The Jordan River played an important role in a number of memorable events from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is known for being a fertile valley and an important landmark. The first mention of the Jordan occurs in the story of Abram and Lot, where Lot chose for himself “all the plan of Jordan” (Gen 13:11 KJV). The next time we come upon it, Jacob is wrestling with his adversary at the ford of the Jabbok, one of the major tributaries of the Jordan. Elsewhere the Jordan is crossed and is used as a place of baptism and provision.
A RIVER BOUNDARY
In the Bible, most references to the Jordan treat it as a boundary, with such phrases as “beyond the Jordan,” “on this side of the Jordan,” “on the other side of the Jordan,” and “over Jordan.” Because it is most often seen as the eastern boundary of Israel, the Jordan typically symbolizes crossing into or out of the Promised Land. Joshua led the nation of Israel into the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan “on dry ground” (Josh 3:17). The water miraculously “rose up like a dam,” as had the Red Sea at the exodus from Exodus. Both events were signs of God’s miraculous power. The Jordan thus became associated in the Hebrew imagination with a glorious entry into the Promise Land.
Because the Israelites made a difficult and hazardous journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promise Land, the Jordan also refers to freedom. The actual crossing was the final step of the journey from bondage to freedom. It becomes a symbol of victory and deliverance: saying good-bye to slavery and hardship, and entering a new life of promise and hope.
In traditional Christian thought, the final transition from life on earth to life in heaven is symbolized by crossing the Jordan River. Because the Jordan River was the border of the earthly Promised Land, those who through faith in Christ are part of God’s chosen people think of a symbolic Jordan River being the boundary of their eternal Promise Land-heaven. The symbolism of crossing the Jordan River does not end with salvation from sin and being born again (John 3:3). In daily life, as Christians face difficulties, experience doubt, and struggle against sin, they cross many “Jordans.” The Bible teaches we may walk with confidence through them because God is with us to deliver us just as he was with Joshua.
A PLACE OF PROVISION AND PREPARATION
The Jordan also is symbolic of God’s provision. Elijah was miraculously fed by ravens at the book Cherith, east of the Jordan (1 Kings 17:2-7). Elijah was transported into heaven shortly after he and Elisha crossed the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:7-12). Naaman, the Syrian king, was healed of leprosy by dipping seven times in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:8-14). John the Baptist began his ministry of preaching at the Jordan, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Later, John baptized Jesus there, marking the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry (Mark 1:9).
The Jordan River descends to the lowest of all river levels by the time it enters the Dead Sea, so we might expect it to be a symbol of death in the Bible, but it is not. Rather, It is the symbol of life, health, and fulfillment. In many respects it becomes a perfect analogy for the Christian life. For someone to become a Christian he or she must be brought down (to understand the depth of his or her sin), like the Jordan descends. Then the person must pass through (repenting and believing) as the Israelites passed through on dry land when Joshua led them to cross the Jordan (Josh. 3:16). Then they are baptized as John the Baptist was baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River (Matt 3:13; Mark 1:9). Paul wrote, “When we were baptized into his death, we were placed into the tomb with him. As Christ was brought back from death to life by the glorious power of the Father, so we, too, should live a new kind of life” (Rom 6:4).