God Goes Before Joshua 3

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Joshua 3:1-17

Stephen M. Caswell © 1999

The Pathfinders

During World War II the Air Force had a special squadron known as the " Pathfinders. "It was made up of the best pilots in the air force. The pathfinders were sent in before the main force of bombers to mark the targets. They had special incendiary bombs that set alight the target so the squadrons would know where to drop the bombs. They were not distracted by the anti aircraft fire or the night fighters sent to get them. They were men full of courage that could be counted on to fulfil their mission. They risked their lives so that the other pilots could make their missions successful. In the same way Israel was to learn that God would go before them into Canaan. He would march before them and drive out their enemy. They just had to follow the Lord.

Last Sunday we observed the mission of the two spies sent to Jericho. We saw how Rahab was saved through faith in God. After the spies returned to Joshua they gave a full report of their mission.

We read this account in Joshua 2:23-24.  So the two men returned, descended from the mountain, and crossed over; and they came to Joshua the son of Nun, and told him all that had befallen them. And they said to Joshua, "Truly the LORD has delivered all the land into our hands, for indeed all the inhabitants of the country are fainthearted because of us."  

After hearing the report, Joshua acted immediately.

Joshua 3:1 says: And Joshua rose early in the morning; and they removed from Shittim, and came to Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over.

Early the next morning Joshua and the people moved from Shittim to the Jordan River. This was a distance of about 10 miles. It probably took them most of the day to move two million people this far. Joshua and the people now camped there beside the river. He knew they had to cross the Jordan but had no idea how it would be accomplished. Joshua is to be commended for acting so quickly and confidently. His leadership displayed true faith in God and what He had said. Now the people are camped by the Jordan, he gives further commands.

Joshua 3:2 says: And it came to pass after three days, that the officers went through the host;

After three days Joshua sent the officers of the people through the camp with instructions on the river crossing. Why did he take so long?  Why didn't he issue orders to move out the next day? I believe that God didn't tell him immediately what to do. I believe that God let the people look at the flooded river for three days to show them that humanly speaking the situation was impossible. God wanted the people of Israel to recognise their need for him to act on their behalf. After three days God told Joshua what to do and he relayed the command to the people through his officers.


God's first command to Israel was  I. Follow The Lord


Joshua 3:3 says: and they commanded the people, saying, "When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, and the priests, the Levites, bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it.

They were to follow the ark of the covenant into Canaan.  Why were they commanded to do this? What did the ark of the covenant represent? God's presence rested above the mercy seat between the cherubim. Previously they had followed the pillar of cloud and fire, but now God wanted them to follow the ark of the covenant. This was an important command and to be obeyed. God would go before His people and this would be seen through the ark. The ark of the covenant is mentioned by name or inferred to 14 times in chapter 3. The point the author makes here is twofold. God goes before His people and He dwells with His People. God gave the people two instructions on following the Him.

Firstly they needed Reverence

Joshua 3:4a says: Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it,


The people were not to come near the ark of the covenant, but had to stay about 1000 yards away from it. Why was this command given? Wouldn't it have been better to follow closely? The children of Israel needed to remain at a distance because the Lord is holy. They were not to treat His presence among them with flippancy. God asked them to treat Him with reverence and respect. The high priest could come into His presence only once a year and then only after he had made the appropriate sacrifices for sin. The Israelites must not take His presence among them for granted.


As believers we have been given tremendous privileges. We have access to God's throne of grace when we pray. We are indwelt by God's Spirit. He has revealed so much to us in His word. He has revealed Who He is, how we should live and what awaits us in heaven. We enjoy fellowship with His people. We celebrate the Lord's supper and remember all that He has done for us. But sometimes I fear that we take for granted the grace that God has given us. We allow unconfessed sin to remain in our lives. We take for granted God's presence with us and His answers to our prayers. Do you give God the reverence he deserves? Do you remember that He is a holy God who hates sin? Let us reverence our God as we ought.

Secondly they needed Reliance

Joshua 3:4b that you may know the way by which ye must go: for you have not passed this way before.  

The children of Israel had not gone this way before. It was all new territory for them. But God knew the lay of the land. He knew the way that they should take. If they followed His leadership they could not lose. Who could be a better leader than God Himself? The one who knew the land, who knew their enemies and would lead them to victory. God wanted them to rely upon Him for guidance and all that they might need. On their own they were no match for the people of Canaan. But with God leading them and enabling them they could not lose. 

Illustration of Going Through A Minefield

In wartime a soldier must be very careful to follow his commanding officers. They know more about the enemies movements and traps then he does. When the army advances through a confined area like a mountain pass or valley, the enemy often places traps or mines there. At these times the commander of the division will send demolition experts ahead to disarm the mines. The rest of the division can then pass safely through. However they must be careful to follow in the path of the demolition squad so that they don't get hurt. If they step outside the prepared path they will get hurt. Israel had not been this way before. But their Commander in chief was God and He knew the right path to take. They had to follow Him.



Proverbs 3:5-7 says this: Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil.  

The same is true today. God knows the future. He has a plan for us and knows what is best. If you want to be successful then you must follow Him. Young people are you unsure about your future career? Then may I encourage you to seek God's guidance. Do you follow God's leading, or are you the boss? God is infinitely wiser and we do well to follow Him.


We should follow the Lord, because He knows the way before us.


God's second command to Israel was:  II.  Full Commitment  (sanctify yourselves)

Joshua 3:5 says: And Joshua said unto the people, Sanctify yourselves: for to morrow the LORD will do wonders among you.  

Joshua told the people to sanctify themselves. What did he mean by this? The word sanctify is used through out the Bible and has a number of meanings. It means to prepare, to hallow, to set apart for God. They sanctified the tabernacle when they set it apart for God's use. Because God dwelt in the tabernacle it was Holy and therefore needed to be set apart for God's use. Two things seem to be emphasised here. They are cleansing and consecration.

Firstly Cleansing

The people were to make themselves clean both spiritually and ceremonially. They were to confess any sin in their lives and be clean before God. God would work amongst them the next day so they were to forsake all evil. God will not work through dirty vessels.

We read this in Leviticus 11:44 For I am the LORD your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy:

This command is repeated in 1 Peter 1:15-16: But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.


For God to use us, He requires that we be holy. By God's grace we must seek to avoid sin. If we fall, we must confess our sin to God that we might be cleansed. 1John 1:9:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  --   Do you avoid sin in your life? Do you confess your sins when you fall? May I encourage you to live a holy life, since this pleases God and is commanded by Him.

Secondly Consecration

After the people washed themselves ceremonially and confessed their sin they were clean. Now they could consecrate themselves completely to God and His service. The people were now fully committed to God. He would do wonders amongst them now they were prepared.

Illustration of D.L. Moody

A man in London once said to D.L. Moody, " The world is yet to see what God can do through a man totally sold out to Him." That phrase caught Moody's attention and he responded, " by the grace of God I am going to be that man." They estimate that D.L. Moody lead some 1,000,000 people to Christ in his lifetime.


The same is true today. God desires that His people be totally sold out to Him. He does not want us to be lukewarm Christians but wants us to be on fire for Him.  Romans 12:1 says: I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.  Are you sold out to God? Is He able to use you because you are cleansed and consecrated?


We should be fully committed to God so He can do great things through us!


The third thing required was  III.  Faith in God

Joshua 3:6-13 says: And Joshua spake unto the priests, saying, Take up the ark of the covenant, and pass over before the people. And they took up the ark of the covenant, and went before the people. And the LORD said unto Joshua, This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee. And thou shalt command the priests that bear the ark of the covenant, saying, When ye are come to the brink of the water of Jordan, ye shall stand still in Jordan. And Joshua said unto the children of Israel, Come hither, and hear the words of the LORD your God. And Joshua said, Hereby ye shall know that the living God is among you, and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Hivites, and the Perizzites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Jebusites. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passeth over before you into Jordan. Now therefore take you twelve men out of the tribes of Israel, out of every tribe a man. And it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off from the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand upon an heap. 

Firstly Joshua Expected Faith

Joshua now told the priests and the people that God would go before them into the Jordan. The priests carrying the ark of the covenant were to show the way through the Jordan River. The priests had to take God at His word. In verse 15 we are told that the River was in flood and overflowing its banks. The priests had to believe that God would keep His promise and cut off the Jordan River. They had to get their feet wet and step out into the river. Joshua said that Israel could know for certain that God would give them the land of Canaan when they saw Him miraculously stop the Jordan River. But they still had to step out in faith. For forty years Israel had wandered in the desert because of unbelief. For forty years they had walked in the flesh. Now God was calling them to walk by faith. How would they respond?

Illustration of The Story of Blonden  

Around the 1850s there was a famous tightrope walker. He was probably the greatest tightrope walker of all time, his name was Blonden. He walked over the Niagara Falls on a tightrope. In fact he also did it blindfolded. He wheeled a wheelbarrow across and even stopped in the middle for a snack. At a press conference he asked a reporter whether he thought it was possible for him to carry a man across on his shoulders. The reporter replied certainly I believe you could do that. Then Blonden said lets go you are the man. However the reporter declined the offer. His faith in Blonden was empty, he wasn't prepared to put his life on the line.  

The Believer's Life of Faith

Some people think that there is a parallel between Canaan and Heaven. They say that our life on earth is represented by Egypt and the wilderness and that Jordan symbolises death. Then passing into Canaan with its abundant blessings is our entrance into heaven. I don't believe that is true. Canaan was filled with giants, walled cities and wicked people who had to be conquered. This is hardly a description of eternal bliss. Leaving Egypt certainly represents our redemption. But Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years and lived in the flesh. Now that they crossed the Jordan River they were at last entering into the life of faith God had called them to. Once over the Jordan River, Israel entered into warfare against walled cities and giants. This required them to walk by faith in the promises of God.


This earth is not our home, heaven is. The life of the believer is one of faith and not of sight. In the New Testament there are many passages that describe the believer as a soldier of Jesus Christ. Ephesians 6:10-18 describes the spiritual warfare we are involved in and the armour that God has provided for us. Paul admonished Timothy to please His commanding officer by not being entangled by the things of this world. We cannot serve the Lord and the World.  

Have you crossed over the Jordan River to enter into the Lord's battles. Are you walking by faith, or in the flesh? Are you using the armour God has provided for you? As soldiers we are we required to obey our Commanding Officer. Are you? 

We should walk by faith since this is the only life that pleases God.

Secondly Joshua Extolled God's Greatness

So that the Israelites would not be discouraged, Joshua reminded them of some things that they already knew. In verse 10, he said that the living God was amongst them and would give them victory over the seven nations who dwelt in Canaan. The Canaanites gods were dead. They were only idols made from stone. They could not help the people of Canaan and this was seen in the defeat of the two Amorite kings. The people of the land were afraid of Israel's God and their hearts melted for fear.

Then Joshua called God the Lord of all the earth in verses 11 and 13. God owned it all, so He could give it to whoever He wanted to. He was sovereign over all and could easily cut the River Jordan off from flowing. And He was going before them with the ark of the covenant. Israel should not fear, but step out in faith for God was with them and would lead the way.

We now observe the  VI.  Fulfilment of God's Word.

Joshua 3:14-17 says: And it came to pass, when the people removed from their tents, to pass over Jordan, and the priests bearing the ark of the covenant before the people; And as they that bare the ark were come unto Jordan, and the feet of the priests that bare the ark were dipped in the brim of the water, (for Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest,) That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed, and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho. And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground, until all the people were passed clean over Jordan. 

The people took God at His word and obeyed the commandments exactly. They stepped out in faith and God honoured His word. Through this one simple act of faith God accomplished a great deal more then the crossing of the river.

1. God Was Glorified

He performed wonders in the midst of His people and brought glory to His own name. Some try to explain this miracle away by saying that there was a landslide up stream that temporarily dammed up the river. But it was at the same time the priests placed their feet in the water that the Jordan stopped flowing. In fact the water started flowing again at the precise time that the priests stepped out of the river. Some coincidence. This miracle was in response to their faith and highlighted God's involvement this since the ark carried by the priests represented His presence.

2. Joshua Was Exalted

God promised to exalt Joshua in verse 7: And the LORD said unto Joshua, This day will I begin to magnify thee in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee. Now we read this in Joshua 4:14: that day the LORD magnified Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they feared him, as they feared Moses, all the days of his life.  

3. Israel was Encouraged

Because God had done what He promised concerning the Jordan River, Israel could be certain that He would also help them to defeat the Canaanites. This would have given them tremendous courage at the beginning of the campaign for Canaan.

4. The Canaanites Were Terrorised

Verse 16 says that, The people crossed over opposite Jericho. I am sure that some of the citizens of Jericho saw this event. God probably arranged for some of them to be near if they couldn't see from the city walls.

It says this in Joshua 5:1 And it came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, which were on the side of Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites, which were by the sea, heard that the LORD had dried up the waters of Jordan from before the children of Israel, until we were passed over, that their heart melted, neither was there spirit in them any more, because of the children of Israel.


Today we have seen how God goes before His people. He leads them into battle. He gives them victory. But as soldiers of the Lord Jesus Christ He requires three things from us.

I. Follow the Lord Are you following the Lord? He is the Leader, the Commander in Chief. Are you showing Him reverence because He is holy? Are you relying on Him, since we don't know the way ahead? Only God knows the future. So follow Him

II. Full Commitment Because the Lord is Holy, He requires that we be Holy too . Are you a clean vessel that God can use? Is your life consecrated to God so that He has all of you?  God will not work through dirty vessels, or people who are only half committed!

III. Faith In God Are you living by faith in the promises of God? God works powerfully when His people take Him at His word and step out in faith. Our God is alive and sovereign. He can do all things. I hope there is no one here still wandering around in the wilderness because of unbelief. They are living in the flesh and not walking by faith. God does not lack the power to accomplish His will. But we have to act on His word!  Are you prepared to do that this year? Will you step out and witness for the Lord to your neighbour, workmate or schoolmate? Will you pray for opportunities to talk to people about the Lord? I trust that this year we will see God do great things as we follow Him, stepping out in faith.  Amen!


1 Thessalonians 5:23

And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  

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