The book of Joshua is the record of God fulfilling his promise to bring his people into the promised land. But God is not going to merely give them the land. The call to his people and to his leader, Joshua, is to be strong and courageous. The book of Joshua is the challenge of faith. Will we trust in God so that we will be strong and courageous to face the obstacles that are before us? Or will we trust in ourselves, trusting in what we see, rather than in the unseen God who controls what we see? In Joshua 3-5 the scriptures are going to ask if we are willing to step in faith.
Keep Your Distance and Follow God (3:1-6)
Joshua now gives the directions for the people as they are about to cross into Canaan. First, the people are to watch God (3:3). They are to look for the ark of the covenant, which represented the presence of God, by carried by the priests. The people are to follow it as it goes. However, the people were to maintain a distance of 2000 cubits (3:4). They were to stand back about 1000 yards, which over half a mile. The first message is very clear. We do not lead God. God leads us (3:4). We are not in the front telling God where to go nor are we dragging him along the way. Further, the extreme holiness of God continues to be emphasized. No one can come near to God in this first covenant. The people must stay back over half a mile.
The second thing the people must do is consecrate themselves (3:5). This has been a consistent message since the book of Exodus. You need to be holy when in God’s presence. This was true in Exodus 19:10-15. God came down to meet the people on Sinai and the people had to prepare themselves by consecrating themselves. We are going to witness a reenactment of the exodus. Notice that the people are to consecrate themselves because the Lord will do wonders among them (3:5).
A New Exodus (3:7-17)
The Lord now tells Joshua that he is going to exalt Joshua before the people so that they will know that the Lord is with him like he was with Moses (3:7). Joshua does not need to worry about exalting himself. God will exalt him. Here we see a foreshadowing that the Father will exalt Jesus before the eyes of the people through cross. Now the Lord gives some strange directions. Joshua is to command the priests to carry the ark of the covenant into the Jordan River and stand still in the river (3:8). Joshua then tells Israel this in verse 13. The priests are going to walking into the Jordan River carrying the ark of the covenant. When they do, the river’s waters will be cut off and will stand in one heap (3:13). The waters standing in a heap is the same word used in Exodus 15:8 and Psalm 78:13 to describe the waters of the Red Sea when Israel crossed from Egypt.
So the people are presented with a challenge of faith. The prior generation failed after spying out the land. Now the spies have returned with a good report but they have to cross the Jordan River. The text wants us to see the difficulty of the obstacle before them. The time when they were to cross the Jordan River was during the flood stage time, when the river overflowed its banks (3:15). I have a short video that I want us to watch so that we can see what the Jordan River would look like when the waters are rushing down and overflowing its banks. This is not the time of year to cross this river. But the only thing the people had to believe is in what the Lord said based on what the Lord had done in the past for them. We have these moments in our lives when we are tested in our faith to cross over toward God.
God gives the new generation their own exodus experience. The priests enter the water with the ark of the covenant and the waters are dried up, just like the exodus. The distance of the drying up is given in verse 16. While there is a little uncertainty about the location of all these cities, we can confidently say that the distance of where the waters were stopped spanned at least 16 miles. This would make sense because we need to cross over a couple million people but also because these couple million people must remain over half a mile away from the ark as they cross. God does what the people cannot do. Our help comes from the Lord (Psalm 121:2).
After crossing over, the command is given to take twelve stones from the river and place them on the shore as a memorial to the people of Israel. In the future, the children will ask what these stones mean (4:6). The children were to be told that the waters of the river were cut off before the ark of the covenant. This also is a reenactment of the exodus because the Passover was to be told to the children to remember God’s deliverance (Exodus 12:26). The exodus was also reenacted because the people passed through in haste (4:11), just as they left Egypt in haste. Further, God glorified Joshua at this moment (4:14). The people stood in awe of Joshua like they were in awe of Moses. Joshua is the new Moses for Israel. Also, the waters returned to their place just like in the exodus (4:18). The people came up out of the Jordan River on the day of the Passover (4:19; cf. Exodus 12:3). It is so important to see how God recognizes that we need memorials. We need memorials because our greatest danger is to forget. The greatest enemy to our faith is to forget what God has done. This is why the Lord has given us memorials like the Lord’s Supper and baptism so that we will not forget who we are and what God has done for us.
We also need to build our own personal stones of remembrance. What has God done for you to rescue you when life did not look good? We cannot forget how God gave us strength during those times of distress and difficulty. We cannot forget those days when we felt like we could not lift our heads or take another step. God was there for us. God was there for us to such a degree that we may have forgotten how hard those days were. We need reminders and memorials so that we will not forget the myriad of times that God has helped us, gave us strength, carried us through, dried up the waters of calamity, and carried us to the other side.
Wait For the Lord In Faith (5:1-12)
Now you might think they we have left our theme for these three chapters but the text returns us to the picture of stepping out in faith. Israel has the enemies right where they want them. They heard about how the Lord dried up the Jordan River before the people of Israel and their hearts melted (5:1). The nations are in fear. Now is the time to attack and take this land! But God does something that no military leader would ever tell his soldiers to do after invading enemy territory. The Lord instructs the men to be circumcised. Doing this would mean that the people are unable to defend themselves from an attack or ambush. We saw how men cannot defend themselves in Genesis 34 when Shechem defiled Dinah. It can take up to three weeks for a circumcision to heal on an adult. So for a couple of weeks the people are going to sit at Gilgal and wait for the men to heal (5:8). Why is this happening?
Circumcision was a sign of the covenant. None of the children had been circumcised while they were in the wilderness (5:5). Only when they come into the land are they given the mark of the covenant. Notice what God says about this in verse 9. “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt for you.” This circumcision represents a new beginning. It represented a clean break from the past. The stain of their slavery had been rolled away and now they belong to God. This leads the people to commemorate the Passover. As the stain of their slavery had been removed, the Passover feast comes. What timing God used to show the people what he was doing for them! To enter the land the people must be circumcised and remember what God has done to rescue them. Now the Lord will give them the fruit of the land as the manna stops. God has brought them into his promises.
So let us consider some messages for us. First, we have to step out in faith if we are going to cross over into the promised land. We can never experience the faithfulness of God until we step out in faith. We never know what God will do in our lives until we truly trust him. Think about this: how can we see the faithfulness of God if we do not trust in God’s faithfulness? How can we see what God will do in our lives if we are always trusting in ourselves and what we can see? To use the example of Peter when the disciples were in the boat on the Sea of Galilee, how will Peter know that he can walk on water unless he gets out of the boat? How will Israel know that the waters of the Jordan River will part unless the priests put their feet in the water? How will Israel know that the waters of the Red Sea will open for them unless they look for God’s mighty hand? When is the last time we prayed, “Lord, I have nothing and I am depending on you to do something!” Can we truly say like the apostle Paul said, “We walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7)? We must trust in the Lord if we are going to sacrifice our lives like Jesus sacrificed himself. We must trust in the Lord if we are going to submit ourselves to him and to one another. We must believe that God can do anything. Keep in mind what James declared that if we ask God with doubting that we must not think that we will receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-7). Faith goes to the Lord understanding that only he can help.
Second, we can step out in faith because of the resurrection of Jesus. God has given us a new exodus experience through Jesus. We have also passed through waters in baptism (cf. 1 Corinthians 10). Our baptism is symbolic of our exodus from slavery to sin. Our baptism points to our crossing over from death to life (Romans 6:1-4). Our baptism points to our circumcision that we have experienced (Colossians 2:11-14) so that we are in covenant relationship with God. We have these pointers given to us by God in our lives so that we will step out in faith toward him. The stain of our slavery to sin has been removed. God has rolled away the reproach of our sins. God has given us a clean break and a new beginning. This is what our baptism is to mean to us. Let us value our baptism for this imagery. Step out in faith because we have seen the mighty wonders of God.
Third, we will step out in faith when we remember what God has done for us. We must not forget all that God has done. What reminders can you give yourself this week to remember how God has helped you so many times in the past? God has radically changed my life from a broken family in which I did not enjoy life to bringing me here to this moment with my family now. God has helps us through financial loss. God has helped us through destroyed cars by hailstorm. God has helped us with a child who has special needs. God has given us hope in our darkest times. There is so much that we can forget that we must always remember. What Jordan River stood before you that looked impossible to cross and God dried up the waters before your eyes? Give thanks to the Lord!