September 25, 2020

Israel 2019: The Journey of Jesus from Arrest to Crucifixion

Tourists outside the Church of All Nations, Gethsemene, Jerusalem Tourists outside the Church of All Nations, Gethsemene, Jerusalem © Brian Maudsley | Dreamstime.com

The Garden of Gethsemane is where we begin the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry today.

Our bus drops us off on a side street with a wall on either side. Behind a gate to the right are eight trees, the remnant of an olive grove that must have covered this part of the Mount of Olives two thousand years ago. Back then; this was a place where Jesus and His disciples would often seek solitude.

Today, there is little of that solitude left within this fully developed place. Inside the gate we walk past the eight remaining trees which stand two by two behind a fence. We are told that a group of Franciscan monks pamper the ancient looking trees. We also understand that walking among the trees is only allowed by appointment.

Beyond the trees is the Church of all Nations. It is built around a flat rock that is believed to be the one where Jesus prayed, in agony, over what He was about to face. The rock is framed nicely so that pilgrims can kneel over it and pray. While I was there, a continuous line of people were kneeling, placing their hands on the rock, and praying.

Soon we return to the street and are immediately escorted through a gate on the other side. Inside this area we are led down into a square cave that is easily big enough to hold all 83 of us. We are instructed that it is believed that Jesus and His disciples slept in here when in the area. I can certainly see why.

It was outside of the cave among the olive trees where Jesus was betrayed and arrested. I squint hard and try to erase all of the modern components of the place. I imagine torches and the sounds of men filtering up through the trees as they march up from the Kidron Valley towards Jesus and His disciples.

Jesus, being God, knows with absolute certainty what this is all about. It is why our Creator entered creation as a human. It is why Jesus ‘set His face’ towards Jerusalem at the end of His earthly ministry. It is why Jesus prayed in agony over the rock in the church we just visited. Jesus knew. Jesus repeatedly told His disciples. But even so, think how shocked they must have been to see their Teacher hauled away by Temple authorities.

They had heard Jesus’ words regarding what was to happen. But every part of the next three days will shock and disperse them. I have to wonder if I am any different than these disciples. I am under excellent teaching and study the Bible almost daily. But even so, I cringe at how often I also likely miss the meaning and application of God’s word in my life.

Caiaphas was the chief priest that issued the warrant for Jesus’ arrest that night. And so it was to his house that Jesus was taken and questioned until they heard what they wanted to hear.

Our buses make the same journey a quick affair. We off load onto a street with buildings on either side. In back of the building to our right are a lot of broken rocks. This is said to be what is left of the house or palace of Caiaphas.

On the downhill side of the modern building we descend into a small set of subterranean rooms. They appear to have been carved from stone much like a cistern would be hollowed out. High along some of the walls are the remains of restraining devices anchored into the stone. The clean cream colored stone walls belie what has happened in this room. This is a room whose walls are impregnated with the screams of people tied to these restraints and interrogated with a whip. The Bible does not say that Jesus was ever in a room like this or whipped by the High Priest’s guards. But the long-gone upper chambers of this house are where Jesus would have spent His first night of interrogation before the Sanhedrin, as Peter denied Jesus three times in the now bygone courtyard outside.

Back at the buses we are told that on the left of the street is the St. Peter in Gallicantu Church. The name means ‘cockcrow’ which should be a huge clue as to why it is here. It is built over what is believed to be the location where Peter may have grieved for denying Jesus those three times.

Poor Peter. As a disciple and as an Apostle, Peter believes that he is fully committed. But the all knowing Christ has detected a crack or an as yet undeveloped component in his theological steel. There is a strengthening that he will most certainly need for his future responsibilities. 

For why is Peter surprised and bereaved by Jesus’ arrest and death? Just hours before Jesus reminded His disciples what must happen to Him. If you will remember, Peter was repulsed by the idea of His Teacher/Lord being killed and says so. Jesus quickly rebukes Peter’s protective, passionate response for being disobedient to the sacrificial cost of God’s redemptive plan. And in spite of Peter’s declaration of fidelity unto death, Jesus warns him that he will deny Him three times before the cock crows. Therefore, the name and reason for this church.

After the Sanhedrin finally arrived at their predetermined indictment, Jesus is given the bum’s rush over to the Antonia Fortress for sentencing by Pilate.

Herod the Great began this fortress 68 years before, in 35 B.C. It is the same year and the same reason that Herod the Great started building Herodium. Their construction was in celebration of that Rome had finally subdued the Jewish resistance in the land. He named the fortress/palace in Jerusalem after his friend Marc Anthony. The fortress/palace outside of Jerusalem he named for himself.

In Jesus’ time, the Antonia Fortress was Pilate’s palace. And over the years it had been enlarged into a formidable fortress. It could house a full Roman legion and was a small city unto itself. Now, there is nothing left of this fortress that is discernible. However, we can visit a chunk of its floor. So off we go.

Therefore, we are returned to the old city by our buses and escorted through the old city streets to the Sisters of Zion building. Their claim to fame and likely their source of income are the floors. They are not only supposedly from the Antonia Fortress; they are preserved as the floors Jesus walked upon.

We enter an old town building that looks like all of the others. Inside the door there are two nuns by a gate, but they pay us no mind. In an underground room we are shown two stone floors. One is smooth and one is rough. We are told that the rough one would have been for animals. The smooth one was what the people walked upon.

We are instructed to sit. Some are on each kind of floor. Scripture is read regarding Jesus in Pilate’s palace. We are told with certainty that we are sitting on stones that Jesus could have walked over. For some it was an emotional moment. But I’m sorry to say that for myself, I wonder how this is known. I also wonder where and how the rest of the Antonia Fortress became incorporated into “Old Jerusalem” or the debris pile that is under it.

Next, we leave the Sisters of Zion and their display of stone pavers and return to the streets of Old Jerusalem. Our destination is Calvary.

Between Antonio’s Fortress and Calvary is Jesus’ historic route of travel know as Via Dolorosa. It means “Way of Sorrow,” and so it must have been. Having endured a flogging so severe as to erase much of His physical identity, our Lord and Savior would have left a trail of blood with every foot step along this way.

The streets we pass are somewhat narrow. They are just wide enough for small vehicles to travel if pedestrians press against the walls. The roads we walk follow the contour of the land. This is as it would have been 2,000 years ago. Today, they are set with irregular steps to facilitate the walk. For the vehicles, an axel wide smooth path, the width of a tire, is in place to let them pass easily. These streets require me to watch my footing closely. I strongly advise against anyone trying to absorb the surroundings or capture a picture while moving. An additional challenge is the other groups of pilgrims racing across our path. Expect that when your group attempts to pass through another group of equal size, unplanned contact is likely.

The maze-like streets of Old Jerusalem easily could swallow me up in a sea of disorientation. The shops within the walls of the defining buildings all look similar. We could be walking in circles for all I knew. To be honest, I was never sure when we entered or left the Via Dolorosa. But eventually we enter a gate into a garden. The Garden Tomb. As we progress deeper into the reserve, I begin to see it! The rock out-cropping that is known as The Place of the Skull, or Golgotha. Its impact is powerful. The reason for its name is obvious. Studying its features has my undivided attention. We are invited to sit and rest in a covered colonnade over-looking Golgotha. A man from the managing organization of the facility gives us a history of the site and their organization. Then one of our pastors reads from Mark 15:22.

The only thing that erodes the moment is what lies below the hill of Golgotha. Currently, it is an unsightly storage yard for white tourist buses. It is not only a visual distraction, it is obscene. I hope that someday soon the parking lot and busses can be relocated, away from this soul-searching site. I think that this area needs to be included into the garden property experience. The rock is impressive to be sure, but the actual ground atop that hill, that may have held the cross would be even more so.   

Back into the garden, we line up to look inside of a sample tomb. It is only rock throwing distance from Golgotha. Golgotha and the tomb make a very convincing argument that this is the site of Jesus’ ultimate agony and sacrificial redemption for us.

There was a time when I was confused as to how the day of His exquisite pain and torturous death could be called Good Friday. For the cost of our human redemption is beyond our human comprehension. But then so is the beauty of Jesus’ sacrificial atonement for all of our past and future sins. The good of Good Friday is found in what that atonement bought for us, the undeserving enemies of God. We have visited many important places in Jesus’ life on this pilgrimage. But this one place covers our group with a combined sense of heaviness and gratitude for the glory of God’s majestic plan. 

Back on the streets of Old Jerusalem again we wind our way to our final location. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It is the other identified site of Calvary and the tomb where Christ’s body was lain to rest. Our arrival to the courtyard before the church is sudden. We see hundreds of people preparing to enter as we are, standing or leaning as they wait. The first thing that I want to see is the old ladder on the second level. That ladder is a fun story. Look it up sometime.

In pictures the front of the church appears larger to me than what I see before me. Inside we pass to the left of the main area and descend into an area that some believe to be the location of Jesus’ tomb. A quick look and we climb back up the steps into the main area, as time does not permit us to wait in the line to go farther in. The large ornate church is thick with incense, and every surface is decorated with something. The collage of symbols makes sense when I consider that there are several major Christian denominations in joint administration of the site. And sometimes there is conflict and overlap in how to proceed in that responsibility. Historically it has not always been harmonious. Here is a hint - the story of the ladder has everything to do with this occasional lack of unity. We decide to not wait in this also considerable line to see a place believed to have held the cross. So we return to the courtyard.

It is known that Roman crucifixions were more about the grizzly display of pain than the efficient execution of a criminal. They were meant as a deterrent to the witnessing population. Consequently they were done outside the city, next to a well traveled road for maximum impact. Both Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher fit this mandate. A freshly cut tomb is also needed to be in close proximity. Both sites have this element as well. I presume that it is possible that both locations may have been used by the Romans. So then if there are pros and cons regarding both locations why does one location have a small garden and bus park while the other has a large church?

This we know. One: Crucifixion outside of a city’s walls in a public place was the Roman custom. Two: Wherever this was, it was likely a commonly used location over many years. Three: Jesus Christ was crucified. Four: Jesus was buried in a nearby tomb and rose in three days. Five: It was some 27 to 30 years after the crucifixion before Titus demolishes Jerusalem. Six: Another 60 some years pass before Emperor Hadrian tries to erase all important Christian and Jewish sites of potential worship. Seven: Another almost 200 years pass before Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena in the fourth century made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Eight: While there, she sought to identify all of the important locations of the faith to the best of her ability, and built churches at each one to mark and preserve them.

So when Helena starts pinpointing locations and building churches upon them, she has a lot to consider. As I understand the story, she relied on traditions that had been handed down for seven or eight generations and remains of Hadrian’s temple for her identification. That is why the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built on that site.

As a place of symbolic orthodox importance, the church building of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is visually much more impactful. However, for raw emotional impact for me, nothing holds a candle to Golgotha.

Some call the places we have visited today the “Stations of the Cross.”  Today we started our journey with Jesus’ betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Caiaphas’ house was where the Sanhedrin took Jesus for condemnation and indictment. The Antonia Fortress was where Jesus was flogged and condemned to die. Via Dolorosa is the way in which He passed onto His crucifixion. We love our Savior and therefore we are drawn as pilgrims to these places. Visiting these places always enriches our study of scripture. It is possible to say that it is life-changing.

I might wonder why Jesus would not allow these important sites to be more accurately known and preserved, to better commemorate His final day before the cross. I might wonder until I consider the second commandment regarding idols. I therefore propose that the locations of these stations have been allowed to be blurred so as to no create a distraction from worshiping Jesus Christ only.

Two thousand years has a way of wearing away the identity of almost anything. And these so-called stations of Jesus are no different. Perhaps the best preserved of them all is the Garden of Gethsemane, where there is a rock covered by a church, eight olive trees, and a cave. Caiaphas’ house is evidenced by some stone foundations and a dungeon room. The Antonia Fortress’ original location is known but its stones are spread far and wide. The Via Dolorosa or Way of Misery is not apparently as certain as I once thought it was. And the location of the crucifixion is also debated.

But this should not deter any follower of Christ from exploring the sequence of these proposed stations. For it is not their exact places that make them important to us as pilgrims. No, for time has changed them. It is what He did for us at each of them that remains timeless, and as emotionally reachable today as it ever has been. Seek them, absorb them and bathe in the juxtaposition they represent. Our sin for His righteousness, the death we deserve for the life eternal He secured on the cross for His children. It is a pretty good deal.

Visit Israel if ever you can.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 17 June 2020 03:12

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