Crossing a river can be a interesting picture of significant change in a person’s life.
I have river crossings in mind at the moment as I prepare to move. I am moving from central London, over the river Thames to take up residence in Richmond. Despite its multicultural make-up, London can be very tribal at times, and the rivalry between ‘north of the river’ and ‘south of the river’ is quite intense. I do feel as if I am shifting allegiance as I become someone south of the river; crossing the river brings with it significant change.
Crossing rivers was significant part of the identity of the people of Israel, and it’s not difficult to see why. In the ancient Near East, rivers were difficult obstacles. Bridges weren’t common and crossing a river became tricky. You had to find a crossing point where you could ford the river, and at certain times of year this became even more challenging.
When the people of Israel came to cross the Jordan to enter the promised land, they did so at the worst point of the year. The river in the flood stage throughout the harvest season (Joshua 3:15). The river was at its highest and fastest flowing. Crossing would be impossible.
But God has ordained the people’s journey, and knew precisely what he was doing. The priests led the way, carrying the ark of the covenant, and as soon as their feet touched the water, the river parted and the people were able to cross. Once the priests came back onto the shore, the rivers returned to their flooded condition.
It strikes me that God is doing something very significant as he brings the people across the Jordan. Not only is he bringing them safely across the river, he is also ensuring that the trip is one way. He has opened a way for them to move forward, but not to move back. The crossing is a significant step for the people, and one which cannot be reversed.
In 49 BC, Julius Caesar led an army to invade Italy, start a civil war and, eventually, become dictator of Rome. The event that started it all was the crossing of the Rubicon river – the border of Italy and something that Caesar has been expressly forbidden from doing. As he crossed, he was supposed to have said alea iacta est, meaning ‘the die is cast’. His action of crossing the rubicon meant the point of no return. Crossing the river changed everything.
When John the Baptist arrived to herald the ministry of Jesus, it is perhaps not surprising that he went to the river Jordan to baptise. Mark tells us:
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.Mark 1:4,5
The Jordan wasn’t just a convenient body of water to baptise in, it was a location loaded with significance. It was the place where God had brought his people into the land to be his chosen people. It was the place where God moved them from one identity to another. It was a point of no return.
And it was exactly that place that John took people down into the water to be baptised. It was another point of no return. John preached a baptism of repentance: of turning away from an old way of life and turning to life a new life for God. Baptism was crossing the Rubicon; it brought them decisively from one identity to another.
After John came Jesus, who baptised not only for repentance but with the Holy Spirit, who seals and enables God’s people to live this new life. The river of no return becomes the start of a new and holy life. If we are Christians then we have crossed the river to a new identity. God has brought us safely across on dry land, and closed the way behind us. We cannot – we should not – go back to what we have left. We are in a new place and a new status before him. We have crossed the river and things will never be the same.