181. A journey through ancient Judea

 

A reflection for the time of the Passion of the Christ

What a privilege to consider the Cross of Jesus in these times of unprecedented events in the history of our world.  A time like this might come around once in a few generations.  Let us then fix our eye on the Ancient of Days, who is the same Almighty God of heavenly Hosts in the very far past, the near past, this day, tomorrow, the near future when we pick up our lives after this virus as well as the far future which we cannot even imagine.

I am fascinated by the concept of time.  I have so often wished that time travel was indeed possible.  But we have our imaginations and we can harness a good image of a few places to visit in the ancient world, for a better understanding of those astonishing events that split our calculation of time in two eras.  Whether you talk about BC, before Christ, or of BCE, before the common era, the division is the coming of the Christ.  It will never change.  It is exactly like the song says:  There is a line that has been drawn through the ages and on that line stands the old rugged Cross.

The drama of the life of Jesus and his death on a Roman cross can never be ignored.  It is an uncomfortable confrontation in every individual with his own inner man.  The millions who have accepted the invitation of all time and received the Christ, have the privilege to be called children of God (1 John 3:1)

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name (John 1:12)

This discomfort with the Cross has given birth to the clashing tradition of Easter.  The word “Easter” comes from the Persian word “Ishtar”.  It is a feast to the Persian god of fertility, that is why it is celebrated with eggs (the symbol of life growing inside) and bunnies (well known to breed very fast and fruitful).  I would like to call our feast the Passion of the Christ.  The Passover is the feast of the Jews that should coincide with our Passion-feast because its fulfilling is in Jesus, but as we know the Jews decide their own date for Passover and the date for Easter each year is calculated according to the Gregorian Calendar.  All this is good to know so that we celebrate with intentionality and equip our children with knowledge so that they are never confused or careless with the most important Feast on the Christian calendar.  The Cross is the foundation of everything.  Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus is central in all of history.  It has been said that history itself is HIS-story.

Where are you right now?  Prepare yourself for the revelation of who Jesus is.  Let your cry be for revelation.

I expect great breakthrough this coming weekend. It is not for nothing, or coincidence that this pandemic is taking place over the Passion-feast.

Let us be ready for the great awakening.  God is reaching out to the world in an unprecedented way.  He is using a megaphone. It is the megaphone of Mercy.

Or are you [so blind as to] trifle with and presume upon and despise and underestimate the wealth of His kindness and forbearance and long-suffering patience? Are you unmindful or actually ignorant [of the fact] that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repent (to change your mind and inner man to accept God’s will)? (Romans 2:4)

God is speaking.  We need a spiritual awakening and revival.  That is the expectation.  Be ready!  There is a difference between standing before God and kneeling before God.  This is the distance that matters, not social, (I do not trivialize the importance of obedience to social distancing) but spiritual – the distance between standing and kneeling.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the church.  Be still, church, and listen.  God is speaking.

So, let us take a journey together with a few stopovers – on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in a dark alley inside the magnificent Temple of Herod in Old Jerusalem, in the courtyard of the palace of the High Priest, at the table of the Last Supper and then in a room with locked doors and shutters somewhere in the winding streets of the Old City of David. We will rely heavily on our imagination and maybe all the pictures you have ever seen in Children’s Bibles and Bible Atlases.  When you go on this journey, close your eyes and let your mind be filled with the voice of the Holy Spirit.  Do not make notes, just listen.  Listen to what you must hear in this time.  Do not worry about information – everything is written and will be available. Ask the Lord to fill your space with his presence.  Ask God to teach you, even if it is just one life-changing new insight into this Passion-feast.  Listen for the Voice within the voice speaking to you.

The lake of Galilee (sometimes called the Sea of Galilee) is the biggest freshwater lake in Israel.  The particular geological structure of Mount Arbel creates a wind tunnel through the Arbel Pass to blow up raging storms over the lake.  It was a hub of life in ancient Judea.  Villages all around the lake found their existence in the fishing industry. Fishermen were a common sight, dragging, folding or fixing the nets with which they made their living.  The rich fish life of these four cubic kilometres of water provided their livelihood.   It is said that John’s father had a factory where the fish was salted for preservation and that John was most likely one of the delivery team that supplied the High Priest. That is why he and Peter could make it into the inner courtyard the night of the trial of Jesus.  John probably knew the servant and guards at the palace of the High Priest.

Jesus and his disciples spent a lot of time throughout his ministry around the lake and in the villages.  Numerous miracles and healings are recorded in this vicinity. The feeding of the five thousand and four thousand, the calming of the storm, the walking on water and others. It was on a hill by the north shore near Capernaum that the Sermon on the Mount was preached – even today recognized by believing and non-believing scholars to be the greatest moral discourse ever given.

It is one day around this lake that Jesus meets Peter.  Jesus looked at Peter. The word used for look means intent gaze, seeing into the heart. He gives Peter a new name, there and then. You are going to be called Cephas, which means rock.

Two names were common in those days. People often had an Aramaic name and a Greek name, like Thomas and Didymus (Greek for twin).

In the Old Testament a changed name denoted a new relationship with God. Jacob became Israel in Genesis 32:28 and Abram becomes Abraham in Genesis 17:5. A new man needs a new name.

Jesus sees with purpose and potential. He sees what he is, but also what he can become. In that moment Jesus saw a Galilean fisherman with the potential to inspire his brothers and become one of the leaders of a fledgling organization., which we call the Church of Jesus today.  He sees that in every person who has committed his life to God. He saw it in Gideon and David and in so many other Old Testament faith heroes.

Let us sit down, with Jesus and his disciples for a casual conversation.  I am sure they found a shady spot, away from the heat of the day in the cool breeze coming from the water.

Jesus starts with an easy question:

Who do the people say I am?

The disciples answer: Some say Elijah, Moses, a prophet, John the Baptist, etc.

That was the easy answer.

Suddenly Jesus turns it and makes it personal.

 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Trust the ever-audacious Peter to blurt it out.

Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

This inspirational, Holy Spirit-infused answer prompts Jesus to speak an everlasting blessing upon Peter, that echoes throughout the church today.

 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. 19 And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

This is the revelational speech we desire from God. Not the things that flesh and blood reveal. We want to speak what the Father in heaven reveals to us.

Jesus pronounces the words of Peter as the rock on which the church will be built. This could be explained with the saying in English: You are a chip of the old block.  Jesus says to Peter here:  You are a chip of the old Rock.  The Rock is revelation-knowledge.

Note, it is not the man Peter, but his revelation that is the rock on which the church is built. The church of Jesus is not built upon a man; it is built on the revelation of who Jesus is.

The revelation of Jesus as the son of the living God is the rock on which the church is built.

With this in mind, let us imagine a corridor, perhaps amongst the white marble Corinthian columns of the cloisters surrounding the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem, where a dark deal is being made.

In the eighteenth year (20-19 B.C.) of his reign Herod rebuilt the Temple on an exceptionally magnificent scale. Herod was the Jewish king, a pawn of the Roman Emperor and crafty to please Jews and Romans alike, no simple task to say the least.  One of his motives to build the Temple so grand was to placate the more pious of his subjects, whose sentiments he had often outraged.  He was an ambitious architect and also built pagan temples to the horror of the Jews.  As it was unlawful for anyone but priests to enter the Temple, Herod employed a thousand of them as masons and carpenters.

The essence of Jewish life took place around the Temple.  It stood central in doing and thinking.

On this occasion some of the chief priests met one of the disciples, Judas the Iscariot, to make an arrangement to arrest the preacher from Galilee.  Judas is ready to take money from them as it will serve him well after his goal is reached. His goal is the political freedom of the Jews accomplished through the defeat of the Roman authorities in Judea. He “sells” his services of treason for thirty pieces of silver – the price of a slave and in accordance with the prophecy.  (Zechariah 11:13)

For most people in this desert-like outpost of the Roman Empire, the time of the Passover was a normal annual event.  Tradition prescribed the preparations to remember that dramatic deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The routine was set in stone, just as the law given to Moses. They had to remember the blood on the doorposts as the blood of the lambs was thrown against the Temple foundations.

A few years after the crucifixion, a Roman census was taken over Passover in Jerusalem and an estimated 256 000 lambs were slaughtered. According to the law, a lamb was shared by 10 people, that brings us to 2,5 million Jews in the city over Passover. No wonder the Sanhedrin (Jewish Council) needed Judas to betray the whereabouts of Jesus that night, especially to get through the secret, nightly trial.

I have thought about Judas a lot, maybe even more than about any of the other disciples. I have often wondered how it must have felt to know Jesus and experience His defiance of the loveless and graceless religion and community. There is no doubt that Judas was very impressed with his friend Jesus and visualized the realization of Israel’s dream – restored rule and greatness amongst the nations.  Judas was a zealot. He was a member of a political party that aimed to overthrow the Romans by force.

Judas was fixated with this vision.  Jesus gave him responsibility for the management of the money and there are indications that he was not a transparent modern financial administrator.  He lived and walked with Jesus over a period of three years and saw many miracles.  Several times Judas witnessed the anger of the Jewish leaders flare up against Jesus to the point of stoning and violence.  On all these occasions, the Gospels state that Jesus just walked away.  To Judas this was a miracle.  He knew what a mob was capable of doing.  Maybe if he forced the hand of the authorities against Jesus, Jesus might overthrow the Romans in a miracle-like way. Without even giving a second thought to the warnings of Jesus that He was on a collision course with the rulers and will be put to death and rise again (Matthew 16:21; Mark 9:31; 10:33), Judas sets his own plan in motion, “using” Jesus for his own goals.

He chose his time to act, without listening to the words and discerning the times. (So very important for this time that we are living in).  He proceeded to set his plan in action without understanding the singularly unique point in time in the history of all mankind.

Let us move our minds to the large upper room, finished and prepared by the man carrying the water pitcher.  (Mark 14:12-21).  A man carrying a water pitcher in public was a very odd sight. Carrying a water pitcher was women’s work.  That is how the disciples knew he was the man they were looking for according to the precise instructions of Jesus.  Judas finds himself with the other disciples eating at the table of what has become known as the last supper.  Jesus knows well what is happening.  He is at the forefront of the events that will lead to a trial and death which will forever change the course of history.  Jesus is also very aware of the role of Judas in the outcome of that night.

Judas acts normal (John 13:21-30). If the other disciples might have grasped the full implication of the situation, they would have prevented him to go ahead.

John was closer to Jesus to ask Him who it was that Jesus indicated would betray Him. John calls himself the beloved disciple. He knew how much Jesus loved him. It was spiritual revelation knowledge of the love of God. Jesus did not love him more than the others. John was just very aware of the love of Jesus.

On the host’s left was the place for the guest of honour and that place was reserved for Judas. It was an appeal from Jesus to Judas to reconsider.  It was not an appeal by Jesus for the events not to go ahead.  It was an appeal for the soul of Judas, whom Jesus loved in spite of what was going on in his heart. If Judas did not betray Jesus, God would have found another way to implement his plan. Jesus “fights” for Judas’ salvation.

To offer the guest something from the meal was a special invitation to conversation. The host was saying, this is especially for you – let’s talk. Jesus offered it to Judas. (Compare Ruth 2:14 – Boaz invites Ruth to dip her morsel into the wine)

Again, and again the appeal came. The darkness and own agenda in Judas’ heart won him over.

Then Jesus admitted to the process of how things will play out and said to him: Go and do what you need to do.Still the disciples did not catch on. They thought Jesus might send him out to prepare for the Passover sacrifice and give to the poor, as was the custom at the time.

When Judas received the morsel from Jesus (an invitation to communicate) the devil entered him.  He was so set on his own plan that he could not respond to Jesus’ many appeals.  Big lesson – Jesus in my plans, my prosperity, my revenge, my community status.  The focus on my desires makes me deaf for his appeal, his voice inviting me to talk.

As soon as Judas leaves the table, Jesus speaks from His heart to His loyal friends. He pours out His mission to them. He wills them to look out for His glorification to strengthen them through the dark days of the crucifixion.

His farewell command is to love one another.

 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

*************

In the meantime, Judas meets with the religious leaders, receives the 30 pieces of silver, from the High Priest and leads the soldiers to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He must have thought that Jesus will again, like so many times in the past, by miraculous means avoid arrest or at the very worst, be confronted with the Roman authorities and claim his Kingship.  Judas believed He is something special.  He might have even believed He was the promised Messiah. But his prejudiced idea of what the Messiah should be and should do, was his own interpretation of the promise and wholly out of pace and purpose of heaven itself.

Very soon he saw that things were not going according to plan – his plan. He witnessed Jesus’ peaceful surrender to the soldiers to be led away to the house of the High Priest.  He expected more of a fight. He saw Peter draw his sword and cut of the ear of one of the soldiers.

Remember when the church draws the sword and use violence they cut ears off, the people’s ability to hear is taken away. Only a touch of Jesus can heal the ears, just as Jesus did that night in the garden.  This healing and the effect of that on the soldier would have been a surprise to Judas.

The authorities also expected violence.  John states there was a company of soldiers plus the officers from the chief priests and Pharisees.  The officers were the Temple police.  The Temple had police to keep order and the Sanhedrin (Jewish Council of 70) had police to carry out their decrees.  There was also a band of Roman soldiers.  A band was at least 200 soldiers.  They sent an army to grab Jesus!!  Just think how surprisingly simple the arrest took place – in surrender and peace – fully under the control of Jesus himself with a healing miracle thrown in.

Later that night He was taken to Pontius Pilate, and to Herod and back to Pilate.  Judas panicked.  He saw that the whole thing was going south.  He stumbled back to the leaders and uttered these words:

 I have sinned in that I have betrayed innocent blood. (Matthew 27:4)

To the very end Judas did not realize with whom he had to do.  He probably never knew that he was a player in the life of the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One, the One man the whole world was waiting for.

He died a self-inflicted death alone in utter darkness.

The pace of events is picking up.  Let us move to the courtyard of the palatial mansion of the High Priest.  Annas was the power behind the throne of the high priest.  He was high priest from 6-15 AD. Four of his sons held the office and Caiaphas was his son-in-law.

There was a time when the office of the High Priest was held for life. It seems that at this time a system of rotation has been implemented. Caiaphas was the high priest that year. Because of all the intrigue, corruption and bribery, the priest had to be in line with the Romans. The high priest was a collaborator and lived in ease, comfort, prestige and power. The family of Annas was very rich and he was the receiver behind it all – knowing how to play the game.

The moneychangers and traders in the Court of the Gentiles were solely in the service of the high priest. One can just imagine the high profit margins of everything going on there. Do you remember Jesus’ anger when He cleaned them out? Can you imagine how Annas would have reacted to the reports of the cleansing-episodes? (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15, John 2: 14,15) The shops inside the Temple were called the Bazaars of Annas. He was notorious.

Peter and John very courageously followed Jesus to the courtyard of the house of the High Priest on the night of the arrest. It was not the time to be seen as one of the supporters of this man that the leaders put on trial. The religious leaders were mighty men in society.  If you fall out with them, you were nothing and had no hope of thriving in the community.  They were rigid and ruthless.  If you were born a Jew you were under their command and they ruled with all the trappings of power.

It is in these circumstances that Peter denies knowledge of Jesus three times.  After the third time he hears the cock crow.

According to Jewish ritual law it was unlawful to keep cocks in Jerusalem.  The Romans had a military practice. The night was divided into four watches of three hours each. After the third watch the guard was changed and to mark this, the trumpet was sound at 3am. The sounding of the trumpet was called the cock crow. Everyone in Jerusalem heard it, and when Peter heard, he remembered the words of Jesus.

That is exactly where you should be in the midst of spiritual struggle.  Hear the cock crow, the sound of the trumpet, announcing the arrival of your Saviour.

The nation of Israel heard the sound of the trumpet when they gathered around the mountain where God manifested his presence.

 Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.  (Exodus 19:16)

This is the goal.  We are praying to hear the trumpet and tremble at the sound.  This is the time of year to fall down on your knees in awe and reverence for the great work Christ has done on the cross.

Peter’s Saviour came at the sound of the trumpet – in one look.  Jesus looked at him, maybe with the same intensity as that first day on the shores of Galilee.

It was not a look of reproach as we might think.  It was not the I-told-you-so- look of the righteous victor of the argument as one human to another.  It was the look of AGAPÉ, the revelation of the heart of God.   The being of God Almighty was laid bare in that look – a redeeming love so great that Peter was restored and forgiven in that moment even when he himself did not realize it.  It was for Peter, the splendid miracle of full salvation, restoration and reinstallation into Peter’s rightful place as the leader of the disciples for the early church.

When God restores, He always multiplies.  

 Jesus launched him into a life of victory against all possible odds to live and die more courageously than anyone, least of all Peter himself could have imagined.

Judas betrayed; Peter denied – what is the difference?

Judas acted in cold blood, planned and deliberate.

Peter was impulsive and weak on the spot and afterwards in a terrible state self-reproach and humiliation.

There is a difference between planned sin and a moment of weakness.

Jesus knew Peter’s weaknesses. He was impulsive, speaking his heart before thinking. Jesus also knew the strength of his loyalty.

Jesus loved Peter and knew Peter loved Him. Jesus knew Peter would fail, but his failure was not the defining feature in Peter’s future, just as our failures do not determine our future. His love for Jesus defined him and his denial was a moment of weakness.

In the hour of Peter’s deepest humiliation and failure, his revelation knowledge of who Jesus truly is, saved him.

He found his way back to his brothers and was present behind the closed doors, sharing their fear, when the shockingly wonderful news of the resurrection came. Jesus specially mentioned Peter to Mary, to make sure he gets the news.

Peter waited with desperate hope and great remorse in the company of his bothers in Christ.  Jesus knew his soul struggle that is why Jesus specially mentioned him to Mary to bring him the good news of the resurrection.  Upon the news, Peter ran, right into the tomb where the full force of the heavenly Plan engulfed him.

Jesus knew what Peter would become. He knew that one day he would be brave enough to follow Him even unto death.

Jesus sees what nobody can see, what He is doing in our lives to make us what no one could ever imagine.

On Friday we will think of the hour that about a quarter million lambs were slaughtered.

Jesus died on the hour the lambs were slaughtered. The symbolism should have been clear. The sun was darkened and the earth shook. Maybe the priests looked up and wondered about the darkness that interrupted their very important rituals, so focused that they had already forgotten the drama of that morning that sent the Galilean preacher to the cross. They also did not realize that their rituals would soon be ending. Forty years later the Roman Emperor destroyed Jerusalem and only the one wall of the Temple were left.  All animal sacrifices stopped then.

Do you have the luxury of hindsight to the aftermath of this drama?  What will you do with the knowledge?

 

Let us pray:

Our Father who art in heaven – show me your glory.  Show me your Son.

Let Jesus be resurrected in my inner being.

For my determined purpose is that I may know Him, that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly, and that I may in that same way come to know the power outflowing from His resurrection, which it exerts over believers, and that I may so share His sufferings as to be continually transformed in spirit into His likeness even to His death, in the hope

11 That if possible, I may attain to the spiritual and moral resurrection that lifts me out from among the dead even while in the body.

 

[Philippians 3:10-11, Amplified Bible Classic Edition]

 

 

 

 

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