HOW HOLY IS THE HOLY LAND? [3]

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We asked that question and attempted a partial answer in Parts 1 and 2 of our blog series.

Whereas in Parts 1 and 2 I used a broader definition of ‘holy’ as meaning ‘different,’ ‘special,’ ‘dedicated,’ ‘moral,’ etc, I now want to use the term in a more specifically biblical sense as used in the Bible concerning God, his Son and his Church.  When I think of ‘holy’ in this latter sense I am reminded of the thrice-holy God as described by the prophet Isaiah (chap. 6), and then again by the apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians where he writes of Christ as the personification of ‘the Wisdom and Power of God,’ and imparting himself as such to the Corinthian Church:  “It is because of him (i.e. God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written (ex Jer. 9:24): ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor. 1:30-31). Here ‘holiness’ describes believers’ set-apartness for the Lord, their being declared ‘holy’ through faith in Christ and his death on the cross, and finally their being made ‘holy’ (i.e. Christ-like) by the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. It’s significant that while Paul found much in the Corinthian Christians to criticize, he still called them ‘sanctified’ (1:2) – not because of their conduct but because of their relationship to Christ!

In Part 3 we also want to draw a clearer line between ‘religion’ as pertaining to a belief system, the practice of certain sacred rites, the pursuit of moral values and conduct etc, and on the other hand ‘relationship’ as pertaining to a gracious, intimate faith-union with (in our case) the Living God, through the full and final revelation of his Son (Heb. 1:1-2).

Now some observations and remarks in the light of my recent visit to Israel but also in the light of my pursuit of the God of Israel these past fifty years or so…

First, the Holy Land reflects layers and layers of ‘religion and religiosity,’ of which I have already written in Parts 1 and 2. One’s impression is of many different peoples, espousing Judaism (both orthodox and liberal), Druzeism, Islam, Bahaism and Christianity (of every variety:  Roman, Armenian, Marionite, Greek, Syriac, Anglican, etc), pursuing greater intimacy with their particular version of God. This they do via various religious and moral pursuits, liturgies, ‘holy places,’ clergy, etc. As to the Jews, Wikipaedia indicates that some 25% see themselves as ‘non-religious traditionalists,’ between 15% and 37%  profess atheism or agnosticism (‘religions’ in themselves:  the story is related of an atheist overheard saying, ‘Thank God, I’m not a Christian!’). For further interesting details, visit the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, specifically ‘Israel: Religion and Society.’ 

Secondly, while I appreciated the obviously sincere praying and worship of Jews (of all persuasions) at the Western Wall and especially the exhuberant dancing of young Israeli soldiers as they faced the Wall, my wife and I sensed a competitiveness among the groups (distinguished by their different styles of black dress, headgear, etc), a formalism, ritualism, praying by rote, etc. My wife commented, ‘they look so religious but their eyes are dead.’ [let me be the first to confess there are many parallels, sadly, among ‘evanglical’ and even ‘charismatic’ Christians – they each have their own type of religiosity, controls, bibliolatry, rituals and liturgy from which you swerve at your peril]. By brilliant contrast we have Christ who comes not as a mere ethicist or religious genius. The great Dietrich Bonhoeffer (an avid defender of Jews, to the point of martyrdom by the Nazis), like Karl Barth (to whom religion was essentially ‘unbelief, the matter of a godless man’), believed that the essence of Christianity is not about religion at all, but about the person of Christ… ‘religion’ was a dead, man-made thing, while at the heart of Christianity was something else entirely – God himself, alive! Bonhoeffer (in 1926 already) aggressively exposed the idea of ‘religion’ and moral performance as the very enemies of Christianity and of Christ because they conveyed the false idea that somehow we can reach God through our own moral efforts, leading to hubris and pride. To quote him, ‘The Christian message is basically amoral and irreligious, paradoxical as that may sound.’ In 1928, in an address to some German youth in Barcelona, he maintained that most Christians had exiled Christ from their lives: ‘Of course, we build him a temple, but we live in our own houses.’  [at this point let me heartily recommend my son’s recent blog, ‘Church or Religion? Is there a difference?’ cf his blog link: justinmulder.wordpress.com]

Thirdly, I was struck how beautiful buildings, religious and spiritual symbols, and other ‘means of grace’ have become ends in themselves. Take for example the worshipping and weeping women prostrated over the ‘tomb-site’ of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (see pic above), the veneration and kissing of icons, sculptures, paintings and relics, almost ad nauseum [of course, again, ‘evangelicals’ do the same with the pulpit (‘the sacred desk’) and the sacraments, etc – never mind the ‘worship sites’ of many megachurch celebrity pastors and prophets and apostles:  witness the recent tragedy at Prophet TB Joshua’s ‘synagogue church’ where 84 South African ‘martyrs’ died when their accommodation block collapsed due to apparently bad engineering]. Now make no mistake, when we visited some of the beautiful churches in Nazareth, the Galilee, Jerusalem, etc, I found my spirit soaring:  beyond the architecture, mosaics, stained windows, to my Creator God. I have always tried to leave room in my heart for that mystic element of our faith (what Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum) and the ‘otherness’ of God. However, when we replace the living God with things and symbols and means, no matter how beautiful, we enter the dangerous territory of idolatry.

Fourthly, I noticed a strong ego-centric ‘come here,’ ‘come to us’ mentality on the part of the religions or church groups, so rampant in Christian churches particularly in the West, in stark contrast to Jesus’ desire that ‘we go to them,’ i.e. the needy, the poor and the lost. How our church buildings have in and of themselves militated against Jesus missional concern and kingdom message. As Winston Churchill once said, ‘We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.’ Under this point, I remain totally sceptical of the ‘Christian Zionism’ of the ilk of John Hagee and other Dispensationalist ‘teachers.’ Will God’s future plan for his people include geographical Israel? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?!

Going forward, I have four firm convictions, which I believe to be Bible-based:

  • Gentile believers like myself should always be infinitely grateful for God’s self-revelation through Israel! I am deeply grateful for my Hebrew roots, God’s covenant with Abraham, our spiritual forefather by faith. I deeply appreciated seeing the Holy Land for myself, and will feed off that experience for the rest of my days.
  • For me, Rom. chapters 9-12 reflect my stance concerning Israel at present and in the future (I recommend you read these from the MSG in one sitting, to grasp the over-all picture). Paul sketches the Jews as a blinded people, brought about by their repeated disobedience to God and his call for them to be a light to the Gentiles. Surely at any time God can, in his sovereignty, lift that veil of darkness that has beset them. Many more may yet turn to Jesus as the Messiah (I pray this is so) and enter his kingdom through faith. At the end of the day, access to God’s eternal kingdom, for Jew and Gentile alike, comes by faith in Christ and him alone. Long ago the prophet Isaiah wrote some intriguing words about his people and ‘the servant of the LORD’:  “I will lead blind Israel down a new path, guiding them along an unfamiliar way. I will make the darkness bright before them and smooth the road ahead of them. Yes, I will indeed do these things; I will not forsake them. But those who trust in idols, call them their gods – they will be turned away in shame” (Is. 42:16-17/NLT). God had strange paths then, and he has strange paths now.
  • Hebrews chapter 8 particularly speaks of ‘a better covenant’ in/through Christ. Before I am accused of espousing ‘replacement theology’ and rejecting the Old Testament, let me quote the remarkable words of Heb. 8:7ff, “For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said, ‘The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant (quotation from Jer. 31:31-34) with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with your forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant… I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more.’ By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear.” [It is a pet theory of mine that many traditional Christians and churches are living by an obsolete rather than ‘new covenant’ in Christ, empowered by the life-giving Spirit] [cf a brilliantly researched article by Jon Zens:  ‘This Is My Beloved Son, Hear Him!’ The Foundation for New Covenant Ethics and Ecclesiology]. In so many ways, Jesus is the ‘new Israel of God’ and so is his Church (cf Paul’s Galatian Letter; as also 1 Pet. 2; etc).
  • We desperately need to re-discover and re-implement the biblical doctrine of ‘The Priesthood of All Believers.’ The ‘clergy-laity’ divide in traditional mainline denominations and even modern charismatic groups has paralysed the Church over centuries, and certainly in our time. I pastored Baptist churches in my country for 38 years, and can only say that ‘the priesthood of believers’ was regularly professed but never fully appreciated by our churches and pastors, including myself for that matter! [again I recommend Jon Zens’s excellent and very topical treatment, Celebrity Pastors: Getting to the Root of the Problem. cf GodsLeader.com]

So, ‘HOW HOLY IS THE HOLY LAND?’ I urge you to gather your own information and formulate your own answers to this complex question… All I know is that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive! Hallelujah!

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HOW HOLY IS THE HOLY LAND? [2]

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Dear reader, won’t you browse through PART 1 of HOW HOLY IS THE HOLY LAND? It will really help with understanding the question and picking up the threads of our Israel experience just a few weeks ago…

The third broad paint brush stroke on the canvas of our Israel impressions just recently would be that of Jesus’ humanity and divinity (which historically and scripturally are probably impossible to separate, in my mind anyway).

From this point of view our Galilean and Jordan River experience were very ‘special’ (‘holy’) indeed. The excitement built up as we drove through Cana, the site of Jesus’ first miracle, then north to Tel Dan bordering Lebanon and Syria, then south along the Golan Heights to the high escarpment of Gamla where we caught sight of Griffon vultures circling in the clear sky and more importantly the Sea of Galilee in the hazy distance. Eventually, really tired due to much walking in terrible heat (for us from temperate Port Elizabeth), we arrived at the hotel, literally on Galilee – our bedroom about 10 metres from the water-side! Following a refreshing swim in the lake, a good night’s rest and a delicious fruit breakfast the next morning, we boarded a boat to take us across Galilee and explore some of the areas around the lake mentioned so often in the Gospel records.  [on board the boat the crew played Nkosi Sikilela over the loudspeaker and waved the S.A. flag – yours truly temporarily lost his mind and proceeded to do a Zulu-dance-cum-Madiba-shuffle, much to the merriment of the onlookers and his personal embarassment at getting so carried away!]

Talking in our little groups, Melanie and I and others marvelled at Jesus’ toughness and commitment in walking these distances, from hilly Nazareth in the south-west to Galilee and surrounds in the north-east, down the Jordan River area, etc. Ok, Israel is tiny and distances small, but his feet must have been pretty gnarled and worn from covering uphill and downhill, along rough pathways and narrow roadways, to accomplish his mission: the calling of his disciples and teaching the gathering crowds the essential message of the Kingdom. How we huffed and puffed in the heat and rubbed our sore feet at night, even with the benefit of good walking shoes to get from site to site!

Call it sentimental (I beg to differ humbly with the great preacher, Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones, who saw little or no place for sentimentality in the Christian life: to my way of thinking it’s just part and parcel of life on earth, as ordinary and yet complex human beings), but somehow one was particularly aware, perhaps even mystically, of Jesus’ reality and nearness in the largely unspoilt Galilean countryside. On our return from Israel I popped in at the office of our previous congregation in Port Elizabeth, and was greeted by enthusiastic questions about our Israeli experience. Sue related how, about a year before her coming to South Africa from the UK to be married (quite a few years ago now), she and her husband-to-be had spent time working on a kibbutz. At the time she was a definite non-believer and Dave a nominal believer. But as they sometimes sat chatting by the fire-side on the shores of Galilee, Sue thought to herself, ‘Yeh, it could all be true. I can ‘see’ Jesus walking by the lake-side and even on the water! Yeh, it really seems possible,’ or thoughts to that effect. We had the same feeling recently, much more intensely perhaps because of our many years of trying to follow the Carpenter.

And so we visited Capernaum, Peter’s home village, and the surrounds which included the beautiful Mt. of Beatitudes, with the brown rolling hills meeting the aquamarine water’s edge, and colourful pink bougainvillea blossoms framing some of the scenes. Under the trees I ventured to ask our very inter-generational group, just how do we live the Beatitudes? History is replete with examples of famous Christians who acknowledged their utter failure in this regard. Might it just be possible by a daily surrender to the indwelling Christ? Is it perhaps only by faith in him? [personal comment:  in a day when some Christians seem to be engrossed in returning to Mt. Sinai and the Ten Commandments, why are we not giving the same attention to Jesus and his teaching on another Mount beside Galilee? (Mt. 5-7)] Then at Ginosar museum we saw the 2000-year-old fishing boat, miraculously recovered from a Galilean beach and carefully (and scientifically) restored for visitors to view, a sample of the boats Jesus would have used for teaching the crowds and calling those first fishermen to follow him.

Further down the Jordan River we stopped for John our leader to baptise Leigh-Anne, and Dan a youth pastor (who could easily have been mistaken for one of those American pictures of Jesus with blue eyes and golden locks) to baptise Ryan, in another ‘special’ (‘holy’) moment as they professed Christ as Lord. We witnessed, applauded, sang and hugged!

‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild?’ Undoubtedly. And yet the Jesus of the Bible should also make us shiver, especially if we are in that most dangerous place for a Christian to be in, viz. one of safety and comfort. In his ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis relates how Lucy is about to meet Aslan, the lion, and she asks, ‘Is–is he a man?’ ‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion — the Lion, the great Lion. ‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’ ‘That you will, dearie, and no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’ ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you!’

When Peter saw the miraculous catch of fish after following Jesus’ instructions as to where to let down their nets after fishing all night without a catch, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.’ So they pulled their boats up on the short, left everything and followed him (Lk. 5:1-11).

[PART 3 will follow soon]

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HOW HOLY IS THE HOLY LAND? [1]

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How holy is the Holy Land?

That’s the question I have wrestled with following a very recent tour of Israel under the superb leadership of Prof. John Lubbe, retired UNISA professor of Semitics and Seminary buddy going back almost fifty years. I’ve been privileged to travel quite widely in the world, but never had the opportunity to visit Israel, and to do this with my wife Melanie!

But what do I mean by ‘holy’? The root meaning is that of separation, special, moral excellence, sacred, etc. According to that very broad definition, our experience of Israel was very, very special in so many ways.

Please bear in mind that this was my first visit to the Holy Land, therefore any opinions shared may appear to be shallow, audacious and out of place. However, having been a Bible student for most of my life, I have also ‘lived with Israel’ for almost half-a-century, pondering her place in the sovereign and saving purpose of God in Christ. Romans chapters 9 to 11 have proved helpful over the years and again on my return.

A final preface:  we were in Israel at the height of the recent Israel-Gaza conflict. Our short visit made evident how utterly complex the current political situation is. I can recall how during the Apartheid years in South Africa overseas visitors would fly into our country for a week and proffer all kinds of simplistic solutions. How it irritated me at the time. Enough said. On a more positive note, I have a newspaper clipping before me relating how just some days ago eighty Israeli and Palestinian children happily played soccer together on Dorot Kibbutz in S. Israel, with Simon Peres getting the game started. Maybe the hope lies with our youth?

Here’s my first broad paint brush stroke on the canvas piece. Israel is indeed ‘holy’ in illustrating the historical, spiritual roots of our faith and the Church of Jesus Christ. In contrast to our incredibly young land, South Africa, the place breathes history, the history of a chosen people over millenia called to display God’s glory in the earth.

  • We visited Jericho on the way to the Dead Sea, the oldest city in the world, some 11,000 years old!
  • There was Mt. Carmel near the modern port of Haifa, the scene of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) and their spectacular defeat.
  • On the Dead Sea we spent time at the beautiful waterfall of Ein Gedi, surrounded by caves and wild ibex, where David hid in a cave from King Saul. He had the opportunity to kill him but desisted out of respect for his kingly anointing.
  • And Nazareth, where Jesus’ birth was announced to Mary, a young girl probably living in an adapted cave in the hill side near a spring. And the synagogue where Jesus preached. And Cana, the scene of Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine (Jn. 2). I appreciated Irma, our Jewish tour guide’s comment on Mary’s words to the stewards, ‘Just do whatever he tells you’ as typical of a Jewish mom’s boast and confidence that her son could do anything! ‘Just leave it in his capable hands!’ I think even Mary was surprised.
  • The recently discovered and carefully restored fishing boat from the Galilean shore displayed in the museum at Ginosar, 2000 years old, much smaller than I would ever have imagined. No wonder Jesus’ fishermen-followers sometimes panicked when it got really stormy on the lake.
  • The Mount of the Beatitudes, with the rolling hills by the lake-side where Jesus taught the multitudes who flocked to hear him.
  • The magnificent and unique City of David, Gethsemane (which moved me powerfully:  in the Catholic Church amid the ancient and gnarled olive trees, one of our tour members spontaneously sang in a beautiful and soaring soprana voice, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ The wonderful acoustics made it goose bump stuff). Then we were shown Golgotha and the Garden Tomb, where we broke bread together and celebrated the risen Lord.
  • We had started our tour at Caesarea, the beautiful Mediterraean Roman port built by Herod in honour of Caesar Augustus. I gazed at the ruins of the hippodrome adjoining the beach, standing where Paul was imprisoned, preached and wrote while awaiting trial in faraway Rome.
  • And today, when we get past the layered periods of Jewish history witnessed in so many restored and semi-restored ruins, the towering monuments to the Ottoman Empire, Mamelukes, the Crusaders, Arab caliph Omar, the Roman Empire, etc, we eventually get to bedrock Christianity in all its simplicity.
  • Who can ignore the miracle of the Qumran Scrolls discovery by an Arab shepherd boy in 1947, giving us a picture of those very early and ascetic Essene communities, and how different they were to the teaching and ways of Jesus and the good news of his kingdom.
  • Novelist and film-maker Michael Crichton once said, ‘If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is a part of a tree.’ The fact is that the God of all history had a purpose for his ancient covenant people Israel to bless all the nations of the earth (Gen. 12; Is. 49), and when she failed he revealed his Messiah to effect that holy calling. We owe so much to Israel and especially to that one Israelite, Jesus. The post-exilic prophet Zechariah bridges the centuries, backwards and forwards, when he exclaims “This is what the LORD Almighty says:  ‘In those days ten men from all languages and nations from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the edge of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you'” (8:23). I have a small menento of Israel, a polished Galilean pebble I bought on the boat while crossing the lake – it carries a little silver emblem of the Jewish candelabra and star of David flowing into the ichthus sign of the early Christians. I like its symbolism.

The second broad brush stroke… A nation of amazing industry and ingenuity, in many ways ‘the start-up nation of the world.’

  • All visitors to Israel are impressed by the magnificent kibbutzim established in the most unlikely places at the cost of blood and sweat and tears, producing abundant vegetables and fruit where previously there was only desert or swamp. South African and global agricultural owes so much to Israeli irrigation ingenuity, both micro and macro. They are also pioneers of the most sophisticated dairy machinery which can detect any early disease in an individual cow’s milk.
  • Think of the micro-chip that makes your mobile phone function.
  • Think of the fertilisers and other products produced out of the Dead Sea with its 27 odd different minerals. We flopped in the black mud and floated in the salty waters which do wonders for one’s skin.
  • Think of the developing forests amid an arid land.
  • Think of their start-up pharmaceutical companies.
  • Chocolate lovers, think of the Israeli carob fruits enhancing the health of our chocolate products!
  • Think of their water supply from Lake Galilee piped to Israel and Jordan, which is even more arid than Israel. Add to this their advanced desalinisation plants for extra water resources.
  • My wife noticed how young mothers would tie a knot in their skirt for their children to hang on to while doing shopping in the busy market place and narrow lanes, so the little ones wouldn’t get lost!

The third broad brush stroke on the canvas… well, we’ll have a look at that next time. Thanks for staying with me so far…

[PS. To show how selective I have had to be in my report, consider our packed itinerary:  Visits to Caesarea, Megiddo, Mt. Carmel, Akko, Nazareth (Annunciation Church & synagogue), Tel Dan and the Golan Heights, Banias, Gamla, Tiberias, Ginosar, the Mount of the Beatitudes, Tabgha, Capernaum, Magdala, Domus Galilea, the Jordan River, Bet Shean, the Jordan Valley, Qumran, Kalia Beach on the Dead Sea, Jericho, an Orthodox Monastery overlooking Jericho, Ein Gedi, Masada, Jerusalem, Hezekiah’s tunnel, the Garden Tomb, the Mount of Olives, the Via Dolorosa, the Holy Sepulchre Church, Bethlehem & Herodion, a Sound and Light Show at the Tower of David, the Western Wall tunnels, the Israeli Museum & Model of Jerusalem, and finally Jaffa]