January 14, 2019
Wow, today was intense! I say that, but even writing those words shames me. Today we began meditating on the events of Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord as we visited sites related to these events. It was intense just to think about, and Jesus lived this. That is intense!
Palm Sunday Road
We walked a portion of the Palm Sunday road and talked about the cloaks and palm branches. Ikey impressed upon us the significance of that act. The idea was that they didn’t want the dust of the road kicking up around the feet of Jesus’ donkey, and so to honor Him they “paved” the road in front of Him with cloaks and palm branches. The cloaks they laid before Jesus would have probably been one of only two sets of clothing that they owned, so laying them down on the dusty road was a significant act, and one that showed tremendous respect for Jesus.
The road from Bethany to Jerusalem (the Palm Sunday road) goes past the Mount of Olives, which is a large and long mountain hillside, and so we went straight from Palm Sunday to the evening of Maundy Thursday. We were provided access to a garden on the Mount of Olives, somewhere in the vicinity of Gethsemane, where we took time to read the account of Jesus being arrested and spent some time in personal meditation.
This wasn’t a moment of particular insight, but it was a powerful moment of experiencing God. Sitting in that garden, you could easily see the other side of the valley from which Judas and the soldiers were approaching while carrying torches and weapons. Since their approach would have been unmistakable, Jesus could very, very easily have disappeared into the dark vastness of the Mount of Olives (like the disciples did). The agony of Jesus in the garden came into shaper perspective as I reflected on the choice that He clearly had to simply walk the other direction. I could not have done what He did. I think about how I struggle to resist even small selfish temptations, to forgo a simple pleasure in order to love a neighbor as myself, and here Jesus, in this moment, tramples on the temptation to do what anyone would expect a human being to do: preserve His own life. I have a theological answer to the question, “Why did Jesus need to be truly God in order to save us?” But in this moment, it was the very human reality that answered the question. No human could have chosen to drink the cup that Jesus did when He said, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Only God could have seen what was coming and not run the other direction.
We went from there into the Church of All Nations, but I am really not into church buildings, so I will just say that it was beautiful and leave it at that. In the courtyard there we saw ancient olive trees. Because the root of an olive tree can sprout up new shoots and keep growing, even after it has been cut down, it is possible that these trees were growing from roots that had been there in Jesus’ day, which is why they are of interest, I suppose. Again, neat, but not like the kind of experience we would have next.
The house of Caiaphas
We went to the house of Caiaphas next, which also has a church built on the site, but the areas that were of interest were in the basement, not the sanctuary. There we saw what would have been the stable of the high priest, carved from stone into a cave under his home. The reason why this was of interest was the fact that little loops had been carved into the pillars in order to conveniently tie up the horses, and little loops had been carved into the ceiling in order to conveniently tie up the prisoners while they were scourged.
To my knowledge, the Bible doesn’t record a scourging of Jesus in the home of Caiaphas, so while it is possible that Jesus’ physical suffering began in this location, we don’t know that. What the sight did emphasize in no uncertain terms was that Caiaphas was not merely a misguided religious leader. He was a man of power who was not reluctant to use and abuse his authority in order to protect himself and his interests. The power arrayed against Jesus took on a much more substantial form as I looked at the secondary use that he had given his stable.
The other basement location we visited had once been a cistern, but then was converted from a cistern into an empty stone pit. And why would Caiaphas want to have a pit in his house? It would certainly be a handy place to keep prisoners. Ikey suggested that I read Psalm 88 while the group stood in that pit (now made easily accessible for tourists). If you have a few minutes, imagine yourself sitting alone in the bottom of a pit and read Psalm 88. The psalms are the prayer book of Jesus, and never was there a more appropriate psalm than this one, if indeed Caiaphas had Him placed in that pit while the Sanhedrin gathered, or before he dared to wake Pilate. I will never read that psalm the same way again.
We also stood in the courtyard outside where we read about Jesus being denied by Peter. After seeing the instruments of torture and despair that Caiaphas had at his disposal, I could much better appreciate the temptation to deny Jesus and save your own skin. I doubt Peter was at risk of suffering the same fate as Jesus, but Caiaphas could introduce plenty of suffering even without the help of Pontius Pilate and the Romans.
From that courtyard, we could also see back over to the Mount of Olives. One likely path that Jesus would have taken from the upper room to Gethsemane led right past the home of Caiaphas. There is artwork there depicting Jesus and his disciples passing by, free and singing psalms, moving towards the Mount of Olives. Then, another image depicts Jesus bound and being dragged by soldiers in the opposite direction. Looking from that artwork to the jagged edges of the stone steps (and nothing is flat, so everything is steps in Jerusalem), it was easy to imagine the soldiers giving a quick tug on the bonds or a shove from behind to send a prisoner sprawling and bleeding from wounds opened by those sharp stones.
The visit to the home of Caiaphas made the suffering of Jesus very real and very personal. Like I said, this morning was intense.
By the way, that this is the location of Caiaphas’ home is a matter of tradition. Before coming to Israel, whenever I heard that, I assumed that meant that we had nothing more than hearsay to go on: traditions that had been passed on orally until the tourist trade in Israel decided to capitalize on it. Far from it! Often, when we say that tradition indicates that this is the site, our evidence comes from the fact that churches have been built there, and so the tradition can be dated to the date of the earliest church built on that site. In this case, the earliest church built on the site was put there by Emperor Constantine’s mother, which means this tradition dates to the early 300s. That is still three centuries after Jesus, but it is also the first century in which Christianity was legal. In other words, this tradition is as old as it possibly can be, since it wasn’t legal to construct a church building until then. In addition, a pilgrim to Jerusalem even earlier than that wrote a blog (okay, not a blog, but a record) about his trip, which described the site that local Christians showed him during his visit, and that description fits the place where we were today.
Of course, whether or not we were in the exact place is ultimately not important. What does matter is that we are gaining a better appreciation for the reality of what Jesus experienced for us. The passion became much more personal today – and we are really just getting started.
What I’m Skipping
I am glossing over a lot because I’ve been up late finishing this blog just about every night, and I really need to get some rest. We visited Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We learned about the Essene community, their emphasis on ritual purity and the abundance of their ritual baths, their extreme asceticism, and their 364 day calendar. But since that doesn’t have much direct Biblical relevance, I’m skipping it. We also floated in the Dead Sea, because you are supposed to do that when you come to Israel. I could have lived without the experience, and having done it, I won’t feel any need to do so a second time. So, on to the good stuff.
The Temple Courts
We spent time in the archaeological park around the temple. Again, I’m glossing over things to get to bed, but here are a few highlights. We saw the ritual baths that Jewish pilgrims would have used in order to be ritually pure before they went to offer their sacrifice at the temple. These are pools of water with a set of stairs for walking into the pool and then back out. There are an enormous number of them, and our guide suggested that this is probably where the apostles found enough water to baptize 3000 people in a single day, the day of Pentecost (Acts 2).
We also got to see the temple steps where Jesus would sometimes sit and teach. This is also (roughly) where Peter and John healed the crippled beggar in the name of Jesus. According to Ikey, when Neal Armstrong visited Israel, his guide was the chief archaeologist of Israel. While here, Neal said something to the effect of, “I was the first man to walk on the moon, but I would consider it a greater honor to place my feet where my Lord Jesus walked.” And this is where the archaeologist brought him. We walked on those same steps.
We also had the opportunity to look at the stone work of how the temple had been built. To clarify: we were not really looking at the temple. We were looking at the temple courts constructed by Herod the Great surrounding the temple. The temple itself already existed when Herod added these courts to accommodate the crowds who came for Passover, and, of course, to make a name for himself. Archaeologists owe a great debt of gratitude to Herod the Great’s enormous ego, which not only caused him to undertake building projects that boggle the mind, but also to mark them as his own through details like the outline with which each stone of His temple courts was marked.
The temple proper was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, and so were many aspects of the temple courts that Herod had built. Other aspects of the temple courts survived and then were just buried by later construction, and so we could see some of both – the destruction and what had survived. The only word to describe what Herod the Great accomplished here is ‘impossible’. It is simply not possible by any means I can imagine. He built with stones of varying lengths, some of which only weighed a few tons, but others that were larger than a school bus, 35 feet long, 7 feet deep, 4 feet tall (guessing) in one solid stone. And not only did they manage to put a stone that weighed hundreds and hundreds of tons into place precisely where they wanted it, layer after layer climbing above the ground, but they also cut it so precisely that they did not use any mortar. The stones just laid one on top of another.
That does not sound all that impressive until you realize that if there is any gap at all, if one stone is a credit card shorter than the stones on either side, then when you lay the layers of stone on top of it, those stones will crack. What Herod accomplished here is impossible. But it is there, waiting for you to come to Israel and see it, so it must have happened. In some ways, it is like my faith in Jesus. I know it is impossible that Jesus died and rose from the dead. But based on the personal relationship I have with Him and the ways in which I can see His hand in my life, it is also impossible that He did not. Faith fills the gap between one impossibility and another, and proves to me that the impossible must, in fact, have happened.
So, the engineering part of me and the disciple of Jesus part of me were both awed today. Wow.
Thanks for praying for us and our families.