others cannot do. 

God is the same and His Word is dependable,
He’ll make a way through the waters for you;
Life’s situations by Him are amendable,
Mountains and hills He will part for you too.

 You may find yourself in a difficult place right now. You aren’t there by accident. The God who brought you to this place won’t leave you now. You don’t need to know what tomorrow holds as long as you know who holds tomorrow.

Wait. Trust. Obey.

What should we do when we face one of those uncrossable rivers? Let’s do what the people did in Joshua 3:


We wait because he’s God and we are not.
We trust because Joshua’s God is our God too.
We obey because God’s plan is always best.

If you’re backed into a corner, don’t give up.
Don’t run away.
Let’s go down to the river and see what God will do.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?