Wonders Among You
Today we’re doing a few things different. It’s a communion Sunday, and we’re going to celebrate communion after the sermon, and you’ll understand why when we get there.
We’re also changing up the outline for this Joshua series. If you picked up one of the series outlines back there in the foyer, you would have seen that Joshua chapters 3 and 4 were each supposed to get their own sermon. But as I got into it this week, it was clear that these were one unit that fit together so well.
So today will be one message on these two chapters and the rest of the series will back up a week from what we had laid out.
As we turn to the passage this morning, I’m curious if you remember the longest you’ve waited for something. And I’m curious if you remember what it was like to finally get the thing you had waited for.
For some of you, you might be thinking of your high school graduation. You spend 13 years working away at school and the day you were finally done was such a great celebration.
And what do we do in moments like that? We do things to help us remember them. At the very least, we take pictures. And often, like with graduations, we have ceremonies which honour the time spent and help to commemorate the achievement.
Today’s passage is kind of like a graduation ceremony as Israel passes from their 40 years of wilderness wandering into the Promised Land.
But this isn’t like a boring graduation ceremony like we’ve all been do. This “graduation” would have been a top contender for the most unforgettable event in the lives of every person there that day.
And while they didn’t have cameras to take pictures of what happened, we’re going to see how they made sure they’d never forget what happened that day, and what that might have to say to you and I today as we look back to what God has done for us and promised to do for us in the future.
Before we jump into the passage, let’s just make sure we remember that this was not the first time Israel had prepared to enter the Promised Land. They were supposed to make this entrance 40 years earlier. But the people didn’t believe God could give the land to them, and the whined and complained and said they were better off as slaves back in Egypt.
And so God punished them with 40 years—14,610 days—of wandering in the wilderness. Here’s what he said to them at the time: “your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness” (Numbers 14:29–33).
For 40 years that whole generation of adults were just waiting to die. Every time they moved camp they would have left behind dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of graves.
Meanwhile the children and teenagers and all of those born in that time lived on the promise that this good land would be theirs some day soon.
Can you imagine what this would have been like for Joshua, who had seen this land already, and who, forty years earlier, had believed God and wanted to go up and take it? Four decades have passed and now it’s finally time.
Can you imagine what this would have been like for those who were children or teenagers forty years before? The last time they would have been five or ten or fifteen. Now they are forty-five or fifty or fifty-five. And the thing they’ve been promised all of those years is finally coming true.
Or imagine those born in the wilderness during that time. Their whole life has been lived based on stories told to them by others about this place they came from and this place that they’re going. And these stories are about to become real life.
So there’s so much going on here, and if we are aware of this background we’ll be able to appreciate this account in all of it’s richness.
It’s important for us to know that these two chapters are not written with a nice, literary outline. These two chapters have all of the marks of eyewitness accounting and taken together they feel more like a documentary movie than anything else.
If you think of how a documentary is filmed, generally you don’t have one really long cut with the camera on one person the whole time. Rather, the camera moves around a lot, showing you this person over here and then this group over here and then a big wide shot of the whole thing and then a close-up shot of one part of it.
And that’s really how we have to approach this passage. I don’t have a nice outline for us here. We’re just going to talk through the passage and I’m going to talk about each time the camera moves around and shows us the next thing that’s happening.
So let’s start to look at the passage together. Verse 1 picks up probably right around the time that Joshua sent out the spies. It tells us that “…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 [probably after the spies returned] 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’” (Joshua 3:1–4).
The ark of the covenant is a major player in these two chapters, being mentioned 17 times all together. The ark, as some of you will remember, was a golden box containing the Ten Commandments that God Himself inscribed for Israel, some of the manna that God gave to His people, as well as Aaron’s staff which had miraculously budded during one of the episodes in the wilderness.
But the real meaning of the ark was that is symbolized God’s presence with His people. It was like a mobile throne for Israel’s king, God Himself. And so when we see the ark being mentioned, we need to see it in this way: God’s throne.
And so the ark leading the way here means that God is leading the way here. And the people here are instructed to hang back about half a mile so that they might see God leading the way and, as we’re going to find out, see the miracle that He’s going to do for them.
Verse 5 tells us that “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” (Joshua 3:5–6).
“Consecrating yourself” meant washing your clothes and abstaining from marital relations for a short period of time as a way of setting yourself apart for God (Exodus 19:10, 14-15). The people were told to do this when God met them on Sinai. And now they are go do this again in preparation for the wonders that God is about to do among them now.
In verse 7 the camera moves to let us hear God talking to Joshua. This is the first of three times in this whole passage that God speaks to Joshua, showing that Joshua was a prophet like Moses was. And what does God say to Joshua?
“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’” (Joshua 3:7-8).
This is so great. Do you remember chapter 1 when the people said to Joshua, “Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses!” (Joshua 1:17).
And now, it’s happening. Through the events of this day God is going to prove decisively that He is with Joshua.
We should also notice here that it’s God giving the directions. Joshua is not coming up with these plans on HIs own. God is with Him, God is leading Him, and God is telling Him what to do just like He promised He would.
And so in verse 9 Joshua, in the role of prophet, passes God’s words on to the people. Imagine the camera moving away from this close-up between Joshua and God Himself, and now we see Joshua speaking to the whole nation and giving them this one last speech before they finally leave the wilderness.
“And Joshua said to the people of Israel, ‘Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God.’ 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. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. 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’” (Joshua 3:9–13).
Notice who is at the centre of this speech here. God is. This is about knowing that “the living God” was among them, that he would drive out the other nations. The “ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth” is going ahead of them. The focus here continues to be on God who is both the shepherd of His people and the king of the whole world.
And God is going to do wonders among His people by causing the waters of the Jordan to be cut off so that Israel can just walk into the Promised Land on dry ground.
This revelation answers a big question that the people had likely been asking themselves: how are we going to get across the Jordan?
The Jordan was a big river that formed a very effective border to the land that God had promised to His people. They didn’t have bridges back then, and so to get across the Jordan you needed to ford, which meant basically finding a spot where the river was shallower—maybe four feet deep or so—and carefully walking across.
The Jordan was and is fast, and so even at these fords you were in a vulnerable spot if there was an enemy waiting for you on the other side. It’s hard to fight and dodge spears and arrows when you’re carefully choosing where to place your next step so that you don’t get swept away with the current.
So this would have been a big question on people’s minds. How are we going to get across the river? For two spies to sneak across is no big deal, but to get hundreds of thousands of people across could put them in a very vulnerable spot. All the enemy has to do is line up on the opposite bank and pick them off.
And so here, Joshua reveals God’s plan. When Israel left Egypt, with enemies behind them, God parted the waters and led them through safely. And here, at the end of their journey, with enemies ahead of them, God is going to do the same to make sure that they make it safely into the land He’s given to them.
This is God’s work from start to finish and He’s going to make sure that they never forget.
And so in verse 14 the camera moves from Joshua’s speech to the people themselves on the move as the events finally begin to unfold. I can just imagine the excitement in the air as this all started to happen. And here’s what we read there:
“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, 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), 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” (Joshua 3:14–16).
I just love this—the way that the little detail about the Jordan overflowing its banks is thrown in there at this point. “Oh, by the way, all of this was happening during harvest when the river was at it’s fullest.” When fording it would have been even more dangerous and perhaps even more impossible than it usually was, and when the inhabitants of Jericho and the promised land might have felt the most safe.
That’s when God chose to do this miracle, either by sheer supernatural force or a divinely-timed landslide, and completely block up the Jordan River for the people to cross over.
Notice, in verse 16, that the people cross opposite Jericho. Jericho was a big imposing fortress designed to guard the borders of this land. If you were leading an invasion into this land, you’d probably have picked a spot not so close to Jericho.
From a human standpoint, this is craziness. But this is not just a human story. God is leading His people through all of this, and right now, when it’s the most impossible from a human standpoint, in the middle of harvest, directly across from the very guardhouse to the promised land, He leads His people across the river in victory.
Verse 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” (Joshua 3:17).
The river is blocked up by a miracle, the city of Jericho is shut up with fear, and the Israelites literally just walk in to their new home.
Let’s pause for one minute and ask an important question though. Do you remember the last time God did this, at the Red Sea? It was an incredible miracle. It looks amazing in movies. But how much of a lasting impact did it make on the people?
Not much, right? It didn’t take them long to forget and move on to the Golden Calf. Like Psalm 106:21-22 says, “They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt… and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.”
This background is really important when we get to chapter 4 and we see all of the material about the memorial of the 12 stones. Here’s what’s going on here: as Israel is experiencing this miracle of the crossing of the Jordan, God is having them take steps to make sure that they won’t forget about this any time soon.
And we find out the way He does that in God’s second speech to Joshua here at the beginning of chapter 4. Let’s read verses 1-7: “When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, “Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.”’ Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, ‘Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever’” (Joshua 4:1–7).
God’s people shout not forget about this miracle because, as they cross, they take twelve stones from the Jordan to set up as a monument for the following generations.
And this isn’t the only monument that’s set up here. We read in verses 9 and 10, “And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day. For the priests bearing the ark stood in the midst of the Jordan until everything was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to tell the people, according to all that Moses had commanded Joshua” (Joshua 4:9–10a).
It seems best to understand this as a second set of twelve stones here, planted right in the middle of the Jordan where the priests had stood. During dry season, when the water level dropped, these could have been visible from the banks and been a further reminder of what God had done.
We’re going to hear some more about this memorial in a few minutes, but first the camera gets moving again as we hear about one particular group of people who crossed over the dry riverbed.
Look at what verse 12 tells us: “The sons of Reuben and the sons of Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh passed over armed before the people of Israel, as Moses had told them. About 40,000 ready for war passed over before the Lord for battle, to the plains of Jericho” (Joshua 4:12–13).
Remember how these tribes had promised to follow Joshua if God was with him (Joshua 1:17)? What greater proof than this! They probably expected a dangerous ford. And here they are walking across on dry land. No wonder verse 14 tells us, “On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel, and they stood in awe of him just as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life” (Joshua 4:14).
And so finally the people are across, and for the third time God speaks to Joshua in verse 15: “And the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Command the priests bearing the ark of the testimony to come up out of the Jordan.’ So Joshua commanded the priests, ‘Come up out of the Jordan.’ And when the priests bearing the ark of the covenant of the Lord came up from the midst of the Jordan, and the soles of the priests’ feet were lifted up on dry ground, the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and overflowed all its banks, as before” (Joshua 4:15–18).
As soon as the priests, bearing God’s portable throne, come up out of the water, the waters return and the river flows like it did before.
Even if this was a mudslide which cut off the Jordan—something that has happened even in recent history—the timing shows that God is so clearly behind this and is so clearly with His people as He leads them in a march to victory.
Verse 19 tells us that this victory march continued right up to essentially the front doors of Jericho: “The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho” (Joshua 4:19).
Jericho was just about 10 km away from the Jordan River. But rather than keep their distance, they march right up Gilgal, which was about 2 km away from Jericho. That’s not even from here to the bridge.
If a group of hundreds of thousands of people marched that close to your city and set up camp, do you think you’d notice? Probably. They are basically on Jericho’s front door step.
They are not keeping a safe distance because they know they don’t need to. And then, verse 20, we read that “those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal.”
Israel just walks across the Jordan, walks right up to Jericho’s front door, and sets up this pile of stones right in the site of Jericho. It’s almost like they’re saying, “You know that river over there that’s suppose to protect you? Here’s some rocks we found today when we walked across it. On dry land.”
That’s the place where my mind goes. But, although this monument may have been an act of defiance against Jericho’s might, the main point was for Israel itself. Verse 21:
“And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever” (Joshua 4:21–24).
This pile of stones was not Joshua’s monument. This was not about making a name for himself. God dried up the Red Sea and the Jordan River in order to make a name for Himself before all the peoples of the earth, and so that His people would fear Him forever.
But they won’t do that if they forget. And so that’s what the memorial is for. Every time they pass that way, for generations to come, this pile of stones would preach.
It would preach to God’s people, reminding them about what God had done and what He was always capable of doing as the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
What About Us?
So this was an incredible day for God’s people and an incredible day for them to remember “in times to come” as verse 21 suggests.
But as we reflect on that there’s a big implication we need to see that will start to help us see what all of this might have to say to you and I today.
By telling His people to set up a pile of stones so that they might remember this day in the generations ahead, God is letting His people know that they should not expect to see this kind of a miracle happening on a regular basis.
Here’s how Dale Ralph Davis describes this in his commentary on Joshua:
“If Yahweh so insists that Israel remember this day, it implies that this event was unique and that Yahweh does not usually work with such visibly raw power. If Yahweh did something of this magnitude every fifth Wednesday or so, why should Israel need to remember Jordan Day? Apparently, this sort of miracle will be infrequent.” [Dale Ralph Davis, “Joshua.” Focus on the Bible Commentary Series, p. 39.]
Do you get that? If this was going to happen all the time, there’d be no need for a memorial, no need to remember. The command to remember means that miracles of this sort won’t be all that frequent.
Davis goes on to say, “Yahweh’s standard method of retaining his people’s fidelity is not by frequent and dazzling displays of power but by faithful witness and teaching of those particular acts in which he has already demonstrated his care for his own.” [Davis, pp. 39-40.]
In other words, God will keep His people faithful to Himself not by doing miracles all of the time, but by reminding them and teaching them about the miracles He has already done in His care for them.
And that’s where today’s story gets up close and personal with you and I today. So often as a child I would read stories like this in the Bible and just wish that I could live back in the Bible times where I could see miracles like this all the time.
But the truth is that most people living in the “Bible times” didn’t see miracles like this all the time. Some people got to see them, and then lots of people got to hear about them and be reminded of them.
Just like you and I today. Most of the time today, God is still working the way that He worked most of the time back then: not by dazzling displays of raw power but by reminding us of what He has done and promised to do, and keeping us faithful by teaching us again and again what it all means.
That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing this morning. That’s why we’re going to do what we are about to do in just a few minutes.
In fact, that’s what David goes on to say when he writes that,
“The pattern of remembering carries over for the church. We continue to remember the utterly unique act of our Redeemer in the Lord’s Supper. Even our children whisper to us as we take the elements, ‘What does that mean? What is that? What are you doing’ And even there we can whisper our brief witness back to them. Why this remembrance? Lest we begin to regard the cross as a piece of furniture rather than the throne of the Shepherd who soaked up the wrath of God for the sins of his flock.”[Davis, 40].
The miracle at the Jordan River, when God made a way for His people to come into the Promised Land, pales in comparison with the miracle at Calvary, when Jesus Christ made a way for all of God’s people from all times to draw near to God Himself by paying for our sins in our place.
This was the miracle of miracles, a miracle that, by definition, cannot and will not be repeated. There is no way that God could ever again do anything for us as big as what He did on Calvary.
And just like ancient Israel, we need tools to remember. And that’s what’s before us here in the bread and the cup. This is our pile of stones. This is how we remember and keep the story alive.
So if you know Christ today, let the bread and the cup preach to you. Let it remind you that the son of God, the maker of the universe, took on a body and came for you and died for you. He knew everything you would ever do and still He chose to lay down His life in your place. You’ve been set free from death and hell, you’ve been forgiven for everything that you’ve ever done wrong, and you’ve been given an eternal life that nothing can take away from you.
How could we possibly forget that? But we can, can’t we? We so easily slip back into old ways of thinking, imagining that we need to keep God impressed with our good behaviour, and that anytime we mess up He’s just eager to pounce on us in anger.
And yet even that sin—the sin of forgetting our salvation and the sin of imagining wrong things about God—was paid for by Jesus on the cross. And so rather than wallow in that today we need to look away from ourselves to the cross, and let the bread and the cup do their work of reminding us that it is finished. Those words are for you this morning. The Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you.
And if you believe that, and if you’re following after Jesus as your Lord, I invite you to eat and drink with us today as we remember and proclaim. And if you don’t believe that, there’s nothing stopping you right now from reaching out to receive this gift.