The Crossing of the River
Bro. Chalmers I. Paton, P.M., No. 393, England
A wide river, flowing between luxuriant banks; boats crossing from one side to the other, all in one direction, and each with a single passenger; on the side to which they come friendly hands helping the passengers to land. Such is the picture before us, symbolising the good man's passage over the Jordan of Death to the heavenly Canaan.
It is no scene from heathen mythology which is here presented to our view. It is not the river Styx which we behold: it is not Charon's boat that ferries across the passengers. The whole symbol is derived from the language and imagery of Holy Scripture, it represents truths which we learn from that book alone, and encourages us in hopes which are entirely rounded on its revelations.
We know that we have death before us; but it is not an utterly unknown world into which we are to pass. Much, indeed, there is, as to which we would fain inquire, but as to which the Word of God affords us no answer. This, however, is sure, that the land of promise is one of bliss. All is blissful there. And the promise is sure. The Word of the Lord can never fail. He is Lord of that world as he is of this, and he has given it to those who put their trust in him. As he gave the land of Canaan to Abraham and to his seed, so to the spiritual children of Abraham he has given the better Canaan. Years, centuries elapsed; generation after generation passed away, before the promise made to Abraham was fulfilled in the entrance of the Israelites under Joshua into the promised land. But the promise was fulfilled. And so will the better promise be fulfilled to every one who receives it and rests upon it.
"The Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land" (Gen. xii. 7). " The Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates" (Gen. xv. 18). Again, when as a token of God's promise to him, his name was changed to Abraham, God said, " I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land in which thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God" (Gen. xvii. 8). " By faith, Abraham" we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, "when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed, and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernades with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Heb. xi. 8-10). And so must we live by faith upon the earth, seeking a better country, even a heavenly, and that city whose builder and maker is God.
As we see in the picture which forms this symbol, persons standing on the bank of the river to which the boats cross, helping the passengers to land, so we are encouraged to expect the kindest of welcomes when we cross the Jordan of Death, and reach the shore of the heavenly Canaan. We may expect the angels to receive us there. It is little that we read in Scripture of their ministry, but we read that they are " all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Heb. i. 14). From this we may surely infer, that they shall be ready to receive us at the last moment of our earthly life, and to welcome us into those abodes of bliss in which they themselves have dwelt since their creation. Above all, let us rejoice in the thought that the King of the Land, whose servants they are, will graciously receive us, and that not as strangers on whom a little of His bounty is to be bestowed, but as His Brethren whom He is not ashamed to acknowledge, and whom He delights to invest in a wonderful manner with a portion of His own glory.
Bunyan, in the Pilgrim's Progress, makes admirable use of that Scriptural figure, of death as a river which must be passed over that we may enter the abodes of bliss; although he does not represent it as crossed by boats; as it is represented in the symbol now before us. In the First Part of that admirable allegory, we read as follows, concerning the pilgrims, Christian and Hopeful:
"Now I further saw that betwixt them and the gate was a river, but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river, the pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went with them said, You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.
"The pilgrims then began to inquire if there was no other way to the gate; to which they answered, 'Yes; but there hath not any, save two, to wit, Enoch and Elijah, been permitted to tread that path, since the foundation of the world, nor shall, until the trumpet shall sound."' The pilgrims then, especially Christian, began to despond in their minds, and looked this way and that, but no way could be found for them, by which they might escape the river. Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth. They said, No: yet they could not help them in that case; for, said they, you shall find it deeper or shallower, as you believe in the King of the place.
"They then addressed themselves to the water; and entering, Christian began to sink, and crying out to his good friend Hopeful, he said 'I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head, all his waves go over me.'
"Then said the other, 'Be of good cheer, my brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good.' Then said Christian, 'Ah! my friend, the sorrows of death have compassed me about; I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey;' and with that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him. Also here he in a great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember, nor orderly talk of the sweet refresh- ments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. But all the words that he spake still tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and heart-fears that he should die in that river, and never obtain entrance in at the gate. Here also, as they that stood by perceived, he was much in troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both before and since that he began to be a pilgram. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hob- goblins and evil spirits, for ever and anon he would intimate so much by words. Hopeful, therefore, here had much ado to keep his brother's head above water, yea, sometimes he would be quite gone down, and then, ere a while, he would rise up again, half dead. Hopeful also did endeavour to comfort him, saying, 'Brother, I see the Gate, and the men standing by to receive us;' but Christian would answer 'It is you, it is you they wait for; you have been hopeful ever since I knew you.' 'And so have you,' said he to Christian. 'Ah, brother!' said he, 'surely if I was right he would now arise to help me; but for my sins he hath brought me into the snare, and hath left me.' Then said Hopeful, 'My Brother! you have quite forgot the text where it is said of the wicked, 'There are no bands in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men' (Ps. lxxiii. 4-5). These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you, but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have received of his goodness, and live upon Him in your distresses.'
Then I saw in my dream, that Christian was in a muse a while. To whom also Hopeful added this word, 'Be of good cheer, Jesus Christ maketh thee whole;' and with that Christian brake out with a loud voice, 'Oh! I see him again, and he tells me, "when thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee"' (Is. xliii. 2). Then they both took courage, and the enemy was after that as still as stone, until they were gone over. Christian therefore presently found ground to stand upon, and so it followed that the rest of the river was but shallow. Thus they got over. Now, upon the bank of the river, on the other side, they saw the two shining men again, who there waited for them; wherefore, being come out of the river, they saluted them, saying, 'We are ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those that shall be heirs of salvation.'"
It may be asked why so many Masonic Symbols represent to us the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death, and are thus of a gloomy and awful character. The answer is that Freemasonry is intended to fit us for and to call us to the discharge of all our duties in life, and that of these and the responsibilities connected with them we can have no right notion, unless we think of Death as certain and of the uncertainty of the duration of Life. It is also to be con- sidered that these symbols suggest to us the thought of other things, by which light is shed over the gloom, a better light than that of this transitory world.