Reflections on the River Jordan

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The River Jordan is the principal river of the land of Israel. It flows all the year round over 120 miles of plain, rising from three or four sources in the north. It meanders over the plain, increasing its actual length to 240 miles and ends in the south in the Dead Sea. It was a blessing to have such a fertile plain, “well watered” (Genesis 13:10). It was prominent in the life of Israel. The scripture contains 131 references to it. These are mostly geographical but some relate to the river as a border or boundary. This is what it is naturally but it also has a spiritual significance that we wish to study.

Its Hebrew name means ‘the Descender’, which describes its natural state perfectly. One source on Mount Hermon is 1,200 feet above sea-level and its entry to the Dead Sea is 1,292 feet below sea-level, a fall of nearly 2,500 feet. It takes its life-supporting water down to a dead-end, a sterile place where no fish or creature can survive in the salty environment. In the scriptures, this is called the Sea of Salt. It had another name in Hebrew, not found in the Bible – the “Sea of Death”. Compare this with the river in Ezekiel 47:8,9, which heals the waters of the Salt Sea, and which contains the assurance of life.

The Descender goes downwards, as did the traveller in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He went down from a city of God’s presence (Jerusalem) to one whose builder had been cursed:

“Cursed be the man before the Lord, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it.” (Joshua 6:26)

Without the intervention of the Samaritan, the traveller in the parable was doomed to death. In baptismal language, Jordan could take a man down into death, but could not bring him up into life. As we shall see, only when God’s power was brought to bear did life emerge from the River Jordan.

Another spiritual feature of Jordan is its function as a border (“boundary”, New International Version), demarcating the Land of Promise from the nations outside. The people of Israel saw this boundary as one that could not only divide the land but also separate the people from God. The tribes who foolishly chose to live on the east side of Jordan even feared this outcome, saying to the tribes on the west side:

“In time to come your children might speak unto our children, saying, What have ye to do with the Lord God of Israel? For the Lord hath made Jordan a border between us and you, ye children of Reuben and children of Gad; ye have no part in the Lord: so shall your children make our children cease from fearing the Lord.” (Joshua 22:24,25)

Other dark aspects of the Jordan can be seen. Despite the plain being “well watered” and desirable, it was menaced by the presence of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, a fertile breeding ground for what God condemned as an “abomination”. Even in the feature described as its most majestic there lurked danger. Jeremiah 49:19 talks of the Jordan’s “swelling”, the Hebrew word for which is translated elsewhere as pride, majesty or excellency. The Revised Standard Version and NIV render this as “jungle” or “thickets” – which would explain the threat of lions spoken of by the prophet. The features of the Jordan and its environs seem always to be harmful to man, both physically and spiritually.

Our conclusion so far is that the river was not just a physical boundary but one which represents a separation from God and a decline into a place where there was no life. Our study will look at the major events involving Jordan and how its effects were overcome when God’s power was exercised on it.

We look first at the crossing of the Jordan when the nation entered the Land of Promise, led by Joshua. It was the spiritual rebirth of Israel, God’s people. We say “rebirth” because the circumstances of crossing the Red Sea and the Jordan were the same:

“For the Lord your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red sea, which he dried up from before us, until we were gone over.” (Joshua 4:23)

Psalm 114:1-7 confirms this: “When Israel went out of Egypt … the sea saw it, and fled: Jordan was driven back … Tremble, thou earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob”. Paul explains the significance of what happened: “how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1,2). At the presence of God, the waters were turned from death-giving to life-giving.

But why a second baptism in the Jordan? In one sense, it was a renewal of the covenant. God had rejected those “that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness” (Hebrews 3:17) and invited the next generation to enjoy His covenant. In a further figurative sense, we are shown the future final entry of God’s people into the Kingdom of God. In Joshua 3:11 we read that the presence of the Lord preceded the people across the Jordan, and they went over dryshod, not retained by the waters of death, into the Land. The suggested figure of baptism is enhanced when we consider the memorial stones of Joshua 4:8,9:

“And the children of Israel did so as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones out of the midst of Jordan, as the Lord spake unto Joshua, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, and carried them over with them unto the place where they lodged, and laid them down there. And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests which bare the ark of the covenant stood: and they are there unto this day.”

When the waters returned to their place, the “old” stones would be buried in the waters of death but the “new” stones would be taken into the kingdom – just like the saints in Christ. We have deliberately used the old / new labels to emphasize the “buried and raised to newness of life” baptismal theme of Romans 6:3-5.

The surviving stones were to be erected at Gilgal (Joshua 4:20). Here, the national covenant was confirmed by circumcision (Joshua 5:2,5) with the result shown in verse 9: “And the Lord said unto Joshua, This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from off you. Wherefore the name of the place is called Gilgal (meaning “rolling” – margin) unto this day.” Their fathers had “in their hearts turned back again into Egypt” (Acts 7:39). In this new generation, we see in figure those now without reproach who would no longer be tempted in such a way – the saints in the Kingdom to come.

At Gilgal, Joshua also celebrated the Passover (Joshua 5:10), the day before the manna ceased. That which manna symbolised had now been fulfilled and the Kingdom was in figure established. The Lord Jesus Christ also indicated that there would be a great Passover in the Kingdom age, when it would be “fulfilled” (Luke 22:15-18). The Passover at Gilgal was the third mentioned in scripture: the first was in Egypt (Exodus 12:11-13) and the second in Sinai (Numbers 9:5). Is there enough to suggest that Paul’s vision of the “third heaven” (see 2 Corinthians 12:2) might therefore correspond to the “third Passover” figure of the Kingdom in Joshua?

The people’s leader bore the name Joshua (meaning “Jah saves,” or “the salvation of Jah”). God exalted him:

“On 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.” (Joshua 4:14)

The One with the Greek equivalent of the name Joshua – Jesus – has also been raised up for reverence:

“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” (Philippians 2:9,10)

Moses had gone, the Law having been fulfilled. The Kingdom would be ruled by Christ. The ark contained the tables of the Law – but also the mercy seat. Moses was not allowed to enter the Land because the Law which he had broken could take him only to Jordan (to death), not through it into the Kingdom. Joshua and the mercy seat were necessary to complete the journey: “Joshua, he shall go over before thee, as the Lord hath said” (Deuteronomy 31:3). The Lord Jesus has gone before us into the holiest place.

When we look at the symbolic concepts in these historical events, it strengthens our confidence that the salvation of the saints and the coming of the Kingdom Age has been carefully pre-planned and pre-figured by our Heavenly Father, who has promised to His children that He will give us all things.

At the time of Absalom’s rebellion, King David crossed over the River Jordan, since he was forced to flee, being told that “the hearts of the men of Israel are after Absalom” (2 Samuel 15:13). He fled by night:

“Then David arose, and all the people that were with him, and they passed over Jordan: by the morning light there lacked not one of them that was not gone over Jordan.” (2 Samuel 17:22)

His flight was at night, out into the world of darkness and evil. He physically left the Kingdom, spiritually being driven out of the Kingdom to a place of death. Would it register with him as a sign of the punishment to which he would have been subject after the affair of Bathsheba, a punishment averted only by the grace of a God pleased with repentance and a contrite heart?

David, the Lord’s anointed, was driven out of the Kingdom of God’s people. His mortal enemy pursued him: “Absalom passed over Jordan, he and all the men of Israel with him” (verse 24). But while God watched over and saved His anointed, his enemy Absalom died in that land separated from God, at the hands of Joab in the wood of Ephraim (2 Samuel 18:14,15). Note – this wood is not in the country of Ephraim but is most probably a wood east of Jordan bearing that name. All the action takes place east of Jordan before David returns in triumph to Israel. David of course was innocent of the blood of Absalom, Joab having disobeyed his specific instruction to keep the young man alive.

Of the two men, only David returned. Absalom, who had raised the hand of enmity against him, died outside the Land on the other side of Jordan and never returned to life in the Kingdom.

“So the king returned, and came to Jordan. And Judah came to Gilgal, to go to meet the king, to conduct the king over Jordan.” (2 Samuel 19:15)

Gilgal, the place of the return, was highly significant. Under Joshua, it was where the covenant between God and His people was renewed and where their reproach was taken away. David recognised the joy of the day which took away reproach and marked a fresh start, “for do not I know that I am this day king over Israel?” (verse 22). What a crystal-clear figure we have of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who carried all our reproaches, driven through the darkness of death and received back into light and kingship, because he was the one “whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.” His enemy, that sinful nature of mankind, perished in the grave: “that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).

Gilgal figures in another of the crossings of the River Jordan, that of Elijah and Elisha, recorded in 2 Kings 2. Once again, we trace a downward journey (in spiritual terms) from Gilgal (the covenant place, verse 1), and Bethel (the house of God, verse 2) – to Jericho (verse 4), the cursed city, and to Jordan, the river of lifelessness. Since at each stage the inhabitants of the schools of the prophets were aware of the fate of Elijah, to be taken up by a whirlwind (verse 1), perhaps this was a farewell tour of the schools. When Elijah and Elisha reached the River Jordan, however, Elijah parted the waters “so that they two went over on dry ground” (verse 8). The waters of the river did not engulf them for, like the nation of Israel coming through the Red Sea and Jordan, they were under the protection of the power of God. Only Elisha came back to the Land, Elijah having been taken away by the whirlwind. His death is not recorded here but Elisha was clearly established as his successor, able to call upon the power of God:

“And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.” (verse 15)

Once more, as with Moses and Joshua, and as with David and Absalom, we see the pattern repeated that two men went out and the one who returned was the chosen one to complete the work, exalted above his brethren.

The instrument used to invoke the exercise of God’s power was Elijah’s mantle – no ordinary cloak, therefore, but possibly a symbol of office. Tracing the Hebrew word addereth through Strong’s Concordance gives us ideas of “excellent, famous, goodly, lordly, noble” and in one instance it is translated as “glory”. It is possible therefore for it to have been a badge of rank and office similar to Moses’ staff. Certainly Elisha used it in the manner of Elijah to return across Jordan and the watching prophets acknowledged the authority he had been given.

Elijah and Elisha prefigured the works of John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus respectively. It was John’s role in the spirit of Elisha to be the herald of, and make manifest, the one preferred before him (John 1:31). John recognised that he would be eclipsed by the One whom he heralded: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Elisha’s role was a foreshadowing of that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Elisha left the Jordan with the spirit he had been given and, after his baptism, so did the Lord Jesus, to begin to undertake the miraculous works of his Father. It is those involving the River Jordan that we consider in conclusion.

Elisha made use of the River Jordan in the healing of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5). His story is one of a man helplessly stricken with leprosy, which we recognise to be symbolic of sin. Elisha brings about his healing, demonstrating not only that sin can be removed and a man given a new life, but also that he could invoke the power of God necessary to turn the River Jordan to life-saving rather than life-destroying.

Jesus himself showed at his baptism that he too received that same power. He used Jordan as a location to exercise his powers. In both the following quotations, the last word is full of meaning:

“And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judea beyond Jordan; and great multitudes followed him; and he healed them there.” (Matthew 19:1,2)

and

“[He] went away again beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized; and there he abode. And many resorted unto him, and said, John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true. And many believed on him there.” (John 10:40-42)

The word “there” is superfluous unless it is intended to convey that the location was an important choice. The Anointed Son of the Father had appeared and, through the power of God given to him, had cancelled out all the threats which the River Jordan symbolically posed to His people. Now there was an escape from the irreversible descent into the grave, now a reconciliation with God, now a new covenant and a way through death to eternal life in the Kingdom of God. As the beneficiaries of these “exceeding great and precious promises”, we are greatly encouraged when we see the pattern and figure of these things, knowing that there will also be their fulfilment revealed in glory in the Lord’s good time. May that time come quickly.

We take our leave of the River Jordan. It is not mentioned again after those references in the gospel or in the prophetic writings of the apostles. Its time and purpose have been fulfilled. The principal river of Israel in the Kingdom Age will be the one described in Ezekiel 47:12, for the manifestation of the saints and the source of the healing of the nations.

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