The story is told of a wealthy man’s funeral at which “Guide me O thou great Jehovah” was the opening hymn. It may have been a typo or it may have been requested as the deceased’s last laugh, but the final verse read as follows:
“When I tread the verge of Jordan
Bid my anxious fears subside
Death of death and hell’s destruction
Land my safe on Canaan’s side.”
What is it to “tread the verge of Jordan”?
In the song it’s about going from this life to the next. That’s because in the bible it’s about passing from the time of trial (wilderness) to the time of promise (Canaan).
In the book of Joshua, the one whose name is “Jesus” (Joshua) leads the people across the Jordan and into the land of milk and honey. To tread the verge of Jordan is to enter God’s rest.
When the Israelites do it in under Joshua it recalls the great Red Sea crossing. Once again the waters are miraculously parted. Through waters (which often symbolise judgement in the bible) the people are brought through and kept safe. In fact many times in Joshua chapters 3 and 4 it is described as the Israelites “passing over”.
It’s an act of salvation to go from death to life with Jesus at their head.
But as the Old Testament unfolds we see a bad people ruining a good land. They had been called God’s son – His pride and joy (Exodus 4:22). But far from living the life of God’s son, they “rebelled and vexed God’s Holy Spirit” (Isaiah 63:10). They earned His curses – just as Moses had predicted they would (Deuteronomy 4:25-28). But beyond the exile would come the true salvation (Deuteronomy 4:29-31).
1500 years or so after Israel went through the Jordan, there was another gathering of Israelites on its banks. They had all come out to hear a wild and woolly preacher called John.
In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1-6)
At this stage the Israelites are technically in the land – though under Roman oppression. But John is telling them, “You need to pass over the Jordan again! You’re not really in God’s promised rest. Your sins still estrange you from His holy habitation.” And so great multitudes come to John to be baptized, confessing their sins.
But John’s key role is not so much moral reform – he’s preparing the way for the LORD. All of this is preparation for an earth-shattering (indeed heaven-shattering) event: the LORD shows up!
His name is Jesus (of course His name would be Jesus/Joshua). Wonder of wonders, this promised LORD shows up at the sinners convention. And if that wasn’t stunning enough He numbers Himself with the rest of the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12) and He cuts to the head of the queue.
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. (Matthew 3:13)
Jesus will be baptized! How incredible that the LORD of Glory would identify with sinners like this. But Jesus is baptized into our kind of life. He sums up our humanity and takes our place. When Jesus “passes over” into God’s rest He will do so at our head, as our Representative.
Where we have failed to live the life of God’s son – the Son of God lives it for us. And where we deserve the guilty verdict… just listen to the verdict Jesus gets as He comes through the waters of the Jordan:
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:16-17)
We don’t deserve to come through the waters of the Jordan. Those waters ought to close over our heads in judgement. We don’t deserve to come through the closed door of heaven either. Neither our safe nor ourselves deserve to land “on Canaan’s side.” But Jesus is the true Son of God, full of the Spirit, beloved of the Father. Heaven is open to Him. And He has identified with us, taking up our plight and passing over on our behalf. If we identify with Him then He is at our head. Therefore His life, His Spirit, His Father’s verdict, His heaven are all ours.
So then, as death draws near – as it does to us all – we can take comfort in this: the Son of God joined us in our predicament. And He came through the waters for us.
When I tread the verge of Jordan
Bid my anxious fears subside!