Yesterday morning we woke to a cold, rainy day in Jerusalem. Temperatures had dropped overnight into the low 50’s, and storms were forecast throughout the day. With a day full of outdoor activities planned, we grabbed whatever rain gear and umbrellas we had, and got on the bus headed for Bethlehem, the birthplace of Saul, David, and Jesus.
Bethlehem is under Palestinian control, so Tsvi could not guide us through. We drove up to a checkpoint, DaVEED opened the window and said “American” and the woman inside waved us through. A mile or so later, we pulled over to the side of the road, and “George” jumped in (I wonder – what are the odds that this Arab’s name is really George?)
George was our guide for the morning. He told us that he was a native Arab Christian, a member of the Syrian Orthodox church, and that this church is dedicated to continuing to speak the native Aramaic of the first century. He is a “2nd generation Palestinian” whose family came here from south Turkey fleeing the Armenian genocide. He was very friendly, and spoke with a high, lilting voice. He is married, and showed us pictures of his beautiful children – two year old Maven and one year old Immanuel. George said that since the name “Immanuel” means “God with you” – he keeps in mind that “although the troubles surround us, every time I call my child I remember that God is with us.”
We arrived at the Shepherd’s Field area, climbed down a few stairs and sat overlooking the wide, rocky, treeless hilltops before us while Jon talked to us about the many things that happened here. The story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz takes place in Bethlehem. David was anointed in Bethlehem. Jacob’s beloved Rachel was buried in Bethlehem. Joseph, husband of Mary and earthly father to Jesus, was from Bethlehem and it was here they returned to be counted.
Luke 2 tells the story of Jesus’ birth. There were shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, keeping watch, when an angel appeared to them, with the glory of the Lord shining around them. He brought “good tidings of great joy” and then with the angel there appeared a heavenly host praising God. Jon asked us – how many were present at the birth of Jesus? The whole city was asleep; they had no idea that the Son of God was being born in their own city. All of the prophecies pointed to it, and likely many who lived there had been taught what the scriptures said about the coming of the Messiah, yet they missed it. Jon reminded us that we need to pay attention, ourselves, to what the scriptures say about the second coming of Jesus; to look for Him, or like those from Bethlehem 2000 years ago, we may miss it.
We investigated some early caves and a church building on top of the hill, and took a moment to sing there. Jay needed to borrow a coin for the pay toilets, so…
Back on the bus, we asked George if he endured persecution as a believer in Christ while living in a Muslim city. He said “not persecution, but problems can happen. But Bethlehem is safe.” When we pressed him for more information, he smiled and said he didn’t like to talk politics, but would try to answer our questions. I tried to jot down what he said next: “Things can happen but we are coping real well with it. Our (Christian) numbers are decreasing to alarming level in Bethlehem and whole area – we keep asking ourselves, what are people doing for us? Nothing. They watching us being massacred, beheaded, and we doing nothing about it. History is repeating itself just like the Ottomans killing in past but they say ‘we do nothing to you!’ But thank you, today, for being with us. That gives us encouragement to stay.” (At this point, I thought to myself, I need to learn shorthand!) Then Jason asked him, “if you tried to convert a Muslim with a Bible study, would that cause a problem?” George laughed and said “that would be serious problem.”
We headed toward the Church of the Nativity – the oldest church building in the Middle East, a church building built by Constantine’s mother, Helena, over the site where some believe that Jesus was born. The entrance to the building looks like it’s carved out of stone, only about 4 ½ feet high. Even I had to bend as I stepped into it. There are varying opinions about why the door is so low; some say it’s because one should approach God with a humble posture. Once inside, the smell of incense is strong. Major refurbishing inside is going on, so there are scaffolds everywhere and the sounds of hammering and sawing echo in the acoustical ceiling. George hurried us to a spot in the back of a line of people waiting to see the “holy sites” but he said this: “Remember, you are not here to be blessed by these places. You’re here to learn about these places. We are the living stones.” I appreciated him saying that, and it made me want to know more about his personal beliefs.
This place was, to me, a study in contrasts. You are encouraged to be quiet, yet you can’t hear yourself think because of the constant hum of other people, a mass going on somewhere, and the hammering noises from the ceiling. We walked past the most beautiful mosaic floor, but their ceilings are hung with what looks like cheap chandeliers (complete with the new curly looking fluorescent bulbs,) and what looks like big red and green Christmas balls hanging from the chandeliers.
Throngs of people waited in line to touch the stone where they think Jesus was born. This wasn’t George’s first rodeo, as they say, and he had a formula to get all of us (he called us “my people”) in line without being trampled. We formed a semi-circle at the top of the staircase leading down and slowly made our way in. There were five or six high, narrow stone steps leading down. At the bottom, the walls and ceiling are hung with red brocade, and it is very warm. As you go through, there is what looks like a table, with a bronze looking star on the ground underneath. People knelt down and put their hand through the center of the star to touch the stone. Across from this stone is the location where they thought the manger had been. It was all a little too much for me.
We exited the building, went around a few corners, and WOW, I saw Hisham, our guide from last year. I recognized the desert camouflage hat and thick glasses, so I tried to get a closer look and sure enough – it was him! He was an okay guy, but he used some very high pressure techniques to get us to shop at a particular store.
And strangely enough, George led us to the very same store where Hisham led us last year. Very nice place with lots of olive wood carvings, jewelry, tourist trinkets – and nice bathrooms. Same spiel from the jewelry shopkeepers about how wonderful their items are…we shopped some, but left fairly quickly. Outside the shops, the vendors are very aggressive. One followed Wynn for several blocks trying to get her to buy several things…he said “Pliss, give me chance pliss…okay, I give you two for five dollar? No? okay, I give you three for five dollar! Pliss give me chance!”
We said goodbye to George and headed back into Jerusalem. After a quick lunch at a few different places (and where Gerry talked to these cute Israeli girls, while Josiah wished he could talk to them), we headed to Gallicantu, the church building built over the site where some believe Caiaphas’s house stood. We stood on the platform looking over the Kidron, Central, and Hinnom valleys, and looked across at the Temple Mount and then to the Mount of Olives. It gives you a better feel for direction and location of various sites.
We climbed down lots of stairs to the dungeon area where Jesus may have been held during his trial. One of the things that I’ve heard over and over in my life, but really hit me yesterday, was when John stressed that Jesus allowed Himself to be bound, beaten, mocked, and killed. He could have called ten thousand angels to destroy the world and set Him free. He did not have to endure any of it, but in His strength, compassion, love, and mercy – He allowed it to be done to Him, for each one of us.
Most of the group went on to the City of David and Hezekiah’s Tunnel, but Angela was needing to rest her legs, so she and I came back to the hotel. The group came back from the tunnel with some great stories! Mat pushed through his claustrophobia and told me it wasn’t really that bad. I still have grave doubts. Chelsea went through part of it in the dark. I don’t know what’s wrong with her. I think there were some jokes told too. 😉 Doug, John, and Mat got some additional footage for the Bible Land Passages videos.
After a very quick dinner, most of us took taxis over to the Israel Museum, since it stays open late on Tuesday nights. We spent some time at the model, and Angela and I headed into the museum (where we would meet up with everyone else later.) WOW! I discovered that I would like to spend several days there! Great museum with so many ancient Bible artifacts. We went in search of an ossuary box that she was particularly interested in, and though we never found that, we found so many other fascinating things, including the Lachish relief that we had discussed just a few days earlier at Lachish! It was a late night, but enjoyable, and worth it.
This morning, the weather was still cold and rainy, but we headed off, ready to learn more about Jerusalem. As we drove, Tsvi showed us the “modern day city wall” but said “when we say modern in Jerusalem, we’re talking 16th century.” We drove toward the Mount of Olives that overlooks the city, and these are Tsvi’s words: “Guys, we driveeng up Mount of Olive for the best view in town. Mount of Olive is holy site, believed to be place of ascension after resurrection…” Then, as we drove through a sketchy looking neighborhood, he said “This Arab neighborhood. This road not really friendly, but ees okay today.”
Reaching the top of the Mount of Olives, we donned our rain gear and coats, and stepped out into drizzle. The limestone street was slippery, especially as we headed downhill to an area where we could have a devotional, but we made it to our destination and shivered through a group photo.
Then John told the story of Jesus in Jerusalem in the most amazing ten minutes I think I’ve ever heard him speak, pointing out locations before us. He had us imagine weary travelers topping the hill of the Mount of Olives and being dazzled by the sight of the grand temple complex and the Antonia Fortress. He talked about Isaiah 2, and these prophetic words: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” He talked about other prophecies from Isaiah 9 – unto us a Son is born…his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Everlasting Father. More prophecies found in Isaiah 53 and 55, and then the message of the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles: God keeps His promises! The Messiah is coming! Prophecies in Zechariah 6, 9, and 14 – all fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
He has kept His promises. Jesus came to this earth to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, to recover sight to the blind, and set at liberty those who are oppressed. He did these things. Jesus spent the last weeks of his life preaching and teaching.
I had never thought about this before, but John said that Jesus took his apostles, Galilee dwellers, who were accustomed to small towns and villages and a life of fishing, into the bustling big city of Jerusalem. They are amazed by all that they see, but Jesus tells them it will all be thrown down. Confused, the apostles want to know what He meant. He explains that many will come, trying to lead them away, that trials await them – but I will come back! Be prepared! Carry on with my work! I am preparing a place for you.
But something very difficult has to happen first.
Jesus goes to Gethsemane, the “place of the press” and there He is pressed and drained. He prays three long prayers. He is betrayed, brought down across the valley and back up into the city to be put on the mockery of a trial. He is taken to Golgotha, and there He is put to a painful, slow, shameful, agonizing, terrible death. He took my sin and yours upon Himself, and because a just God cannot tolerate sin, He has to turn His back on His only Son.
But He overcame death!
He asked Simon, “do you love me? Then feed my sheep.”
John said “He will come again. We are waiting, and because of what He did here in this city, we have hope today and purpose for living. 2000 years ago, the church began right here. We were privileged to come back to the birthplace of Christianity – and it has traveled all over the world. Christianity began to spread from this place.”
We want to remember that what we are here for is not the site, but the Savior.
This may be personal, but I’ve heard John speak probably thousands of times. This morning, listening to him tell the story of Jesus was the most beautiful, compelling, convicting message I have heard come from him. During the past two weeks, all of the history we’ve seen, all of the artifacts we’ve touched, the roads we’ve walked over, the scriptures we’ve read – all came together in the story of Jesus. We prayed to not just hear the facts and make this journey an intellectual one, but to make it personal. It has been for me.
We then made the walk down from the Mount of Olives to the bottom of the valley (and some of us went the wrong way, and had to go down 753 steps, and have jelly legs tonight,) ending up at the Garden of Gethsemane. Of course we don’t know the exact location in Jesus’ day. But this garden is beautiful, quiet and serene even though buses and cars are whizzing by just on the other side of the fence.
We stepped inside the church building next door to this garden. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior, I smelled incense and saw the beautiful mosaic floor so typical of these old church buildings. Any noises from tourists were immediately shushed. There was a huge pipe organ in the front corner, and colorful stained glass windows all around.
From there we got back on the bus and drove back around the valley to the north side of the city walls. David parked the bus and we walked through a back alley behind the Muslim cemetery on the eastern side of the Temple Mount. There was trash burning in barrels and plenty of garbage on the ground, but we turned a corner and all of a sudden found ourselves at the Sheep Gate. Just a few yards beyond this gate, we turned into St. Anne’s Church, located near the ancient Bethesda Pool.
Here, many different groups gathered, speaking in many different languages about Jesus. A group was singing inside St. Anne’s. We could hear children shouting from the nearby Muslim boys school in the location of the old Antonia Fortress. Just above the pool area, a woman had hung bedsheets out of her window to dry. Tall pine trees lined the area. All of the noises created a pleasant cacophony as we sat and listened to Jon talk about the Pool of Bethesda.
He said that this place was likely not very pleasant. Probably many invalids, oppressed, and poor people lingered here. Due to illness and many other factors, it likely had an unpleasant odor that lingered, and there were probably individuals crying out for help.
But these were the people Jesus came to see.
We read about the man who had been an invalid for 38 years. Jesus asked him – “do you want to be healed?” And when Jesus healed him, He told the man to take up his bed and walk – and all the Jews could say to him was that it wasn’t lawful for him to carry his bed on the Sabbath. Did they not even notice that a man who had been sick for 38 years had been healed?
We stepped inside St. Anne’s and sang “It Is Well With My Soul” because of the beautiful acoustics there. We also saw the cute little priest we had seen last year, Peter, still wearing long black socks and sandals under his white robe.
Next we walked down the Via Dolorosa – “the way of grief”. We stopped for lunch in the Muslim quarter, and on the way passed dozens of shops with semi-aggressive shopkeepers, motorcycles weaving in and out around pedestrians, food stands built into the sides of the walls. It smelled like cigarette smoke and bread. Here and there we saw young Israeli soldiers with their automatic weapons hanging from their shoulders. Chelsea bargained for a sweatshirt, and the Arabic man was rude to her – when she tried to back out of the deal, he refused. For a few minutes I thought World War 3 was going to break out.
Passing more shops with the men coming out saying (in very deliberate English): “Hi. How. Are. You. Please. Come. In. Shopping.” They had magnets, scarves, toys, olive wood sculptures, perfume and “antiquities” for sale. As I had noticed before, boys ran home alone from school, backpacks on their backs.
We finally popped through the door that leads you into the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Jon gave us a history of the site, run by four different faiths: Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, and Coptic. Jon reminded us to think about Jesus as we walked through, and said “in three years, in this geographical location, a man changed the world.”
As I walked through, I tried to jot down my impressions: ornate, dark, smelling of incense. High, narrow, curving, dangerous steps lead up one floor to the area where they believe Jesus died. People were everywhere waiting their turn to touch “holy sites”. We didn’t wait to touch the stone here, but went on down to see the tomb area. But behind the tomb, John found a room that he said his Bible Geography instructor believed was more likely the site of the tomb. He ducked down inside with his flashlight to see if he could find any markings. No luck.
And there’s more. It was a packed day.
Next we went to the Davidson Center, leading to the southern steps of the temple. John showed us several old entrances, and read to us from the Psalms, in particular Psalm 120, Psalm 125, and Psalm 122 – all songs of ascent. Right about the time he started talking, at 4:15, several different Muslim prayer calls began being broadcast throughout the city. But John said “no matter what songs we hear in the background, this mighty mountain still stands.”
Next, quick stop at the Western Wall. The women walked down the women’s side. I noticed women standing quietly, and others bending in Jewish fashion while reading their Torah and touching the wall. One woman sat and tried to push all of the notes that had fallen out back into the wall.
We ended the day with a tour through the Western Wall Tunnels. Fascinating information that takes you down near the original street level. And I didn’t feel claustrophic in this tunnel at all.
Though it had cleared up during the day, rain began again as we finished our tour. As we sat on a low stone wall and waited for all of our group, numbers of Orthodox men began coming from the passageway not far from us. A man sitting next to me (I assumed he was Jewish) noticed me taking their picture and said, rather loudly, “Why don’t you all tell them to DO SOMETHING? They DON’T DO NOTHING!” I assumed he was talking about the many Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) men who have no job, spending their time in study of Torah, who are basically supported by a welfare-type system. I didn’t respond to the man, but I’ve seen and heard several statements like this while here. Obviously there is resentment toward this sect.
We then made a run for the bus and arrived in time to have some supper. It’s been a great, packed day!
Tomorrow – a visit to Yad Vashem, the Israeli holocaust museum, and a trip to the Garden Tomb. Then we will clean up, have dinner together, and our flight leaves around 11 p.m. Please continue to pray for us!