Matthew 16:21 “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
I returned from my trip to Israel six days ago. A friend asked me to sum up my trip in one sentence. I thought for a few seconds, shook my head, and replied “it can’t be done”. I can’t even sum it up in one article! There were so many moments of elation. There were times of frowning and wincing, tears of joy and worship, as well as sadness, confusion, and information overload. Where to start?
I want to start with my experience at the Temple Mount, the location where three Abrahamic religions converge. It is known to Jews as Mount Moriah and is the location where the Old Testament Jewish Temple was built initially by King Solomon, later destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt by exiled Jews who returned to Jerusalem under the direction of King Cyrus II of Persia, and then destroyed again in 70 A.D. during the Jewish revolt against the Romans. The Dome of the Rock is built on top of the Temple location and is now the third most holy site for Islam (after Mecca and Medina). The Temple Mount is significant for Christians because it is where Jesus spent time prior to His death, and the crucifixion occurred right outside the walls of the Temple.
We approached the day of going to the Temple Mount with great anticipation. Prior to our visit, I had little knowledge of what the area is like today and had never heard of the Dome of the Rock (a shrine containing the Foundation Stone marking the spot where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into heaven). My Bible study of the Old Testament had somehow left the Temple intact in my mind. I expected to see magnificent ruins of the Temple rather than a Muslim building in the center of where the Temple used to be. Some Jewish scholars speculate that the Temple’s Holy of Holies lies beneath the Dome of the Rock, but the Muslims have control of that area and will not allow further exploration.
But even before seeing the Temple Mount, I was surprised that we had to go through Muslim security to enter the area, and they removed anything Christian or deemed offensive to the faith of Islam. As we inched closer to the scanners, I saw Bibles strewn about in piles along with bottles of alcohol and other cast-aside, confiscated items that were removed from visitors before entering. If a visitor had a cross or anything overtly Christian, it was removed. This treatment of Christianity was painful to me.
Jesus and Christianity were banned from this location as offensive and unwelcome. In fact, all of Israel seemed to be suppressing Christianity. The familiar places from the Bible were now mostly preserved as either historical places in a national park, territorialized as a sacred place for a particular faith group, or opportunities for financial exploitation from tourists. In some instances, a Byzantine, Greek Orthodox, or Catholic church had claimed the land and put up a structure of some sort that preserved the site for religious Christian purposes. Some locations cited in scripture had been ignored altogether and were simply non-descript, such as a parking lot for tour busses that is believed to be the spot where Jesus was crucified.
As I have had time to process, I see that it makes sense. The places where important events occurred in Biblical times are not ultimately holy in and of themselves. They are special to us because they are part of our faith stories and are the earthly location of divine events, but they are, after all, not divine in themselves. God’s distinctive presence would need to dwell there for His holiness to be uniquely experienced. Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem was so gaudy, over-decorated and exploited by the church that hosted it, I was eager to leave. It was not what I had envisioned or anticipated it would be. We waited in a massive line to get in, and by the time we got to the spot where Jesus was born and placed in a manger, I felt no connection whatsoever and made a quick exit. The simple manger scene I grew up with was not at all what I was witnessing, and I needed time to understand what I had seen.
The Temple Mount had a similar effect on me in that I felt no special connection to Christ there other than when I put my foot on a stone that was estimated to have been there at the time Jesus walked through the temple. My mental pictures have been scrambled a bit and I see that I have long-held misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Holy Land. Through my 52 years as a believer, I have pictured Israel in its ancient state, but of course it had not remained as such. In 2023 it was a mixture of a modern world colliding with remains of numerous, earlier historical groups.
Ancient ruins are there in abundance and are still being uncovered, but the ongoing development of the region continues to change and reflect the current people groups, politics, and religion of those who live there. I am not sorry at all that I went, but it is taking time to process what I saw in relation to what my prior understanding allowed for.
What struck me most at the Temple Mount is that Jesus is actively despised and rejected today in Jerusalem just like He was when He walked through the streets of that ancient city over 2,000 years ago. Jesus was crucified by people who didn’t understand Him and who feared what His righteousness and teachings would do to their politics, religion, and cultural system. They feared displacement of their power and positions. Regardless of finding no fault in Him, they objected to how He upended life in Jerusalem with its corrupt, self-serving political and religious machine. They exterminated Jesus from their presence then, and the Muslims are still doing it today by banning Christianity from the Temple Mount. The Jewish people have rejected Him as their promised Messiah and are waiting for someone political who can bring peace without sacrificial bloodshed (according to our Jewish tour guide).
In future articles I will share more of what I learned about Jesus, where He now dwells, and what it means for this Christian’s faith. I hope you’ll join me as I process my time and experiences in the Holy Land.
Matthew 26:1-4 “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘As you know, the Passover is two days away – and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’ Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.”