Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan.
There’s something about river crossings that makes for seminal moments in human history. Julius Caesar crossed the river Rubicon on his way to eventually take control of the entire Roman Empire. George Washington led his Continental Army across the ice-swollen, barely-passable Delaware on a frigid Christmas night, 1776, to fight British-aligned Hessian forces at the battle of Trenton. A hundred years later, General Robert E. Lee and his Virginia regiment would traverse the Potomac to lay siege to Washington, D.C., as a prelude to the battle of Antietam. In each case, the river represented not only a physical feature of the terrain, but a significant transition in the lives of those who crossed it.
Israel’s crossing of the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership bore the same significance, in a uniquely paradoxical sense. The Lord’s people at that moment did not yet possess the land promised them. Yet the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was nonetheless “Lord of all the earth”—as verse 11 says unequivocally. God’s people were not yet in the land, though God was already Lord of that land. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” the Psalmist says (Ps. 24:1). The Jordan was therefore a kind of boundary between expectation of the peace and participation in it.
For Israel to cross that boundary, something had to happen. As Joshua 3 recounts, three things happened that allowed Israel to cross.
The ark of God would have to go before them. The earthly representation of His presence—signified by the mercy seat atop the Ark—and His holiness—signified by the copy of the Law within the Ark—would have to lead Israel to a place it had not yet been.
Second, Israel would have to follow at a distance. Perhaps as an allusion to the Lord’s call for Israel to keep a distance from Mt. Sinai as He gave Moses the Law (Ex. 19:12), appreciation for the holiness of God was to be expressed by the people reverently maintaining an interval between themselves and the Ark.
Third, the people had to trust the Lord’s work on their behalf. The priests who bore the ark and the Law within it would have to stand within the Jordan until the Lord stanched its flow. Then Israel could cross into the land of promise unscathed. They were powerless to remove the impediment between them, and so had to trust in what the Lord would do (and did do) to remove it.
It’s not too much to say that in every human heart a boundary exists between the longing for a true and abiding peace and the experience of that peace. Like Augustine famously said, “Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” We consider conversion to be nothing less than an awakening of the human heart to the peace found only in Christ. By His Spirit, God moves us across the boundary that separates the longing for true peace and the enjoyment of it.
But for the rest of our earthly lives united to Christ by faith, we repeatedly encounter boundaries like the Jordan: as with Israel on the east side of the river, there’s a sense in which the reality of God’s promise already exists but lies outside our experience of that reality. And the question then emerges: how do we span the distance between what is true and what is not yet experienced as true?
Could it be that as it was for Israel then, so must it be for us this very moment? As the Ark went before the people, so Christ must lead us to where we have not been yet but where we’ve been told is a glorious peace in Him. As the people had to remain a safe distance from the Ark, so Christ had to “do business” with the holiness of God by taking on the wrath of His justice so that we might enter into His favor unscathed. And just as the priesthood had to stand in the Jordan to await the work of the Lord, so we must wait upon Jesus (our high priest who bore the weight of the Law perfectly!) to gain us entrance into the forgiveness and favor of God without our help; we must trust His sufficiency to experience His promise.
All this sounds impressive, but how does it work out in practice? Consider this day at least one thing you’re seeking, the pursuit of which has led you to anxiety, preoccupation, anger, or even despair. Those responses to your unfulfilled aspiration reveal a lost sense of what is already yours in Christ. The only way to move across the boundary separating the idea of His peace from the experience of it is to remember what He’s already done. He is your portion. He is your acceptance. He is your goodness. He is your forgiveness. When you pause to remember to trust that He has led you into the favor of God already, you may continue your labor in whatever you do, but without the gnawing fear that you shall know true goodness only by your labor.
What’s one thing you presently seek which has served to shrivel the fruit of the Spirit in you? How might remembering how Christ has led you safely into the goodness of God serve to usher you across the boundary that separates you from the experience of His peace?