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Original Walls and Steps November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Wandering through the city, after our shopping spree along the Byzantine Cardo Maximus and observing some children playing on a local neighborhood playground, we explored some of the original ruins of the city from the second temple period. First, we saw part of the city wall that Nehemiah rebuilt in the 5th century BC, as recorded in the book of … let me think … Nehemiah. ;-) Ezra and Nehemiah (one book in the Hebrew Bible) completed the 2nd temple in about 500 BC. Fifty years later, they rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem. We didn’t get to walk on it or touch it, but it was pretty amazing to see a piece of Biblical history come alive in such an up close and obvious way. To think that 2500 years ago, this man of God heeded a call in his heart to build something for God. It makes me think about what I’m building for God. What call am I heeding in my spirit?

So a quick tangent on that…

I used to think that God expected these great dreams from me … from us. You wouldn’t believe the things I imagined I would someday do “for God” when I was (not that much) younger. I even judged others for not having dreams as grand as mine.

But with every passing year, I feel like I understand more deeply that God isn’t after our worldly success in His Name. God is after us. Our hearts. There are men (and women) who will build whole cities “for God”, to whom He will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23) And there are other men, whose names nobody will ever know and no history book will ever record, to whom God will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21) Our culture, our consumerism, and our human hearts have so screwed up our perceptions of “success” that most of us (myself included) have totally failed to have God’s heart and His “dreams” for our lives.

Don’t worry about creating a megachurch. Get up early, study Scripture, and pray every day.

Don’t worry about making billions to resource the Kingdom. Walk with God in the garden in the cool of the day.

Don’t worry about building an international coalition to feed the hungry. Buy a homeless guy a sandwich, even though he’s most likely scamming you.

Don’t worry about starting orphanages in a third world country. Take a kid with no dad to McDonald’s.

Don’t worry about making great sacrifices for God. Just obey Him in your every day – not perfectly (impossible), but increasingly.

Don’t worry about ministering to thousands. Read the Bible to and pray with your kids.

If God wants to turn your life’s fruits into a megachurch or an international coalition of whatever or a huge foundation or a giant corporation, that’s His business … and His problem. Don’t pursue it. Let go of the television-marketing-consumerism-driven view of success that goes with being American. Walk with God. Learn about what success means in the Kingdom of Heaven. We aren’t going to be Americans for long, but we’ll be in heaven forever. And if God gives you success the world understands ON TOP OF success He values, then accept it from Him cautiously and with great humility, even fear. Because God has chosen to do something through you that you have absolutely no power to do on your own. And keep in mind that He doesn’t need you to build a church or an orphanage. He’s on it. You and your house, serve the Lord! Today. In little things. The rest is His responsibility.

And in case you’re wondering… More than to anyone else, I’m preaching to myself. If overhearing God’s words in my heart and mind serves you, then rock on!

Okay, back to Jerusalem…

After seeing the remnants of Nehemiah’s wall, we went outside the modern day city walls to a museum-ish area where they are excavating a bunch of other stuff from the second temple period. Here, we saw the ritual baths where pilgrims heading to the temple to worship would become ceremonially clean prior to approaching God’s house. Once “clean”, they would ascend the steps on the southern end of the temple mount, rising up though the royal colonnade onto the esplanade. Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, into those baths, and up those steps at least three times a year. We paused to imagine how it must have felt the first time — mounting the steps, and laying eyes on the temple of God. It was magnificent by ancient human standards, not to mention that God Himself dwelt there (at least until the cross). We’d probably consider it pretty sweet today too, actually.

But even more significant than all that was the reality that Jesus Himself would probably have walked on these steps. It is likely that He was sitting on these very steps chatting with the Pharisees and Sadducees when He was left behind by His family at age 12, as recorded in Luke 2. Here’s a picture of me on these very steps…

Temple Steps

After that, we rounded a corner and saw another Cardo Maximus (remember that we had walked on the main drag in Jerusalem in the Byzantine era earlier that day), this time from the second temple era over 1,000 years earlier. There were three things about this experience that fascinated me.

First, I was amazed at how well the street was preserved. Of course, it had been unburied (since Israel had become a state in 1948). But even given that, it was just cool. The Romans really knew what they were doing. I wish they built roads like that in Chicago!

Second was the remnants of Robinson’s arch. Named after for the American scholar Edward Robinson who contributed heavily to our understanding of the second temple period through his journeys to the Holy Land in the 1930′s, Robinson’s arch was a magnificent (again by ancient standards) stone arch and staircase that descended from the southwest corner of the temple mount esplanade to the Cardo Maximus (running north-south along the western retaining wall of the temple mount – now the Wailing Wall) below. I thought that was absolutely sweet. Here is an artist’s depiction of the arch, and a picture I took…

Robinson's Arch Robinson's Arch

Lastly, and most importantly, was that we witnessed first hand Jesus prophecy (Mark 13, Matthew 24) that “not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” When Roman soldiers razed Jerusalem in 70 AD to quell yet another Jewish rebellion, they were given strict orders NOT to destroy the temple. The Roman leadership had a penchant for unique architecture, and they didn’t want to lose this building. But the soldiers had heard one too many rumors that the Jews had hidden gold inside the walls of the temple. So, they burned it. The gold lining the walls inside melted into the stones, so the soldiers used (essentially) crowbars to pry the stones of the temple apart to get at the gold. They threw them everywhere, including right off the temple mount. Look at the stones in the back of this picture … not one stone is left on another. Amazing.

Cardo Maximus

Third Temple Golden Menorah November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in News, Politics and Culture, Travel.
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Golden Menora

Among the many fascinating things we saw in Jerusalem was a replica of a the 3 cubit (4.5 feet) tall solid gold menorah that was originally present in Solomon’s temple. The Temple Institute is an organization who is preparing to build a third temple in Jerusalem. Part of that preparation is assembling the gold necessary to recreate this huge menorah. I read in one place that they are working on collecting 60kg (130 lbs) of 24k gold, which would result in a somewhat hollow 5 ft menorah rather than a solid gold one, but I think they’d be okay with that. At any rate, it was fascinating both to see this replica and get an idea of the scale of Solomon’s wealth, as well as to think about how serious some are about personally participating in ushering in the end times.

Jerusalem’s Cardo Maximus November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Travel.
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Next, our tour guide took us to the Jewish quarter to see ruins of the Cardo Maximus (or main north-south street) through Jerusalem in Byzantine times – the times of the crusades. This was a pretty cool thing to see, especially a mosaic map (called the “Madaba” map) that had been found in a nearby church that depicted what the city would have looked like many hundreds of years ago. Here’s a picture…


This main north-south thoroughfare directly connected the Damascus gate to the north and Zion gate to the south. The crusaders had turned most of this are into roofed markets. Like the other Cardo maximus streets we saw on our trip, there were stone columns down the center with shops lining either side. The cool thing about this particular incarnation of that architecture was that today the northern half of the strip was still there – a thriving marketplace where we shopped for 30 minutes or so between stops in the city. A picture of the modern shopping area…

Shopping on the Carto Maximus

One other thing I found particularly of note was the way the street was constructed. We were walking on the same stones that were there during the crusades 800-900 years ago. In the middle of the street was a little trough. This is where the sewage ran down the street before the concept of sewer systems. I can’t imagine how badly it must have reeked there. Seeing stuff like that made the black death a bit more understandable / imaginable. Here’s a picture…

Byzantine "Sewer"

The Wailing Wall November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Wailing Wall

Of course I’ve always known about the existence of “the wailing wall” in Jerusalem, but I confess I never really knew what it was. To be really honest, I think I thought it was a Catholic thing when I was younger. As an adult Christian, the most connected I’ve ever really been to the concept of the wailing wall was in a song by Point of Grace called “You Are the Answer” …

They line the wailing wall
The masses fill up St. Peter’s square
Confessions, emotions
Spill out of desperate prayer

This song is basically about peoples’ desperate needs and God’s abundant provision for those needs. And from even this crazy-limited perspective of this song, I always took the wailing wall to be a place where people gathered when that desperate human need was more pronounced than usual. Turns out, I wasn’t all that terribly far off.

The wailing wall is simply a part of the retaining wall that Herod the Great built to hold up the Temple Mount esplanade in Jerusalem just before the time of Jesus. The section of wall is probably a little more than 100 feet long, on the south end of the western face of the retaining wall. The open section of wall called the “wailing wall” spans between two walls protruding out from the retaining wall which belong to structures that have been built in this area over the centuries. Plus, the level of the ground has risen dozens of feet on this side of the temple mount in that time as well, so the ground people walk on to approach the wailing wall is actually vertically positioned about halfway up the retaining wall compared to where it would have been in Jesus’ day.

What’s so special about this section of wall?

The 2nd Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, displacing Jews all over the world. When the Muslims set up shop in the 7th century, they built the Dome of the Rock where the temple used to be. This pretty much solidified the temple mount as a Muslim holy site to which Jews and Christians do not have access.

Over the many hundreds of years since this time, ostensibly because in their eyes God still dwells in the temple, the Jews (and some Christians I’m sure) have sought out places at least close to the old site of the temple to be considered “holy sites”. This section of wall is close to where the temple used to be, so in the eyes of many, it’s the holiest place they can get to. As a result, many Jews and Christians treat the wailing wall with tremendous reverence – as they would have treated the temple, where it still standing atop Mount Moriah. They believe that if they touch the wall, then their prayers will carry special weight. Or, they write prayers on small pieces of paper, which they then roll up and stuff into the cracks in the wall. Also, we had to cover our heads when approaching the wall because it is a holy site.

I felt sorry for the people there. It made me sad to think that people are so unfamiliar with who God really is that they still believe somehow God dwells in those rocks or on that mountain. And they didn’t just believe it a little. I saw people VERY worked up, special apparatus everywhere for confession and prayer, and more than one person in our group talked about how Catholic or Jewish friends had sent prayers with them to be stuck in the wall or relayed to God by the person on our tour … I guess because the person sending the prayer thought the person going to Jerusalem would be closer to God when they got there. Do they think God lives in Jerusalem? … and that He’s hard of hearing?

Touching a wall doesn’t make your prayers special. Being in one place instead of another does not make God hear your prayers more clearly. There is no special power in that span of rock, or any other for that matter.

The Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:
“Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.”
“What kind of house will you build for me?” says the Lord, “or where will my resting place be?”
“Has not my hand made all these things?”  (Acts 7:48-50)

Ultimately, I did approach the wall to pray, but I prayed for all the people touching or who would touch the wall. I prayed that the eyes of their hearts would be opened to who God really is and where God really lives (for those who have allowed Jesus’ work on the cross to repair the separation from God our sin has caused).

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price.   (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

The wailing wall doesn’t make God hear you. Jesus does.

The Via Dolorosa November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Travel.
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Via Dolorosa

The Via Dolorosa is “the way of suffering”. This is the path that Jesus walked from Antonia’s fortress, where He was convicted and severely beaten, to Golgotha, where He was crucified. This path, as far as we know, took him out the northern side of the city, and around to the east, where two major roads intersected, where He could be executed as an example in front of thousands of people. The clear message: don’t mess with the Roman empire.

Today, the part of the Via Dolorosa that is inside the old city walls is in the Muslim quarter. We walked through this area to get from Antonia’s Fortress to the Wailing Wall. I think the new name for it is the Via Shopolosa, or “the way of shopping”. It was lined with stores, and street vendors accosted us freely trying to sell us everything from Coke to bookmarks to hats. It was absolutely impossible for me to pause and reflect or to make walking this path any kind of spiritually contemplative event. But at least I was there, which was a blessing.

Antonia’s Fortress November 12, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Engineering, News, Politics and Culture, Travel.
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Antonia's Fortress

Antonia’s fortress was built by Herod the Great in 34 BC, as part of his fairly significant expansion of the temple and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Situated on the northwest corner of the expanded temple mount esplanade, the fortress later became the headquarters of Pontius Pilate. Pilate is of course the Roman Prefect (Governor of the Roman province of Judea) who tried Jesus and ultimately approved His crucifixion. (See Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19)

By the way, I’ve always been a little confused at who all these Roman officials were in Jesus’ day and life. Let me take a quick second to try to clear up my own confusion, and perhaps you’ll find it beneficial as well. Rome made the region we now know as the State of Israel a province in 63 BC, following the Third Mithridatic War. After the war ended General Pompeius Magnus (also known as Pompey the Great) remained to secure the area. Subsequently, Herod the Great was installed as a “client king” over the region, called the Judaea Province. A client kingdom is a “term used to describe the subordination of one state to a more powerful state in international affairs” (Wikipedia). We might also call this a satellite, puppet, or vassal state. In Jesus’ day, this was called the Herodian Kingdom.

So, Pompey conquered the region in 63 BC. Herod the Great became king of Israel under Roman rule in 37 or 36 BC (there’s some dispute), and ruled until 4 BC when he died, ostensibly of natural causes. And here’s an interesting (read: sick) tidbit…

From the Wikipedia: Josephus Flavius (a prominent secular historian) records that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place. Fortunately for them, Herod’s son Archilaus and sister Salome did not carry out this wish. Wild!

Anyway, Pompey conquers in 63 BC. Herod the Great rules from 37ish BC to 4 BC, establishing the Herodian Dynasty. When he died, the kingdom was divided among his three sons:

  • Herod Archelaus received the largest part of the kingdom of Judaea including Jerusalem and the bulk of what we currently know as the State of Israel. He also retained the title of “king”. His only real reference in scripture is in the dream Joseph had in Matthew 2, in which an angel warned him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod (the Great) was going to have all the children killed. Joseph ultimately returned to Galilee instead of Judaea to avoid Herod Archelaus, who was known to be as ruthless as his father.
  • Herod Antipas became the Tetrarch of Galilee and a small slice of the territory beyond the Jordan River. This is the “Herod” we read about throughout the gospels in connection with Jesus’ life and death.
  • Herod Philip II because the Tetrarch of much of what we now know as Jordan. This is the Philip who built Caesarea Philippi, and whose wife Salome so delighted Herod Antipas with her dancing (and whatever else) that he had John the Baptist killed in Matthew 14.

Here’s a map of the region from Wikipedia:

Herod's Judaean Kingtom

Herod the Great was king. His sons became Tetrarchs, which were like joint-lesser-kings. And Pilate was a Prefect or Governor for Rome in Judaea. Governors were responsible for taxation and financial management, they were the province’s chief judge, and they commanded the military forces within the province. In the Roman world, there two primary types of provinces:

  • Imperial, over which the Emporer ruled directly
  • Senatorial, over which the Roman Senate appointed governors

There were also equestrian provinces, which were “smaller, but potentially difficult provinces” (Wikipedia) that required special attention. These were typically newly-conquered provinces or places where the natives were particularly restless. Judaea was one of these provices. According to legend, Pontius Pilate was a particularly cruel, intractible man, so it makes sense that the Emporer or the local King (Herod) would appoint him over the Jews, because they were routinely rebelling and causing all manner of trouble for Rome.

So, it’s into this environment that Jesus was brought before Pilate in the fortress we explored today. Of course, that ancient building was completely gone, replaced by busy markets in the Muslim quarter. But we were able to go down under the city into what I would call “catacombs”. These were the foundations of the original Antonio’s fortress.

The foundations were the classic Roman arch architecture, which was used throughout Herod the Great’s design of the expanded temple mount esplanade. The arch was designed according to the fundamental principle of “compressive stresses”, which made it extremely strong, even when supporting extreme weight. In fact, our tour guide went out of his way more than once to talk about how these arches got stronger the more weight you put on top of them. I’ll have to research that more; maybe my phsycist brother will shed some light for us.

Anyway, we saw the arches that formed the foundation of the fortress, and the huge storerooms and cisterns which resulted. Some was original, some wasn’t. We even saw an etching in the concrete that was an ancient Roman game, I think called “Four Kings”. This is thought to possibly the game the soldiers were playing when they “cast lots for Jesus’ clothes” in John 19, for example.


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