The Jordan River, mentioned nearly 200 times in the Text, is one of the fastest flowing rivers of its size.
As a prominent feature in ancient Israel, the Jordan River was mentioned nearly 200 times in the bible. Its fast flowing waters created a natural barrier between Canaan and the lands to the east. At times, it also served as a line of protection when God's prophets and kings were being pursued.
Beginning at the foot of Mount Hermon, the Jordan travels about twenty-five miles before emptying into the Sea of Galilee. It continues to flow from the southern end of the Sea and winds its way to the Dead Sea, about sixty-five miles away. The famous river is surprisingly narrow—only fifty to seventy-five feet wide in most places.
The Jordan's name was derived from words meaning "to descend" or "go down." The river drops significantly in elevation—Mount Hermon stands 9,000 feet above sea level while the Dead Sea sits 1,400 feet below—making it one of the fastest flowing rivers of its size.
Many ancient cultures thought rivers were sacred, but the Israelites saw the Jordan as a barrier: something to be crossed before moving forward in their calling.
Many ancient people considered their homeland rivers sacred. The people of India revered the Ganges, and the Egyptions honored the Nile. For the pagans who lived in Canaan, the Jordan River symbolized the power and protection of their fertility gods, the baals.
By contrast, the Israelites never worshipped the Jordan River. They saw it as a barrier to overcome. As they gazed into Canaan from the eastern side, the Jordan stood as an obstacle to their entry into the Promised Land.
Sometimes ancient Israelites used the barrier to their advantage by crossing the river and gaining protection from enemies who lived on the other side. Elijah crossed to the east side of the Jordan to hide from King Ahab. David also found protection by crossing the Jordan when his son Absalom schemed against him.
Whether running from enemies or trying to enter the Promised Land, the Israelites' perspective of the river was the same: It was an obstacle to overcome before moving forward in their calling. Their perspective became the source of the expression "to cross the Jordan," which meant to pass through something that stands in the way.
Crossing the Jordan
The Israelites stepped out in faith, trusting in God despite their fear of the fast-flowing floodwaters. The pagans were stunned to see that Israel's God stopped the Jordan's water.
After wandering in the desert for forty years, the Israelites were finally ready to enter the Promised Land. They were probably anxious to possess the land and become living witnesses for God.
But there was one last barrier in their way: the Jordan River. And its fast-flowing waters were at flood stage (Josh. 3:15).
No doubt the Canaanites were pleased by the timing. They had probably heard about Israel's victories east of the Jordan. But with the river at flood stage, they felt protected. To them, the flooded waters showed Baal's power to save them from the Israelites' invasion.
The Israelites had reached a monumental moment: they could either trust in God's power and step into the dangerous river, or they could disobey God's commands to enter the Promised Land because of their fear. God's people made their decision: They broke camp and prepared to cross.
The priests carried the ark of the covenant—a symbol of God's presence—to the edge of the river. Looking at the water below, they were probably terrified of what would happen if they stepped in.
But trusting God, the priests took the first step into the Jordan. Immediately, the river water stopped and the people could pass through on dry ground (Josh. 3:16). The pagans who had trusted in Baal were stunned to see that Israel's God had power over both nature and their fertility gods.
The Jordan was the site of Jesus' baptism, an event that brought a new order.
Hundreds of years after the Israelites' miraculous river crossing, another significant event took place in the Jordan.
The gospel accounts tell us that Jesus' baptism took place in the Jordan River. During this event, "the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove" (Luke 3:22). Most Westerners recognize the dove as a symbol of God's presence and approval during the baptism of his Son.
In Jesus' day, Jews probably saw another level of imagery as well. Many seem to have connected the hovering of the dove to the hovering of the Spirit over the watery chaos that preceded the creation of the world (Gen. 1:2). Just as the Spirit drew out a new order through creation, they saw the dove as a symbol that Jesus' ministry would also bring a new order.
The Jordan, a place for trusting God and taking the first step, was the place where Jesus began his own ministry. And just as the Israelites' crossing began a new era of life in the Promised Land, so Jesus' baptism also brought a new beginning in the life of God's people.
Ambassadors of a New Order
Today, Jesus' followers are ambassadors of his new order: and order that brings hope, healing, and love to our broken world.
Jesus' ministry symbolized a new, loving, caring way of doing things. Today, his followers are ambassadors of that new order. We live in a culture that does not understand or practice the values that Jesus taught. It is our job to demonstrate these principles to a watching world.
At a time when many people lie and cheat to advance themselves, we demonstrate integrity and truth. In a world filled with hate and selfishness, Christians bring love and sympathy to our neighbors. And amidst the empty promises of materialism, God's people exhibit the peace and joy that comes from storing up heavenly treasures.
The degree to which we actually bring this new order is the degree to which we will successfully impact our culture for God's glory.
Sadly, many of us stumble and become attracted to the world around us. Instead of exhibiting the new order of Jesus, we sometimes follow the sinful values of our culture. When we do so, we damage our witness and cause others to stumble.
As ambassadors of the new order, our goal should be a consistent witness to the new order of hope and restoration. As we step in our faith to bring healing and truth to our communities, we will be effective in this calling.
Get Your Feet Wet
We all have a "Jordan River" - something that holds us back from our calling. Do you trust God enough to get your feet wet and cross that barrier?
Sometimes, being God's ambassadors can be difficult. His values are not always "politically correct" to a world that clutches materialistic gods, the truth of God's Word can be offensive. Bringing healing to a broken world often requires us to leave what is familiar and comfortable.
But our calling is still clear. And just like the Israelites, each of God's children reaches moments when they must "cross the Jordan" to pursue their calling. To do that, we must get our feet wet—we must take that first step of faith.
Though you and I may prefer that God hand out long-range plans, he doesn't promise that. Instead, he asks us to respond to his calling by taking a step of faith today, trusting that he has the future under control too.
Today, there are many "Jordan Rivers" that hold Christians back from their calling. For some, it may be a job or a relationship that doesn't glorify God. For others, it may be an addiction or a fear of the unknown.
But no matter what barriers we face, each of us must make a decision: Will we trust that God controls everything—including the obstacles and fears before us—and step out in faith? Or will we stay on the other side of the Jordan and miss the opportunity to feel God's power in our lives?