The Son of Man Betrayed

by Pastor Ed Visser

“Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?…

JESUS: “… the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”
CAIAPHAS: “Are you then the Son of God?”
Luke 22:48, 69-70

GethsemaneAs the group with whom I visited Israel sat in the Garden of Gethsemane, thinking back to the long evening Jesus spent there before his crucifixion, we focused on an aspect of his suffering that often goes over-looked: betrayal. Amidst ancient olive trees, some possibly old enough to have witnessed Jesus’ prayer, we pondered the Jewish view of betrayal in the first century. The most obvious betrayer was Judas Iscariot, who, for 30 pieces of silver, led the Temple Guard down through the Kidron Valley, and up to the Garden. There he targeted Jesus with a kiss, making an affectionate middle eastern greeting now a hideous symbol of betrayal (irony not lost on Jesus).

Neatly framed between the olive trees one can see the eastern gate of the Temple Mount. Under the cover of darkness, Jesus was escorted up to the Temple and into a room on the southern side called the “Sanhedrin,” after the court that usually met there. This, however, was not an official or Temple from Mt Oliveeven legal meeting of the court. Rather, it appears a hastily called session of some of its members, mostly priestly leaders, headed by Caiaphas.

What follows is a fascinating exchange between the High Priest and Jesus. Jesus answers the question of Caiaphas (are you Messiah?) in a very Jewish way. Jesus alludes to Psalm 110:1, historically linked by the sages with Psalm 2:7 (God: You are my Son), both referring to the coming Messiah. Caiaphas picks up Jesus’ cue, alluding to Psalm 2:7: are you then the Son of God? With Jesus’ affirmation, the “council” brings Jesus before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, with three political charges showing Jesus to be a revolutionary against Rome.

What the high priests do, turning Jesus over to the Romans, would not have received approval by the populace. To be a moser, one who betrays a fellow Jew, and especially handing him over to pagans, was considered by the Jews an unforgivable sin! Judas, the first moser, realizes this and responds with suicide. The crime of the priests was even worse; yet they show no remorse, likely believing they saved the nation from Roman intervention. Acts 4 shows their later attempt to keep their actions (guilt?) quiet.

My Father’s Business

by Pastor Ed Visser

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Luke 2:46-49

In my travels through Israel, we spent a little time in Jesus’ neighborhood: both Nazareth and the nearby city of Sepphoris. Here we explored a bit about the “silent” period of Jesus’ life, from ages 13-30.

Sepphoris TheaterWe get a few hints about Jesus during these years. We are told that he is the “carpenter’s son,” and that he lived in Nazareth with his parents and was obedient to them, growing in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:51-52). And then we have this somewhat enigmatic scene in the temple courts when he was 12, talking about needing to be “in my father’s house.” What is that all about?

It might surprise you to learn that the word “house” never appears in this verse (in the Greek). Rather, the phrase reads “in the things of my father.” Given the setting is in the temple (God’s ‘house’), most translations opt to go that direction. The King James opts instead for “about my father’s business.” Either version is an acceptable translation. The other question is: which father is he talking about? Almost all see God the Father as being referred to here; but some suggest that Jesus may be alluding to both of his ‘fathers.’ We know about the divine Father’s ‘business’; what about Jesus’ human father?

Joseph is described as a tekton, which we find usually translated “carpenter.” In our society, that’s a bit deceptive, since such a person works almost exclusively with wood. But in Israel, there’s not much wood for building; most everything is made of stone. So the ‘business’ that Joseph was in, and would have taught his son, was more like stone masonry. In nearby Sepphoris, construction was booming during Jesus’ silent years, and likely father and son would hike the mile or two there to engage in their ‘business’.

Joseph would also have served as Jesus’ first teacher. He is called a tzaddik (“righteous man”) in Work of TektonMatt 1:19, a technical term which meant that he would have been educated, possibly even a sage. So when Jesus is wowing the sages in the Temple, partial credit must go to Joseph his father (the sage?). Could this be, at least in part, the “father’s business” that Jesus is going about? Certainly there is more here; his heavenly Father’s business would be his eventual life’s work. But we shouldn’t completely ignore the role Joseph played in Jesus’ growth as a person, and even as a sage himself!

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

by Pastor Ed Visser

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over the flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them … “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”
Luke 2:8-11

Bethlehem shepherd fieldOne of the places I was able to visit while in Israel was the “little town of Bethlehem.” I say this with gratitude because, despite all the peaceful scenes of Bethlehem on our Christmas cards, today it is often a place of strife, off limits to tourists.

Bethlehem is found in the central hill country of Israel, surprisingly close to Jerusalem. It is also on the border between the farm belt and the wilderness — literally right across the road from each other — so farmers like Boaz and shepherds like David coexisted here (a little more peacefully than Palestinians and Israelis!). One sign of that is especially apparent in the fall: for the only time all year, sheep are allowed to graze in farmers’ fields. It proves a symbiotic relationship: sheep, normally confined to desert grazing, get the crop leftovers but also leave behind fertilizer for the upcoming growing season.

This phenomenon, which occurs only in “frontier” towns, may explain the wording of Luke 2:8 that the shepherds were “in the fields” nearby Bethlehem. If so, it dates Jesus’ birth to sometime in the summer or fall (perhaps in conjunction with the Feast of Sukkot?). But the fact that these sheep were in the Bethlehem area also suggests another insight: that they were Temple flocks being raised for sacrifice. The Mishnah tells us that only sheep from the flocks of Bethlehem were to be used for this purpose. Is this an additional pointer toward Jesus, the sacrificial lamb of God?

Another feature of the area is the Herodian fortress-palace, which actually casts a shadow over the herodian fortresstown of Bethlehem in the early morning. From the top, one can see not only Bethlehem but even Jerusalem to the west, as well as a good view of the wilderness to the east. Every person in the Christmas story — whether Mary & Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, Simeon & Anna — would have to “buy into” the idea that this poor child was the true King of the world, when King Herod’s presence was so obvious and ominous nearby.

It certainly took a lot of faith to be part of that first Christmas story set in Bethlehem. But it takes no less faith today — when so many other “kings” vie for our attention, when evil sometimes seems enthroned — to cast our lot with that unblemished Lamb born in Bethlehem to be the sacrifice to atone for our sins. Have you cast your lot for him?

Shepherd, Sheep, and Goats

by Pastor Ed Visser

We were traveling through the Judean desert toward Jerusalem when we saw it. Coming over one of the many hills, we spotted this pastoral scene, of which I quickly snapped a picture. It’s a typical scene in the land, a bedouin shepherd leading his sheep and goats to food. And yet, the scene before us was atypical of the images we hold in our mind when we read passages like Psalm 23.

sheep and goatsThe Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lay down in
green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in
paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Admit it! You probably don’t envision “green pastures” that look like sand dunes (where’s the green?). Or thousands of “paths” (the horizontal stripes you can barely see) that crisscross the hills (which ones are the “right paths”?). Whatever your Sunday School pictures showed you about Psalm 23, this is the image you should have firmly in your mind! And when you get the right image, you “get” the Psalm.

After all, what’s more like real life? God plopping you down in a field of lush grass, giving you everything you need for your lifetime? Or God leading you, day-by-day, to little tufts of grass, just enough to get you through the day but demanding that you trust him for the next day (“give us this day our daily bread”)?

What’s more like real life? God showing you a nicely paved path and reminding you not to stray off it? Or God leading you, in the midst of a maze of different paths you could choose, down the path that will allow you to live rightly and find sustenance for life (rather than the edge of a cliff)?

You will notice that the shepherd (top, far left) is out in front of his flock — leading them, not driving them like cattle. God wants our relationship with Him to be one of hearing his voice & following, rather than having to be “driven” to hear and obey. True sheep, as Jesus notes in John 10, hear his voice and follow.

But sometimes we don’t follow; we go our own way. What then? Well, Jesus reminds us that a good shepherd will go out to seek and save his lost sheep, for they are precious to him. But there are limits; there will be a time when sheep & goats will be separated, and different fate will await them both. Why did Jesus differentiate between these 2 types of flocks? After all, in Israel you generally see sheep & goats grazing together. But look closely at this picture. The group of animals in a neat circle nearest the shepherd are sheep; the rest scattered on the hillside are goats. Apparently this is common, for while sheep are good followers, goats often have a mind of their own. Goats have an independent streak which causes them to stray. Do we?

Israel: The Land Between

by Pastor Ed Visser

“Israel was sandwiched between the superpowers to the north and south, and very often they were lunch.” That cleverly phrased statement by Wink Thompson, one of our teacher-guides on my trip to Israel, sums up a crucial truth about the land and history of Israel. The land in which God placed his people was, and still is, a land between.

Sign reading dangerIsrael is a land between the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the Arabian Desert to the east. Both proved difficult for travel. Early ships were not made to survive the raging sea, especially in the fall and winter months. And people were not made to bear the intense heat and dryness of the
forbidding desert. Israel, then, served as a narrow land bridge between these areas.

But a land bridge for whom? Early cultures settled where they could survive, and survival in this region means water. Most of the dominant nations grew up around rivers. Around the Tigris and Euphrates to the north, Assyria, Babylon and Persia became powers. To the south, the Nile River became the source of life for Egyptians. These two regions form the northern and southern arms of the Fertile Crescent, and they needed each other’s products to survive. So Israel became the land bridge for trade between the main nations of the world.


The major trade route, the via maris, cut right through its heart. Entering the land to the north near Hazor, the via maris wound through Capernaum in Galilee, through the E-W Valley of Jezreel via Megiddo, then down the coastline on its way to Egypt.

Kings soon realized that if you control world trade, you could rule the world. And to do that, you had to rule Israel. For most of its history, Israel has been a land under occupation. Whether Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome, in the biblical period, or Muslim Arabs, Turks, Crusaders, Ottomans, or Brits since that time, the land and people of Israel have had few respites from foreign control.

Today, for one of the few times in history, Israel is actually an independent nation, winning their independence in 1948. Yet, Israel remains a land between. In the northern Golan region, we traveled right near the Syrian border (watch out for the mine fields from 1967 war!). At Dan we could look into Lebanon. From Masada the hills of Jordan were very clear across the Jordan River. To the south, Egypt looms large. If you extend the circle wider, large and hostile Arab countries are in range (as Iraqi Scud missiles proved in 1991).

Yet even within their land, Israel finds itself between a growing number of Palestinian Arabs who believe the land is theirs. We passed through the West Bank and its military checkpoints several times. The wall being built around it stands like a giant scar in the land.

So why did God lead Abraham and Moses to this land? Two divine reasons stand out:

  • The land between tests your faith and reliance on God.
  • The land between gives you an opportunity to influence the world by your faith as they pass by.

God still places us in a land between as we confront our culture and its influences. And he gives us the challenge of complete reliance on him, as we seek to witness to our culture about the true God who rules the world.

The Battle of Armageddon

by Pastor Ed Visser

Then they gathered the kings together at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. – Revelation 16:16

Apocalypse. Judgment Day. The End Times. Armageddon. Most students of the Bible know it as the place where the cataclysmic battle between forces of good and forces of evil will unfold. Some believe that this battle will take place soon. But few know that Armageddon is a real place—one that has seen more fighting and bloodshed than any other spot on the earth.

Jezreel Valley from Mt Carmel

The name Armageddon is a corruption of the Hebrew phrase Har Megiddo, and it means “Mount of Megiddo.” More than thirty bloody conflicts have been fought at the ancient site of Megiddo and adjacent areas in the Jezreel Valley during the past 4000 years: Egyptians, Israelites, Greeks, Muslims, Crusaders, Mongols, British, Germans, Arabs, and Israelis have all fought and died here. The names of the warring leaders echo through history: Thutmose III, Deborah, Gideon, Saul & Jonathan, Ahab & Jezebel, Saladin, Napoleon, and Allenby, to name but the most famous (for more, cf. Eric Cline’s The Battles of Armageddon, Univ. of Michigan Press, 2000). Throughout history Megiddo and the Jezreel Valley have been ground zero for battles that determined the very course of civilization. No wonder that John, author of Revelation, envisions Armageddon to be the place of the final battle of good and evil on earth.

What makes this area so suited for battle? The Jezreel Valley is one of the few and largest pieces of flat land in Israel, prerequisite for ancient warfare with horses and chariots. The farm belt of Israel, this valley would be wet and muddy throughout the rainy season (late fall – early spring), thus unavailable for war. This is why the Bible talks of spring, following the rainy season, as the time kings go off to war (cf. 2 Samuel 11:1). From late spring to early fall, conditions were ideal.

The Jezreel Valley is guarded by mountains (hills, at least) nearly all the way around. Certain mountain passes were the only entry points. Whoever could take the high ground was usually assured victory. One of the most popular but treacherous routes was the Wadi ‘Ara, which passes under Megiddo. This location became the “mother of all battle fields” in Israel. Because of this, when John envisions a final battle between good and evil, Megiddo is the most logical place. This location is also prophesied in Zechariah 12:11 as the place where Yahweh will finally defeat his enemies.

Will an actual final battle take place here? Quite unlikely, given its small size. But symbolically, it is just the place!

The Tomb of Jesus

by Pastor Ed Visser

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that had been cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.
– Matthew 27:57-60

One of the great debates among biblical scholars and archaeologists is the site where Jesus was buried in or outside Jerusalem. We know a few facts from the Bible about this: 1) crucifixions and burials happened outside the city walls; 2) Jesus was buried in a new tomb of Joseph of Arimathea; 3) and it was cut out of rock, with a big stone rolled in front of it.

tomb stoneWhen you visit Jerusalem, you’re directed to two competing sites for the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The oldest site, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, is near the center of the present-day Old City. Destroyed and rebuilt a number of times, parts of the church date back to 135 AD, although the site itself is known to be the center of liturgical celebrations for 35 years after Jesus’ death. It is the traditional site of and divided among six groups: Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches.

In 1883, Charles Gordon, dissatisfied with all the trappings surrounding this tomb, and concerned Garden Tombthat it resided within the walls of Jerusalem, found another site just north and outside the city walls: the Garden Tomb and its nearby Golgotha (a skull-like rock).

Which is it? While the Garden tomb is a much more pleasant site, the actual tomb would not have been “new” for Jesus; its style is actually several centuries older (possibly 700-900 BC). Gordon’s concern about the city walls is nullified by the fact that Jerusalem expanded in 41-43 AD, with the walls now encompassing the site of the Holy Sepulcher.

In addition, the Church is Joseph of Arimithea tombbuilt over an old quarry (usual crucifixion site; you can see the chisel marks) and has a an interesting tomb in its basement (below the ornate one of Jesus) which is called the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The style of this tomb matches that of other first century tombs in the area. Is this Jesus’ tomb? Who knows, but at least it fits the biblical & historical facts better. But ultimately, the most important fact is that the tomb is empty and our Lord is living!