Forty years after leaving Egypt, the people of Israel were ready to enter the land of Canaan. Moses had died in the wilderness together with the adult generation which had left Egypt. Joshua had taken his place and now, as the people are camped before the Jordan River, it was his task, as the new leader of Israel and as the general of the army, to prepare the new generation of Israelites to enter the Promised Land and claim the promise of the land given by God to Abraham.
A Monument Celebrating a Defining Moment
The crossing of the Jordan was a defining moment in the life of Israel. During the crossing of the river, the people had a unique experience with God, an experience in which they discovered what kind of God the God of Israel was. That experience with God was so unique that the people built a monument composed of twelve stones for the purpose of describing to future generations the greatness of God and his marvelous work of fulfilling the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
When the people of Israel crossed the Jordan, Joshua commanded the people to set up twelve stones which were taken from the Jordan River as a memorial celebrating that defining moment in the life of Israel, the entrance of the people into the land God had promised to their ancestors (Joshua 4:20). The purpose of those memorial stones was to remind future generations how the people “crossed the Jordan River on dry ground” (Joshua 4:22). In addition, those stones would remind future generations that, what had happened when they left Egypt, happened when they entered the land of Canaan, that God had dried the Jordan River as he dried the Red Sea until the people had crossed (Joshua 4:23).
The reason God performed this great sign was to remind Israel what he had done for them, to teach them to fear God every day of their lives, and to demonstrate to everyone in the world God’s mighty power (Joshua 4:24). Thus, the miracle had different purposes. The crossing of the Jordan showed the people God’s great power in delivering his people. The miracle God performed in stopping the waters of the Jordan helped the people discover God’s greatness and his sovereignty over his creation. The work of God on behalf of Israel describes the true nature of God, a God who cares for his people, a God who fulfills his promises.
In his exhortation to Israel, Joshua referred to three generations of Israelites. The past generation was the people who crossed the Red Sea: they saw the greatness of God when God divided the water of the Red Sea and the people of Israel went through the sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:16). The present generation was the people who crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. The future generation will be the children who ask their parents the meaning of the twelve stones that were taken from the Jordan River.
So significant was the miracle that God performed when he helped the people cross the Jordan on dry ground that it made an impact on the lives of Israel’s enemies. When the Canaanites heard how God had “dried up the waters of the Jordan for the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted, and there was no longer any spirit in them” (Joshua 5:1).
Preparing to Cross the Jordan River
To fully understand this defining moment in the life of Israel, a moment that was memorialized by those twelve stones, it becomes necessary to review the preparations the people of Israel made before they crossed the Jordan and what actually happened when they crossed the river.
The preparation to cross the Jordan River began after Joshua heard the report from the spies who told him that they believed the Lord had given to Israel the land of Canaan because the people of the land were deathly afraid of Israel (Joshua 2:24). Joshua moved the people from Shittim, where they had camped and brought them to the Jordan where they camped for three days before crossing the river.
The crossing of the Jordan would be the fulfillment of the promise God had made to Abraham. Before God could fulfill his promise, Israel spent four hundred years in Egypt. After their liberation from Egypt, they spent forty years in the wilderness. One generation had died in the wilderness and a new generation was planning to enter the land their God had promised to give to them.
This new generation of Israelites was dreaming and planning for forty years about the gift of the promise. For a long time, they were homeless, moving from place to place; they were strangers in a strange land. Their dream was to cross the Jordan into the promised land to inherit God’s promise. To many of these Israelites, the promise had been a dream far off, until now. They spent three days by the river. Three days camping by the Jordan, looking at the river, looking at the land, ready to cross the river and take possession of the land.
The people remained beside the Jordan for three days. They came to the Jordan in the spring when the river was at the flood stage: “Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest” (Joshua 3:15). The flooding of the Jordan meant that the crossing of the river would be almost impossible. It is possible that the Lord was testing the people to know how committed they were to obey his command to cross the river.
God’s command was very specific, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God being carried by the Levitical priests, you must leave here and walk behind it” (Joshua 3:3 NET). God did not say anything about drying the Jordan. The people were to follow the ark. The ark was a symbol of God. It was God’s throne. As the king of Israel, God was enthroned between the two cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4). The people of Israel were to march into the Promised Land and God would lead them as they followed the ark.
Then God told Joshua to instruct the priests on what they should do as they carried the ark of the covenant: “When you reach the edge of the Jordan’s waters, go and stand in the river” (Joshua 3:8). Joshua does not tell the priests that God would divide the waters of the Jordan as he divided the Red Sea. Joshua does not tell the priests that they will walk on dry ground. Joshua was commanding the priests to walk into the river and stand there. What would happen next, the priests were not told.
No one expected this kind of command from God. The people were not planning to walk into the Jordan at the time when the river was at flood stage. They remembered what had happened at the Red Sea, how the Sea was parted before the people walked through on dry ground. God’s intent for this new generation of Israelites was different, they had to walk first before they could see and experience the miracle.
Once again, God was testing the people. They had to march in faith believing that God would provide for them. Anyone in Israel could walk on dry ground, but it would take faith in God to walk into a flooded river. God wanted the people to demonstrate their confidence in him. They needed to have faith that God would help them cross the river safely. God wanted the people to walk by faith because “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for” (Hebrews 11:1 NJB).
Crossing the Jordan River
The flooded river posed a challenge for the people. They did not know what would happen; it would be safer staying on the east side of the river, but their future and their blessing were on the other side of the Jordan. The sight of the flooded river was terrifying, but they had to trust in God and march, believing that God would act once again and provide for their safety.
The priests led the way. They took the ark and marched toward the flooded river ahead of the people. When the priests arrived at the edge of the river, they put their feet on the water and the water stopped flowing from upstream. The reason the water stopped flowing was because “the water above that point began backing up a great distance away at a town called Adam” (Joshua 3:16 NLT).
This means that the water did not stop automatically. It took time for the water of the flooded river to subside. When it did, the riverbed dried and “all the people crossed over near the town of Jericho” (Joshua 3:16 NLT). The priests had to walk through water; they had to get their feet wet before the people could walk on dry ground. To emphasize that the crossing of the Jordan was a miracle of God, the biblical writer said three times that Israel crossed the river on dry ground (Joshua 3:17; 4:18; 4:22). God provided the way out of what the people believed to be an impossible situation.
As the people crossed the Jordan, they passed by the ark of the covenant, “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” (Joshua 3:17).
The people probably had never been so close to the ark as they were when they crossed the Jordan. The people of Israel were not allowed to come close to the ark; now they were closer to God because of their obedience.
As the people of Israel passed by the ark, God was there with them, assuring them that there was no need to fear. As the prophet Isaiah said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you” (Isaiah 43:2). The presence of God enthroned on the cherubim was the assurance the people needed that the waters of the Jordan would not sweep over them.
After all Israel crossed the Jordan, God commanded Joshua to select twelve men, one from each tribe, to pick twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood as the people crossed the river. The stones were to be taken to the place where Israel camped their first night in the land of Canaan.
During the crossing of the Jordan and the gathering of the stones, “The priests who carried the ark remained standing in the middle of the Jordan” (Joshua 4:10). After everything was done, Joshua commanded the priests, “Come out of the Jordan” (Joshua 4:17). As soon as the priests came out from the place where they had stood in the middle of the Jordan, when their feet stepped on dry land, “the water of the Jordan returned to its seasonal flood level” (Joshua 4:18).
The people of Israel knew that their God was a great God, but the crossing of the Jordan revealed the greatness of God in all its majesty. As they entered the promised land, this new generation of Israelite discovered what God was like. They also made a commitment to tell others what God had done for them.
At Gilgal Joshua set up the twelve stones they had taken from the Jordan. He said to the people of Israel, “In the future when children ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ the children should be told that Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground. The LORD your God dried up the Jordan ahead of you until you had crossed, as he did to the Red Sea until we had crossed. The LORD did this so that everyone in the world would know his mighty power and that you would fear the LORD your God every day of your life” (Joshua 4:20–24 GWN).
My pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on June 20, 2021 titled “Standing Stones: Discovering God’s Greatness.” The post above is based on his sermon.
During his sermon, Jeff emphasized that God asks his people to walk by faith. Following God by faith can be scary. It is like walking through a raging river, however, they walk but with God’s assurance that he is always there to guide and to protect.
Jeff also emphasized in his sermon that Christians must discover and experience God’s greatness and once they discover, they must tell others about God’s greatness. Jeff said that one way to discover and share God’s greatness was by practicing the priorities of the Compass Church: to pursue him daily, to connect in groups, to serve in teams, and to reach your neighbors.
NOTE: For the complete series of sermons on standing stones in the Old Testament, read my post Standing Stones in the Old Testament.
A Video Presentation
The Sermon: “Standing Stones: Discovering God’s Greatness” by Jeff Griffin
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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