Friday, January 25, 2008


This week I’m enjoying the opportunity to escort a group of 50 Texans around Israel for them to experience the sights and sounds of the land where Bible events happened. One of my greatest thrills is watching their expressions as the Bible “comes alive” in the places where His story occurred.
Yesterday we started the day by spending time in the traditional location of the upper room where Jesus and His disciples ate the Last Supper. This was the same location where 120 disciples gathered on Pentecost and the church was born.
Then we moved a few hundred yards away to the church that has been built over the house of Caiphas where Jesus was placed on trial. Tradition says that between the time of the illegal night trial and the sunrise when He was taken to Pilate that Jesus was lowered by ropes into a pit that had once served as a cistern. Outside this church are the remains of the stone steps that led from that part of old Jerusalem to the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives. These steps were certainly the ones that Jesus and His disciples walked, so this is one of the places where you can be sure you’re walking where Jesus walked.
Then we visited the Garden of Gethsemane and once again I knelt at the Rock of Agony where it is believed to be the place where drops of blood fell from the brow of Jesus as He prayed, “Take this cup away, but not my will, but yours be done.” The word “Gethsemane” means “olive press.” It was the place where olives were beaten off the trees by rods and then placed between grinding stones that forced the virgin oil from the olives. How appropriate for Jesus to pray in this place since He was under great pressure and strain as He faced the cross.
Our group spent some time in a private part of the garden among ancient olive trees whose roots certainly go back more than 2,000 years. Every time I’m there I can easily visualize the sight of the string of torches descending from Jerusalem as Judas led the Temple police to arrest Jesus.
We walked along the via dolorosa (the way of suffering) and stood on the very pavement where Pilate spoke with Jesus and turned Him over to the Roman soldiers where He was subjected to their cruel and vulgar treatment.
We finished our day at Golgotha and the Garden Tomb. You may or may not know that there are two purported sites for Calvary. For Centuries the Roman Catholic Church has claimed that the location is where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built. I’ve visited there several times, but I’m not convinced that is the correct location.
This site was first established by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, who visited Jerusalem in the 4th Century when she was 80 years old. She claimed to have had a dream that directed her this location. The story also claims that while at this site, she discovered the pieces of the cross, which when used to touch a sick person would heal them. She also claimed to have found the nails of the crucifixion. In order to assist her son in his military conquests, Helena placed one nail in Constantine’s helmet and another in the bridle of his horse. If that’s true, that’s an interesting final use of the nails that pierced the hands of Jesus.
In addition, many scholars estimate that the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was actually inside the city walls at the time of the crucifixion. The writer of Hebrews informs us that Jesus was crucified, “outside the city.” When you see maps or models of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, many of them have to manufacture an incredible “jog” in the layout of the walls to make the Church of the Holy Sepulcher appear as if it was outside the city.
I join many evangelical Christians in leaning toward the validity of the site often called “Gordon’s Calvary” or better known as the Garden Tomb. British General Charles Gordon is often associated with the location because in 1885 he was the first public figure to give credence to the location that was excavated in 1842.
If one wonders WHY the site was not excavated until the 19th Century, you must realize that Jerusalem was under Roman and then Muslim control since 70 A.D. except for a few years when the Crusaders had captured the city. But they were much too busy defending the Holy Land to even think about looking for Holy sites.
There are several factors that cause me to lean toward the Garden Tomb location: (1) Just look at the rock face – it looks like a skull. Photographs taken in the mid 1800’s reveal that it looked even MORE like a skull 150 years ago. (2) Nearby an empty tomb of a rich man was discovered. We know he was rich because it is located in a large garden (as the scripture says) because a huge cistern was discovered. Wealthy men in Jesus’ time were often farmers or vitners. Jesus told the story of a wealthy vineyard owner who had the money to travel away and leave his employees in charge. The primary necessity of an ancient vineyard or garden in Jerusalem was a constant and large water source. (3) The site is located outside the ancient city walls at the intersection of three main routes. The Romans executed criminals in public places to gain the maximum impact. (4) Muslims often unintentionally “marked” Christian sites by burying their dead there in order to “desecrate” it from future worship. For instance, there is a large Muslim cemetery located in front of the Eastern Gate of the Temple mount. This was to discourage the thought of the Messiah ever entering there since walking over graves would make a good Jew defiled. (But that won’t make Jesus hesitate for a second when He returns in His glory!). And, you guessed it: there is a Muslim cemetery directly on top of the skull rock face in the Garden Tomb area. (And there is no Muslim cemetery at the Holy Sepulcher – hmmm, the Muslims could have easily converted that church to a cemetery during the centuries in which they had total control of Jerusalem.
You can study the issue for yourself and come to your own conclusions. But the main truth is NOT where it happened, but WHAT happened! “CHRIST DIED FOR OUR SINS – THE RIGHTEOUS FOR THE UNRIGHTEOUS – THAT HE MIGHT BRING US TO GOD.”
Whether the Garden Tomb’s Golgotha is the actual location where Jesus died or not, I must confess that everytime I stand there I am in awe. I’m reminded of a story I heard about the late Dr. R.G. Lee when he visited Jerusalem for the first time. When his group arrived at the Garden Tomb, Dr. Lee ran ahead of the group and when they arrived they found him kneeling in prayer as he gazed at the skull-shaped cliff. The tour guide asked him, “Oh, Dr. Lee, have you been here before?” Dr. Lee smiled and said, “Oh, yes. I was here 2,000 years ago. I was on the heart and in the mind of Jesus when He died for sinners.” I have the same experience whenever I look at this hill.