Quite a Sermon (Israel part 10)

IMG_0206Just after lunch on our third day in Israel, our group ascended to the top of a beautiful hill near the shore of the Sea of Galilee to visit the Church of the Beatitudes. This church sits in the traditional site where Jesus first preached the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew 5-7.

Unlike some of the sites where archaeological evidence can prove or disprove the historical veracity of a location, traditional sites (like the Church of the Beatitudes) carry no such certainty.  After all, Jesus did not preach this epic sermon in a building that could be excavated.  He preached it on a hillside to a group of the curious and committed.  Jesus never pastored a church with walls, pews, and budgets.  He came instead “to seek and to save the lost.” 

The Church of the Beatitudes was built in the 1930’s . . . many, many years removed from when Jesus first preached His message.  It is a beautiful location with well manicured grounds and a small but ornate octagonal chapel.  Though I appreciated my trip to this location, I could not help myself from thinking that “something was wrong” with my experience there.  The site felt very tame and peaceful . . . and very familiar.  It felt very religious and organized.  While all of these things are totally appropriate in a church today, the Sermon on the Mount was really none of those things.

The grounds around the Church of the Beatitudes with the Sea of Galilee in the background
The grounds around the Church of the Beatitudes with the Sea of Galilee in the background

When Jesus first preached this message, He did so in the countryside, not in the synagogue – outside the normal religious structures of His day.  He preached a message of a radical revolution of values – where the poor gain a Kingdom and the meek inherit the earth.  He tore down religions of appearances, and demonstrated how even those who look like they have it all together are still in great need for a Savior.  He talked in this message about being a change agent in a culture, not withdrawing from it.  He talked about loving enemies, helping the poor, and looking to heavenly treasure instead of earthly comfort.  This was one wild message . . . and it spoke to Jesus fulfilling the Law and the Prophets and ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Millions of people have visited the Church of the Beatitudes and loved their experience there.  Rest assured, I thought it was an amazing place as well.  I am glad that we visited this location and am sure that all who visit it are blessed by its serene, pastoral feel.  Those who have built this church have created a wonderful place and those who maintain it are doing a fabulous job  . . . it is one of the most immaculate places we visited in Israel.  However, if you visit this traditional location, do not let the familiar/peaceful feel of the site distract you from the radical message that was first preached here.  Take some time today and read Matthew 5-7 and hear the platform of the King and His Kingdom.  Imagine the barren hillside on which it was preached, and hear the passion in the voice of the One who preached it. 

At the end of the sermon, those who first heard it responded this way (according to Matthew 7:28-29):

“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as One who had authority, and not as their scribes.” 

This was no ordinary message.  Jesus is no ordinary man.  He is the Son of God.  Come to Him and be astonished.

Three Pics From Capernaum (Israel part 9)

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If you want to know the history of the Church, you must go to a tiny fishing village on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee.  This sleepy town of 1,500 people hardly seems like the place where a worldwide movement would start, but that is exactly what was birthed out of the town of Capernaum in the first century AD.

Honestly, my time in Capernaum may have been my favorite stop on my entire trip to Israel.  I love Jesus and His church, and the ruins of this tiny town pointed me right to them both.  A mighty story can be told in three pictures.

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Picture #1 – Seaside at Capernaum

On the shores of Capernaum Jesus first called some of His most prominent disciples:  Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  Jesus saw these fishermen, and He asked them to follow Him and become fishers of men.  As fishermen, these four captured live things and made them dead.  As fishers of men, they would free dead men and offer them life in Christ.  This was a wonderful upgrade! 

Inside the town of Capernaum, Jesus would ask another man, Matthew, to follow Him. I have always heard that tax collectors (like Matthew) were disliked by their contemporaries.  Seeing the size of Capernaum, however, gave this new meaning.  Matthew was not some faceless bureaucrat who worked in an office in the big city.  He was one of a few dozen families who lived in a fishing village.  Everyone knew him . . . and his mother . . . and his kids.  Peter, Andrew, James, and John certainly knew him as well – and paid tax TO HIM.  Jesus had quite a job uniting this crew!

The picture of the coastline reminded me that Jesus began the church with an invitation.  The same way He invited us to follow Him the moment we trusted Jesus as Savior.  The fishermen’s story is something we share.

Picture #2 - The Synagogue at Capernaum
Picture #2 – The Synagogue at Capernaum

Though Capernaum was a small town, it had a synagogue where Jewish people could gather to read the Scripture and discuss its meaning.  To some degree, Capernaum was Jesus’s adopted hometown during His Galilean ministry, and it was here in this synagogue where Jesus taught some of His first sermons.  Years later, after Jesus death and resurrection, many Jews came back to Capernaum to talk about the teachings of the “Nazarene” (as they described Him.)  In the excavated ruins of Capernaum, the synagogue was easily the biggest building in town.  The large synagogue was a reminder that Jesus was Himself a Jew, and most who first followed Jesus were Jews as well.  Christians (of Jewish or Gentile background) share a common history and the same God.  Seeing this synagogue was a reminder of that.

Picture #3 - Peter's House "Church" in Capernaum
Picture #3 – Peter’s House “Church” in Capernaum

Capernaum was Peter’s home town.  Peter’s wife and mother-in-law lived there.  It was in this house that some of Jesus’s miracles took place.  Because of these reasons, it is not a surprise that early Christians gathered in Peter’s house to worship God together.  In recent years, archaeologists unearthed a particular home in Capernaum that most believe was Peter’s home.  What is fascinating about this home, is that it appears to have been added onto several times.  The walls of this small first century house just kept moving out.  The reason for this expansion is obvious.  As the church in Capernaum grew, they kept needing more and more room for the new Christians to gather and worship.  Seeing this ever expanding house reminds me that Jesus is on a mission to build and grow His church.  As more are reached with the Gospel, we can praise God as we get to move another wall.

Conclusion:

The small town of Capernaum demonstrates the growth of the early church.  From the invitation to follow Jesus, to Christianity’s roots in Judaism, to the increasing expansion of the church, this small town’s pictures tell the story of Christianity’s early roots.

Milk, Honey, and Golden Calfs (Israel part 8)

tribes_map_newOne thing that stands out clearly when you visit the nation of Israel is the diversity of the terrain.  Not all acres of land in the Holy Land are created equal.  For instance, the Mediterranean coastlands are lush and beautiful, while the Judean Desert is desolate and barren.  Even though the country is small, it has many different regions.

One of the most striking regions of the country is the far north.  While the south is almost completely devoid of water or plant life, the north has raging streams, mountains that receive snowfall, and abundant farm land.  The section of Israel that most resembled the land of “milk and honey” to me was this land in the north. 

In the past, as I read my Old Testament, I would often skip over the distribution of land to the different tribes of Israel, thinking that they all just got “some land.”  After visiting Israel, however, I no longer thought of this land distribution in such a flippant manner.  In my opinion, the tribe of Naphtali got much better land than the tribe of Judah.  Think of it this way . . . one got Aspen, Colorado, while the other got Death Valley, California.

The headwaters of the Jordan flowing around the ancient city of Dan.
The headwaters of the Jordan flowing around the ancient city of Dan.

Though Naphtali got a beautiful and bountiful section of land, they also got some real challenges.  Every major invasion of Israel came from the north, so they were the most exposed tribe to enemy attack.  Also, it seems that the wealth of the northern tribes (like Dan) made them more susceptible to having a weakened faith in God, and a propensity to follow other gods.

This road is now about 20 miles from the Israel/Syria border, but before 1967, the land on the other side of this road was Syria.  This demonstrates how exposed the Northern city of Dan was to foreign attack.
This road is now about 20 miles from the Israel/Syria border, but before 1967, the land on the other side of this road was Syria. This demonstrates how exposed the Northern city of Dan was to foreign attack.
The wall around the ancient city of Dan.
The wall around the ancient city of Dan.

While visiting the ancient city of Dan (in Naphtali), in the far northern reaches of Israel, we saw archaeological evidence of what happened in this province nearly 3000 years ago.  The events are described in 1 Kings 12.  After the death of Solomon, the nation of Israel broke into two Kingdoms . . . the north and the south.  While the Southern Kingdom of Judah maintained their fidelity to God longer, the Northern Kingdom of Israel quickly slide into apostasy.  In 1 Kings 12, we see that King Jeroboam wanted to establish a new center of worship OUTSIDE the Temple in Jerusalem.  Jeroboam apparently did not want any from his Northern Kingdom to visit Jerusalem (in the Southern Kingdom) for worship.  So, Jeroboam built places of worship at Bethel and Dan (inside the Northern Kingdom) and commanded his people to worship at these locations.  Listen to what Jeroboam said/did in 1 Kings 12:28-30: “So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold.  And he said to the people, ‘You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough.  Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’  And he set one in Bethel and the other he put in Dan.  Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one.” 

The altar where the Golden Calf was placed in Dan.
The altar where the Golden Calf was placed in Dan.

Seeing the altar that once held a Golden Calf in Dan, I was reminded of the fickle nature of humanity.  As Tim Keller says, “Our hearts are idol factories.”  It is way too easy for us to attribute to something worthless the awesome, loving acts of our worthy God.  For the nation of Israel to think that the god who brought them out of Egypt was the lifeless statue of a golden calf, is hard for me to fathom. 

Though it is easy for us (with the perspective of history) to see the foolishness of bowing before a Golden Calf, we all have the ability to exalt the common and forget the Creator.  Naturalism puts Nature on the altar and asks us to bow down before its textbooks . . . forgetting the God who created nature in the process.  Humanism puts us on the altar and asks us to bow in pursuit of achievements . . . forgetting whose image we were created in.  Materialism puts stuff on the altar and asks us to bow before “newer/bigger/better” . . . forgetting that we enter the world with nothing, and take nothing with us.

As Americans, we live in a land like Dan.  A good deal of the world’s information (and entertainment) comes through our land . . . making us susceptible to the Enemy’s attack.  Couple that with our affluence and cultural propensity to seek after created things, and we have the makings for our own false golden altars.  Let us learn from the negative example of Jeroboam and not build high places where we bow before gods of our own making.  Let us instead have One Lord (Jesus Christ) in our life and worship Him with all our heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength.

“Who Do You Say that I Am?” (Israel part 7)

This is all that remains of the once mighty Temple of Augustus in Caesarea Philippi
This is all that remains of the once mighty Temple of Augustus in Caesarea Philippi

In the first century, there was one called the “Son of God.”  This person had a VERY famous father, and held a position of great prominence.  All around the Mediterranean, cities were named after this person and buildings were constructed as places to honor him.  In his day, and in this region, he was the most famous person in the world.  Who do you think this person was?

You might want to answer, “Jesus Christ” . . . but if you did, you would be wrong.  The person described above was NOT Jesus Christ but Augustus Caesar.  In His lifetime, Jesus would have only known regional fame, and in His lifetime no one built a building in His honor.  However, Caesar Augustus . . . well, that is a different story.

Though Augustus was the nephew to Julius Caesar, Julius selected Augustus as his successor due to the strength in leadership he saw in Augustus.  After the deification (post-humously) of Julius Caesar, Augustus began calling himself the “son of the divine” . . . or the “son of god.”  Throughout the Roman Empire, shrines or temples were dedicated to the name of Caesar Augustus.  There is a massive amount of historic irony that Caesar Augustus was the leader of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus Christ’s birth, and this irony created a beautiful backdrop for one of the New Testament’s most compelling stories.

One day, Jesus went with His disciples to a largely pagan city in the far northern reaches of Israel – Caesarea Philippi.  This city (on the edges of the Golan Heights) housed one of the springs that formed the headwaters for the Jordan River . . . but abundant water was not the only thing in excess in this city.  Caesarea Philippi also had an abundance of temples to false gods.  Sitting on a hillside above the city was an interesting looking cave.  Due to an earthquake that happened here years earlier, the locals had associated that cave with the Greek god Pan.  Pagan worshippers had gathered around this cave for years and offered sacrifices to this goat/man god.  King Herod had come along later and built a new Temple at this site dedicated to Caesar Augustus — the “son of god.”  Next door to that was another temple built in honor of Zeus.  All these temples were surrounded by grottos and courtyards referencing other gods.  This “outlet mall” of pagan worship made this ancient city infamous . . . some had even called this collection of pagan shrines “the gates of hell.”

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An artist rendering of the many temples in Caesarea Philippi in the days of Jesus Christ.

So, as Jesus entered Caesarea Philippi with His disciples, He asked them a question in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say that [I am]?”  Jesus had been growing in popularity for quite some time.  He had developed a following by teaching with authority and performing many miracles.  Some were dismissing Jesus, but others were wondering if He was indeed the Messiah.  The disciples answered Him in 16:14, “Some say John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked the disciples a more penetrating and personal question in 16:15, “But who do you say that I am?”  At this point, Peter responds in 16:16, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  Jesus blessed Peter at this point and said in 16:17-18, “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah!  . . . You are Peter, and on this rock [the confession that Jesus was the Messiah] I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Did you catch that?  Standing in the shadow of the pagan shrines . . . with the temple of Augustus in the background . . . Jesus asked Peter who do you say that I am?  Peter’s response is that Jesus is the true Son of the Living God (not the adopted son of the dead Julius Caesar.)  Jesus affirms Peter’s declaration and informs him that no collection of other “gods” or influences will ever hold a candle to who He was or what He was offering to the world.

We live in a world of options . . . a world that promotes diverse thinking and relative truth.  We live in a world like Caesarea Philippi that wants to tell us there many different ways to God and all are equally valid.  This worldview, however, is fatally flawed.  There are not many ways to God . . . only one.  Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Humanism, etc. all line up before us like a shopping mall of temples, providing different recipes and formulas by which we might appease the gods.  However, there is one Way that offers a different approach.  Jesus stands before us (with these other constructs in the background) and says, “Who do YOU say that I am?”

As I visited the remains of Caesarea Philippi, I was blown away at the contrast between the living Son of God and the lifeless temples at the gates of hell.  Augustus died in 14 AD and is still dead. His temple in Caesarea was destroyed a few years later.  Jesus Christ was resurrected about 20 years after Augustus’s death, and continues to reign in heaven to this day.  Why dedicate our lives to the dead and dying when we can follow the resurrected and the Living?  Jesus IS the Son of God, demonstrated by power and evidence . . . unlike Caesar who simply gave himself a divine nickname. 

On the day of Jesus birth, Caesar Augustus looked powerful and Jesus looked vulnerable.  Even during Jesus’s lifetime, Augustus had a temple, while Jesus was mocked and beaten.  However, don’t let the size of the earthly temple fool you.  Augustus stands at the gates of hell, while Jesus opens the highway to heaven. 

The Living Son of God asks you a question, “Who do YOU say that I am?” How will you answer?  Who will you follow?

Kimberly and I at sunrise on the Sea of Galilee before visiting Caesarea Philippi
Kimberly and I at sunrise on the Sea of Galilee before visiting Caesarea Philippi

Amusing Ourselves to Death (Israel part 6)

IMG_0128Isn’t it interesting how easy it is for us to see faults in others, even when we have the same flaws ourselves?  This is true for individuals . . . and it is also true for societies.

Case in point: as a part of our tour of Israel, we visited the remains of the ancient city of Beit She’an.  Though I knew very little about this city before my visit (the city is only very briefly mentioned in the Bible), I was fascinated by the ancient remains we witnessed.  The city sat at the crossroads of two significant valleys, the Jezreel and Jordan River Valleys.  In a day when virtually all travel was done on foot, this city’s physical location was the ancient equivalent of being located at the intersections of I-35 and I-40 . . . it was the crossroads of the land. 

Our tour guide Arie standing on the Mosaic paving and right in front of the marble overlay.
Our tour guide Arie standing on the Mosaic paving and right in front of the marble overlay.

Beit She’an’s physical location made them very cosmopolitan and wealthy.  People from all over the region would visit Beit She’an as a prime stopping point on any journey, and the city had a number of entertainment themed attractions to capture the imaginations of their visitors.  The ruins we visited included a large bath house, a sports stadium, and a massive outdoor theater.  The wealth of the city was easily shown in the mosaic covered main street that had been covered with marble (apparently mosaic roads went out of style at some point.)  While we do not know exactly all of the activities that took place in this city, it seemed clear from the remaining architecture that what happened in Beit She’an was supposed to stay in Beit She’an. 

IMG_0126Though we were able to see many beautiful ruins in this city, there was one thing we did not see.  Though this city was located in northern Israel, near the birth place of both Judaism and Christianity, we did not see the remains of a single synagogue or church.  Apparently, the inhabitants of this city spent their money and time on entertainment instead of worship.

Standing in that city it was easy to spot their societal blindspot.  Upon further reflection, though, our modern American culture has many similarities with the pagan community of Beit She’an.

Neil Postman famously wrote 40 years ago that America was “Amusing ourselves to death” — and this was before the advent of the internet, much less a smartphone.  Our lives, too, are filled with theaters and bath houses.  Every year, every new invention, every “improvement” in youth sports, every modern convenience can (if we are not careful) take all of our money and time, so there is nothing left to focus on our relationships with God and others.  The greatest enemy of our hearts are things — sometimes good things — that seek to become ultimate things and keep us from God.

I hope, like me, you allow the ruins of Beit She’an to challenge you to not let our modern world pave our hearts with marble and our minds with a mosaic of technology and entertainment.  We were made for so much more.  We were made for relationships with others:  our God, our family, our friends, our neighbors.  The things of this world tempt us to make the world all about us.  But the truly rich understand that life is best lived in relationship with others.  It is not bad to enjoy things . . . but don’t be owned by them.  As we live out our lives in a land of prosperity, may the “city of our hearts” be organized around our Heavenly Father, and not around theaters and bath houses.

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In Case of Emergency, Break Pottery (Israel part 5)

The caves at Qumran
The caves at Qumran

Hanging on many walls inside public places are glass boxes containing fire extinguishers.  These boxes are usually accompanied by a sign that says, “In case of emergency, break glass.”  The idea is that if a fire started roaring down a hallway, someone could crack open the case and free an agent that could stop the blaze.  Though I have seen these many times, thankfully, I have never had to use one.

I was thinking about those glass encased fire extinguishers today as I reflected upon the monumental archaeological finding in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea.  Throughout the 1800 and 1900’s, modern scholarship and textual criticism had sought to discredit the biblical texts by saying they were poorly copied and full of errors.  Up until the time of World War II, the oldest copy of the Hebrew Scriptures known in existence had dated to around 1000 AD. This long gap between the authorship of the Old Testament and its oldest copy (a gap of at least 1,500 years) had fueled the fire of biblical criticism, filling the halls of Christianity and Judaism with the smoke of modern critics.  Then, in 1946, a Bedouin shepherd boy kicked a rock into a cave at Qumran . . . and heard a piece of pottery break.  This led him to pursue what was in that cave, and the discovery of what we know of now as the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This discovery suddenly gave the world copies of virtually all the Old Testament books that dated back to the first century BC — traveling our oldest manuscripts back in time 1,000 years!!  Even more significant, the Dead Sea Scrolls showed great integrity to the Biblical text over 1,000 years, revealing no major content changes.  This inspired a much greater sense of confidence that the Old Testament, indeed, had avoided corruption and was reliable.

It is almost as if God put the scrolls in the halls of Qumran behind glass waiting for the fire of modern criticism to crack them open and thus extinguish the skeptics flames.  Had the scrolls been found 1,500 years earlier, they would not have been preserved and would have been lost to future generations.  God kept them hidden just for our generation’s crisis.

Our God is good, isn’t He?  It may have seemed strange to angelic onlookers why God did not allow those scrolls to be found before He did, but (like always) God had the scrolls show up just in time.  As a good friend of mine often reminds me, “God is never late and seldom early.” 

Hiking near the Dead Sea
Hiking near the Dead Sea

A Spring in the Desert (Israel part 4)

IMG_0115Growing up in Oklahoma, I had very little concept of a desert oasis.  All I knew about the desert I learned from Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner cartoons I watched as a kid.  In the cartoons, oasis were small and unnecessary . . . mere eye candy in the background of the next gag.  After all, when you can have ACME send you anything you need, the desert does not seem so deserted.

After spending some time in Israel, I feel like my understanding of an oasis is more realistic and less animated.  The southern wilderness of Israel has virtually no vegetation and very limited water supply.  The Judean wilderness looks like a pile of rocks wrapped in sandpaper (except only drier).  Against this harsh backdrop, the oasis of Engedi (located on the western shore of the Dead Sea) stands out with life saving clarity. 

IMG_0112Engedi is a sliver of paradise in the desert.  The natural springs that feed this steep valley resuscitate the desert with spectacular water falls, bubbling streams, vegetation, abundant wildlife, and caves.  This combo provides water, food, and shelter for all its refugees.  Because of these characteristics, it is not a surprise that King David chose this spot to hide out when Saul was chasing him (as recorded in 1 Samuel 24).  The oasis’s resources could sustain his life (at least temporarily) while David awaited the Lord’s timing for coronation and the transition of power.

While David was in Engedi, he wrote Psalm 57.  Given the beauty and life that Engedi had, it is striking to me how David clearly saw the Lord as His true refuge (not the oasis).  David says:

“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.  I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills His purpose for me.  He will send from heaven and save me; He will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah. 

God will send out His steadfast love and His faithfulness!  My soul is in the midst of lions; I lie down amid fiery beasts—the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth!

They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my way, but they have fallen into it themselves. Selah.

My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody! Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!

I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!  Let your glory be over all the earth!”

Notice the language of his prayer. Though David’s body was sustained in Engedi, his soul was protected “in the shadow of Your (God’s) wings.” David knew his needs were more than physical, so he turned to the God who could sustain both body AND soul.  Heaven and earth provided the oasis, but it was God who gave David his spiritual strength to honor Saul even when Saul wanted to kill him.  Remembering this, David concluded his prayer by exalting God ABOVE the heavens and the earth.  It was as if David was saying, I am not just thankful for Engedi, I am thankful for the God who created Engedi and gives my soul an oasis as I walk in the wilderness of this fallen world.

The world we live in is harsh and hurtful.  At times, it can even put us on the run.  God has placed hundreds of “oasis-like” environments on this earth where we can physically recharge and recoup when life is hard.  These oasis can be as dramatic as the Rocky Mountains or as common as the red chair and ottoman in my living room where I often seek refuge when I have had a hard day.  Make no mistake, God has given us these streams of refreshment to nourish our bodies.  Let us not forget, however, that our need is more than physical.  We need spiritual nourishment and encouragement as well.  If we cry out to Him (as David did) He will send us reminders of His love and faithfulness like a waterfall, enabling us to glorify Him in the desert.

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Our Oklahoma crew at Engedi

Selective Sacrifices (Israel part 3)

IMG_0072You were designed to worship God.  God created us in His image, and intends for us to live in relationship with Him.  As King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:11, God has truly set eternity in our hearts. 

You often determine to sin against God.  Though created in His image, we persist in rebellion against Him.  As Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way.” 

These two dynamics (our worshipful design and our sinful disposition) form a fitting parenthesis within which all of human history can be explained.  Thankfully, God understood this reality and made a provision for sinful people to be made right with their Creator.  This was a plan God had from the foundation of the world, but was revealed progressively over time.  Old Testament scholar Ron Allen once explained this progressive revelation as a blooming rose — all the petals were there from the beginning, but as the flower opens over time, we can see more of its beauty.  In the same way, God’s redemption plan for humanity blooms throughout the Old Testament until gaining full exposure in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Knowing this helps us make sense of certain practices we see in Scripture . . . and certain archaeological ruins I visited on our tour of Israel.  In the desert ruins of ancient Arad on the edge of the Negev, we saw the excavated remains of a replica of the Solomonic Temple.  What in the world was a replica of the Temple (a building only intended for Jerusalem) doing in the wilderness?  And why was it destroyed?

The origin of Arad’s Temple (complete with a “holy of holies,” a sacrificial altar, and an outer court) is somewhat of a mystery.  Most likely Solomon himself (or someone after him) decided to build this replica to make worship of God more accessible to the people of the Negev.  At one level, this seems like a noble effort.  After all, the Temple was the place where atoning sacrifices could be made for people’s sin, allowing them to be reconciled to God.  It is not hard to imagine an ambitious King or leader thinking “If one Temple is good . . . two will be great!”  However, as God continued to bloom the rose of His redemption, He showed His people that there was only one sacrifice that He would accept for His people’s sin, and that sacrifice would be offered in Jerusalem.

The Temple ruins at AradKing Hezekiah, in 2 Kings 18:1-4, was inspired by God to destroy all vestiges of pagan worship AND the destruction of all other altars throughout Israel to consolidate sacrificial worship to Jerusalem.  Therefore, Arad’s Temple copy was destroyed around 700 BC.  Interestingly, 2 Kings 18:4 also lets us know that the bronze serpent that Moses held up in the wilderness (see Numbers 21 for details) was also destroyed by Hezekiah at this time.  Apparently, the staff had become a relic for veneration by the people, shifting their focus to “lucky charms” instead of to God Himself.  It is possible that this staff was kept in Arad’s Temple, since the physical location of Arad was relatively close to the location where the staff was first raised (see references to Arad in the Numbers 21 reference above).

As God’s redemption plan blooms, He is preparing people for a singular specific sacrifice (made in Jerusalem) that would provide forgiveness for sins.  Through Hezekiah’s actions, the nation of Israel learned that sacrifices were only to be done in the method and place that God designated.  For hundreds of years, those sacrifices were made in the first and second Temples of Jerusalem.  Then, early in the first century AD, as all the rose petals finally come into view, God offers a final sacrifice for humanity’s sin in Jerusalem.  Only this time, the sacrifice was not made on the altar of the first or second Temple.  Instead, this sacrifice was made on a rocky hill outside the city gate in a place called Golgotha.  Jesus Christ was the singular sacrifice offered on the cross for you and for me.  As Isaiah continued in 53:6 (as first quoted above): “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him (Jesus) the iniquity of us all.”

Like in the day of Arad’s Temple, people today seek reconciliation with God from many different altars:  the altar of good works, the altar of religious devotion, the altar of Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism.  We think that we can find many locations where forgiveness and eternal life can be found.  However, the blooming rose of redemption has taught us otherwise.  God has always had a very selective understanding of the sacrifices He accepts.  The destroyed Temple of Arad is another reminder to us that there is but one way to atone for our sin and reconcile us with our Heavenly Father — through Jesus Christ who is “THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life.”

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Under Siege (Israel part 2)

Masada
Have you ever felt as though you were under siege?  Ever had an adversary or adversaries who simply will not leave you alone?  Here are a few examples of the foes who put us under siege today:

  • A disease that simply won’t stay in remission.
  • A friend or family member who has hurt you deeply and insists on adding insult to injury.
  • Overwhelming feelings of doubt or depression that won’t go away.
  • Spiritual attack from our ultimate adversary – Satan himself.

When you find yourself under siege, where do you run?  Some run to a trusted friend — others to solitude.  Some run to distraction, while others take refuge in an addiction.  Where do you tend to run when times get tough?  While you are thinking about that, let me introduce you to a mighty fortress from the first century — the Herodian fortress of Masada.

On our first full day in Israel, we visited this architectural marvel glued to the side of a 1,300 foot high cliff on the western shores of the Dead Sea.  Masada (the Hebrew word for fortress) was built by King Herod about 30 years before Jesus was born.  This fortress was designed by Herod to be an impenetrable escape against heavy attack.  Not only was Masada protected by its physical location on the rocky cliffs, it was also designed to be fully self-sustaining for indefinite periods of time.  In a land that saw only .25 inches of rain ANNUALLY, Herod had a series of water capturing aquifers bringing water from the wetter highlands and storing it in the enormous cisterns beneath Masada.  One million gallons of water could be stored in Masada’s storehouses — enough water to provide plenty to drink and to irrigate crops that grew in the fortress’s gardens.

In the first century, Masada probably felt like the most secure place in all of Israel.  Because of that, it should be no surprise that 1,000 Jewish rebels holed up in Masada’s fortress in 70 CE after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans.  For 3 years, the rebels held out behind Masada’s walls, but the Romans would not give up.  They built their own ramp up Masada’s hill and battered their way inside.  Rather than be captured by the Romans, nearly 1,000 rebels committed suicide on the night before the Romans took the compound.

Seeing Masada’s ruins reminded me of the temporary nature of all man-made protections.  No matter how perfect the refuges of man look, their walls will eventually be breached.  Sure, your friend might encourage you one day, but might let your call go to voicemail the next.  The addiction may give you a high one moment but leave you hollow later on.  Like the people of Masada, finding refuge in most things ultimately leads to death.

However, there is a better protection . . . a place where we can run when we are under siege to find ultimate comfort, hope, and protection.  King David wrote of this refuge in Psalm 61:1-3:

“Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint.  Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I, for You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.”

Though our man made walls cannot withstand the battering ram of our adversaries, the strong tower of the Lord is a refuge that never fails.

Where do you run when you are under siege?  Together, let us run to the Rock that is higher than us.  In prayer, cry out to God for His help.  Read Scripture to hear of His promises and His presence.  Locate yourself among the people of God that they might provide perspective you cannot have because of your proximity to your situation.  He is the fortress whose walls will never fail.  Together let us run to Him when we are under siege.

 

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Israel at the “Weigh-in”

Israel_mapWhen boxers prepare for a prize fight, they first must attend a “weigh in” where all their measurements are taken and recorded.  Their height, weight, wingspan, etc. are all meticulously written down and used as a gauge to determine in which division the fighter will compete.  Also, these stats are seen as a good indicator of who will win the match in the ring.  These measurements, however, do not always prove prophetic.  (After all, Rocky Balboa beat Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.)  Sometimes it takes more than a tape measure to handicap the event.

For the past two weeks, my wife and I toured the nation of Israel together with a group of friends.  What we saw inspired worship, education, and passion.  However, what we didn’t see inspired something else . . . faith and hope.  Let me tell you what I mean.

Before going on a trip like this, you take out a map and a tape measure and size up the land you will be touring.  On the scales, Israel is only 263 miles long by 71 miles wide (at its longest and widest points).  This makes Israel only slightly larger than the state of New Jersey (and with a comparable population).  Further, the land is mostly covered with rocks, and water has been a historically significant issue (as the many ancient ruins of giant cisterns tell us).  At the weigh-in, Israel looks more like a lightweight than a heavyweight. On paper their land is not the biggest, the best, or the brightest.

As you know, the look of this land can be deceiving.  Though Israel is small, it has a divinely dynamic history.  On this land, God called a people, birthed a nation, delivered a Messiah, and (from this nation) will one day rule the world.  As I wandered around this country for 11 days, I became more and more convinced of one thing:  God chose the Israelites and the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River NOT because they were great, but because their weakness would provide the perfect canvas on which to paint His grace.  The people became a Priesthood and the land became Holy because of Him . . . not because of them.  They are both neon signs pointing us to His character, not theirs.

Don’t get me wrong.  The land is beautiful and productive and the people were warm and hospitable.  Most places and people on this earth are.  The thing that makes their past and their future so fascinating, however,  is their gracious God.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be writing a series of devotionals about my experiences in Israel, to try to put into words for myself (and others) some of what God showed me on my journey.  I hope today’s thoughts help point you in the direction of our gracious God.  If God can make the small nation mighty, and the rocky ground fertile, just think what He might be able to do in your own life.

We too are shallow soils that feel too small and/or insignificant to matter.  “God could never use/want me” is a refrain all too often thought, spoken, or felt.  “My situation is too desolate to ever produce any fruit” is another seed of dismay we often sow.  Our God specializes in blessing the weak and providing an oasis of hope in a barren land.  He wants to encourage your soul  . . . to inspire within us faith and hope in Him.

Would you join me on a written journey through the Holy Land?

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