The Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, and Nearing the End

This is the nineteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 27 AM

On our group’s first morning in Jerusalem—the first day of the trip that did not dawn already blazing hot—our first stop was going to be the Temple Mount. We trooped outside the old city wall to the bus, rode around to the other side of the old city, got out and through the Dung Gate, and settled into the security line before it was scheduled to open.

We waited.

And we waited some more.

Then we received word that there had been some unrest on the Temple Mount the day before, and the opening for that day was delayed indefinitely. It would eventually open later that day, but by that time we had already decided to get back on the bus and move to the Mount of Olives. We would not get to visit the Temple Mount this trip.

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On the Mount of Olives in my standard uniform for the trip: broad-brimmed hat, hydration pack, breathable shirt (shorts and hiking boots not pictured)

On the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley east of ancient Jerusalem, we sat in a small amphitheater while our group leader, Tim, talked to us about Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, he said, the Sunday before Passover, on the day the lambs were being selected for the feast. Around ten years before this, Josephus tells us that Thaddeus claimed to be messiah and around 4,000 people were killed. Tensions, in other words, were high.

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The pilgrims

When Jesus appeared at the top of the Mount of Olives, the crowd accompanying him shouted “Hosanna” (“Save us”). They waved palm branches, the Zealot symbol of freedom, which was earlier used on coins from the Maccabean period (Luke 19:31–37). But instead of inciting a revolt, Jesus wept (Luke 19:42–45). He was indeed claiming to be king, and he was indeed making a political statement—but not in the sense that he was setting himself up as the kind of kind the world was used to. He was forcing the hands of those who were opposed to him. He knew that this would get him killed.

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The many burial plots on the Mount of Olives

From the top of the Mount of Olives, we walked down toward the Temple Mount to Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed on the night that he was arrested. “Gethsemane” means “olive press,” and there are many olive trees still present there. Of course, as is the case with so many places mentioned in the Bible, it isn’t clear where the exact spot Jesus prayed is. A few places compete for the honor, and we went to two such places on this morning. But as I wrote in my post on Nazareth, I think standing in the exact spot is overrated. We spent some time contemplating in one spot, then took a quick walk around the walled garden next to the Church of All Nations.

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A very old olive tree in the garden next to the Church of All Nations

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus in Gethsemane said he was not leading a revolt, and the disciples fled (Matt 26:55–56). Perhaps they fled because they realized only then that Jesus would not lead an open rebellion against Rome. Perhaps also Judas betrayed Jesus because he wanted to force Jesus’ hand and spark a revolution. I first heard of this theory from Dorothy Sayers’s book The Man Born to Be King, and I think it has a lot of merit. Ultimately, though, no one knows exactly why Judas betrayed Jesus. The important thing is that Jesus knew he would die, and he went to his death willingly. And he calls those who follow him to take up their crosses as well (Mark 8:31–38).

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The facade of the Church of All Nations, with the retaining wall around the Temple Mount to the right
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Night in Jerusalem

This is the eighteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

In the afternoon of June 26 our tour bus left Caesarea, and Galilee, and took us to where we would spend our final three days. By that point in the trip we had been in Israel (with a couple of trips into the West Bank) for a week, and we had not yet set foot in Jerusalem.

When we got there, the bus driver parked just outside the old city walls, between the Jaffa Gate and the New Gate, and we walked in to our hotel: the Knights’ Palace. It was a charming little place, a former seminary, with a medieval feel: stone exterior and interior, with suits of armor in the hallway and portraits whose eyes seem to follow you like you’re in an episode of Scooby-Doo.

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The old city of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Armenian Quarter. The Knights’ Palace is in the Christian Quarter, wedged up against the northwest wall of the old city and not far from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. After checking in, most of our group spent the evening going on a walk around the city.

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Walking just inside the Jaffa Gate

I love walking in cities at night. While I’ve spent plenty of time wandering around the major cities I’ve lived in (Prague, Budapest, Vancouver) both during the day and at night, it’s the night walks that have stuck with me, even years afterward.

Maybe this is because my senses are heightened when I’m walking around at night, knowing there is a higher likelihood that I’ll be the victim of some crime. Or, more likely, walking at night just seems more intimate. With the sky dark and the lampposts lit up, cityscapes (especially squares) feel to me almost like a living room. There are fewer people around, and some of the inhibitions that people have in the daylight crowds go away; you’re more likely to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know (you’re also more likely to be propositioned by a prostitute or see stag parties singing/yelling to everyone around as they stagger down the street—two lingering memories from my time in Prague).

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Standing near the Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

Tim led us through the warren of narrow streets that first night, looking for a way up to a rooftop from which we could look east and see the Dome of the Rock. Along the way, we saw the Israeli police questioning a young boy who had apparently thrown a rock at someone. In Jerusalem, little things like that can apparently get out of control quickly.

Then we came back down from the roof, meandered through the Jewish Quarter to Hurva Square, and headed east to a place where we could overlook the Western Wall.

fullsizeoutput_2755It was stunning, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Of the three nights we spent in Jerusalem, no matter how tired I was after that day’s excursions, I went walking around at night to take in as much as I could: enjoying the views, watching the people, eating the gelato (who knew you could get gelato in the old city?). I was a little nervous about getting lost by myself, so I had to look for people to go with, but thankfully there were plenty of other people who were also excited to do night exploring (thanks, Kurt & Suzie, Jenna & Abigail!).

 

Caesarea and Kingdom Building

It’s hard to believe it’s now been almost a year since the pilgrimage to Israel I made with a group from my church last summer. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to try to write reflections on every stop we made, but I’m actually pretty close to finishing now. This is the seventeenth post (to read them all, click here).

June 26 PM

Our last stop in northern Israel before heading to Jerusalem was Caesarea. There were two Caesareas—Caesarea Philippi, which we had visited a couple of days earlier, and the one on the coast, which is usually just called Caesarea (or Caesarea Maritima if you want to differentiate it from the other one).

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Standing at one end of the hippodrome

Like so many extant ruins around Israel, Herod the Great picked this spot to build a palace. He wanted a harbor here so he could get a cut of the trade that passed through, so he conducted a building project from about 22–10 BC so an artificial harbor could be created. The palace covered twenty-six acres, and there was a theater and hippodrome here as well. Josephus wrote that Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great entered this theater dressed in robes of silver that shone in the sun. When the crowd acclaimed him as a god, he accepted their praise, and he died shortly thereafter (this is also recorded in the New Testament in Acts 12:20–23). There was also a lighthouse, and ruins of the breakwater are still visible underwater. The site includes red columns from Egypt and black columns from Greece.

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Looking toward the hippodrome, with the palace in the foreground

From AD 6, when the Romans took over Palestine, Caesarea was the headquarters of the Roman governors. In 1961 there was a stone found here with an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate. The apostle Paul passed through here on his missionary journeys, and he was imprisoned here for two years before he was sent to be tried in Rome (Acts 23:23–26:32).

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A replica of the Pilate inscription; the original is in the Israel Museum

When our group arrived, we went up to the top of the theater and felt the ocean breeze while our group leader, Tim, explained the history of the place and showed us some points of interest. Then we went north to the ruins of the ancient palace. Just below the palace, on the beach, we found ancient pieces of pottery and marble that had been eroded by the waves. Then we continued north through the hippodrome.

Is8059 After we left Caesarea, we stopped at an aqueduct not far away, then continued on to Jerusalem for the night.

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When Tim gave us an overview of Caesarea, he ended by saying that Herod the Great built this to show he was great. That is what he wanted to do with his many building projects, and at least in some sense he succeeded, since we can still see parts of what he built and we still know his name. But of course the palace is in ruins and nobody uses the hippodrome anymore. And even though we know his name, we don’t love Herod. He doesn’t have a place in our hearts. So Tim asked, “What kind of kingdom are you building?”

Megiddo and to’ebah

This is the sixteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 26, AM

Our next stop after the area outside Nazareth was Megiddo, a site on the north side of the Carmel ridge, on the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley. In ancient times it was along the Via Maris, the main route between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and so held strategic and military significance for a long time. In the united monarchy of Israel, it is listed as one of three cities that Solomon fortified (along with Hazor and Gezer, 2 Kgs 9:15). There is a gate there that some archaeologists believe dates to Solomon’s time. In 609 BC, Josiah king of Judah challenged Pharaoh Neco in battle there and was killed (2 Kgs 23:29–30). The site was abandoned sometime during the fourth century BC.

Is8023Many people associate the name “Megiddo” with Revelation 16:16, which places a gathering of armies at a place called “Armageddon” (literally, “mountain of Megiddo”). Normally Armageddon is thought of as a battle, but a close reading of Revelation shows that the battle is never fought. Personally, since so much of Revelation is intended to be symbolic, and since there is no such place as the “mountain of Megiddo,” and since it’s physically impossible for the armies described in Revelation to gather in the space around Megiddo, I don’t think any literal future gathering for battle is likely to be fought at Megiddo. As Darrell Johnson says in his fine book on Revelation, “The name stands for the last resistance of the anti-Christ forces before the coming of the new creation” (Discipleship on the Edge, 290). Likewise, Grant Osborne writes in Revelation Verse by Verse:

We should begin with the connection of Megiddo with warfare, since so many battles were fought there (Judg 4–5, 7; 1 Sam 31; 2 Kgs 23; 2 Chr 35). It is also associated with the obstinate opposition of the world to God and his people, with the primary background being Gog and Magog (Ezek 38–39) and the mourning of the apostate nation in Zechariah 12:9–14, who here represent all the nations who have broken covenant with God. Thus the message in the name “Armageddon” would be that all who stand against God will mourn as they face God’s wrath. It stands for the assembly of all the sinful nations arrayed against God and his people as they come together in defiance to make war against God and the Lamb. (272)

The point Revelation is trying to make, I think, is that evil forces gather with a militaristic mindset, not precisely where. So at Megiddo, our group leader, Tim, (thankfully) didn’t talk about Armageddon. Instead, he talked to us about idolatry.

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It appears that, even during the time when the Israelites occupied Megiddo, there was religious dualism—Yahweh was worshiped along with the goddess Asherah. This from the article on Megiddo in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books: “It is likely that two deities, male and female, are represented in Shrine 2081, presenting at Megiddo a possible early manifestation of the dualism represented by the worship of Yahweh and his Asherah at Kuntillet ʿAjrud in the early eighth century BCE.”

It may seem surprising to those who have read the Bible all their lives that this kind of thing was going on. Weren’t the Israelites monotheists? Well, according to those who wrote the Old Testament, they were supposed to be, but all too often they worshiped other gods, or they practiced syncretism—the worship of Yahweh alongside other gods. The prophets of ancient Israel were always railing against this tendency in their contemporaries, calling idols to’ebah, which means “disgusting” or an “abomination”: “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable [to’ebah] to the Lord, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret” (Deut 27:15).

Is8034In Jeremiah’s time, God was disgusted that the Judahites were likening him to the god Baal, saying he wanted child sacrifice. This was an abomination (Jer 32:35). Baal worship involving child sacrifice was abhorrent to the Greeks, and they put an end to it before Jesus’ day. But there were other things that were still going on in the first century that God also found disgusting. When Jesus entered the temple after his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he says the temple establishment is making it into a “den of robbers,” quoting a passage from Jeremiah that speaks of abominations going on in the temple itself:

“Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, ‘We are safe’—safe to do all these detestable things [to’ebah]? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!” declares the Lord. (Jer 7:9–11)

Jesus is saying that, just as the old temple was destroyed because the Israelites thought they could do whatever they wanted there and God would look the other way, so the temple of his day would be destroyed because the Jewish leaders blatantly disobeyed God in the temple itself through their greed. It’s a good reminder that religious activity is not what God wants. What does God really require? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8).

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Nazareth, or Why Standing in the Exact Spot Is Overrated

This is the fifteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

After I returned from a trip to Israel last summer, I decided I would write a series of reflections on most places we visited before I forgot them all. Now it has been eight months since I got back, and over two months since I wrote the last post.

Life has been busy.

But entering the season of Lent, and beginning to look ahead to Good Friday and Easter, has made me want to pick up this task again. I last wrote about Mount Arbel, a quiet spot overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We visited there in the early afternoon of June 25, and from there we went to a rocky place along the Jordan, north of the Sea of Galilee, where three of our group were baptized. That evening, we went on a boat out onto the sea itself. The next morning, we packed up and left our hotel in Tiberias. Our first stop of the day was Nazareth (sort of).

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June 26, AM

I say “sort of” because we didn’t actually go to Nazareth. Nazareth is a modern city, and while there are churches built on various holy spots, it doesn’t look like the ancient Nazareth where Jesus grew up. So Tim, our leader, took us to a hillside that in ancient times lay somewhere between the Jewish town of Nazareth and the Roman city of Sepphoris, a few miles to the northwest.

The reason Tim took us there is that this site was apparently once a quarry. While Jesus is normally thought of as a carpenter (the common translation of Mark 6:3), the Greek word used to describe him is tektōn.tektōn could have been a skilled worker in a number of building materials, which may have included wood but also stone or metal. Tim asked us to imagine Jesus coming out here as a tektōn, working with the stone that would have gone to buildings in Nazareth or Sepphoris.

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This place may have seemed a little farther removed from history than some of the other places we visited, where there is greater certainty that Jesus or some great biblical figure was very close. That is true, but this entire trip the idea was to travel as pilgrims, not as tourists. A tourist, camera always at the ready, would care more about standing in the exact spot where something happened, but a pilgrim is different. Pilgrims are more interested in having a closer experience of God, whether they are standing in the exact spot or not.

A few days ago I listened to a podcast from New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, where he was talking about a recent trip to Israel he had taken with a group of students. On the podcast, he sums up what sets pilgrims apart from tourists (as well as archaeologists and historians):

Sometimes we can get a little negative about people going to these places because they believe that is exactly where Jesus was born, or where he died, and we can throw up historical dust into the eyes of people and say, “We’re not for sure.”

I think that we need to distinguish between a tourist, an archaeologist/historian, and a pilgrim. A tourist is curious. We’re over there trying to see things. We’re there to see, to take pictures, to take selfies, to remember. An archaeologist/historian is going to toss the dust up and say “We’re not sure, we’re not sure, we’re not sure.” But the pilgrim doesn’t care that much if it is the precise location because they’ve come to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or the temple in Jerusalem, or the Mount of Olives, or Gethsemane, or Capernaum, or Nazareth, or Sepphoris because they think it is a thin place, and they’ve come to pray and to seek God. …

We need to recognize that space can sometimes become a thin place, a thin space where we encounter God.

McKnight talks about “thin places”—an idea that originated in Celtic Christianity to describe physical places where a person can have a fuller sense of who God is. This idea can be, and has been, abused, with people believing relics from that place have magical properties and charging large fees to enter and so on. At its best, though, I think there’s a lot of truth to this idea of thin places.

There are thin places that invite reflection and meditation—places where you feel closer to the heavenly realm where God and his angels reside. These thin places are not so much about standing in the exact spot where something happened long ago, trying to document every inch of it. They are, for me anyway, more about being in the same area where God performed a great work, understanding that it was an ordinary place that is much like the place where you live. They are places where you realize that the same God is still working his purposes in the world and inviting people to listen and join in with what he is doing.

P.S.—In case you’re interested, here is the podcast I referenced above. The quote starts at about the 12-minute mark.

Arbel and the Balance of Community and Solitude

This is the fourteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 25, PM

After leaving the impressive ruins of Beth Shan, our group went north to Mount Arbel, which is just west of the Sea of Galilee. There we had lunch (our standard bologna pitas) and then walked out to the east end of the mountain, where we could see a panoramic view of much of Galilee.

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Though this mountain isn’t mentioned by name in the New Testament, Tim sat us down at the overlook and talked about the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:32–56). He believes that, afterward, Mount Arbel is probably the solitary mountain where Jesus went up to pray (Matt 14:23; Mark 6:46). He reasoned that it is the largest mountain in the area, and its name means “mountain of God.” After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus wanted to be alone to pray, and he prayed all night. If he were on Arbel, he would have been able to see the disciples out on the lake. Then, in the early morning, he went out to them on foot.

fullsizeoutput_2732It’s certainly possible that Arbel was the place where Jesus went to pray, especially since the Gospels are unclear about where the feeding of the 5,000 took place. Luke seems to set it in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), though Mark says the disciples left to go to Bethsaida afterward (Mark 6:45). John says the disciples set out for Capernaum afterward (John 6:17); Matthew just says “the other side” (Matt 14:22), and both Matthew and Mark say they ended up at Gennesaret (Matt 14:34; Mark 6:53). I don’t ascribe much importance to these kinds of geographic puzzles one sometimes finds in the Gospels, though. They can usually be chalked up to the Gospel writers not caring as much about geography as modern people do, modern people not always knowing how ancient people used place names, or both.

At any rate, Jesus withdrew to a mountainside after feeding the 5,000, and Arbel is as good a place as any for this to have happened. In fact, even if Jesus didn’t go to the top of Arbel on this particular occasion, it’s hard to believe that he never went there. It is, after all, the highest spot for miles around, and it had a reputation for being a special spot for communing with God. It may also be the site of the Great Commission, which is said to have taken place on a mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16).

So after Tim’s talk, most of the group climbed down the north side of the mountain. It was a steep descent, and it was 100 degrees that afternoon, so we had the option of going down that way or returning to the bus the way we had come. I decided, after hearing about Jesus’ withdrawing to pray, I wanted to spend some time in solitude instead. After waiting for most of the group to disperse, I meandered across the mountain by myself and prayed, with the only sounds I heard coming from the rustling grass and the goats at the base of the mountain.

fullsizeoutput_272eAfter leaving Arbel, we drove to a spot on the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee. We had to search around to find a spot, since it was Sabbath and there were quite a few people enjoying the Sabbath along the river. On the way, as our driver tried to navigate a series of hairpin turns, the bus stopped and our Israeli guide Ariel got out. He opened the luggage bay underneath us, got out a rock the size of a large throw pillow, and laid it next to the road. With the extra bit of traction, the bus was able to proceed.

When we got there, three of our group were baptized, first giving their testimonies of how they came to know God and what he has meant to them. After the baptisms, all of us had the opportunity to remember our own baptism. Though the rocks were slippery and there was only about two feet of water, we had a wonderful time of meditation on what it has meant for us that Jesus has called us to follow him. Then we finished the day by going out on the Sea of Galilee in a boat.

This was a day when I thought a lot about the interplay between solitude and community. I’ve always enjoyed solitude; when I read Henri Nouwen’s short book Out of Solitude many years ago it spoke to me because I often find it easier to communicate with God, to feel his presence, in solitude and silence. I loved the group experience of this trip, but I relished those times, like up on Arbel, where I had the chance to be alone for a moment.

But I’m also prone to overdo the solitude thing. Nouwen writes that it is in solitude that Jesus found the courage to do his Father’s will. His time in solitude drove him back out to service in the world. If I were him, I would have wanted to stay up on the mountain, but that would have defeated the purpose of solitude.

I’ve done it enough times to know that when I don’t let solitude drive me out to engagement, I can get anxious or depressed. I can start to soothe myself and fill time by eating or watching stupid television or listening to podcasts I’m not even excited about. What I really need is to listen closely for when I’m being pushed back out into the world, and let solitude lead me into greater caring and greater engagement with community.

Beth Shan and Looking for the Unimpressive

This is the thirteenth post in a series of reflections on my trip to Israel last summer (to read them all, click here).

June 25 AM

On the day after going north of the Sea of Galilee to the Golan Heights, we went south 12 miles to a place that was called Beth Shan in the Old Testament. It was in Egyptian hands for a long time, and then occupied by the Canaanites during and after the arrival of the Israelites (Josh 17:16). It was in possession of the Philistines during the early Israelite monarchy; the bodies of Saul and his sons were hung on the city wall there after their deaths (1 Sam 31:11–13).

Our bus let us out near the base of the north side of the tell and we walked up to the top, where we were met with a view of the impressive Greek and Roman city that later grew there, called Scythopolis. It is not mentioned by name in the New Testament, though during that time it was the westernmost city of the Decapolis, the only one west of the Jordan River (Matt 4:25). It is mentioned a few times in the Apocrypha (Jdt 3;10; 2 Macc 12:29–30). It later became a center of Christianity, was conquered by a Muslim invasion of 634, and was destroyed by an earthquake in 749. The area continued to be occupied, and the name of the ancient city is preserved in the modern town of Beit She’an.

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This site is much grander than the little fishing villages like Capernaum and Chorazin where Jesus spent much of his ministry. There was a bath house, an amphitheater, and many public buildings and temples. As we walked through the excavated town, I reflected on how even the most impressive societies can come to ruin.

I grew up in the evangelical Christian subculture in the United States (and when I say “evangelical” I’m not talking about a voting bloc but a group, found across different denominations, that has a particular focus on the cross, the Bible, conversion, and active participation in God’s mission in the world). The evangelical subculture is often the opposite of impressive. With some exceptions, much of the art has been derivative and kitschy, and the intellectuals among us have lamented how evangelicals as a whole can be anti-intellectual (though Mark Noll has more recently expressed hope regarding evangelical scholarship).

fullsizeoutput_272cBecause my first experience of Christianity was as part of a subculture, I have received over and over, both explicitly and implicitly, the message that Christianity is something that you are supposed to leave behind when you gain an understanding of the world outside that subculture. You’re supposed to grow up in the church, and then when you become an adult, you realize the world is more complicated than you originally thought and leave Jesus behind.

Maybe because I’ve always had a contrarian streak, I have never been comfortable with this assumption. In fact, I have gone the other way: when I realized that there was a bigger world outside my subculture, I decided to go deeper—not back into my subculture, but into Jesus and the broad, deep story of his church. And I discovered that not only was he bigger than the subculture I had been a part of, but he was big enough to encompass the wider world.

is737Our group leader, Tim, reflected that there are impressive stones at Scythopolis, but the Bible says we who follow Jesus are living stones (1 Pet 2:4–5). We are a place that says to the world, “The presence of God is here”—a temple. This temple may not be outwardly impressive in the eyes of the world, but neither was Jesus. Neither were the little fishing villages where he spent most of his time compared to the glittering Scythopolis.

When I see a place like Scythopolis, I think of the culture that currently holds sway, that I feel pressure to conform to. I realize that this culture that seems so powerful now will be gone soon. There are many wonderful things about the United States and its culture, but it will not last forever. Jesus and the group of people he gathered around himself came before it, and will remain after it.

I encourage you, then, to look for the little and seemingly unimportant ways in which God likes to work. Advent is a perfect time to do that, as we reflect on how Jesus came not as a powerful king but as a baby born into poverty and scandal.

Caesarea Philippi and the Gates of Hell

This is the twelfth post in a series of reflections on my recent trip to Israel (to read them all, click here).

June 24 PM

On our day in the Golan Heights, we went north all the way until we reached a place called Banias, near the foot of Mount Hermon. Today it is part of the Hermon Stream Nature Reserve.

In Old Testament times, this area was the northernmost part of the region of Bashan. When the Israelites took over the area from the Canaanites, the tribe of Dan established a city there that they called Dan. When it was given to Herod Philip in New Testament times, he renamed it Caesarea Philippi.

In both the Old and New Testaments, it was a center of pagan worship. Mount Hermon itself had been called Baal Hermon after the Canaanite storm god Baal, who was said to live on the mountain (Judg 3:3) . Even after the Israelites took it over from the Canaanites, an Israelite king set up a worship center there with a golden calf (1 Kgs 12:25–33). There was a temple dedicated to Pan there in New Testament times, as well as a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus. Pan was a symbol of fertility, and there was a statue of Pan with a huge removable penis that would be paraded around during festivals.

The Romans called this place the rock of the gods.

Jesus called it the gates of Hades.

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In Matthew 16:13–23, Jesus took his disciples up to Caesarea Philippi. There he asked them who people were saying he was. After they listed a few options (John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah), he asked him who they thought he was. Peter, never one to hesitate, said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus responded, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18).

What are the gates of Hades? There have been many different interpretations. After we took a look at the site and then found some shade, our guide, Tim, pointed us back to the grotto that had been associated with the worship of Pan. A stream used to come out of the grotto, but an earthquake has stopped it up. It was believed in ancient times that this grotto contained access to the underworld.

If the “gates of Hades” might well have referred to their physical location, then what about “this rock”? The two most common interpretations of “this rock” are Peter himself and Peter’s confession in verse 16. The first interpretation is embraced by Catholics, who regard Peter as the first pope, and also some Protestants, who regard this as a reference to Peter’s prominence in the early church. The second interpretation instead says that the confession “Jesus is the Christ” is the foundation of the church.

fullsizeoutput_2713Tim argued that the “this rock” Jesus spoke of was neither Peter himself nor his confession, but the place where they were standing at the time. This interpretation is also set forth in the Lexham Geographic Commentary (a resource from my employer that came out this year, but is currently only available in some Logos Bible Software base packages):

In light of the massive rock scarp against which Caesarea Philippi was built and into which were hewn images of dead gods and goddesses, Jesus may have been using petra  [“rock”] to refer to the worldviews represented in that rock face. They appeared to be insurmountable but, here, Jesus was declared to be the Living God. In other words, this encounter represented a stinging condemnation of all forms of pagan worship. This is even more dramatic in light of the layers of religious history that had accumulated here. …

For Jesus to own in Caesarea Philippi the titles Son of the living God as well as Son of Man would upend all of the pagan notions associated with the location. Further, Jesus soon commenced teaching them about a radically different death and resurrection from the myth that enshrouded the Baal narratives (Matt 16:21).

According to this interpretation, Jesus was standing with his disciples in a center of pagan worship and fascination with death—a focus of demonic activity. He was claiming that his church would be built on (or “against”) such places. Despite the pressure to conform to the ways of the world, Jesus is saying, his church would thrive. It is even viewed as the aggressor, coming against the gates of Hades to rescue people from its grip. Even places like Caesarea Philippi would not be able to prevail against his church.

As I write this post, I’m thinking about the results of the latest US election. How could I not? Over the last few days, I’ve listened to people’s reactions to the election of Donald Trump as president. Some have been triumphalistic, some have been cautiously optimistic, but most have been angry or despairing (maybe because I live in the bluest of blue states).

fullsizeoutput_2706I will not deligitimize other people’s responses, especially since I am in no sense a minority and am not feeling any existential threat based on what Trump or some of his supporters have said during his campaign. I don’t think there’s room for me to tell other people how to feel.

As a member of Christ’s church, though, I also don’t there is room for me to look to the results of elections as my source of either despair or joy. Yes, politics is important, and it is important to work to make government as just as it can be. But while important, politics are not ultimate. I cannot demonize people who might disagree with me politically; there are in fact real demons that I ought to be concerned with—demons that invite people to worship created things, and especially themselves, resulting in their destruction. As I look to the future, I need to ask, What is the gate I am facing? And am I attacking it for the kingdom of God—not doing so triumphalistically but following the self-sacrificial way of Christ—or retreating into comfort and passivity?

Gamla, Masada, and Symbolism

It’s been over a month since my last post about my trip to Israel last summer, but it’s a rainy day and my wife is out of town, so now is as good a time as any to get back to it. This is the eleventh such post (to read them all, click here).

June 24 AM

On our second day in Galilee, we went east of the Sea of Galilee and into the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967. Before then it belonged to Syria, and this is as close to Syria as we would get on this trip. I remember one of the mornings we were in Galilee I got up early and sat on the west side of the sea at our hotel. In the quiet, I could hear booming across the water. I don’t know for sure that these were the sounds of the long civil war going on in Syria, but that may have been what I was hearing.

Our first stop in the Golan Heights was the site of an ancient town called Gamla. The name comes from the Hebrew word for “camel,” and the town got that name because it was built on a ridge that looks like a camel’s hump.

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Gamla. The Sea of Galilee is in the upper right.

Gamla is not mentioned in the Bible, but in the years leading up to the First Jewish Revolt (AD 66–70) it was a hotbed of Zealot activity. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus records that the Romans attacked and destroyed the town in 67 (Jewish War 4.1–83). Josephus himself was present with the Roman general Vespasian when the town was taken.

It is especially significant to those who are interested in biblical archaeology because a Jewish synagogue was found there. Since it was destroyed in 67 and left untouched for almost 2,000 years, it sheds light on what Jewish synagogue life was like in Jesus’ day. It is even possible that Jesus visited this synagogue in the course of his itinerant ministry in Galilee.

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Our group in the synagogue at Gamla. Tim has on a Jewish prayer shawl.

As we sat in the synagogue at Gamla, Tim, our guide, talked to us about the Zealots. At least one of Jesus’ disciples was a Zealot (Simon the Zealot), and Judas Iscariot might have been one as well (“Iscariot” might be a reference to the sicarii, “dagger bearers,” a subgroup of the Zealots who were part of fomenting the revolt against Rome. However, scholars are not united on this interpretation.) At the same time that Jesus called people who were adamantly opposed to the Roman occupation, however, he also called Matthew, a tax collector who was working for Rome. It is amazing to think that Jesus was able to transcend such deep political differences among his disciples. As deep as political differences are in our own day, there is hope that they can be transcended.

This was not the only site related to the First Jewish Revolt that we visited. Two days before, on the morning of June 22, we visited Masada, the famous fortress by the Dead Sea where the last of the Jewish rebels were defeated by the Romans in AD 73 (the end of the revolt is often given the date of AD 70, since that is when the temple was destroyed, but the Romans didn’t get around to crushing the last of the revolt for another three years).

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From the top of Masada, you can still see the rectangular ruins of the Roman camps all around.

It was striking to me, visiting Gamla and Masada, how symbols can mean different things to different people. Both places, but especially Masada, are now symbols of Jewish pride and heroism. There is a sentiment in Israel, expressed to us by our Israeli tour guide Ariel, that “Masada will not fall again.” While both places were ultimately conquered by the Romans, the Jews who were fighting there did not surrender.

For readers of the New Testament, on the other hand, the entire First Jewish Revolt is a symbol of the refusal to accept the way of Jesus. I think not only of Jesus’ predictions that the temple would be destroyed, but also of his words toward the end of his public ministry: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate” (Matt 23:37–38).

All this makes me think about symbols and how they are interpreted differently. Premkumar Williams wrote this in an essay in a book called Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends:

Symbols can be very potent in the way they bring order to our seemingly chaotic experiences and give them appropriate meaning. At a ball game, the singing of the national anthem might mean more to a veteran than to the person next to him. His training and time spent away from home, views on life and sacrifice, scars and skirmishes, all are brought to attention when he stands with his hand over his heart. By itself, the anthem is but a piece of music, but for him (and many others) it is a potent symbol. Shared memories and experiences are embodied in the symbols that accompany a healthy community. Recalling a common past is a significant way to re-member (put the body back together) who we are. (125–126)

“Recalling a common past” through symbols helps to bind a group together, but sometimes it leads to blind spots. What if the national anthem means different things to different people, the way Masada is a symbol of heroism to some and foolish pride to others? I don’t want to minimize the importance of symbols; I think it’s impossible to live without them. But I do think that recognizing that symbols mean different things to different people is a way to exercise humility and be open to hearing the experiences of others. You may still disagree with each other in the end about the nature of reality and the way to move forward (I still believe in the New Testament interpretation of the First Jewish Revolt rather than the modern Israeli one), but seeking to understand how symbols operate can minimize blind spots and give you a fuller understanding of reality.

Galilee and the God of the Ordinary

This is the tenth post in a series of reflections on my recent trip to Israel (to read them all, click here).

June 23

On our first morning in Galilee, we took a bus from our hotel in Tiberias up to the Mount of Beatitudes. The bus dropped us off next to the Church of the Beatitudes, but we didn’t go inside. Instead, we walked out to a place on the hill where we had a panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee and sat down on some black rocks. One by one, five members of our group stood up and recited the Sermon on the Mount.

Is510Afterward we visited the site of Capernaum, which served as Jesus’ headquarters during his Galilean ministry. It is home to a synagogue from the fourth century, which was built on top of a previous synagogue that dates to the time of Jesus.

Close to the synagogue is a house that many scholars believe was Peter’s house. Today there is a church built above it, though the remains of the house are still visible underneath. The shore of the Sea of Galilee is not far away.

Is524Our third stop that morning was Chorazin, another one of the small Galilean towns where Jesus spent much of his ministry. Then, after stopping for some falafel, we went to Qatzrin, a reconstructed Israelite village. Our group leader, Tim, took us there so we could have a better idea of what ancient villages really looked like, including intact rooms and thatched roofs held up by wood beams. We sat inside a house for a bit while Tim recounted for us the story of the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him through the roof.

In all these places, I was struck by how ordinary they were. There were no grand edifices, no soaring temples that would give you a sense of the grandness of God by their beauty and spaciousness. The Mount of Beatitudes is an average-looking hillside. Capernaum and Chorazin weren’t very big towns.They were achingly average, and yet some people want to see them so badly that they will dig up their remains, and other people will fly across the planet to stand on those remains. These places were infused with meaning and made significant by the things that happened there.

Last weekend I saw the movie Don’t Think Twice, about an improv troupe where one of the members gets chosen for the cast of a “Saturday Night Live”-style show. When he becomes successful, the group has to deal with the repercussions of his newfound fame, including deciding whether it is worth it for them to continue pursuing that kind of success. One of the interesting things about the movie was that “making it,” being successful in the eyes of the world, is not always all it’s cracked up to be. Often, toiling away in obscurity, doing something you think is worthwhile and meaningful with your friends, is much better. Mike Birbiglia, who wrote and starred in the movie, said as much in an essay in the New York Times:

Forget the gatekeepers. As far as I’m concerned, what you create in a 30-seat, hole-in-the-wall improv theater in Phoenix can be far more meaningful than a mediocre sitcom being half-watched by seven million people. America doesn’t need more stuff. We need more great stuff. You could make that.

This is a principle that applies to more than just performing. The most significant things are often done out of the limelight, in an obscure place. Not only that, but they can often only be done there. Jesus knew this. He did not want to be a public figure; he wanted to do what he saw his Father doing. The fact that Jesus’ own brothers assumed he wanted to be famous was a sign that they didn’t believe in him:

When the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him. (John 7:2–5)

Seeing the ordinariness of the places where Jesus spent so much of his time had a huge impact on me. I knew in theory that they were small, but standing there and looking around brought me to a new level of awareness. And it made me question some of the ways in which I unconsciously go along with the way the world sees things: assuming that hidden acts in small places are therefore insignificant.

Too often, I think I assume that the only sign of significance is drawing a crowd (for example, how many people read this blog post). Is this assumption keeping me from doing something that has value in itself, apart from how many people see it? How can I pursue fidelity and excellence where I am, doing stuff that is, in Birbiglia’s words, “small but great,” and not caring about being successful or admired in the world’s eyes?