Every Sunday morning, before church, I go running with my youngest son along the paths winding through the University of Illinois Arboretum. Along the route, we pass Japan House. So it was only fitting to do a feature story on the man behind Japan House, Shozo Sato. He has an incredible story to tell, beginning with his early years in Japan during World War II.
This feature story in Illinois Alumni magazine also gave me the opportunity to interview Nick Offerman, star of the hit series, “Parks and Recreation.” Shozo Sato was Offerman’s mentor, or sensei, at the U of I. You can either read the story at this link–“Way of the Sensei”–or by clicking on the pages below.
By the way, the background image for these post shows beautiful flowering trees at Japan House.
Our tour group gathered beneath a canopy at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, listening to our guide on a beautiful, shirt-sleeve day. To one side, we could hear the singing of another church group gathered near the tomb, and to the other side was the cacophony of the city—traffic horns and the constant rumble of construction machinery.
Although we often think of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, as being isolated from the bustle of the city, the Romans had a way of crucifying people along busy roads. That way, more people would see what happens when you go against the Empire. So, the noise of Jerusalem surrounding the Garden Tomb was actually more in line with the way it might have been.
As our guide continued to talk, a nearby loudspeaker, mounted on a pole, began blasting an Islamic chant. Rather than shout over the chant, our guide stopped to lead us in singing, “Amazing Grace.”
This clash of sound was a symbol to me of the tense and sometimes violent convergence of three major religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—in one Holy City. It also reminded me that when Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem, He too found Himself in the middle of a discordant, tense community where the Jewish nation struggled to survive in Rome’s pagan world of many gods.
Some things never change.
Most experts do not believe this Garden Tomb was the actual burial place for Jesus, but it certainly looks like the tomb would’ve appeared over 2,000 years ago. The nearby hill even has what looks like the eye sockets of a giant skull, which is what led this site to be identified in the 1800s as the possible site of the crucifixion. Golgotha means “place of a skull.”
Our guide at the Garden Tomb was quick to emphasize that there were probably many such tombs in the area, so the chance that this was Jesus’s gravesite is not likely. The entrance to the Garden Tomb was cut into the side of the hill, and after I ducked to enter the cramped space, I found myself six feet away from a stone slab where the body would’ve lain.
The Garden Tomb may “feel” like the authentic location of Jesus’s tomb, but the traditional site is in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Inside this church is an inner sanctuary, called the Aedicule, where you can find the tomb believed to be where Jesus was buried.
We opted not to stand in the two-hour line to enter the Aedicule, but we did file past several other key locations within the sprawling, crowded, dimly lit church. We saw the Altar of the Crucifixion, where you could see what many believe is the Rock of Calvary where the cross was placed, now visible through glass. Directly beneath the Rock of Calvary is the Chapel of Adam, where tradition says the skull of Adam was buried. In fact, one story says Jesus’s blood seeped down through the rocks and filled Adam’s skull.
The Bible says nothing about this, so who knows.
What we do know is that when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that earth-shattering morning, she found the tomb empty, and she began weeping.
Two angels were there, and they asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
Moments later, Mary ran into a person she thought was a gardener, but when He spoke her name, “Mary,” her eyes were opened, and she realized who it was. “Rabboni!” she exclaimed, and when she later saw the disciples, she announced, “I have seen the Lord!”
In this passage from John 20, Mary Magdalene was anxious to know where Jesus’s body had been taken, and today we too would love it if we knew for certain where Jesus’s body had been buried before the Resurrection. We are left with two different sites—the Garden Tomb and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—and we don’t know for certain if either one of them is the actual tomb. But, as our guide at the Garden Tomb said, the important thing is the Person, not the place.
The important thing is that Jesus is with us today, every bit as much as He was with Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning. I was thrilled to be close to the spot where He might’ve been buried, but you don’t have to travel to Jerusalem to get the same thrill. Even when we’re in our backyard in Detroit or San Diego, He’s calling out our name and waiting for us to answer, “Rabboni!”
He’s waiting for us to tell everyone we have seen the risen Lord.
A letter that helped to convict a Nazi war criminal…
A squeegee handle that saved the lives of half a dozen people on 9/11…
A set of stairs that saved hundreds more…
These ordinary objects played a role in some extraordinary stories.
These stories are also some of the features that you’ll find in the first issue of my new magazine,Peterson Pilgrim. I will be publishing this full-color magazine on an irregular basis, but hopefully at least twice per year. If you’d like to receive a free copy of Peterson Pilgrim, plus my blog, you can do that by clicking here. The design by Irenka Carney is stunning.
The cover story for the first issue features William Still, father of the Underground Railroad. Most people know the name of Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad. But most probably haven’t heard of Still. His reunion with his long-lost brother is as remarkable as the stories he gathered from escaped slaves.
In addition to Still’s story, the first issue features other history/travel stories, based on wanderings with my wife, Nancy. For instance, Peterson Pilgrim takes you to three countries that still show the scars of their Soviet years—Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. I’ll also tell you about our visit to the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, where we discovered the poignant story of Jenő Reich. Closer to home, I’ll take you to the 9/11 Museum in New York City and relate the stirring account of survivor Kayla Bergeron.
So, come along with Nancy and me, as we take you across the world in Peterson Pilgrim. As the Peanuts cartoon in my office says, “In life, it’s not where you go—It’s who you travel with.”
“It’s even better than Legoland,” said actor Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame in the PBS show, Jesus: Countdown to Calvary. Bonneville made the comment while viewing a massive model depicting what the city of Jerusalem looked like in the first century.
My wife and I visited this huge, sprawling model—about the size of two tennis courts—at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. And I’d have to agree with Bonneville’s assessment that the model of first-century Jerusalem is far better than Legos. And this is coming from a grown man who still loves his Legos. My office has a Lego train running through it, along with a Lego Eiffel Tower, a Lego Capitol Building, a Lego Leaning Tower of Pisa, a Lego hobbit house, a Lego…
You get my drift.
The Jerusalem model, built to a scale of 1:50, was created in the early 1960s, commissioned by Hans Kroch, owner of the Holyland Hotel. For years, the model was featured on the grounds of the hotel, but it was moved to the beautiful Israel Museum and available for viewing in July of 2006.
If you stand on the platform on the eastern side of the Jerusalem model, you look down on the Temple Mount, and its size in relation to the rest of the city will take your breath away. The Temple (the real one, not the model) was the size of 12 football stadiums, to use another sports analogy. So, it dominated the city, which was why visitors for Passover in Jesus’s time were staggered by what they saw.
King David made Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish kingdom somewhere around 1,000 B.C., and since then it has been conquered and reconquered again and again, ruled by Romans, Persians, Arabs, Fatimids, Turks, Crusaders, Egyptians, Mamelukes, and Muslims. Today, Jerusalem is sacred to three major religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And although Rome is called the “eternal city,” that name is better suited to Jerusalem because Revelation tells us about the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven.
“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:1-2)
The new Jerusalem is Eden restored, says Sandra Richter in her marvelous book, The Epic of Eden. New Jerusalem will have rivers of life and fruit-filled trees, and even the Tree of Life will flourish in its midst—all images of Eden. However, Richter points out that one aspect of Eden will be missing from this future city. Revelation says nothing about cherubim guarding the entrance to the new Jerusalem. Cherubim guarded the entrance to Eden when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden, but they’re not mentioned in the new Jerusalem. God has opened wide the city gates for us. Or, as Richter puts it, “God has taken back the garden, Adam’s children are home…”
The Jerusalem model in Israel is only a shadow of the real city. And the real city of Jerusalem is only a shadow of the new Jerusalem to come. Revelation 21:6 says the new Jerusalem will be 1,400 miles wide, 1,400 miles long, and 1,400 miles high. To get an idea how high that is, Mount Everest is only about 5.5 miles high, and yet the New Jerusalem will rise up 1,400 miles. Interestingly, this cube shape calls back to the inner sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple, which was also cube-shaped at 20 cubits long, 20 cubits wide, and 20 cubits high.
The new Jerusalem is the culmination of God’s great rescue mission, Richter says. In describing this rescue mission, she uses the metaphor of a rock climber who has fallen on a mountain.
She points out that it takes a series of steps to get a climber back to safety. Someone first needs to go down into the canyon to apply first aid. Next, the injured climber must be lifted out of the ravine by stretcher, then airlifted by helicopter, then taken to a hospital where surgery is performed. The rescue is a series of steps, and so too has been God’s rescue plan.
Our Fall in the Garden was from a great height. And in God’s spiritual rescue mission, Abraham, Moses, and David have all been steps along the way. But it is Jesus who brings ultimate healing, and He did it by dying on a cross just outside the walls of the old Jerusalem—the one laid out before me at the Israel Museum.
The Jerusalem I looked down upon is just a model, just a glimmer of the real thing. But isn’t that also true of the world outside our doors? Our world is just a hint, just a glimmer of the new Jerusalem of the future. It’s a taste of the new life in store for all who have been rescued from a great Fall.
And yes, it’s going to be a whole lot better than Legoland.
Hanging in our basement, next to a Lego model of the Apollo 11 lunar lander, is the front page of a Chicago Tribune, dated July 21, 1969. The headline: “GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND.” Last year, the United States celebrated 50 years since that incredible day when Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface and announced, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Having majored in journalism, I collect famous front pages of newspapers. But if someone were to ask me what was the greatest news headline ever, I wouldn’t say the moon landing…or the victory over Germany in World War II…or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
If someone asked me what the greatest headline of all time might be, I’d go with the news delivered by Mary Magdalene.
Okay, so Mary Magdalene wasn’t a reporter in the traditional sense. She didn’t work for a major news organization, and she didn’t make a living as a first-century journalist. But let’s face it, there weren’t any news organizations in Israel at the time. In Rome, news was announced on posted notices or proclaimed orally by criers of sorts.
I pick Mary Magdalene’s announcement because she declared that Jesus had risen—the greatest news scoop in the history of world. In fact, Mary Magdalene was also the first person in the world to speak with the risen Lord, which is why some call her the First Herald of the Risen Lord.
Not bad for a woman who was once controlled by seven demons. She came a long way.
Mary Magdalene has gotten a bum rap over the years. For two thousand years, rumors and stories about Mary Magdalene have run rampant. But here’s what we know about her from the Bible:
She was delivered from seven demons. (Luke 8:2-3)
She stood at a distance and watched Jesus die on the cross. (Mark 15:40)
Accompanied by Salome and Mary the mother of James, she brought spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body, but they found an empty tomb and an angel instead. (Mark 16)
She ran like the wind to the disciples’ house to report that Jesus had risen. (John 20:1-2)
She ran back to the tomb with Peter and the “other disciple.” After the two men left, she lingered behind, weeping. That’s when she saw and talked with the risen Jesus. (John 20:3-18)
She is known as Mary Magdalene because she came from the city of Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and nestled at the foot of Mount Arbel. Some scholars connect Magdala to an ancient village known as Taricheae, which means “the place of salted fish.”
Magdala was all about the fish. The area still is very fishy today, as my wife, Nancy, and I discovered when we dined near Magdala. For the first time in my life, I ate a fish that could wink at me. The fish kept its eye on me the entire meal. The Sea of Galilee is famous for its tilapia, known as Saint Peter’s fish, so Nancy and I savored this delicious meal, although I lost the staring contest with my food.
Strolling through the archaeological ruins of Magdala, we saw the remains of a synagogue that Jesus had most likely been to—a synagogue with the remains of a gorgeous mosaic floor. We also saw the famous Magdala stone, a block of engraved stone that is believed to have served as the base for a reading table, from which the Torah scrolls were read..
The Magdala archaeological site is known for several wonderfully preserved mikvehs, a short series of steps leading into a small ritual pool—a holy swimming pool you might say. Many laws governed the construction of a mikveh, which men and women used to become ritually purified.
For instance, the water had to be deep enough to completely immerse a person’s body, and the water must come from a natural source, such as a spring. Every part of your body, including the hair, must become saturated with water. This sparked some controversy about whether you should immerse yourself when your hair is still braided. Some believe you must comb out your hair before immersing yourself in a mikveh, so that every strand gets wet.
Which brings us back to Mary Magdalene.
The Bible says nothing about Mary using a mikveh for purification. But it does make clear that Mary was spiritually purified when she was delivered from seven demons.
Jesus purified her life, and He didn’t need a mikveh to do it.
Jesus constantly rebuked the Pharisees for being more concerned about cleansing the outside, ignoring the spiritual cleansing from within. In Luke 11:37-41, Jesus dined with Pharisees, who criticized him for not washing his hands first. He shot back that “you Pharisees” are more concerned about cleaning the outside of the body than cleaning the inside, which is full of “greed and wickedness.”
Mary Magdalene probably knew from experience that being cleansed from the inside is vastly more important. This isn’t to knock the mikveh. It’s still a poignant ritual, as long as you understand that an inner purification goes deeper. After her purification from demons, Mary Magdalene’s life changed forever. She followed the Nazarene all the way to the foot of the cross and then to an empty tomb.
At first, Mary didn’t recognize the risen Jesus outside of the tomb. Maybe she had her head down because she was weeping. Or maybe her eyes were too filled with tears to focus. But when Jesus said her name, “Mary,” the Book of John says she turned to look at him and cried out, “Rabboni!”—which means “teacher.”
Mary swiftly carried this news to the disciples. “I have seen the Lord!” she shouted.
So, there’s your news headline—the greatest headline in history. I HAVE SEEN THE LORD! The moon landing headline pales in comparison. When Mary ran to the disciples carrying this glorious news, you might even say, “That’s many small steps for a woman. One giant leap for mankind.”
Also…one giant leap for womankind. Mary Magdalene reminds us of that.
We reached the Garden of Gethsemane after hiking down a winding, slippery road on the Mount of Olives, east of the Temple walls in Jerusalem. The pavement was so treacherous and the road so steep that we had to hold on to handrails as we weaved our way down. But we eventually made it to the traditional site of the Garden of Gethsemane—a modest, walled-off garden with many old, stout olive trees.
No one knows if this is the actual site of the garden, but it’s in the right general location, and it certainly fits the image. The age of the trees is unknown because olive trees do not have rings that mark off years like most trees. But carbon dating has estimated that some of them go back to the 1100s AD.
The word “Gethsemane” means “oil press” in Hebrew, a fitting name for the spot where the sins of the world pressed down on Jesus on the night He was arrested. It is believed there was an olive press near the garden and hence the name.
We saw an olive press when we visited Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth earlier in our trip. The press was flanked by a massive millstone, which was used to crush the olives after fall harvest. The stone weighs about 1,100 pounds, so you get an idea what Jesus meant when he talked about someone being thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck. (Luke 17:2)
The olives were placed in a stone pit, explained our guide at Nazareth village as he motioned toward the pit holding the big millstone. Then a donkey was hooked to the millstone, and it pulled the massive stone wheel around in a circle, crushing the olives beneath.
According to our guide, the millstone was designed to crush every bit of the olives, including the seeds, turning them into a mash that filled about 15 baskets. This was the “crushing stage,” and it was followed by the “pressing” stage.
The baskets, which have holes in them, were hung onto the long beam of the olive press. The olives underwent three presses, he said. During the first press, no pressure was put on the basket and the olive oil simply dripped into a 3-foot deep vat.
Olives are one-third oil, one-third water, and one-third mash, and the oil rises to the top. So, they just scooped off the oil, and they had what was called their “first fruits.” The first fruits, the finest oil, belonged to the Lord, and it was used by the priests in the Temple.
During the second press, they used a stone weighing about 500 pounds to put pressure on the baskets full of olives. The quality of oil from the second press was still good, our guide said, so people used it for food, medicine, and cosmetics.
But there would still be oil inside the olive mash, he said, so people used stone weights to add even more pressure and squeeze out more olive oil. Because the quality of oil from this third press was not as good as the other two, the oil was used for lamps and to make soap.
Why am I explaining all of this? It’s not like you’re going to run out to Lowe’s and buy an 1,100-pound millstone, hook it to a donkey, and crush olives. (If you do, let me know how it works out.)
Here is why I bring up the process. When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed three times. Three presses. Three prayers.
“On the last press, we put as much weight on it as we can,” our guide said. “We’re literally trying to squeeze out every single drop of olive oil we can.”
Luke 22:44 says, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” The sins of the world pressed down on Jesus with such weight of sorrow that blood squeezed out of Him like oil from crushed olives.
It’s a powerful image.
One verse later, Jesus finished His prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, only to find His disciples snoozing. “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”
While Jesus prayed in anguish, His disciples were taking the easier way—sleeping. Jesus could’ve taken the easy way as well. In the Lexham Geographic Commentary, Aubrey L. Taylor points out that the Garden of Gethsemane was located close to a road often used to escape from Jerusalem. So, Jesus could’ve easily slipped away down this road and disappeared into the wilderness.
That would’ve been the easy path. But Jesus took the hard way—the way of the Cross. The way of the oil press. We all experience “presses” in our lives—pressures that seem more than we can handle. So, ask yourself: How do I respond when my life gets difficult? Do I snooze? Do I run?
Or do I face my troubles with prayer, as Jesus did, even under the pressure of a hundred rocks?
Two fishermen, brothers Moshe and Yuval Lufan, trudged along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel—the same body of water where Jesus’s disciples cast their nets. Moshe and Yuval kept their heads down, their eyes fixed on the muddy ground, searching for archaeological treasure.
It was the winter of 1986, and a drought gripped the region, causing the Sea of Galilee to lower. The Lufan brothers were also amateur archaeologists, and they wondered if the receding lake would reveal any wondrous discoveries.
The brothers stumbled across the oval shape of what appeared to be a boat sunken in the mud along the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Excited by the possibilities, they called in experts, who carefully dug into the mud, uncovering one of the greatest archaeological finds in Israel’s history.
They discovered an intact fishing boat—the same kind of boat that would have been used by Jesus and His disciples. In fact, radiocarbon dating found that the wooden boat was used sometime around the time of Jesus, give or take 80 years. It can’t be proven that the disciples used this particular boat, but it’d be shocking if they could. The disciples didn’t etch their boat with graffiti such as, “Peter was here.”
Word about the discovery spread quickly, and as archaeologists began to carefully dig out the boat, crowds gathered and vendors sold food and beverages along the beach. Rumors also spread that treasure had been found in the fishing boat, so guards were posted at night.
On the first day of excavation, the experts were amazed when a sudden downpour, lasting only about a minute, created a perfect double rainbow across the Sea of Galilee. One of the excavators said this was like a sign from God, blessing the discovery.
For eleven days, they carefully uncovered the boat—27 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.3 feet high. Back in Jesus’s day, four people would’ve rowed this boat, and it also would’ve had a single sail.
The big question was how to move the ancient boat onto land without it crumbling to pieces. Excavators decided to encase the entire wooden structure in a coat of polyurethane and then float the boat to a spot where it could be lifted out of the water. When the boat floated away, encased in polyurethane, one of the workers stretched out on top, becoming the first person to “sail” the boat in 2,000 years.
My wife, Nancy, and I saw the boat, which some call “the Jesus Boat,” beautifully displayed at the Yigal Allon Galilee Boat Museum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Along the walls surrounding the Jesus Boat are illustrations, photographs, and information about the boat, and one picture in particular caught my eye.
The illustration displayed twelve types of wood that were used to build the Jesus Boat—and two of those woods came from trees with startling names. One wood is called Christ Thorn, a spiky wood that tradition says was used to create the crown of thorns on Jesus’s head when he was crucified. Another type of wood came from the Judas Tree, a tree that legend says Judas hanged himself on when he was crushed by grief over betraying Jesus.
Christ Thorn. Judas Tree.
Both woods were found in the Jesus Boat. And both woods had traditional connections to objects and people who tried to stand in the way of Jesus’s mission.
To me, this boat is a symbol of the strength of the Kingdom of God. This boat had Christ Thorn and Judas Tree wood built into its very fabric, and yet it survived all these years. Similarly, the Kingdom of God will continue to survive and thrive, no matter what forces are arrayed against it. If Judas and the crucifixion can’t stop the Kingdom, what can?
The boat is also a parable of our individual lives. It tells me that we too can survive, even in the midst of terrible trials, if we’re on board with Jesus. He will make your life seaworthy, even when leaks are springing up all around you.
There is no such thing as a perfect world, or Utopia, on this earth. “Utopia” literally means “no place,” so even the word itself tells us there is no perfect place on Earth. Jesus is building His Kingdom out of imperfect, bickering, bumbling people like us. From the very beginning of His ministry, He has been trying to unite us, starting with the bickering Jews and Gentiles in New Testament days.
In Ephesians 2:14-18, Paul writes that Jesus “is our peace,” and He destroyed “the dividing wall of hostility” that existed between Jews and Gentiles. Ironically, Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians when he was in prison for allegedly bringing a non-Jew into the part of the Temple forbidden to Gentiles.
As Paul goes on to say, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace.” Today, He’s still building His Kingdom out of people who squabble, and His goal remains the same—to tear down the dividing wall of hostility.
All followers of Jesus are part of the Jesus Boat, our Ark, and He welcomes us, flaws and all. We’re all in the same boat together. Thank God it’s the Jesus Boat.
I recently listened to a book about the making of the classic movie, The Princess Bride, which featured a humongous actor known as André the Giant. André was a gentle giant, according to the book’s writer, Cary Elwes, who played a lead role in the movie. André stood 7 feet, 4 inches tall, and weighed 520 pounds. But all of that bulk left him with an aching back. Imagine how your body would feel if you carried an extra 300 pounds around with you every day.
It was difficult for Andre to fit into many vehicles, and they couldn’t find a horse that could carry him in the movie. Everywhere he went, people stared. When children saw him, they would either run toward him in delight or flee in terror, screaming.
But André took it all in good stride until he died in 1993 at age 46. (Giants also often live shorter lives.)
The tallest man in recorded history was Robert Pershing Wadlow from Alton, Illinois, who soared to the height of 8 feet, 11.1 inches. He weighed 490 pounds, but in photos he looks quite thin because the weight was spread across an enormous frame. He died especially young—at age 22 due to an infection.
Many giants, including André, suffer from acromegaly, a disorder that creates excessive growth hormones. Some have even theorized that Goliath of Biblical fame suffered from acromegaly. In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell wonders if Goliath might have had vision problems due to this disorder. Why else, he asks, did Goliath talk about David coming at him with “sticks” (plural) when David carried one shepherd’s staff?
But who knows for sure?
One of my favorite stops in Israel was the Valley of Elah, the lush land west of Jerusalem, where David did battle with Goliath. We found a dry streambed running through the field, where tourists (myself included) routinely pick up five smooth stones—just as David did when he was looking for rocks to sling at the giant. Our tour guide told us the stones were probably trucked over to keep replenishing the streambed, so who knows where these rocks really came from. But I still keep them on my bookshelf because, after all, I had gathered them from the Valley of Elah and that’s good enough for me.
In David and Goliath, Gladwell quotes Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces who calculated that a slinger could hurl a rock with a speed almost equal to a bullet from a gun. That’s why ancient armies had entire units of “projectile warriors,” who fired arrows and slung stones.
So David’s sling was a more fearsome weapon than we often give it credit. What’s more, David had the advantage of being fast and nimble because he wasn’t weighted down with armor. (He wisely turned down Saul’s offer to loan him his armor.) Goliath, in contrast, was like a lumbering tank, wearing roughly 100 pounds of armor.
The only vulnerable spot on Goliath’s body was his forehead, which was unprotected. Any slinger worth his salt was highly accurate, so it’s no surprise that David was able to strike him in the forehead, and that Goliath died on the spot. Stones were so deadly that the Romans had a special tool designed solely for pulling rocks from the bodies of injured soldiers.
These are all good reasons why Goliath was defeated by a younger, smaller opponent. But there were two even better reasons—reasons of the heart.
The first: Based on Goliath’s taunting, he was probably suffering from a severe case of pride. “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” he teased the young David. Goliath was quite the trash talker, and after striking fear into the entire Israelite army, his head must’ve gotten quite big, and he became overconfident. Little did he know he was going to soon lose that head.
As Proverbs 16:18-19 says, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.”
But most importantly, Goliath had another, even greater heart problem. He lacked the Lord.
David, who could do a bit of trash talking himself, shouted, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”
Notice the difference in their taunts. For Goliath, it was all about him. The Israelites had insulted him because they sent a boy “with sticks” to battle him. For David, it was all about God. David wasn’t upset that Goliath insulted him. He was upset that Goliath had insulted God.
David had both humility and the Lord on his side. And it didn’t hurt that he could sling stones with the best of them.
Looking at it that way, Goliath really didn’t stand a chance.
We had just stepped off of the bus at the Dan archaeological site in northern Israel when our guide told us to quickly turn around. So our tour group hustled back onto the bus because there had been an incident very close to this site at the border between Israel and Lebanon.
When you’re in Israel, the last thing you want to hear about is a border incident.
We didn’t hear explosions or gunfire, however. We simply obeyed, hopped back on the bus, and headed to our next site—Caesarea Philippi, also in northern Israel.
The northern portion of the country, which includes the Golan Heights, is a point of confrontation between Israel and both Lebanon and Syria. Even in Jesus’s day, this part of Israel was a place of confrontation, where spiritual forces clashed, as I was soon to learn when we drove to Caesarea Philippi.
After we arrived, we hiked up to a massive cliff, with huge boulders scattered all about. Tufts of vegetation stuck from the rocks, which were orange in color with streaks of black running through them. In the midst of the stonework was a huge, yawning cave, like an enormous mouth.
Back in Jesus’s day, people believed this cave was the entrance to Hades—the underworld where people journeyed after they died. It was also the place where Jesus chose to ask the most important question in life: “Who do you say I am?” He asked this of His disciples, but it’s a question that every single one of us must answer during our life.
Caesarea Philippi is about 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, and in the first century it was pagan territory. Not only was the cave thought to be a doorway into Hades, but this grotto was where people worshipped Pan, the god of nature and mountain wilds. Pan was believed to have the legs of a goat and the torso and head of a human.
Jesus didn’t shy away from confrontation, so I don’t think it was coincidence that he chose to ask this important question in the heart of pagan territory.
“Who do you say I am?” He asks in chapter 16 of the Book of Matthew.
At first, the disciples answer by simply repeating what others have said about Him. They point out that some say Jesus is John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah. But Jesus presses them, asking who they think He is.
Leave it to Peter to be the bold one. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” he blurts out in Matthew 16:16.
Jesus is pleased with this response, and He tells Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
When I stood in front of that ominous cave, which pagans believed led directly into Hades, Jesus’s words suddenly came alive. The gates of Hades will not overcome the church.
But Peter is a fascinating man. One moment, he is doing astounding things, and the next moment he’s messing up big time. When Jesus goes on to explain that the Messiah must die, Peter shouts, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”
Then Jesus wheels around and exclaims to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God.”
One moment, Peter is the “rock” on which the church will be built. And the next moment Jesus is calling him a “stumbling block.” But why such anger? And why would Jesus call Peter “Satan” of all things?
There’s a good reason. In the desert, Satan tempted Jesus by telling Him that He didn’t need to die. The devil said that if our Lord would fall down and worship him, he would make sure that Jesus ruled all of the kingdoms of the world. He could be a king without the cross.
In his ignorance, Peter was saying essentially the same thing—that Jesus didn’t need to die. But our Lord knew full well that His road went through Calvary, and as I said, He did not avoid confrontations. He faced evil and death head on.
That is why Jesus asked the most important question of all in the heart of darkness, before the Temple of Pan. “Who do you say I am?”
We all live in a world surrounded by temptations. We all face caves filled with darkness. But in the midst of this darkness, Jesus asks all of us the same question.
Don’t turn away from this question. Face it head on. He’s waiting for your answer.
Walking into the Dead Sea is like trying to walk across a polished floor in roller skates.
When I arrived at the Dead Sea in Israel this past March, I figured I would simply stroll across a sandy beach and stride into the saltiest body of water in the world. Nothing to it, right? I didn’t realize that the Dead Sea’s “beach” was really more of a rock-hard slab slathered with a thin layer of mud—and as slick as ice.
I took one step toward the Dead Sea, slipped, and thought I was going to break my neck, which would’ve given new meaning to the “dead” in Dead Sea.
Fortunately, I kept my balance—but barely. Meanwhile, my wife found it equally treacherous, so she decided to splash around in a puddle located about five feet from the water’s edge. I dubbed it the Dead Sea Puddle, but don’t look for it in your guidebook. Both of us eventually managed to wobble our way from the Dead Sea Puddle to the Dead Sea itself, and we wound up wading in one of the most famous bodies of water on the planet.
The Dead Sea contains 33-percent salt, making it roughly nine times saltier than the ocean. Because it is the saltiest body of water in the world, people do not sink in it, although I wouldn’t know from first-hand experience. After all of the warnings, I opted not to float. Our tour guide warned us about getting salt water in open cuts, he warned us about the risks of swallowing the water, and he said that if we didn’t dry out our swim suits properly, it would make everything in our suitcases stink to high heaven.
I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of carrying a smelly Dead Sea Suitcase through a crowded airport, attracting unhappy stares from people all around us, so we stuck to wading.
The Dead Sea is south of Jerusalem, where the landscape turns dramatically brown and barren—beautiful in its own way. But with so much salt, nothing can live in its water, except for hardy microscopic creatures and perhaps my Uncle Horville. Hence the name, Dead Sea.
The Sea of Galilee, where Jesus based much of his ministry, is in the northern part of this small country, and the difference is striking. Because we visited Israel in the spring, everything around the Sea of Galilee was lush. The grass was as green as Ireland, and flowers sprouted up everywhere. A world apart from the Dead Sea.
The Jordan River flows into the Sea of Galilee from the north, and then it flows out of it in the south, winding its way down to the Dead Sea. But that’s where the water reaches a dead end—pun intended. In contrast to the Sea of Galilee, there is no outlet from the Dead Sea. Water flows into it, but does not flow out of it.
And that, in a nutshell, is why it is so salty.
In most lakes, water flows out, carrying away minerals. But because water does not flow out of the Dead Sea, the salt doesn’t leave. It just builds and builds and builds, and the incredible amount of salt makes it impossible for fish to live there.
Some preachers use the Dead Sea as a picture of a self-centered life. The Dead Sea receives water from the Jordan River, but it doesn’t send out water. It takes, but it doesn’t give, and the result is death and barrenness. The same thing happens if you live your life only for yourself. If you only take, but never give to others, your life becomes as lifeless as the Dead Sea.
This is also what makes the image of the Dead Sea in Ezekiel 47:1-12 so remarkable. In this chapter, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of the Dead Sea, and he says it teems with “large numbers of fish.” Ezekiel goes on to say, “Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean.”
Ezekiel even says fruit trees will spring up all along the Dead Sea, and their leaves will not wither and their fruit will not fail.
Hold on. This doesn’t sound like the Dead Sea we know and love. We spotted no trees, and it would’ve been a miracle if we found any fish. What gives? Why did Ezekiel suddenly see so much life in this lifeless place?
The answer is quite simple. In his vision, water from the Holy Temple of God flowed into the Dead Sea, giving it new life. Where fish once could not live, the water from the Temple suddenly turned it into a SeaWorld paradise. It’s the same in our lives. If we connect with God, if we let His streams of living water flow into our lives, we will be amazed. Our lives will bear fruit, like the trees along the water’s edge. Our Dead Sea existence will suddenly explode with life.
In John 7:37-38, Jesus declares, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” According to John, Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit, which lives in us, like God in His Holy Temple. And these living waters will flow out from us, spreading life everywhere it touches.
God has a way with water. He uses it to cleanse us and nourish us and bring dead things to life. So drink up and drink deeply. Jesus is offering us so much more than a salty puddle. He’s offering us living water straight from His Holy Temple.