Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.Other rivers have more beauty. Many are longer. Most are cleaner. But none has garnered as much affection as the Jordan River.Even the Nile River Valley—although it flows deeper, wider, and longer without tributary or raindrop to feed it—fails to match the depth of the Jordan Rift Valley. The Jordan Valley cuts the deepest ditch on the planet, ultimately draining into the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth. The ancient Egyptians worshiped the Nile as a god, but the Jordan surpasses it in spiritual influence and sanctity. Just looking at it, though, you’d never have imagined why. “Jordan” originates from yarad, a Hebrew term that means “to go down, to descend”—and that’s what it does. In the north of the country, seeping snows of Mount Hermon surface at Tel Dan and Banias, forming the headwaters of the Jordan. From there, the river snakes its way south about twenty-five miles to the Sea of Galilee. At the lake’s southern edge, the river picks up its journey and winds back and forth more than 125 miles—but only 60 miles as the crow flies—to supply the Dead Sea. Modern agricultural and domestic interests have diverted more than 90 percent of the Jordan River’s current, replacing it with sewage. No wonder the World Monuments Fund has designated it an Endangered Cultural Heritage site.
It wasn’t the beauty of the Jordan River that has inspired centuries of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to include it in their verses. Its significance began as a simple geographic barrier, which—practically speaking—represented a border (Joshua 22:18-25). The river’s presence on Israel’s eastern edge stood as an enduring metaphor of transitions.Crossing the river for Joshua meant entering the Promised Land and leaving the leadership of Moses. When the priests of God left the Jordan’s eastern banks and stepped into its current, the river stopped flowing upstream at a site called Adam. After the nation crossed, Joshua made a fundamental comparison: “For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the Lord your God had done to the Red Sea, which he dried up before us until we had crossed” (Joshua 4:23). Joshua connected their powerful redemption as a nation to the same power of God that helped them enter the Promised Land. They erected stones to commemorate the event. Another significant transition occurred in the same location on the Jordan. Elijah transferred the prophetic mantel to Elisha just before Elijah ascended to heaven. And as the Jordan had done in the shift from Moses to Joshua, it parted for Elijah and Elisha, who crossed on dry ground (2 Kings 2:8).It’s no wonder John the Baptist chose this same area to baptize. Because the Jordan represented a place of transition—in fact, of new beginnings—it became the place where John baptized Jesus. But instead of the waters parting, the heavens did (Mark 1:10).
Today, the most popular place for pilgrims and tourists to get baptized in the Jordan River is a spot just below the Sea of Galilee. Trees with white bark overhang the river, offering shade to tourists and refuge for birds. Handrails and white robes provide a safe and meaningful experience. (And the fish that nip at the hairs on your legs will make it an unforgettable one!) Although the Yardenit baptismal facility represents the most beautiful place to get baptized in the Jordan, it most likely was not the location of Jesus’ baptism.Although there are proponents with different views, it seems most likely that John baptized Jesus across from Jericho, in the same area of the previous significant transitions. Recent improvements now allow guests to visit this area, although when I went there recently our group had to get permission from the IDF.The Jordan as a place of transition remains an enduring symbol. The transitions that occurred there were sometimes national—as with Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and John and Jesus. But the area also had its personal transitions—even conversions—as in the cases of Rahab, Naaman, Zaccheus, and Bartimaeus. Be they national or personal—or both—any new beginning also requires an ending. It requires leaving one shore and crossing the river for another.Entering the Promised Land by fording the Jordan remains a timeless metaphor for crossing over from death to spiritual life (see Hebrews 4:1-10). As Joshua pointed out after crossing the Jordan, the same grace of God that redeemed them was the grace that led them home (Joshua 4:23). I think the same is true of us.How to Get There: The Yardenit Baptismal site is just south of the Sea of Galilee where Route 90 crosses the Jordan River.What to Do There: Enjoy the gift shops, watch the baptisms, enjoy the shade, and read from Joshua 3:14-4:7 and Mark 1:1-10.Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at www.waynestiles.com.