This is one of the sites of the Jewish revolt and holdout against Rome’s invasion. This site left an impression on the group, as we walked down rocky paths and up the hill to Gamla, through the ruins of the wall, and into the small village’s foundations. The valley’s silence was expansive as we walked, and listened.
The crux of our time here was in the synagogue. Before entering the synagogue, we stopped at the miqveh, the ceremonial bath at the entrance to the synagogue. Before entering the sacred place, and hearing the holy Word of God, Jews entered the miqveh, washed, and exited in order to be cleansed. The temple in Jerusalem was the only authorized place of sacrifice, where the stain of sin was dramatically removed from the people of God, but these miqvehs were the way that Jews rehearsed that cleansing in their local communities before entering worship together.
We sat together in what would have been Gamla’s synagogue. There are no New Testament stories that take place in Gamla, but we were reminded of Mark 1:39, which says, “[Jesus] went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” It is possible that Jesus was here, but what is more certain is that Jesus, as a Jew, would have participated in synagogue worship with his people. We listened together to Luke 4:16-30, prayed, and then spent some time exploring the ruins of Gamla.
Caesarea Philippi, or Banias
Peter’s Confession, Matthew 16:13-28
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Caesarea Philippi was the site of the temple of Pan — in Greek mythology, the satyr (half-man, half-goat) god of shepherds and flocks — and other gods. Pan was, according to the myths, a lusty and frolicking deity, always making music and playing, and usually to be found chasing nymphs in the woods (the strange sounds of which would frighten shepherds at night, hence the word “panic”); the cultic worship of Pan, it can be assumed, was much the same. The resulting revelry and debauchery would have shocked the disciples of Jesus, good Jewish boys from backwoods Galilee. They must have known where they were headed, and I’m sure they were increasingly uncomfortable.
And then Jesus asks this strange question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In a place known for the grotesque worship of a grotesque god, Jesus asks how he is perceived.
Jesus wants more than public opinion, though. “But who do you say that I am?” Quick-Draw Peter gets it: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” A strange confession to make of your Rabbi, that he is “the Son of the Living God.” The mythological Pan was the son of Hermes, the Greek messenger god; the other deities carved in stone standing in the niches at Caesarea Philippi all had similar genealogies. But none of these gods or goddesses or nymphs were living, and none had any power to provide or protect the people frantically worshiping them below. Here, in this bizarre setting, Peter is shown the true identity of the one he follows.
Our group reflected on what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Which rock? What keys? How do we bind and loosen?
In a place of shocking paganism, Jesus reveals his identity and calls his church to stand. As the passage continues, Jesus instructs his followers how he is to be worshiped: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The character of the god determines the character of the worship to that god. We follow a Lord and Savior who laid down his life, took up his cross, and demonstrated self-sacrificial love; we worship by doing the same, often in places where such worship looks particularly foolish.
Lord, give us the strength and courage to take up our crosses and follow you, especially in places where it seems foolish or bizarre to do so.
After looking at the pagan worship center at Banias, we walked the short trail to Tel Dan, a historic Jewish worship center. After King Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel was split, North from South. The Northern Kingdom, still called “Israel,” was ruled by Jeroboam, Solomon’s rebellious servant; the Southern Kingdom, now called “Judah,” was ruled by Rehoboam, Solomon’s impetuous son. Jerusalem, and therefore the temple, was part of Judah, so Jeroboam built two worship centers in the Northern Kingdom to cement their religious independence from the Southern Kingdom. One of these centers was here, in Dan.
We learned some of the basic understandings of sacrifice. This is an area of theology that fascinated me in seminary, particularly because it’s a word we throw around outside of church. We hear people talk about a “sacrifice” being made for family, or career, or personal happiness, and we have to ask, “what is a sacrifice?”
The Old Testament has in view 4 distinct types of animal sacrifice:
If you click through to the passages of Leviticus that describe these sacrifices, you’ll see that there are distinct reasons and orders for each sacrifice, but they have a common purpose: these sacrificial rituals were clear moments of communion with God.
The common understanding of “sacrifice,” I think, fixates on exchange: what is lost, and what is gained. It can be tempting to read the levitical instructions in the same way. An animal (which represents wealth, food, and even status, in the nomadic Israelite culture) is given in exchange for God’s forgiveness. But when we consider the larger purpose of the sacrifice, we discover that exchange is the means, not the end. The purpose of sacrifice is fellowship, communion, unity with God.
Why is it important for us Christians to understand sacrifice? Because we often talk about what Christ did on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. If he was the sacrifice, and the priest, we should understand what we believe happened there.
We can, and certainly should, talk about the exchange. Jesus took on all our sin, and gave us all of his purity and forgiveness. This is an orthodox understanding of atonement. But what if the exchange is simply the means to an end? What if the point wasn’t the exchange, but the unity gained and enjoyed? Wouldn’t that change how we understand salvation?
Of course, it must be stated why sacrifice is necessary for unity. This was the chief insight of today: sin is not merely actions. Our sins (the actions) leave a real, physical substance that marks us. This sin (the condition, like a stain or disease) clings to us long after the individual sinful acts, and begins to color and form us. Both Old and New Testaments describe this stain, and the formation it works on us, as death. This death, the turning away from God (who is life) and in upon ourselves, leaves us incapable of unity with God. So animal sacrifice is prescribed. As early as Genesis 9, the Bible understands that blood is the substance of life itself, and therefore a sort of antidote against the stain of death that marks us. Sacrifice often features blood as a purifier, and it can be gruesome to read all of the objects and people and garments to be marked by blood during the rituals. But when we understand that blood is life, new meaning is found.
In all of this, we can better understand Jesus’ death on the cross, and we also better understand his continuing work in heaven, to which he ascended.
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Hebrews 9:11-14)
This is all getting a bit complex, but the point is this: Christ’s death was the once-for-all sacrifice to make us clean, and he is still working as our Great High Priest, offering his own blood to wash away the stain of our sins so that we can enjoy the fellowship of God the Father through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God for his lavish mercy!
A “tel” is the artificial mound created by layers and layers of civilization built on top of each other. These are particularly interesting archeological excavations, because it is possible to expose several different layers at a time, and learn about the same place in different periods of its history.
As we wrapped up in Tel Dan, we followed the park’s path through to another excavation, this one much older. We came upon the Canaanite Gate, also called “Abraham’s Gate,” which is thought to have been built during the Bronze Age, old enough to be around when Abraham came to Dan to rescue his nephew Lot. There is also a much older gate nearby, and we stopped here to talk about the social significance of city gates.
City gates are more than just the door into the city, but a miniature maze of chambers and plazas, where much of the economic and social life of a village took place. The chambers of the city gates might have been used as storehouses or markets in times of peace, and then filled with rubble or stone as added defense in times of war. Elders would have sat together in the plazas and little alcoves in the gates to discuss social issues, and arbitrate disputes, and conduct business. This is why, in Ruth 4, Boaz goes to the city gates to wait for his kinsman to “redeem” Ruth in the company of the elders.
What are the “city gates” in our own culture? There aren’t many left, and there has been some interesting discussions about the loss of the civic arena, of public squares. Town hall meetings are a quaint memory; civic organizations more and more abdicate their work to professional services. These are still more present in small towns and rural communities, of course, because they need them. Interestingly enough, the sense of community and the possibility for forum left to most of us is increasingly relegated to the internet. How are we as Christians present in these few remaining “city gates?” These are questions we need to think long and hard about.