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Over the past few centuries, it has become a tradition in Christian hymnody and song writing to compare the children of Israel crossing the Jordan river and entering the promised land to a Christian dying and going to heaven.1 Tradition can certainly be a good thing, but only to the degree that it is rooted in and promotes truth. I humbly suggest that this is a tradition that should be jettisoned.
Here’s why: the letter to the Hebrews (in chapters 3 and 4) has already given us a God-inspired and, therefore, God-ordained new covenant parallel to the crossing of the Jordan. It is not dying and going to heaven – it is believing the good news about Jesus Christ, thereby entering now into the land of his completed work to begin experiencing rest in the here and now. At best, the Jordan-River-as-a-symbol-of-death tradition muddies the waters (no pun intended) of understanding. At worst, it actively encourages Christians to believe the lie that they must wait for heaven to experience any true goodness or enduring change of life. Keep reading and I’ll make my case from the Scriptures.
In Hebrews 3 and 4, the writer appeals to the unbelieving Hebrews of his day (post-Pentecost) to not be like those of Moses’ day who were delivered from Egypt and came to the brink of the promised land but ultimately failed to enter in. What stopped that generation from enjoying the promised land? Was it that they needed to die and go to heaven first? God’s Word goes on to make it clear that it was nothing but their own unbelief. They could have enjoyed the promised land during their time on earth, but they didn’t trust and obey God to keep walking, even as Joshua and Caleb pled with them to not rebel.2 The land had been given to them. God had promised it to them. The opposite of the awful bondage they’d become accustomed to in Egypt was literally yards away. They even got a sample of the grapes, pomegranates, and figs!3 If only they’d have trusted God… and kept walking!
It is sad enough that that generation didn’t believe God, but how much sadder for a post-Pentecost Hebrew to stop short of believing the good news that their long-awaited Messiah had come and accomplished eternal salvation? For those who’d heard the good news preached, salvation was less than yards away: it was “nigh [them] even in [their] mouth[s] and in [their] heart[s].”4 For many of first century Israel, though the word of the gospel was right there in their hearts, the stubbornness of their hearts5 kept them from entering in. As Joshua and Caleb pled with their brothers and sisters to not rebel against God’s Word, the writer of Hebrews pled with the Hebrews of his day to not delay one more moment: Believe and enter into rest. Today!
In the spirit of Joshua and Caleb and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, I would appeal to anyone who is reading this who has not called upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to not delay. God’s throne of grace and mercy is there for you to approach in this very moment.
Probably many of my dear readers have believed the gospel of Jesus Christ. To you I say that Hebrews makes clear, by God-inspired analogy, that you have already entered “Canaan’s fair and happy land, where [your] possessions lie.”6 Having arrived, you are, by definition, no longer “bound for the promised land” but have instead already reached “that happy place.” No need to “cast a wishful eye,” longing to experience rest “over on the other shore.”7 No need to wait for the trumpet of the Lord to sound. Rest is yours today.
Well, Christian, what then should we do if our lives aren’t very restful or fruitful or joyful? What if our lives are about the same as they were before? One option is to not expect much to change until we get to heaven, to lower our expectations for our lives and nobly sympathize with the lyrics to On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand. Allow me to offer a more Biblical option taken directly from the book of Joshua.
While those of Moses’ generation died in the wilderness and never got to enjoy Canaan at all, the book of Joshua gives God’s account of the following generation which did cross the Jordan River. They had challenges when they got there, and God wants us who have entered our rest (but may not be experiencing it fully) to learn from them.8 In reading Joshua, we see that everyone who crossed the Jordan got to experience at least some of the blessing of the promised land. However, we also see that it took them longer than was necessary to get settled into their new home. Also, some individuals and tribes weren’t as blessed as they could have been (whether it was due to fear or covetousness) and, in the end, more could have been done to root out the old inhabitants of the land, preserving the blessing for themselves and future generations. All these things are recorded not to shame that generation but to be a lesson to us who have the opportunity to take, enjoy, and preserve new covenant blessing to the glory of God.
One recurring theme in the book of Joshua is that in order to experience the full blessing of the promised land, the idolatrous nations currently occupying the land would need to be removed. Even though these nations were greater and mightier than the Israelites, still God told Joshua and the children of Israel that:
Joshua 1:3Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses.
The simple key to them fully experiencing the blessing of Canaan was exactly the same key that allowed them to cross the Jordan River to begin with: faith in the Word of God. Whatever obstacles they would face, they simply had to keep walking. God said that He’d already given the land to them. When they believed “every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon”, they had success. When they got distracted or lost the courage to believe God, they failed and didn’t go as far as they could have.
Joshua 10 records what could be considered the high point of that generation. After a few Israelite successes, five fearful kings of the Amorites teamed up for a combined assault. With the help of God — and under Joshua’s leadership — Israel prevailed mightily. God supernaturally rained huge stones from the sky on their enemies and, at Joshua’s word, He actually caused the sun to stand still so that the children of Israel would have more daylight to decimate the enemy. Not too long after, the captured kings were dealt with:
Joshua 10:24–26And it came to pass, when they brought out those kings unto Joshua, that Joshua called for all the men of Israel, and said unto the captains of the men of war which went with him, Come near, put your feet upon [emphasis added] the necks of these kings. And they came near, and put their feet upon [emphasis added] the necks of them.
And Joshua said unto them, Fear not, nor be dismayed, be strong and of good courage: for thus shall the LORD do to all your enemies against whom ye fight.
And afterward Joshua smote them, and slew them, and hanged them on five trees: and they were hanging upon the trees until the evening.
Before putting these sinful9 and adversarial Amorite kings to death, notice Joshua did a little ceremony that declared something quite powerful. He called all the men of Israel together and had the military leaders put their feet upon the necks of the kings. The feet on the necks were not to choke the kings to death. The death blows came later. This was meant to be a symbol to remind Israel where their help and success came from: the promise of God. God had said “every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon.” Joshua knew exactly where their successes had come from and where their future successes would come from. This wasn’t their own initiative or military prowess or some idea they had dreamed up. God had said to, so they kept treading.
After the children of Israel entered the promised land, that generation was encouraged to keep walking. We too are encouraged to keep walking in what we’ve been given:
Colossians 2:6As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:
Just as that generation had some nations to put to death, we also have things to put to death in order to fully experience the milk and honey of the new covenant:
Colossians 3:5 (English Standard Version)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
Without a doubt, there are some blessings that we as Christians must wait to experience.10 However, transformation11 with all of its accompanying fruit12 is absolutely not one of them. Of course we look forward to the day when the world as it is, the devil, and the temptations of the flesh are no more. However, God says transformation is available in the here and now for Christians… and not just a partial transformation. Transformation is described as a complete excising of the old life and a putting on of a new life in Christ. The Scriptures teach clearly that there is abundant fruit for a Christian to experience now – yes, even in this very moment, if we’d have the courage to put to death the old and put on the new as God has said.13 We are not the same people we used to be. This is a “now” reality. Don’t be passive or hesitant. We are to aggressively and violently end our relationship with the old by putting it to death. This goes beyond the power of mental discipline: it’s tapping into the power inherent in the completed work of Christ in you and the very Word of God.
While we don’t have kings to put to death, we have works of the flesh to put to death. And the process is the same: believing in the promise of God.
God says “love,” so I take my foot and put it on the neck of selfishness and bitterness and I walk in love.
The king of depression and hurt that previously ruled? I put my foot on the neck of that and begin to experience the joy that’s mine. That’s a fruit of the spirit.
Doubt? I put my foot on that and I accept the faith and the faithfulness that is a fruit of the new life God has given me.
Confusion? Anxiety? God said He has given me peace, and therefore they have no right to reign.
Even when all of these works of the flesh try to muster their forces and combine their attack, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s a combined attack by the king of Jerusalem, the king of Hebron, the king of Jarmuth, the king of Lachish, and the king of Eglon all at once. It doesn’t matter. Put your foot on the neck of the flesh.
Pride? Haughtiness? God’s given me meekness.
A short fuse? God’s given me longsuffering.
That meanness, that harshness of the old life? Put your foot on the neck of that and say, “God’s given me gentleness.”
Evil thoughts and ways? He’s given me goodness.
Addiction? Slavery to lust? Put your foot on the neck of those. He’s given you self-control. Put those things to death.
Your past or present situation (whatever it is) can never be more powerful than the fact that you are now in Christ. That’s the situation that matters most. Keep walking and keep treading.
How far are you from Canaan, dear Christian? In reality, you are already standing in that happy land. Every day you’re camping! Where? In the land of Canaan.14 You’ve believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and transformation is yours. You do not need to wait for the trumpet to sound to begin exploring and experiencing the land of milk and honey. Reserve your longing for other things we must wait for. Don’t waste it on what can be yours today to God’s glory. Pick up Romans and read. Pick up Ephesians and Colossians and pray for eyes to see. Drink and taste of Canaan’s wondrous beauties grand. Most of all, keep walking and keep treading.
It’s yours now. Just walk.
 E.g., How Far Am I From Canaan? Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers, 1951.
 See Numbers 14:6–9.
 See Numbers 13:23–24.
 See Romans 10:8–10.
 See Hebrews 3:15.
 On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand, Samuel Stennett (1787), United Methodist Hymnal, 1989.
 When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, James M. Black, 1893.
 See Romans 15:4a: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning…”
 God had given Abraham’s descendants the land many years before, but at least one reason they had to wait to enter in was that “the iniquity of the Amorites [was] not yet full.” See Genesis 15:16b.
 Seeing and being with our Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17), receiving glorious bodies like our Lord’s resurrected body (Philippians 3:21), knowing even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12), living in new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13) and our adversary thankfully does not dwell (Revelation 20:10) are some of the blessings of salvation that we are waiting to experience.
 See Romans 12:1–2.
 See Galatians 5:22–23.
 See Colossians 3:1–14.
 From Camping In Canaan’s Land, by E. M. Bartlett (1883–1941). Appropriately enough, he also wrote Victory in Jesus, which is another one of my favorites.