Crossing the Jordan (Josh 3:1-17)

A great multitude of people are on the move. Their only possessions are the things they can carry with them. Their dream is to make a new life for themselves in a new land, but they fear a hostile reception when they cross the border into their new country. And before they can even get there, they face a hazardous water crossing – they are at very real risk of death by drowning.

That of course is the situation faced by thousands of refugees and migrants today, including those who have tried to cross the Channel from France this Summer. We should pray for a sustainable, lasting solution to this terrible situation.

But its also a description of the situation facing the Israelites three thousand years ago. The exodus from slavery in Egypt was now behind them, and they had spent the last forty years wandering through the desert. Now, at long last, they are about to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. But between them and the land is a raging torrent. The river Jordan is in full flood, and somehow they must get across.

In today’s passage, we see God’s spectacular solution to the Israelite’s problem. Our reading today describes a remarkable miracle by God. A miracle that teaches us about God’s presence and power.

God is always present with his people

One of the key themes of Scripture is that God loves to dwell among his people. He loves to be present with us as we live our lives in his world.

For Joshua and the Israelites, God’s presence among them was symbolised by the special box they carried with them. Known as the ‘ark of the covenant’, this golden box was considered God’s throne on earth. It was the place where his presence resided, the place where Heaven touched Earth. It was a visible sign of the special relationship that God had with the Israelites. From the exodus onwards, wherever they went, God told them to take the ark with them. It was to be carried ahead of them on poles by priests – a sign that he was with the Israelites every step of the way.

So its no surprise that in verses 3 and 4 today, as the Israelites gather beside the Jordan, they are told to follow the ark across the river. As the priests carry the ark to the edge of the Jordan, everyone should be able to see that God is going with them, leading the way.

Nowadays we don’t have an ark, but that doesn’t mean that God is absent or aloof. In many ways we’re in a much more fortunate position than the Israelites – because now we can look to the Lord Jesus as the most complete picture of God. When Jesus walked upon the earth, God’s presence dwelt in a human body, not in a golden box. In Jesus, God was fully present in a person. In Christ, we can see and hear God clearly.

And thanks to the Holy Spirit, Christians can even enjoy God’s presence within our hearts and minds. Since his ascension, Jesus has been pouring his Holy Spirit into his people, making God’s personal presence indwell every Christian believer. His Holy Spirit is with us – within us – to enable us to walk and talk with God. To enable us to enjoy his presence in our daily lives. What a wonderful privilege that is to enjoy!

God’s power alone saves his people

The river Jordan in full flood must have been an intimidating sight for the Israelites. Scholars say that it would have been up to 12 feet deep, and up to a mile across. It was a raging torrent that would have drowned anyone who attempted to traverse it – a huge gulf separating the Israelites from the land they hoped to inherit.

But God’s power turned the raging river into dry land. Dry land that could be crossed by his people in safety. We’re told what happened in verses 15 and 16: “as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, 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…was completely cut off. So the people crossed over opposite Jericho.”

I wish I’d been there, don’t you? It must have been wonderful to see the water stop flowing and the riverbed emerge beneath your feet. Imagine the relief of the men carrying the ark, as they marched out into the middle of the riverbed, with the people following on behind them. They weren’t going to get wet after all!

By doing this miracle on a day when the Jordan was in full flood, God wanted his people to be in no doubt he was responsible for their rescue. Without divine intervention, the Israelite nation would undoubtedly have been swept away. Without God’s marvellous miracle, the men, women and children of Israel would have been carried downstream and drowned.

If we are Christians, I hope we see the same saving power displayed in the life of the Lord Jesus. God’s Son showed the same power over nature when he calmed a storm, healed the sick and rose from the dead.

The same power of God that rescued the Israelites at the river Jordan was also displayed by Jesus. A power that can rescue each one of us from sin and death. A rescue that brings forgiveness and friendship with God, forever. A rescue anyone can receive by repentance and faith in him.

Grow in faith not forgetfulness!

We can learn a third and final lesson from our Bible passage today by taking our gaze off God and looking at the Israelites instead. Because we can learn from them the value of faith over forgetfulness.

The people of Israel displayed great faith on the day they crossed the Jordan, didn’t they? They had to trust that God was willing and able to stop the river’s flow. They followed on behind the ark towards the raging river, something suicidal in normal circumstances!

And those priests who actually carried the ark had to take a very literal step of faith, didn’t they? Verse 15 tells us that it was only when their feet literally touched the water’s edge, that the river stopped flowing. It was only after they’d committed themselves to God in trust and obedience that they saw his promises fulfilled.

And did you notice one little detail in verse 12 today? Just before they crossed the Jordan, Joshua asked for twelve volunteers. Twelve men were to be chosen from the twelve tribes of Israel. Why? If we were to read on to chapter 4 we would get our answer. We’re told there that these twelve men are to each take a stone from the riverbed and put them in a pile on the riverbank. In verses 6 and 7 of that chapter 4 we’re told that those stones are to be a lasting memorial to God’s miracle that day. A tangible, physical reminder of God’s power to save his people. Something to show younger generations.

You see, forgetfulness is a great enemy of faith, and God gave the Israelites those stones to help them remember his presence and his power. As Christians, we too need to cultivate our faith and battle against forgetfulness. That’s why we need to persevere with things like personal Bible reading and weekly Church worship. These things help us remember what we believe and why. They help us remember what God has done in Christ. And they help us remember the Gospel truths we should be teaching to our children and grandchildren.

So, with Joshua and the Israelites as our inspiration, let’s feed our faith and fight against forgetfulness!

Phil Weston