Continued from A visit to Israel (11–23 May 2015) (3)
Wednesday 20 May: We saw more of Jerusalem today. The bus took us to the top of the Mount of Olives, or Olivet, which is an elevated ridge to the east of Jerusalem, known for its groves of olive trees.
We had a group picture taken, with the city in the background. Then we heard a meditation by my husband Joel on tears and rejoicing. David wept here as he fled Jerusalem to escape from Absalom (2 Samuel 15:30).
1000 years later, the Lord Jesus Christ crossed the Mount of Olives, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt as a sign that the promised King had come (Zechariah 9:9). Though cheering crowds greeted him when he crested the ridge and saw Jerusalem, he wept (Luke 19:41), for he knew that the people would soon reject their King.
The Mount of Olives was also a place of blessing and rejoicing (Luke 24:49-53; Acts 1:8-12), for here Christ’s feet last touched the earth. Here Christ promised the empowerment of the Holy Spirit for the worldwide gospel mission, raised his hands to bless his disciples, and was taken up into the clouds into heaven.
The west side of the mountain and the valley is a massive cemetery, with Jewish, Muslim and Christian sections. As we walked down the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane, we met Gethsemane’s gardener. Imagine being the gardener here!
Olive trees still grow where our Saviour once sweat great drops of blood in his agony of soul. Surely this is one of the most impressive places in all Israel. Words are not strong enough to express what Christ suffered in this garden. Mark says Jesus was ‘sore amazed’ (Mark 14:33), and Luke says he was ‘in an agony’ (Luke 22:44). Matthew says that he cried out, ‘My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death’ (Matthew 27:38).
Jesus was encompassed and overwhelmed with grief. If God had not supported him, he could not have sustained the horrors of Gethsemane. Jesus cried out, ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done’ (Luke 22:42). What should amaze us most about Gethsemane is not the dread wrath beginning to crush God’s Son, but the holy obedience with which he bore it. Heaven will eternally resound with wonder at those words, ‘Not my will, but thine, be done’!
We then visited the house of Caiaphas and the place where it is thought that Peter denied Jesus. From there we went to the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the man who was crippled for 38 years. Christ simply commanded him, ‘Rise, take up thy bed, and walk’. By the mere power of Christ’s word, the crippled man got up and walked away with his bed (John 5:1-9).
Jesus Christ shares the same divine power as the Father, for they do their works together (John 5:19-20). One day, by the same power, Christ will raise the dead to life by the authority of his voice (John 5:28-29). All the billions of people who have ever lived will stand before Christ and receive his holy judgement, to condemnation or life everlasting.
In the church nearby, we sang ‘How great the Father’s love for us’. Then we went through the city along the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering. Most of the ‘Stations of the Cross’ here are not authenticated, but they are reminders of the suffering of Christ on his way to the cross.
Pilate’s Judgement Hall is more realistic. Here Pilate’s sentence upon Christ revealed the horrific blindness of mankind. At the same time, it revealed the sovereign grace of God. Jesus himself told Pilate that he could have no power over Christ unless God gave it to him.
In a sense, God himself sat upon the judgement seat, testifying that his Son was righteous, yet condemning him to die for the sins of his people. God’s justice is now perfectly satisfied for his elect. Praise be to God!
Thursday 21 May
We left early for Masada, to avoid the heat. Herod the Great built the Masada fortress 1300 feet above the Dead Sea, on a plateau in the Judean desert. In the early 70s AD, the Jews held out against the Romans here for three years. When their conquest was imminent, the Jews killed their own families and themselves rather than be slaves of the Romans.
The landscape was barren yet scenic as we travelled between the shore of the Dead Sea and mountains. David and his men withdrew to the wilderness of Ein Gedi to escape Saul’s wrath. In this hot, arid land of caves and Ibex goats, fresh water springs flow, forming an oasis. In our mind’s eye, we could see David snipping a piece off Saul’s robe and calling to him from a distance.
Qumran, by the Dead Sea, is where a colony of the Essenes lived in the first century BC, and who copied the Scriptures onto scrolls. In 1947, two shepherd boys threw rocks into a cave and heard clay jars break. Upon further investigation, they found the Dead Sea Scrolls, which had not been seen for 2000 years or more.
Over the next decade, nearly 1000 texts were discovered in eleven caves in that area. They are older than any other manuscripts and confirm that the Scriptures were copied over the centuries with an amazing degree of accuracy.
Friday May 22
On the last day, we visited a possible site of Calvary, sometimes called Golgotha. The Gospels tell us that the soldiers crucified Christ on Golgotha, ‘the place of the skull’ (Matthew 27:33), or, in Latin, ‘Calvaria’ (Luke 23:33).
Christ died outside the city gate (Hebrews 13:12) and yet ‘nigh to the city’ (John 19:20). It was a horrible place and a horrendous atrocity when the wicked rejected the Holy and Righteous One and ‘killed the Prince of life’ (Acts 3:14-15).
In 1842, heavily relying on the research of Edward Robinson, a German theologian named Otto Thenius was the first to publish a proposal that the rocky knoll north of Damascus Gate was the biblical Golgotha. In 1883, Major General Charles George Gordon supported this view. Subsequently the site we visited today is sometimes called Gordon’s Calvary.
The location, often referred to today as Skull Hill, is beneath a cliff that contains two large sunken holes, which Gordon said resembled the eyes of a skull. He and many others since have believed that the skull-like appearance of this hill is the true location of Golgotha.
At Golgotha God did his greatest work. There are different words that the Scriptures use to describe the mighty work of the cross, such as redemption and reconciliation, but perhaps the most significant word is one rarely heard today: propitiation.
The apostle John wrote: ‘[Jesus Christ] is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:2). He also said, ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).
On the cross, Christ suffered and died to quench the terrible fire of God’s burning anger against sin. Since Christ is God, his propitiation has a value greater than all the sins of the world. He did not merely die for the Jews, or a small group of first-century believers, but to redeem a vast number of people from every tribe, language and nation throughout all the ages.
At Golgotha, God’s hatred and God’s love came together in an astonishing way. God so hates sin that nothing less than the death of his Son will appease his anger and satisfy his justice against sinners, and set them free.
However, even when God hated sin so much, he loved sinners so much that he willingly sent his Son to suffer that wrath for the very sinners who hated him. Amazing love!
From Gordon’s Calvary we walked a short distance to the Garden Tomb. Our Dutch guide explained to us in some detail that, though this may not be the exact tomb in which Jesus was laid, it was in a tomb very similar to this one. ‘He is not here, for He is risen’, printed on the door of the empty tomb, is the most important truth.
Many of us felt that this was the apex of our trip. The garden around it is wonderful for meditation. The temperature was cool and comfortable. My husband had special freedom in delivering his meditation here.
Martin Luther once said that Christ’s death and resurrection are the two hinges on which the door of salvation swings open. Without either one, Christianity would be empty. On the third day after Christ’s burial, the earth shook as the King of kings rose from the dead (Matthew 28:2, 6). Just as Adam fell in a garden, so the last Adam rose up in a garden as the firstborn of a new creation.
His resurrection was God’s decisive victory over death and hell (1 Corinthians 15:21-22; Revelation 1:18), the exercise of the exceeding greatness of God’s mighty power for his people (Ephesians 1:19-20).
After this moving experience, we drove southwest of Jerusalem to the Elah Valley, where the battle between David and Goliath took place. Five smooth stones from the creek bed, which still contains tens of thousands of such stones, make a nice souvenir.
Saturday May 23
We arrived home safely, amazed that God took 54 people on a two-week trip to Israel, without any person getting sick, no one getting lost or seriously injured, and not one piece of luggage lost!
Our guide, Dr Ronning, was superb. We returned home tired, but filled with adoration to God for his land, work, gospel and Son.
Mary Beeke is the wife of Dr Joel Beeke who is minister of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, where he is also professor of systematic theology and homiletics.