Baptism at Jordan
Despite the wealth of teaching on baptism in the Scriptures rarely is the crossing of the Jordan under Joshua included. Despite Isaiah 43:16 alluding to a relationship between the Red Sea and Jordan, the story lacks the excitement and symbolism of the Red Sea crossing. Placed against the Red Sea crossing — which visually portrays the redemptive significance of Noah and Moses — this small account seems insignificant. But given the clear links to previous baptismal passages, it is valuable to show how baptism reflects Joshua’s transition into the new Moses and the conquest to fulfill God’s covenant promise. Though this event pales in grandeur, it expands baptismal imagery in some ways and specifically points Christian baptism to the baptism of Jesus Christ,
2 At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. 4 Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.” – Joshua 3:2-4
The surface symbolism in these details is pretty spectacular. The three-day preparation for this crossing is reminiscent of fullness (Gen 40; Exo 10:22-23; etc.) and in this colloquial sense acts as a signpost to Christ’s three days in the grave (Matt 16:21; 17:23; Acts 10:40; etc.). Upon completion of this waiting the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant leads the, previously unknown, way for His people. This too reminds believers of Christ leading both in death, resurrection and victory (1 Cor 15:20-23; 2 Cor 2:14; Eph 4:8-11; Col 1:15, 18). As Moses and Christ were baptized before leading their covenant communities, the Ark is first to be baptized in the Jordan River before leading the people. But the similarities continue,
13 “And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap.” – Joshua 3:13
Like previous Biblical depictions of deliverances and new creation, dry ground appears from amidst the waters (Gen 1:9-13). The waters recede only after the Lord “rests” upon it in the form of the Ark of the Covenant. The Jordan crossing also reflects the Red Sea crossing in that the water stood up at the command of God (Exo 14:21-22). The very presence of God turns destruction away from Him (Josh 4:23; Psa 114:3-5). It is of passing interest that the floodwaters stopped — the baptism commenced — at the city of “Adam” (Josh 3:16) as if God is stopping the flood of sin from the first Adam through the presence of a new Adam. Even if mere coincidence, all of this of course points forward to the work of Jesus Christ.
The baptism at the Jordan also reflects covenant inauguration language. The waters of the Jordan are “cut” (H3772) as a covenant for the people of Israel. The use of the language links to the cutting of the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:7-20). The Jordan is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. But it is also cut as a “new covenant” for the exiled people of Israel. God passes through the split offerings just As He did for Abraham — though here He is followed by the people of Israel. In line with this replication of God’s covenant, it is only after the passing through of this covenant that Abraham received the sign of circumcision (Gen 17). So also the people under Joshua experience a new circumcision fitting their new covenant (Josh 5:1-9). It reminds of the tight-knit relationship between covenants, circumcision, baptism, and new creation that will resurface in the prophets and Israel’s Babylonian exile.
However, it is worth noting some the unique thematic elements contained in the baptism of Joshua that get replicated during the history of Israel. The baptism of Joshua for conquest is reintroduced for two important Biblical prophets and the doctrine of baptism in the New Testament. The first historical recapitulation is the transfer of prophetic leadership from Elijah to Elisha. In preparing Elisha for ministry, Elijah purposefully takes Elisha out of the land through the way of conquest before the Holy Spirit brings him back into the land in power (2 Kings 1-2). Crucial to this new conquest is the crossing of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:6-8). Like all the most of the previous baptisms, dry land appears for Joshua and Elisha to symbolize new creation and facilitate conquest (2 Kings 2:14) — the mantle of prophetic work and conquest is passed on through baptism in the Jordan. Though these images are available in Noah’s conquest of the “new creation” and Israel’s conquest throughout the wilderness, the story of Joshua finds its most explicit echo in the story of Elisha.
This theme of conquest is especially important within the realm of consolidating Biblical imagery. Adam and Noah shared similar commands to subdue the earth after baptism (Gen 1:28; 9:1-7). So also, Moses and Israel were sent into foreign lands to conquer (Exo 3-4; 23:20-33). This promise of conquest after baptism extended unto Joshua (Jos 1:1-9) and ultimately extends to Jesus and His disciples (Matt 28:20). Christian baptism, which is a union of water and Spirit, is the only means by which God’s people are to conquer.
The second pertinent baptism in the Jordan involves John the baptizer and Jesus Christ — the greater Joshua. Jesus confirms that John is the Elijah that was to come in preparation of God’s people (Mal 4:5; Matt 11:14). Who does this make Jesus? He is the greater Elisha of conquest. All of this is neatly referenced in the small detail that John baptized on the “other side” of the Jordan (John 1:28). To be baptized, Israel had to cross over the Jordan back into the wilderness. After baptism they were to re-enter the land of Israel in conquest — baptism was their purification right to enter God’s land. John the baptizer was initiating a group of covenant conquers. The baptism of Jesus was the epic renewal of the baptism of Joshua and Elisha as the leader in conquest.
The gospel of Matthew closes with Jesus commissioning the new conquest on the Apostles via baptism (Matt 28:20). The gospel of Luke ties Christ’s baptism commission to John the baptizer as well (Luke 3:3; 24:45-49). Christian baptism in the power of the Spirit and water is the conquest of the gospel. Water does not do this alone and the Holy Spirit does not choose to move alone. As the Scriptures have shown up to this point and the baptism of Joshua reiterates, deliverance and salvation come through the union of water and Spirit and this was carried into the New Testament in the form of Christian baptism.