The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. And as for you, command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the brink of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” And Joshua said to the people of Israel, “Come here and listen to the words of the Lord your God.” And Joshua said, “Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites. Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. 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 3:7-13 ESV
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17 ESV
There’s a beautiful painting called “The Baptism of Christ” by Piero della Francesca. It shows John the Baptist pouring water over Jesus’ head with a shell. There is a tree next to the Jordan River giving both of them shade, and the Holy Spirit is hovering over Jesus’ head as a dove. But there’s something strange about the picture. John and Jesus are standing in the Jordan River, but the place where they are standing is dry. The Jordan River has stopped flowing, giving them dry ground to stand on. This pictures an old legend, that when Jesus went into the Jordan River to be baptized, the water stopped and he stood on dry ground.
When Joshua and the people of Israel crossed the Jordan, that actually did happen. As soon as the priests who were carrying the ark of the covenant stepped into the river, the water stopped flowing and the people walked through the river on dry ground. This would have reminded them of what had happened many years before, when they had walked through the Red Sea and the waters had parted to let them through. It would have given them the encouragement to know that the same God who had been with their people then was still with them now, ready to help them enter and take possession of the promised land.
The same God who was with Israel then came to us in the person of Jesus. God’s presence was in the ark of the covenant in a special way, but when Jesus came into the world, he brought us God’s presence in an even more special way. That’s probably where the legend came from. If the ark of the covenant could part the waters of the Jordan, then maybe the same thing might have happened when God in the person of Jesus stepped into the Jordan! However, what really happened when Jesus was baptized is even more wonderful. Jesus took all the sins of the world on himself and carried them to the cross with him. What Jesus did for us in his baptism, death, and resurrection opened the way for us into the promised land of heaven, where we will have life with God forever and ever.
Dear Jesus, thank you for all that you did for us so that our sins could be forgiven and that can live forever with you in heaven. Amen.
Beckett, Sister Wendy The Story of Painting London: Dorling Kindersley, 1994, p. 166.