Deepening Already Deep Convictions Through Being on the Ground in Israel

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A set of plain steps—ancient, but very ordinary. It was my first day in Jerusalem. I saw ornate churches built on holy sites, large ruins, and the temple mount’s huge walls towered over it all. Yet looking at those steps most moved me that day. The steps come up from the Kidron Valley. After leaving the Garden of Gethsemane those who arrested Jesus would have brought him up these steps to get to the house of Caiphas the High Priest. (The ruins of his house were right behind me.) I stood looking down at those steps and thought, “God incarnate, Jesus, walked up those steps as an arrested criminal.” I have heard the story countless times (Mt 26:57; Lk 22:54; Jn 18:12-24) yet looking at the steps I felt the reality of it, the scandal of it, the significance of it, in a way I never had before. Incarnation felt more real; GOD, in the flesh, walked on these steps! GOD, in the flesh, was led up these steps bound as a criminal. I thought of the men in my jail Bible study, took this picture, and looked forward to proclaiming to them with more conviction: “God knows the fear and shame of being arrested. You pray to a God who understands.”

Christians confess that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. In my Christology class I challenge students to take both seriously—to not rush past his humanity in affirming his divinity. I considered myself someone who already emphasized incarnation and the humanity of Jesus. Yet repeatedly during my two weeks in Israel I found myself pressing deeper into the reality of God’s experience of human life through Jesus. The greater the depth and breadth we give to our conception of Jesus’ human experience the more able we are to feel the reality that God understands, experientially, what we encounter in life. The greater depth and breadth we give to our conception of Jesus’ human experience the more able we are to marvel at and worship a God who scandalously entered into human life in all its vulnerability.

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Just as the concreteness of seeing the steps took me to a greater appreciation of the reality of incarnation, so too being in the Garden of Gethsemane blew the dust off a story that had become dull and drama-less. Looking through the trees and imagining Judas and the guards storming in, I felt the tension of the scene in ways I had not before. Peter’s violent reaction made sense. Rather than just thinking, “silly Peter,” as I usually do when I read the story, I felt the aggressive threat and the fear it would have produced. It was no small, easy, or automatic thing to respond in a non-retaliatory way as Jesus did. My thoughts then went to the cross—forgiveness rather than revenge.

Ceremonial washing area in Roman-era temple

Ceremonial washing area in Roman-era temple

The ruins of Beth Shean,, an ancient Israeli city, are right next to ruins of the first-century Roman city Nyssa Scythopolis. I was just about to head up to the hill to the Old Testament-era ruins—that seemed the obvious thing to do. But then I had another thought, “This is the sort of place that Paul would have spent time in—it is from his era. Take advantage of the opportunity Mark. You may not ever visit one of the cities he actually spent time in.”

I entered the ruins and imagined Paul walking streets like these. I spent most of my time sitting in the ruins of two temples. As I looked at the altar, the big columns, a place for washing, rooms for other cultic practices I reflected on both the importance given to religion and the elaborateness and formality of its practice. Then it struck me. What a contrast to the Christians.

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Instead of going to a place like this, Christians met in houses, shared a meal. Very counter-cultural. What did their neighbors and fellow workers think!? I have written about shaming and pressure early Christians experienced,[1] but seeing these temples gave me much greater appreciation for how much they were going against the current of their times. I have even greater appreciation for Peter’s efforts in his first letter to counter the shame and ridicule and honor the Christians for following Jesus. May we be as courageous to be counter-cultural today and as generous in our affirmation of other Jesus followers going against the stream.

We cannot all go to the lands of the Bible. We can, however, seek to connect with the biblical text more concretely and experience the sort of things I did. Two suggestions: 1. With intentionality imagine the concrete reality of biblical texts—don’t just read the words, imagine the scene. 2. Read books by Bible scholars who have turned their research in fictionalized narratives to help us not just know about but feel the context of the biblical times. Two I recommend:

Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce Longenecker

The Shadow of the Galilean by Gerd Theissen

[1] Jayson Georges and Mark D. Baker, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016).

Posted on August 20, 2019 .