The River Jordan in the scriptures plays a mystical role in the history of Israel. It is a boundary which Israel must cross over to reach their physical and spiritual destination. For example, in Joshua 3-5, Israel coming to the end of its 40 year desert sojourn comes against this boundary which it crosses only with God miraculously parting the waters. There are many lessons for Israel to learn at the Jordan: 1) Israel must pass through this particular way and no other – it is how they will know they are on the right path (3:4). Every single one of God’s people has to pass through the Jordan (3:17). 2) God is with Joshua (3:7). 3) That they might hear God’s voice (3:9). 4) That they may know God is there with them – in their midst (3:10). 5) God Himself will rest in the River Jordan and its waters will stop their normal and natural flowing 3:13). 6) The experience of the Israelites at Jordan was to be a witness to all the world about God (4:24). The event was not for Israel’s benefit alone. 7) This was not only a total covenant renewal for all of Israel but a regeneration of Israel, a new birth (5:6-7).
These lessons are paralleled and fulfilled in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. Jesus insists with John that it is necessary for the baptism to happen (Matthew 3:15). God is with Jesus and the voice of God is heard at Christ’s baptism. God is present with them – standing in the Jordan is God incarnate. John is Christ’s witness, but all Christians witness to the world of the transforming power of baptism. Baptism is part of the new covenant relationship with God which is offered to the entire world.
The events of Joshua and the people of God crossing the Jordan was memorialized in Psalm 114 –
When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion. The sea looked and fled, Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the LORD, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.
Israel’s crossing the Jordan is frequently mentioned in the Feast of Theophany in the Orthodox Church, and Psalm 114 is referenced extensively in the liturgical hymns of the Feast. In the Feast, the event of the Ark of the Covenant touching the waters of the Jordan and changing them/ their course is a foreshadowing of Christ’s entry into the Jordan for His own baptism. Christ too changes not only the natural flow/purpose of the Jordan but reveals its spiritual significance for the salvation of the world. The events of Joshua 3-5 are a prophetic foreshadowing of the events of Christ’s own baptism in the Jordan. One of the pre-Feast hymns says:
Why do you stop the flow of your waters, O Jordan?
Why do you make your streams flow back?
Why do you not follow your natural course?
“I cannot bear the fire which consumes me,” it said.
“I am amazed and shudder at the extreme condescension.
I have not learned to wash the pure or cleanse the sinless.
I have learned only to wash the filthy garment.
Now Christ, Who is baptized in me,
teaches me to burn the thorns of sin.
And John, the voice of the Word, bears witness with me.
He cries out: ‘Behold the Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sin of the world.’”
Let us the faithful cry to Him:
“O God, Who shone forth for our salvation, glory to You!”
In the hymn the River Jordan is anthropomorphized, so it can speak and describe its encounter with the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ when He stepped into the waters to be baptized by John the Forerunner. The Jordan experiences Christ as fire which is transforming the River. It is Christ who imparts to the river waters the power to destroy sin. In meeting its Creator, Jesus, the Jordan realizes the event of the incarnation. God the Creator is present in Christ, yet the Jordan is not destroyed/burned up by this encounter because God is incarnate. God’s divinity is united to and contained by Christ’s humanity. This has purified human flesh and human nature. So in Christ the Jordan has no one to clean or to wash their garment, but rather is experiencing a new cleansing itself, along with all creation.