The “Rock” and the Transfiguration

by Pastor Ed Visser

Jesus: “Who do you say I am?” Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus: “…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:15-18

Rock cave at Caesarea PhilNot long before Jesus went to the cross, he gathered his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, an area known for its worship of the pagan god Pan. At an outdoor theater, created in front of a large rock, with a cave they thought entered the underworld (Hades), people worshiped Pan in orgiastic fervor.

“What are we doing here?” Jesus’ disciples must have wondered. But he had an important question for them. In the face of all this blatant paganness, which seemed so strong in their culture, who would they confess that Jesus was? Peter’s response, revealing Jesus as Messiah and God, was stunning, if only for the setting. And Niche for PanJesus’ response also fit the setting. Perhaps gesturing to this rock and cave, he said he would build his church even here, in the midst of pagan culture, and that the “gates of Hades” (the name of this cave, but also denoting Satan’s realm) would not overcome his church.

To understand the impact of this setting on his message: if Jesus were to do this today he might very well take his disciples to Hollywood or Las Vegas or a porn theater in Times Square, and tell his disciples that his church was going to be built there, and Satan’s smut would not overcome it. That remains a strong message to the church today about our need to impact our culture.

If that was a little intimidating for those disciples, Jesus’ next stop was just north of this rock, to a much bigger one: Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel. There, before his three most intimate disciples, Jesus was transfigured into his glorified body. Moses & Elijah showed up, representing the Old Testament (Law & Prophets) and talking about Jesus’ atoning death. And God the Father himself declared (as he had done at Jesus’ baptism) that Jesus was indeed his Son and Messiah.

Mt HermonFrom this amazing illustration of Jesus in all his heavenly power and glory, it would be all downhill from here — figuratively and literally! The next stop was Jerusalem and the cross, which the disciples could now face, armed with a confession and an image of a glorious Lord!

Fishing in the Sea of Galilee

by Pastor Ed Visser

[Peter & Andrew] were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” Matt 4:18-19

Did you ever wonder what Jesus’ disciples thought about when he called them to become ‘fishers of men?’ Today we might think in terms of rods & reels, hooks & bait. We might preach that we need to ‘lure’ people in and ‘hook’ them with the Gospel. We might visualize it as a one-on-one, individualistic task, perhaps even done in our leisure time (since fishing is a leisure time activity for most people). But a trip back to the first century and the land of Israel gives us a little different picture.

Casting Net

Fishing was hard work in Jesus’ day, not a leisurely activity. The task was done not through line-fishing but net-fishing. And while you could cast an individual net like the one above (just offshore at Tiberias), most net-fishing was done in teams. The seine net, used close to shore (Matt 13:47-50), and the trammel net, used with boats in the open water (John 21), involved great teamwork. Fishing on the Sea of Galilee involved much strain, long hours and often little results from one’s labor. Add to that the idea that the sea was considered the Abyss, the abode of Satan, and largely to be avoided, and you get the picture that fishing held different connotations than it does today.

When we think about being ‘fishers of men,’ we should think in terms of a call to teamwork among believers, each playing our own roles and contributing our own gifts. It promises not to be leisurely or showy, but hard, often unrewarding, work to “snatch” people from Satan’s hold on them. Nor can we be fussy or judgmental about who responds. In Matthew 13:47-50, Jesus tells us that both good and bad fish will be netted for the kingdom; his angels (not us!) will be charged with separating the two at the end of the age.

Decapolis: The Other Side

by Pastor Ed Visser

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him.… The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. – Matthew 8:28, 31-32

Beit SheanOne of the places we visited around the Sea of Galilee was an area known in Jesus’ day as the Decapolis. Today part of Israel, this area on the east side of the Sea was, in the first century, a Roman league of ten cities (Decapolis = ‘ten cities’). Greek, and later Roman, soldiers were given property there as a reward for service.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Jesus makes several visits to what the Jews called “the other side.” On one of his visits, he encounters one (Mark & Luke) or two (Matthew) demon-possessed men. What must have been a terrifying scene for his disciples becomes almost comical in the gospels, as he commands the demons out of the man and into a herd of pigs. The pigs promptly run down an embankment (there are no steep cliffs there) and drown themselves in the Sea. The fact that this is a Gentile territory explains the presence of pigs, which you wouldn’t find in Israel. They may have even been the sacred animals of the Roman temples in this area. That the demons send the pigs into the sea is fitting, since it was considered to be the abode of Satan — they were going home!

Beit Shean TheaterAnother event that happens in the Decapolis was the feeding of the 4000, not to be confused with the feeding of the 5000. Mark sets up a deliberate comparison between the two miracles which only makes sense if you know where they took place. When Jesus fed the 5000 (Mark 6), he was in Israel. Afterwards, the disciples picked up 12 baskets of leftovers, a significant number reminding Jews of the 12 tribes of Israel, as if Jesus was saying, “I am the bread of life, sufficient for all Israel.” When he repeats the miracle for 4000 (Mark 8), he is in the Decapolis. Afterwards, the disciples pick up 7 basketfuls. When the Israelites first came into the land, they drove out 7 Gentile nations, many of them in this general area. So Jesus seems to be saying, “I am the bread of life, also sufficient for all the Gentiles.”

Paying attention to where Jesus was in his daily encounters with people can shed brighter light on his message.

Caesarea Maritima

by Pastor Ed Visser

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment… The following day Peter arrived in Caesarea. Acts 10:1, 24
When the cavalry arrived in Caesarea, they delivered the letter to the governor and handed Paul over to him.… Then he ordered that Paul be kept under guard in Herod’s palace. Acts 23:33, 35

Caesarea–by–the–Sea (Maritima) was a purely Roman city. Built by Herod on the sandy coast of the Mediterranean, it was a city dedicated to Caesar Augustus and became an important seaport for Roman ships. Since there was no natural port on Israel’s coastline, Herod made one from scratch, using some newly invented cement that dried underwater, one of Herod’s greatest feats.

Roman AqueductSince there was no fresh water in the area, Herod also constructed seven miles of aqueduct, which brought water from Mt Carmel. He also equipped Caesarea with all the accoutrements of a Roman city: amphitheater, a hippodrome for horse races, and a huge theater conveniently located near the palace. A large temple, also in honor of Augustus, greeted the ships sailing into the harbor, apparently the first thing one saw from the sea.

Herod also built himself a palace, which stood on a promontory jutting out into the Mediterranean with its requisite Herodian pool. Herod could swim in fresh water while watching Roman ships sail in across the sea. The base of the palace and swimming pool are still visible today. Since the city Herodian Harborbecame the capital of Judea, this would be where Herod, his sons, and later governors of Judea would spend most of their time. Pilate also lived here, and a stone with his inscription was actually found in the reconstruction of the Caesarean theater.

Despite not being a very Jewish city, Caesarea does become the stage for a couple of events in the book of Acts. It was Caesarea where the first Gentile convert of the early Christian church lived, a Roman soldier by the name of Cornelius. The Apostle Peter was actually summoned to this city to lead him and his family to faith in Jesus Christ, and here, in this Roman city, the Holy Spirit was first poured out on Gentiles.

Caesarea TheaterThe man who would make it his life’s calling to reach out to more Gentiles, the Apostle Paul, sailed in and out of this port on his missionary journeys — the last time on his way to Rome itself. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, but when word of a Jewish plot to kill him surfaced, the Roman guard had him transported to the capital city of Caesarea for a “change of venue.” Paul was actually imprisoned in what was still called Herod’s palace (although I doubt he had use of the pool!). Though a thoroughly Roman city, even Caesarea played a crucial role in New Testament history. Might the sovereign God continue to use pagan cities of this world to fulfill his purposes?

The Olive Tree

by Pastor Ed Visser

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. – Isaiah 11:1-2

Olive TreeWhether standing on Mt Carmel or sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane, one is struck by the many groves of olive trees. Some are relatively new; others may have stood in Jesus’ day. Especially fascinating is the old gnarled tree that is, at the same time both ugly, twisted, and old, yet strong, wise, and beautiful. If you look carefully, you will see that there are new branches coming out of the stump even though the roots of the tree could be thousands of years old. In the case of this tree, only the groomsman would be able to tell us whether these new branches were grafted in or they sprouted on their own.

GethsemaneOlive trees can grow on almost any soil and can flourish in great heat with little water. They are virtually indestructible; even when they are cut down, new life will grow back from the roots. The olive tree has played a highly significant role throughout the history of Israel. Physically it provided a source of food, medicine, fuel, and a base for the anointing oil of kings and priests. Spiritually, it represents faithfulness, steadfastness, endurance, new life, and a host of other good things. And, of course, the olive leaf has become a universal symbol of peace.

Paul paints a picture for both Jewish and gentile believers in which the olive tree represents the roots of faith to which branches from another line can be grafted. The tree cannot exist without branches, nor branches without roots:

If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. … And if they [Israel] do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
– Romans 11:17-18, 23-24

Many other lessons could be gleaned from the olive tree, but the most beautiful one is that of the Messiah as a branch growing from it. This tender branch, stemming from an old and weathered tree, has become the King of Israel, and to his glory, has even taken on the Name of God himself!

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.
– Jeremiah 23:5-6

The Land as the Fifth Gospel

by Pastor Ed Visser

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land — a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. – Deuteronomy 8:7-9

One of the first lectures I heard when I traveled to Israel was entitled, “The Land as the Fifth Gospel.” Since we would be visiting largely New Testament-related sites, it was helpful to see that the land was nearly as illuminating as the four gospels when it came to understanding the life of Jesus.

For the people of Israel, the wilderness had been a testing field, causing their dependence on God. As they came to the promised land, God reminded them of its goodness, but he also issued a warning:

Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. – Deuteronomy 8:11-14

Such forgetfulness, which can easily happen when one has all that he/she needs and doesn’t feel the need for God, would bring about dire consequences for Israel. God explains this very pointedly a few chapters later:

Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, and so that you may live long in the land that the LORD swore to your forefathers to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for;
the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today — to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul — then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you. – Deuteronomy 11:8-17

Jezreel Valley from Mt CarmelGod had brought Israel into a very unique land in the Middle East: a land of milk and honey; that is, a land flowing with both shepherds (milk from goats) and farmers (honey from dates) ¬– very unusual in a region that has either one or the other. But a more crucial uniqueness is that the land is utterly dependent on rain — and the God who brings rain. While the Mesopotamian region has the Tigris & Euphrates rivers, and Egypt the Nile, and their fertility comes from flooding and irrigation — Israel is dependent on rain that comes down from the mountain regions to water the land. And it had to come at just the right times: autumn & spring. No rain, no crops = famine!

God makes it very clear that the rain is dependent on covenant faithfulness on the part of Israel. Famine would be punishment for their failure; and if they got really bad, God would exile them from the land. We see both types of punishment through the Old Testament, and the Bible and land together help us understand the reasons for it.

While most of us do not live in the land of Israel, and famine is something we’ve never experienced, this connection between God’s blessing of the land and Israel’s obedience to the covenant reminds us that God takes his covenant relationship with us very seriously. Do we?

The Pool of Siloam

by Pastor Ed Visser

Jesus, to the man born blind: “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam” John 9:7

A fascinating thing about visiting Israel is that you find yourself in the middle of new and ongoing archaeological discoveries. Since biblical archeology didn’t really get underway until Israel became a nation in 1948, the past 50+ years have been the time of the greatest discovery of biblical places Pool of Siloamsince Jesus walked the earth! What at least one scholar described as the “archaeological discovery of the decade for biblical studies” was found a few weeks before I visited Israel: the first century Pool of Siloam.

For years, another pool from the Byzantine era was thought to be the Siloam pool (both supplied by the Gihon Spring). But a little further down the steep hill of David’s City, archaeologists Eli Shukron and Ronny Reich found steps to a first-century pool as they were checking the site before a sewage pipe was to be installed. What we saw was just the initial stages of uncovering the pool; since then a large section of the pool has been excavated.

When we visited the pool, we had just been at the southern stairs of the Temple. That is surely where Jesus was nearly 2000 years ago when he encountered a man born blind (begging at the Temple entrance). To heal him, Jesus spit in the dirt, made some mud and applied it to the man’s eyes. Then, in words that may have stunned the man, Jesus told him to “go, wash in the Pool of Siloam.” He obeyed, and he came back seeing. It’s a nice story, but visiting the location adds to it’s impact. You see, the Pool is half a mile from the Temple Mount, down a very steep grade to the bottom of where the Kidron & Hinnom valleys meet. Walking down to the Pool (albeit on paved sidewalks), we felt what the man born blind experienced — a scary hike for sighted people!

How does that impact the story? And why didn’t Jesus just heal him there? Jesus was calling the man to real faith — not just belief, but to put his faith into action — by calling him to make a treacherous half-mile hike down a mountain. To take even that first step was an incredible confession that he believed Jesus was the Messiah. As he did often, Jesus linked healing with faith. Sometimes we think faith is about intellectual assent to the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. In reality, faith is about taking first steps toward doing God’s will, even when it seems very much impossible. Is that the kind of faith we show? Do we confess Jesus with out feet?

The Priest’s Mikveh

by Pastor Ed Visser

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man,
he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite …
Luke 10:31-32

Priests MikvehBetween two flights of stairs leading up to the Temple on its southern side, archaeologists have found a number of Jewish ritual baths, called mikvehs. Many more have been found south of the Temple stairs. Mikvehs were used by the people to purify themselves before entering the Temple. If this was important for the common folk, it was even more important for the priests and Levites who ministered there.

While at the southern stairs, we wandered off the beaten path to just below the southeast corner of the Temple mount, where we found the mikveh pictured above. Some scholars believe this was used by the priests serving at the Temple, for two reasons: 1) the Mishnah tells us the priests had a separate tunnel entrance here so they wouldn’t become unclean by coming into contact with anyone. 2) Note also how different this looks from a typical mikveh (below), since it has steps all around it (vs. one entry), perhaps allowing a number of priests to use it at once. Priestly purity was taken very seriously.

Masada MikvehThis is pictured memorably in one of Jesus’ parables, set on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. This desolate road was known for brigands and thieves, and Jesus pictures a man left ‘half dead’ by some. A priest and a Levite both pass by this man on their way from their home in Jericho (one of the main residences of priests) to Jerusalem, undoubtedly to serve their Temple “shift.” This scene presents them with a dilemma: the man is ‘half dead,’ a technical term for one who could die any moment. Coming in contact with a dead body would render them unclean for Temple service (even beyond help from a mikveh). The question they faced was sticky: what’s more important, serving God or man? So they weren’t being callous; but, according to Jesus, the “good” Samaritan showed the better way, since we serve God by serving man.

The Spirit and the Southern Stairs

by Pastor Ed Visser

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole House where they were sitting.… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.…
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd….”
Acts 2:1-4,14

Southern StairsOne of my favorite places to visit while in Israel was the southern stairs of the Temple. Not only did it offer shade at the right time of the day, of great importance under the summer sun, but it is also a very “authentic” place. There are not many places in Israel where you can say for certain, “I stood/walked where Jesus did.” — but this is one of them. Many of the original steps leading up to the Temple remain, including the threshold in front of the main Temple entry gate, across which Jesus must have made a number of trips. This was also one of the best locations in Jerusalem for a teacher to speak to a group, something Jesus likely did as well.

But the southern stairs have a special meaning for the Christian church for another reason: this is the most likely location for at least some of the events of the day we know as Pentecost. That is actually the Greek term for the Jewish feast known as Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks. This harvest festival, held 50 days after the feast of first fruits, also celebrated God’s giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. At nine in the morning — the time Peter identifies for us — every good Jew (Jesus’ disciples included) would have been at the Temple for the morning sacrifices related to this feast.

Temple from Mt OliveFor some reason, over the years, the Christian church has often associated Pentecost with the Upper Room, but there is no indication of this in Acts 2. In fact, all the clues point to the Temple: 1) ‘House’ in Jerusalem (v.2) was always the Temple; 2) every good Jew would be there for the feast at 9AM (15); 3) it would be the only place where you’d have so many foreign (diaspora) Jews (5-11); 4) the southern stairs was a logical place for Peter to preach to such a large audience, and 5) the only area in Jerusalem with enough mikveh’s (ceremonial baths) — over 140! — to baptize 3000 people (41).

For God, often represented by wind and fire in the Old Testament, to fill and then leave the Temple, was a picture of God changing his address. No longer does he live in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in his followers, those Paul described as “the Temple of the Holy Spirit.”

The Road to Emmaus

by Pastor Ed Visser

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Luke 24:32

Emmaus to Jerusalem010The group I traveled to Israel with in 2004 (along with others tied to the En-Gedi Resource Center) was called Emmaus Educational Services. The name was chosen because the leaders wished for people to better come to know Jesus through their experience, even as Cleopas and his friend did when they encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). By visiting places where Jesus walked and taught, where he fished and healed, where he died, arose, and ascended, we grew to know him better — getting our feet wet and dusty where he did. We knew the Bible; but there’s something about getting to know the land of Israel that makes Scripture come alive.

But Cleopas and his friend, in a sense, had the opposite need. They knew the land and had experienced many of these events with Jesus. They needed to know Scripture in a new way: from the other side of Easter. So, just as we needed to go back to their side, by walking the dusty roads, they needed to be transported to our side, to see from a post-Easter perspective this Jesus they had been following. They needed to read a new reality back into the ancient scrolls of the Torah and Prophets.

As they walked the familiar Roman road from Jerusalem back home, they talked about the events of the past few days. They shared their hopes that Jesus might have been Messiah, their distress over his crucifixion, and their confusion over the morning reports of an empty tomb. Soon they were joined by another traveler who started by sharing his ignorance of these recent events, then upbraided them for not seeing fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in what had happened. On that seven-mile journey, he gave them a seminary course on promise & fulfillment that left them with heartburn! Only when they arrived at Emmaus did God open their eyes to see Jesus, and then he disappeared, after which they ran seven miles back to Jerusalem (uphill most of the way!).

Emmaus RoadThis has always been one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Perhaps that is part of the reason I am so passionate about trying to see Jesus in the Old Testament passages, patterns, and symbols. What I wouldn’t give to have been in Jesus’ class that day — and the following 39 days — as he taught his disciples how the Old Testament speaks of him. Thankfully the New Testament retains a lot of the lessons Jesus taught them, which is why it is so important to read the New Testament with “Jewish” and Old Testament eyes.

Walking the road to Emmaus on our last day in Israel — and continuing to walk that road every time I study the Bible and try to “see” Jesus in the Old Testament and get to know him better — makes me feel a little closer to Cleopas, almost as if I were that unnamed disciple (maybe that’s why he’s unnamed!), walking with Jesus and getting spiritual heartburn.