Overcoming the Impossible with God's Help

Importance of the miracle

In God’s eyes, the crossing of the Jordan must have been a highly significant event, for the account of it stretches over two chapters and forty-one verses, a longer passage than is devoted to the conquest of Jericho, for instance. The importance was twofold. First, the crossing marked the moment when all of God’s promises concerning the land began to be fulfilled—the moment when Israel began to possess what God had given them. Second, the crossing was an instructive picture. As we have brought out, it showed Israel that they could not conquer and hold Canaan by their own devices, but only with God's help, and His help was a covenant blessing contingent upon their obedience to covenant law. And it showed to us that salvation is solely a work of God. As we will now proceed to bring out, the crossing showed further that the Word of God is our indispensable resource for knowing and understanding the works of God in history.

Joshua 4:1-9

Chapter three carried the story forward to the moment when the river subsided and the people found a dry path before them through the river. Chapter four gives the events that took place after the people had finished streaming across.

It tells us that they went across with haste (v. 10). No doubt all the leaders were prompting the people to move quickly, and with a spirit of cooperation, the people complied. Why did they need to hurry? The main reason was that the nation had to cross at a rate of many thousands per minute if everyone was to reach the other side within a few hours. Yet the people did not need to follow a narrow track. The riverbed was dry for miles, allowing the tribes to march in very wide columns.

When the crossing was finished, the Lord instructed Joshua to go into the middle of the river bed with the twelve men already selected and to pick out some large stones. The phrase in verse 5, "Pass over before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan," should be, "Go over to the middle of the Jordan, to the place where the ark of the Lord your God is." Each man was to carry one stone from the river to the place of encampment, where the stones would serve as a perpetual reminder of how God had cut off the waters of the Jordan to give His people an easy road into the land of promise. The number of stones would equal the number of tribes, doubtless to signify that all twelve shared title to the land.

It is unclear whether Joshua and the twelve were the last to cross or were already on the other side when the order came to gather stones. The latter seems more likely, since the text says that "all the people were clean passed over" (v. 1). Whichever their starting place, they obeyed the Lord and marched to the middle of the river bed. There each man raised to his shoulder the largest stone he could carry. Like the crossing itself, the work was probably done with haste, the whole company returning as quickly as possible to the west side. But Joshua briefly remained in the river bed to build a mound out of another twelve stones. Evidently these were large enough so that the mound was always visible at least during the dry season of the year, when the river was low, for the writer says that they were still there in his day (v. 9). The purpose of this mound is not stated, but it is implied that it was meant as a second memorial of the great miracle.

Joshua 4:10-11

The narrative continues by giving commendation to the priests. They did not falter in fulfilling their duty. They stood patiently in the path of the mighty river "until every thing was finished that the Lord commanded Joshua to speak unto the people" (v. 10). Only when everyone else had passed by and only when Joshua and his men had finished collecting stones for a memorial did the priests move across themselves. Their perfect accomplishment of duty was a tribute not only to their fortitude, but also to their faith. Their fortitude consisted in their perseverance in hard labor. Their faith consisted in their confidence that the same God who stopped the waters could hold them back until everyone was safe on the other side.

Joshua 4:12-13

Next, having singled out the priests for praise, the writer goes on to give praise also to the 40,000 men of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh who fulfilled their commitment to support the nation in its war of conquest. They formed the vanguard of the crossing. Watching them march in battle readiness, perhaps in ordered ranks and files like troops on parade, must have boosted the morale of the people. Their participation in the advance was the crowning proof of their loyalty not only to Israel, but also to the God of Israel.

Joshua 4:14

Before the crossing, the Lord had told Joshua that one of His purposes in rolling back the river was to magnify the new leader of the nation (3:7). The writer observes that the Lord’s purpose was dramatically fulfilled. After seeing the miracle, the people feared Joshua as they had feared Moses, and they feared him with a fear that did not soon abate, but that continued all the days of his life. They followed him because he fully met the condition that the nation had stipulated for their absolute obedience. They had said, "Only the LORD thy God be with thee, as he was with Moses" (1:17).

Joshua 4:15-17

God exalted Joshua in the estimation of the people because as a leader, he was scrupulously attentive to the Lord’s direction. In the next verses we read that Joshua commanded the priests to move out of the river only after the Lord had told him the time had come for them to move. The statement, "The Lord spake unto Joshua," or something to the same effect, occurs three times in the narrative of the crossing (3:7; 4:1, 15). How the Lord spoke is uncertain. It is likely that Joshua heard God speak in the still small voice that Elijah heard (1 Kings 19:12). Each time the Lord spoke, Joshua obeyed.

Joshua 4:18

As soon as the priests left the ground that had previously been under water, the river resumed its flow, reaching the same extent of flooding that had been seen before the crossing. Here obviously was another proof that the stoppage of the river had not been a natural coincidence due to an earthquake, but a miracle.

Joshua 4:19

The date of the crossing was the tenth day of the first month, originally called Abib, later called Nisan. The date is significant because it was date that God had, at the time of the exodus, appointed for the start of preparations for Passover (Ex. 12:3ff). He had instructed the people that on that date they should select an unblemished lamb from the flock and set it aside to be sacrificed on Passover, the fourteenth day of the same month. We read in Joshua 5 that a few days after crossing the Jordan, on the fourteenth, the nation observed Passover according to the law (5:10). The date of the crossing is given perhaps for several reasons: (1) to explain why Joshua had been in a hurry to cross the river—he wanted to keep the feast on the other side of Jordan, inside the land; (2) to encourage us to see the crossing itself as preparation to meet with God; and (3) to inform us that on the busy day of crossing, the last chore for everyone after coming to their new encampment was to get ready for Passover. Although both tired and excited, they had to find time before sunset to choose an animal for slaughter.

Earlier we have argued that crossing the river represented salvation. Thus, we understand why, on a spiritual plane, the crossing necessarily preceded the celebration of Passover. We cannot have fellowship with God until we are saved.

The place where they stopped was just east of Jericho. Their movements during the day could not have escaped the notice of its residents. As soon as guards in the defensive outposts saw the Israelites swarming into the land, they must have raced with the news back to the city. By nightfall the whole city must have been awash with frantic rumors. Terror sat upon every heart.

Joshua 4:20

The place of encampment was Gilgal, where the nation remained until it was ready to start fighting. There Joshua set up the twelve stones in the same manner that he had erected the twelve stones in the river. The text does not say that he built an altar with them. It is more likely that he simply piled them into a mound.

Joshua 4:21-24

Then he addressed the nation, explaining the significance of the stones. The mound was intended to provoke questions in days to come. When future generations saw them, they would inquire of their elders about the origin of the stones, and the question would give the elders an opportunity to teach their children and grandchildren about the wonderful miracle God did when Israel entered the land. It was a miracle on the same scale as the parting of the Red Sea when Israel escaped from Egypt.

God’s purpose when He stopped the river was that "all the people of the earth might know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty: that ye might fear the LORD your God for ever" (v. 24). Joshua was not so ignorant as to imagine that news of the miracle would race outward by word of mouth from Palestine to all the earth’s people. Remember, he is explaining the significance of the two piles of rock. Thus, what he is saying under the control of the Spirit is not that the whole world would hear by some process of rumor, but that they would all hear by the testimony of permanent memorials. The memorials that the people could see were the two piles Joshua had built. But Joshua knew that these piles in the river and at Gilgal would never be seen by the whole world. These were merely symbolic representations of the record that God has inscribed in His Word. Joshua meant that it would be by the Word of God that all the world would hear of God’s supernatural intervention at the Jordan River.

Keeping Memorials

Significance of the two mounds

To view the mounds as signifying the written Word of God is reasonable first because lesser memorials are a fitting picture of the greatest of all memorials. The Bible is the greatest because it provides a history of divine oversight of human affairs from the beginning of the world until the end of all things.

To view the mounds as symbols of the Bible is reasonable also because of their number and placement. There were two mounds that Joshua built. Each contained twelve rocks. One was set in the Jordan, which we have identified as representing the sentence of death upon all men who seek to reach heaven on their own merits. The other was set at Gilgal, which, in the next lesson, we will identify as representing God’s work of sanctification in the lives of His children.

We conclude that the two mounds correspond to the two testaments of Scripture. The mound in the Jordan, the place suggesting judgment, is a picture of the Old Testament, the memorial of God’s works that was written during the dispensation of law. God’s law imposed upon man in his natural sinful condition has the effect of making him guilty, of incurring for him the sentence of death. The stones are twelve to picture the twelve tribes of the nation that received the law.

The mound at Gilgal, the place suggesting consecration, is a picture of the New Testament, the memorial of God’s works that was written during the dispensation of grace. It is the record of how God brought grace to the world through Jesus Christ. The end result of grace is to roll "away the reproach of Egypt" (5:9); that is, to cleanse a man of all his worldly uncleanness so that he might be a useful servant of God. The stones are twelve in number to picture the first to receive grace through Jesus Christ. They were the twelve apostles who founded His church. In Ephesians, Paul says that the household of God is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (Eph. 2:20).

The two mounds, one made of twelve stones referring to the twelve tribes and the other made of twelve stones referring to the twelve apostles, are not only a picture of the two Testaments. They are also an unmistakable allusion to the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:12-14). That city will have twelve gates (Rev. 21:21), each made of one pearl and inscribed with the name of a tribe of Israel, and twelve foundations, each made of a single block of precious stone (Rev. 21:19-20) and bearing the name of an apostle. Like the memorials Joshua built, there will be two sets of stone with twelve pieces in each, and the total of 24 will represent the tribes and the apostles. We see why God had Joshua build his memorials out of stone—so the type would resemble the fulfillment. But the stones fulfilling the type will make it seem an imperfect picture indeed. Instead of being small stones that a man can carry, they will be colossal. And instead of being common rock from a river bottom, they will be inconceivably and incalculably valuable.

Viewed in this way, the two piles that Joshua built are a reminder that as wonderful as Canaan was to the nation of Israel—it was indeed a beautiful place affording peace and prosperity—and as wonderful as the Christian life is to the people of Christ—it is indeed a life of love, joy, and peace—neither has been a believer's ultimate destination. We who love God look for a city not made with hands (Heb. 11:10), an eternal dwelling place where we see Christ face to face and thrive upon His presence, a city called the New Jerusalem.

Joshua’s exhortation to remember always what God had done was meant not only for Israel, but also for us. We have two obligations. We must give proper attention to God’s own record of His acts in history; that is, we must immerse ourselves in the Bible and make it the centerpiece of our thoughts. And we must create memorials of God’s gracious dealings in our own lives.

Giving the Bible its proper place

The Bible is useful to us in many ways. In it we find God’s perspective on the whole sweep of human history, from creation to final judgment, and so we discover our own place in the large scheme of things. We learn of Jesus Christ and of salvation through the gospel. We find specific teaching on right and wrong so that we can make morally correct decisions. And we read the many promises of help and strength and wisdom that God is willing to furnish those who walk in the path of obedience. Yet also, if we recognize it as a memorial of God’s dealings with men in the past, we gain a better understanding of His dealings with us in the present. To use the Bible in these many ways implements the lesson God intended when He had Joshua erect the mounds of stone.

Consider, for example, the story of Israel crossing the Jordan. It shows God helping Israel in exactly the same manner that He is willing to help us. To obey God, they had to cross the river, but for a nation of millions including mothers and babies to cross a raging torrent was humanly impossible. Therefore, God intervened and by the exercise of supernatural power created a road through the waters.

Likewise, it is impossible for us to follow God’s leading without His help. He conducts us along a path that may lead to an impassable place, whether an impenetrable forest or an unfordable stream or a precipitous slope. How do we get through? Or He may leave us in a place that is pleasant at first but becomes enveloped with shadows and we sense that now we should move on, yet we see no good way to go—at least, no good way that appears feasible from a human point of view. How do we escape? In either predicament, we must wait for God to work. Christians commonly refer to this phase of Christian experience as waiting for an open door. We can be sure that He can and will open a door, for He has never allowed His children to founder spiritually just because they were too weak to carve their own path through a hard world. In our own lives we see how He has helped us in the past. But for encouragement we also have the Scriptures, which show us how God has helped His people through the ages. We find the clearest promise of an open door in this very story we are now studying, the story of Israel crossing the Jordan. The drying up of the waters here, like the parting of the Red Sea, was among the most dramatic open doors that God ever created.

Building our own memorials

As we have said, Joshua’s building of two memorials urges us not only to keep our eyes on the Bible as a record of the past works of God, but also to keep memorials of how God has worked in our own lives. Many Christians can testify that the following kinds of written records greatly increase a believer's sense of God's loving hand in all the twists and turns of day-by-day experience.

  1. One valuable kind is a prayer diary, containing our major requests together with the answers as they occur.
  2. Another good memorial of God’s workings is sermon notes. These help you remember what God has taught you through the medium of preaching. Why spend hours listening to preaching if you make no effort to retain what you have learned? Taking notes in the margin of your Bible or in a notebook not only enables you to remember, but also helps you to remain alert while you are listening. It makes no sense to devote several hours per week to sleeping through a sermon.
  3. Just as we take notes on sermons, we should also take notes during our own personal Bible study.
  4. Another kind of memorial is a daily diary. My wife has kept a diary at times in the past, and to read her accounts years later is not only interesting in itself, as a window into our lives when we were younger, but also valuable as a reminder of God’s unfailing care and guidance. It takes time to keep a diary, but I strongly recommend it. As a storehouse of memories it is much better than a picture album, especially if you are gifted with descriptive powers, because it gives far more than glimpses of the past. It gives you a connected narrative of the main events, along with your feelings and beliefs when these events took place. It preserves your idea of what was important. And, if constructed properly, it reminds you of past spiritual lessons. By keeping these from slipping into oblivion, it is another tool for assisting your spiritual growth in the present time.