Joshua 3–4 takes us on a journey with Israel as she undergoes that monumental transition from the wilderness into the promised land of Canaan by crossing the Jordan River. For three days Israel lingered by the waters of the Jordan that flowed like a violent, deadly torrent. But the Lord would not bring Israel around, nor have them wait for the waters to calm down; instead, he brings them straight through. As my Old Testament professor, Rev. Mark Vander Hart, would say, “That’s so typical Yahweh.”
The transition from promise to fulfillment for sinners is always one that must go through judgment. Israel underwent a symbolic death as she passed through the Jordan. Yet she was not destroyed (like Pharaoh in the Red Sea), but brought safely through on dry ground. As she emerges from the Jordan’s banks on the other side, she emerges a new creation, a cleansed nation—one that has gone from death (wilderness) to life (promised land).
However, this land was not ultimate and Joshua did not lead Israel into her ultimate rest (see Heb. 4:8). Instead, this event points us forward (as a sort of rehearsal or foretaste) to a greater Joshua who will safely lead his people through a greater judgment into a greater fulfillment of God’s promise: Jesus Christ. Through his death and resurrection, the violent waters of death have been parted so that we might go safely through under his leadership and emerge a new creation. He not only shows us the way into eternal life, but is himself the way to the Father (Jn. 14:6).
This is taught to us in the sacrament of baptism. By faith, baptism signifies and seals our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (WLC Q/A 165). In Christ we died, and in Christ we are raised to new life (Rom. 6:1–11). Christ is even spoken of in article 34 of the Belgic Confession as “our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, that is, the devil, and to enter into the spiritual land of Canaan.” On account of our being “in Christ” we are already today present inhabitants of that heavenly country; that decisive transition from death to life, from promise to fulfillment, has already been realized in part for us. For this reason, Paul can say, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
As present residents of that heavenly country, we can draw strength in times of temptation by reminding ourselves that we’ve already crossed the “river” into the new creation. We’re no longer enslaved to the passions of our flesh, the death-grip of the devil or the ephemeral pleasures of this world, but can freely pursue righteousness and holiness as is fitting of those whom God has brought graciously to dwell with himself forever. Righteous acts do not bid us safe passage over the river—faith alone in Christ does that—but they are the proper response of those who have entered upon that holy land by grace alone. By setting our minds upon this land, our true and lasting home, we can joyfully reject the comforts of this world that threaten to lull us from finishing our pilgrimage and willingly embrace the reproach of Christ, for it is “greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Heb. 11:26).
Furthermore, physical death itself is transformed by Christ into our “entrance into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 42) and we have no reason to fear the day of his return to judge the living and the dead, for our Judge is “the very same person who before has submitted himself to the judgment of God for my sake” and who will “take me and all his chosen ones to himself into heavenly joy and glory” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 52). Just as Israel was brought safely into her inheritance through the Jordan, so too will Jesus lead us safely home to our inheritance: the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21–22).