In a world with major cities on every continent . . . across a history that includes such places of prominence as Alexandria, Babylon, Athens, Rome, London, Paris, New York, Washington, and Beijing. . . there really is only one city that can say it is the most important city in the history of the world: the city of Jerusalem.
While other cities are larger (Jerusalem today is home to roughly one million people) . . . or more wealthy . . . or contain more impressive architecture . . . or house more famous artwork . . . or are home to a more influential world government — you really can’t compare any of them to Jerusalem.
It is in this city that God taught His people how to worship.It is in this city where Jesus came to die as a sacrifice for the sins of all the people.It is from this city where Messiah will one day rule the world in His millennial Kingdom.That is a resume that Wall Street or the Parthenon or the Colosseum simply cannot compete against!
I was thinking about this as we toured the Israel National Museum and walked around a 50:1 scale model of the old city of Jerusalem.It was an impressive model and helped me orient to many of the ruins I saw in the city on our tour.
A.W. Tozer once said, “The most important thing about you is what you think about when you think about God.”Like the city of Jerusalem, our connection to our Creator is more important than our nationality, how much stuff we have, or what we have accomplished.Our connection to God is the most important thing about us.It is what defines us.
Are you connected to Jesus Christ?Is He who defines you?
On the night before Jesus headed to the cross, He asked a few close friends to join Him in a Garden located on the Mount of Olives for a night of prayer.The place where they gathered, was a grove of olive trees known of as the Garden of Gethsemane.
Gethsemane literally is a word meaning “Oil Press” in Aramaic.It was a grove of olive trees just across the Kidron valley to the east of the city of Jerusalem.It was a serene and peaceful retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but still close enough to see the Temple in the distance.From where Jesus gathered with His disciples the night before His arrest, He could see the very city in which He would be tried and convicted on trumped up charges the very next day.
Don’t you wish you could hear the prayers Jesus was praying on such a stressful night?Thankfully, some of what Jesus prayed is recorded for us in the Gospel accounts:
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” – Matthew 26:39
As we read the above sentence, however, we need to amplify the emotion behind it.Mark tells us that before He began praying, Jesus informed His disciples that His “soul is very sorrowful, even to death. (Mark 14:34)”Jesus emotional stress is further displayed by Luke’s comments inLuke 22:44, “And being in an agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”We simply cannot read these words without passion in our voices.
We know some of what that night looked like, but there are still missing moments I wish could be recovered.Upon visiting the Garden of Gethsemane on my trip to the Holy Land, I saw olive trees that have been dated as old as 2,000 years old.That’s right, scholars tell us these very trees would have witnessed Jesus praying beneath them!If only those trees could talk!
Spending time in the Garden reminded me that Jesus made an intentional decision to die on the cross.He was no victim.He was not taken by surprise.Before the mob even formed to carry Him away, He knew full well what was coming.And yet, He stayed in the Garden.He did not run to Masada or hide in Ein Gedi.He stood there on that rock and waited for Judas to show up with a band of thugs to carry Him away.
Why did Jesus stay?Why did He choose to die?He did so for two very important reasons:
He stayed to fulfill the will of God.(Matthew 26:39).God’s will was more important than anything else to Jesus.I always have struggled with the modern worship song “Above All.”In the song, it says that Jesus thinks of me “above all.”This is not true.Jesus stayed in the Garden (in His own words) primarily because of God, not because of the disciples.Jesus’s primary motivation was to do the will of the Father and submit to His wisdom.
He stayed because the will of God was to save us through Jesus . . . because of His great love for us (Romans 5:8).God’s will was to save humanity from their sins.Praise God for this!This flows out of God’s love for those created in His image.It is important for us to see that Jesus was obeying God’s will and God’s will was to sacrifice the Son so that we might live. We are not saved by accident. We are saved because of the will of God.
The next time you consider the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, please take the time to meditate on Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.He did not die on accident or because He could not outrun the Romans.Jesus died because the Father willed it.He died because in His death we might live.He died because God so loved the world.As you ponder this, praise God for His indescribable gift.
Jesus is coming back.Did you know that?He has promised that one day He will return to the earth as a reigning and conquering King.Some today believe this is merely a superstition.I don’t.I think this is a real event approaching on the horizon.You know who else believed that Jesus would return one day?Muslims in the seventh century AD.
Proof of my claim that Muslims of the seventh century believed Jesus would return is based on rock solid evidence — the 15 foot thick stones that cover the Golden Gate (or Beautiful Gate as it was termed in the New Testament times).When the Muslims took the city of Jerusalem around the time of the construction of the Dome of the Rock, they wanted to make it hard for the Messiah to enter the city of Jerusalem.They were aware of Zechariah’s prophecy which says, “On that day His feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. (Zechariah 14:4)”The Muslims believed that when Messiah comes, He will approach Jerusalem from the East, and enter the city via the Beautiful Gate.Knowing this, around 692 AD, the Muslims enacted two security measures to protect them from the promised Jewish/Christian Messiah:
They closed off the Beautiful Gate with stones to prevent Jesus from entering the City as He promised.
They created a graveyard right next to the closed off Beautiful Gate, believing that Jesus (as a priest) would not defile Himself by walking through a graveyard.
Seeing this “defense system” was comical to me.When Messiah comes, He will SPLIT THE MOUNT OF OLIVES IN TWO . . . I don’t think a few stones (regardless of size) will slow Him down.Also, Jesus RAISED THE DEAD.His relationship with cemeteries is absolutely unique in all creation.At His return people are either raised to eternal life or raised to eternal judgment.A few tombstones prove no match for someone with His authority and power!
Standing on the Mount of Olives and looking back at the Beautiful gate, however, also reminded me that when Jesus first came to the earth and presented Himself to the people on Palm Sunday, He indeed approached the city from the East.He rode down the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, and up to the city of Jerusalem, passing through the Beautiful Gate.He came in the first century as the suffering servant to bleed and die for us on the cross.The next time Jesus approaches Jerusalem from the East, He will come as a Conquering King, riding a Stallion (not a donkey), and ushering in the new reality His death on the cross opened up years earlier.
Humans (you and I included) sometimes think that we can “outsmart” God.We think we can deceive Him and He will never know.We think we can somehow avoid judgment by putting a few stones of our best efforts in His way.All these attempts are as futile as the Muslims efforts to prevent His triumphal second entry.Jesus, with His power and authority, is without parallel.The only appropriate response to Jesus Christ is to worship Him as Lord and Savior.Let us stop building worthless walls to keep Him out and instead welcome Him into our lives.As Psalm 24:7-10 says:
“Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!Lift up your heads, O gates!And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.Who is this King of glory?The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory!”
Driving into the modern day city of Bethlehem may have been one of the more intimidating moments of my trip to the Holy Land.Before we left Jerusalem to head to Bethlehem, our Israeli tour guide had to get off the bus . . . as an Israeli citizen, he was not allowed to visit the city.At first, this reality did not fully register with me.When we drove up to the military checkpoint entering Bethlehem, however, I understood more of the situation.A large red sign stood near the turnoff into Bethlehem (a town in the West Bank): “This road leads to Area ‘A’ under the Palestinian Authority.The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law.”This sign drove home the harsh reality.It also was not what I expected.Somehow I thought I would see a sign that says, “Welcome to Bethlehem – Birthplace of the Prince of Peace.”Instead it said, “if you come in here you may die.”This town needs a new public relations director!
Of course, the sign represented the political reality more than a true threat to our physical safety.Relations between the Jews and the Palestinians is always tenuous, especially in the areas of the West Bank.As a foreign traveler, I found both Jews and Palestinians were eager to host us at all the sites, welcome us into their shops and restaurants, and greet us with a warm smile and friendly handshake.Signs like the one entering Bethlehem were the reason why so many friends back home kept inquiring of our safety while we traveled, but really felt out of place given our experience in the country.As a matter of fact, right after we entered the city gates of Bethlehem, our bus was boarded by a very friendly Palestinian Christian man who served as our guide inside the city of Bethlehem.I never felt the least bit threatened or unwelcome in the areas of the city we visited.
Oh, the little town of Bethlehem was really an interesting place to visit.In this city, we saw:
The Shepherd’s field where the angels visited the shepherds on the night Jesus was born.
The Church of the Nativity, commemorating the traditional site where Jesus was born.
Jerome’s cave . . . a dark cool spot where Jerome worked for 30 years, translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin . . . a work that was completed in 386 AD and has been called the Latin Vulgate.
Beneath the church of the Nativity, there was one more thing we saw that made an impact.Next to Jerome’s cave, our guide made a comment that at this site, a mass grave was discovered revealing a number of infant bodies dating back to the first century.Of course, this jives with the Matthew 2:16-18 account of Herod the Great killing infants in Bethlehem to try to eliminate Messiah before His life could really get going.Seeing that grave, reminded me that Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, but He is needed because we live in a world of war.
From the very beginning, Jesus faced opposition that wanted to kill Him.From the very beginning, those who associated themselves with Jesus have been treated harshly because of Him.In a sense, these dead infant bodies were some of the very first martyrs.Ever since that moment, Satan has attempted to lash out against Jesus by attacking His children.Our Christian Palestinian guide shared with us the harsh treatment Christians have received from Muslim extremists in Bethlehem even today.Though the times have changed, the opposition to Jesus Christ still remains.
Visiting Bethlehem reminded me that we still have a need for the Prince of Peace to fully materialize the Kingdom promised by God.We still live in a world with signs that point to sin’s deadly consequences.However, one day, when Jesus comes back again, these signs will be taken down.The graves will be emptied, as the martyrs join Jesus in a triumphal procession through the earth.The Prince of Peace will one day make good on His promise in places like Bethlehem . . . and Oklahoma . . . and wherever you live.The hopes and fears of all the years will be met in Jesus that night.
During the months leading up to our trip to Israel, my wife and I formed a number of expectations about the trip.We could not wait to see the historic sites where the Biblical stories took place.Primarily, we were excited to see the locations associated with David, Solomon, Abraham, and (most of all) Jesus Christ.After arriving in country, however, it became clear that any modern tour of Israel would go beyond seeing the sites of the heroes of the Old and New Testament.A comprehensive tour of the holy land would not be complete without seeing the building prowess of one particular man who lived in the years surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ – King Herod the Great.
Herod ruled Israel (under Roman authority) for 37 years according to the historian Josephus, and is mentioned only briefly in the New Testament as the paranoid King who ordered the murder of all males two years old and younger in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus at the time of His birth (see Matthew 2:16-18).To be clear, Herod was a murderous, egotistical madman who ruled his country (and his family) with fear and force.In spite of those terrible flaws, however, Herod was a great builder.The nation of Israel today is scattered with ruins of his rule.During his short time in leadership, Herod built the desert fortress of Masada, expanded greatly the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, built the premiere sea port in Caesarea Maritima, and many other smaller building projects around the country.
One of Herod’s most known building accomplishments was the fortress he named Herodion.Herodian was a manmade hill built just outside of the city of Jerusalem that rose to the highest point in the Judean wilderness.You might think that Herod built this fortress up so that he could see the city of Jerusalem from his patio.Most however believe that Herod built up Herodian NOT so that he could see Jerusalem, but so that Jerusalem could see HIM.It is believed that Herodian and all of its splendor (with parks, and theaters, and pools, and houses) was built to “show off” his greatness to the rest of the nation.
While visiting Herodian, we watched a short film about Herod’s death.Apparently, as Herod began to die, he planned out all the details surrounding his funeral and burial.Herod was to be buried at Herodian with all of his crown jewels.He did not want to pass along any of his fortune to his family . . . he wanted it to die with him.
Seeing the story of Herod was a vivid picture for me of human selfishness on steroids . . . and where that leads in life.Herod had the means and opportunity to make life all about himself.No doubt, he accomplished many things in life.However, the the ruins of Herodian remind us of the short-lived nature of human accomplishment . . . every stone in Herodian is a reminder of the failed attempts at immortality by the force of human machismo.It is a sad story indeed.
I contrast this “great” king with the King of Kings, Jesus Christ.Jesus came “not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)Jesus did not “consider equality with God something to be grasped but emptied Himself in the form of a servant . . . becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)Instead of clinging to His heavenly riches, Jesus chose to give to us “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:3)Herod is the best (and worst) of what humanity can do and be without God — a tragic collision of creative potential and destructive violence.Jesus on the other hand shows us the pattern of what true greatness looks like.Greatness that will last.Greatness that is eternal.Greatness that is generous.
Too many people today try to be the next Herod the Great; spending their lives in an incessant pursuit of more, bigger, better – always with a self-centered bent.Jesus offers us something more.He offers us true greatness.An opportunity to live our lives as they were intended: following His example, cleansed by His sacrifice, and empowered by His Spirit.Let us follow His great lead by taking on the mind of Christ:“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:3-5)
On Sunday, November 8, 2015 I preached a message at Wildwood Community Church based on John 4:20-26. The message (entitled “In Spirit and Truth”) was recorded and is posted below for download or online viewing/listening.
To download the sermon audio of Sunday’s message, click on the link below:
The Greek word for baptism means “to submerge” or “to dip.”The word actually has its roots OUTSIDE religious understanding.Ancient Greek writings show the word used to describe the sinking of a ship into the sea.If someone who spoke the Greek language in the first century were to see the Titanic sink into the ocean, they would describe it as “the Titanic was baptized into the Atlantic.”
With those etymological roots, it is easy to see where the literal/physical meaning of the word could quickly become associated with one thing being fully identified with something else.In our Titanic analogy, we would say that when the Titanic was baptized into the Atlantic, the Titanic become so associated with the ocean that when you looked at the water from the shoreline, you would not be able to tell the difference between the Titanic and the Atlantic . . . the two had become one.
With this background, it should not surprise us that the term baptism was used by religious people to describe someone’s immersion into a new reality.If someone underwent a baptism of repentance (as they did under the direction of John the Baptist in the New Testament) they were showing symbolically with their immersion into water that they were identifying with a newness of life.
In the same way, when Jesus commands His followers to baptize people who decide to follow Him (in Matthew 28:18-20), He is calling His followers to fully associate themselves with Jesus Christ.In Christian baptism, a new believer in Jesus Christ is symbolically “buried” beneath the water as a picture of their burial with Christ.When Jesus died on the cross, He offered up His life as a sacrifice to satisfy God’s wrath concerning people’s sinfulness.By being baptized into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3), Christians are trusting that their association with Jesus death and burial means that God’s anger toward their sin is fully resolved.In a similar way, when a Christian is brought back up above the baptism water, they are symbolically being identified with Jesus’s resurrection life.Christians have the privilege of entering into an eternal life of fellowship with God (Romans 6:4).In this way, Christian baptism is a beautiful picture of all that God has done for us in Christ. As Paul says in Colossians 3:3, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The two have become one.
While visiting Israel, I had the great privilege of going to a site called Yardenit on the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee.This site commemorates the time when Jesus Himself was baptized in the Jordan River by John.While we were at this site, I was able to watch as several of my fellow travelers were baptized.It was a beautiful and powerful picture, thinking about Jesus’s model and our identification with Him.It was a joy to celebrate with my friends in this way while on our trip.
Seeing their baptism, however, also reminded me of my own baptism . . . years ago in the swimming pool of Nick and Linda Losole.Their water was chlorinated and heated, while the Jordan was full of fish and cool.However, neither water was more holy than the other.As the Ethiopian Eunuch taught us in Acts 8, any body of water can become a place where we symbolically associate ourselves with Christ.Seeing baptisms in the Jordan River, however, simply reminded me of the roots of this great symbol.
Have you been water baptized since trusting in Christ?If not, why not?You do not need to fly to a faraway land to publicly identify with Jesus. However, if you are ever in Galilee and have not yet been baptized, I can’t think of a better place to celebrate new life in Christ!
Sci-fi movies (like the 1998 film “Armageddon”) have long provided their guess as to how the world will end – and who will ultimately be the Savior.In the case of the before mentioned summer blockbuster, an asteroid was the culprit, and Bruce Willis was the savior.Though many (including many Christian theologians) debate the exact look of the end of the world, I think we can all agree that it will not end THAT way!
Though there are different interpretations about HOW the world will end, there is a particular location in the nation of Israel that Revelation 16:16 says will be one of the spots WHERE the key cataclysmic events will take place – the area around Megiddo (or as it is called in Revelation 16, Armageddon.)Additionally, the entire book of Revelation is quite clear that Jesus is the Savior – riding in on His white horse and establishing His Kingdom in full effect.
Seeing the area around Megiddo was a reminder for me that the world indeed has an end date (and place).Just like seeing the clock clicking down on the scoreboard reminds athletic teams to increase their urgency as the game nears it end, so biblical prophecy is designed to keep us focused on what matters most, and whose team we need to be on if we intend on winning the game.
Today, Megiddo is a ghost town.Sure, it is a location with historic significance – serving as an important military outpost for a lengthy period 3,000+ years ago – but the fort of Megiddo has lay dormant since 586 BC.Today, it is a pile of ruins.In that respect, it was an important place to reflect upon the end of the world.Cities of great prominence will one day look like the rock pile at Megiddo.If we put our hope in the world . . . if our savior is our wealth or good deeds . . . we don’t stand a ghost of a chance.However, if we know Jesus . . . if He is our Savior, then the place where the world ends is also the place where Eternal Life continues.
Take a moment today and look at life’s scoreboard.The clock is ticking down.Who is your Savior?
On Sunday, November 8, 2015, I preached a message on John 4:20-26 entitled “In Spirit and Truth” at Wildwood Community Church. Below are a set of questions for further reflection or group discussion related to the message.
Questions for Reflection:
Read John 4:1-42
Do you ever struggle with trying to find the right “formula” for your Christian life or search for the perfect worship venue, service, pastor?
In the first century, people were fixated on some of the “how to’s” of worship (as Jesus conversation with the woman at the well reveals).What was her particular hang up as it related to worship?
In your own words, what was Jesus teaching regarding worship in John 4:20-26?
I made a statement today about worship . . . that worship is a response to revelation.This idea was anchored in John 4:22.What do you think this means for you today?
Jesus encouraged people to engage Him in “truly spiritual” worship.What would it look like for you to worship Jesus in a “truly spiritual” way?
Ultimately, Jesus shifts our focus from the “how” of worship, to the “who” of worship in 4:25-26.How does knowing who Jesus is and what He has done for us connect us to a real and vibrant worship of God?
When I make valuable purchases with my credit card, I have to provide a signature to verify my identity.The original signature on the back of the card is compared to the signature on the receipt as an added security measure.It is interesting that most stores do not bother with this validation on purchases under $50, but for major expenses, security measures are put into practice.
When it comes to verifying the identity of the Son of God in the first century, God provided His “signature” centuries earlier on the back of the prophet Elijah.
In 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 2, we see the biblical account of the prophet Elijah.Elijah’s ministry included:
A time of isolation in the wilderness that preceded the start of his ministry (1 Kings 17:1-7)
The miraculous multiplication of food (1 Kings 17:8-16)
Physical healing, featuring a resurrection from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24)
Public chastening of false religious leaders (1 Kings 18:17-40)
“Insider knowledge” about the weather (1 Kings 17:1, 18:1, 41-46)
An ascension into heaven (2 Kings 2:11)
Does any of that sound familiar?It should.Much of this is echoed in the ministry of Jesus Christ:
Jesus spent time in the wilderness before beginning His public ministry (Mark 1:12-13)
Jesus multiplied food on a couple of occasions feeding thousands (Mark 6:30-44)
Jesus performed many miracles, including raising a few from the dead (John 11:1-44)
Jesus often was challenged by the misguided religious leaders of His day and publicly corrected their misunderstandings (John 8:31-59)
Jesus commanded the wind and the waves (Mark 4:35-41)
After His resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven (Acts 1:8-11)
I really believe that a lot of what God was doing through Elijah was providing His signature verification so that centuries later, when Messiah Jesus Christ came offering His incredibly valuable Life, the Jews (and ultimately all people on the earth) would know that Jesus was indeed the promised Christ.
On our trip to Israel, we visited a monastery that rests atop Mount Carmel where Elijah triumphed over the prophets of Baal.While we were there, I found myself remembering all that God had done through Elijah, and how He had done so much through the pattern of Elijah’s life to point His people to Jesus Christ.
If you have not done so recently, scan through Elijah’s life and see the verification of the signature of God shine through.