In the last essay we studied Joshua 1:10-2:24 in which we saw Joshua make preparations for Israel’s conquest of Canaan. In this essay we take up chapter three. In Josh. 3:1-6 we see what might be called Joshua’s final plans. First, we are told that the morning after the spies returned, Joshua moved Israel’s army from Shittim to the bank of the Jordan, where they camped for three days, allowing for final preparations as well as final plans (v. 1).
There are a couple of important things to note in verses 2-6. The first is the prominence he gives to the Ark of the Covenant at the crossing of the Jordan. The people were not to begin crossing until after the priests carrying Ark of the Covenant began to cross. Then they were to follow it at a respectful distance.
Verse four says that this would enable the people to know the way to go. Now this was not to enable the people to know the way to go in a physical sense, as if they would otherwise not know where they were to cross the river. Rather, as we shall see, the ark was carried in front of the people in order to show the way in the sense of opening up a way for the people to cross.
The people had not passed that way before. That is, the nation never had traveled on the western side of the Jordan since coming out of Egypt. They had come out of Egypt by miraculous means. But that had been forty years earlier; and of all the people who were now poised on the bank of the Jordan, many had not been born at the time of the Exodus. And none had been more than teenagers. So the ark was important, because it would make a way for the people to cross.
The Ark of the Covenant was significant in another sense. The people, as they passed through the Jordan, were supposed to keep a distance of 2,000 cubits from it. And notice that the people were ordered to sanctify themselves; that is, they were to make themselves holy (v. 5).
These two facts are related. The ark, which represents the presence of God, is holy. That holiness must be respected, because it represents God’s presence. Thus because human beings are to fear God, to be in awe of him, the people must keep a respectful distance from the ark. They must not approach him casually, or without being ceremonially pure. Thus, in order to participate in what God was going to do, the people also needed to be holy.
We are dealing here with what is called a purification ritual. The Hebrews had certain rituals they used to prepare themselves to enter the presence of God. And with the Ark of the Covenant in view, they had to perform those rituals in order to be ceremonially pure and holy. Moreover, Joshua informed them that God was going to do wonders among them the next day (v. 5). But the holiness issue went deeper than we have seen thus far.
Deut. 23:14 tells us that Israel was required to keep heir camp holy when they were facing their enemies. The verse says, quote, “Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.” Thus we see that under the circumstances present at the Jordan River, with the people in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant, and with the army moving out against their enemies, all of the people (not just the army) needed to be holy; and the camp also had to be holy. So Joshua ordered them to sanctify themselves (v. 6).
Next, Joshua ordered the priests to take the Ark of the Covenant to the front of the people. Thus the final plans were completed; and Israel was ready to pass over the Jordan the next day.
In verses 7-8 God promised to exalt Joshua. This was quite a promise. God assured Joshua that he would make Joshua great in the eyes of Israel, so that they would know God was with Joshua as he had been with Moses. In other words he would make Joshua like Moses in Israel’s sight.
Joshua orders the priests to move into the waters of the Jordan, and verses 9-13 record his dramatic announcement. Joshua, pumped up by what God had revealed to him, announces not only that God was going to drive out the seven named nations before Israel (v. 10), but he announces also how God would make a way across the Jordan: “When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap” (v. 13).
What drama! As the people watched, the priests took the ark by its poles, lifted it, and moved toward the river. Imagine the feelings of those thousands of people as they witnessed the scene unfold. Verse 15 tells us that it was the flooding season, which made the problem of crossing the river even more difficult. Indeed it must have seemed impossible.
So they watched as the priests carried the ark to the flooding waters. Surely they must have wondered if Joshua knew what he was doing. Would it not have been better to wait until the flood had subsided? Perhaps they should have waited until the river was low and could easily be forded. But the decision was made. Joshua was out on the proverbial limb.
As the people looked on, the twelve priests drew near to the river. But the flood continued to roll by. They came to within a yard of it, but the river remained unchanged. When the first of the priests entered the water, still nothing. But then, when the soles of all the priests were in the river, the waters began to move in an unusual manner. They began to roll back as if moved by a might hand, leaving essentially dry ground before the priests.
Verses 14-17 sum up the situation. Everything God had told Joshua would happen had happened. First of all, God miraculously stopped the flooding River Jordan from flowing, just when Joshua had said he would.
And second, God exalted Joshua as he earlier had exalted Moses. Just as Moses was exalted in the sight of the people by the miraculous division of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:31), so Joshua was exalted as the leader of Israel by means of a similar miracle.
Furthermore, third, as the priests who were carrying the ark stood in the middle of the river, the entire nation of Israel passed through the riverbed on dry ground (v. 17). What a marvelous miracle of God!
All right, as we seek to apply the passage to our modern, Christian context, I believe the crossing of the Jordan is a type of the Christian crossing into the “Promised Land” of full salvation, or full sanctification. It was not uncommon in years past for preachers to see it as a type of our crossing into heaven. But the Promised Land of Canaan was not analogous to heaven. Yes, it was a land of milk and honey; but it also was a place of warfare, strife, and struggle against sin. It is much better to understand it as a type of God’s willingness to sanctify us in the midst of our struggles.
Just as the river Jordan seemed impossible to cross in that ancient day, and Israel depended on God, whose presence was symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant, we have our own “Jordan Rivers” that seem impossible to cross; and we must depend on Christ to see us through.
Some are not victorious over sin, because their theology holds them in bondage. That is, they have been taught that they must sin a little every day; and they do. Others are not victorious, because of addictions, to alcohol, sex, drugs and the like. Still others have besetting inner sins such as pride, greed, envy, etc. These flooding “rivers” seem impossible to cross. But the New Testament says we can cross into the Promised Land and be victorious over the power as well as the guilt of sin.
And we must never forget that our primary warfare is against principalities and powers, not flesh and blood. Fortunately, the Lord Jesus, on Mt. Calvary, went through the flood of floods and came out by means of the resurrection victorious over those principalities and powers. And we need not fear them.
So what do we do to pass from the self-life on this side of our spiritual Jordan to the Christ-life on the other side? Well, first just as the Israelites kept their eye on the Ark of the Covenant while they crossed the Jordan, we must keep our eye on Jesus while we cross our “Jordan.” That is, we enter into the experience of full sanctification through faith in Jesus. Thus the power we need is in Jesus. He holds back the fire of sin and temptation; he rolls back the “waters” of the impossible.
As we have seen, the children of Israel approached and saw the Promised Land in the distance, but realized that between them and the blessing of the land was the “impossibility” of the flooded Jordan. Likewise we approach and see the promised land of holiness, but we realize that between us and the blessings of holiness flows a river of impossibility, a river of shame, sin or defeat. Therefore we must step up to our impossibility by faith just as Israel by faith stepped up to the Jordan and walked in. Likewise we must step into our” river” by faith in Jesus, and let him open the waters to victory.