Herod the Great; Jesus the Fit (part 2)
In part 1 of this article, Marshall Shelley describes what his trip to Israel taught him about Herod the Great. Here in part 2, he describes what he learned about Jesus.
One of the best reasons to visit the land of Israel is to see the biblical sites in 3-D. I don't mean donning a pair of plastic glasses to experience theatrical special effects. I'm referring to experiencing not only the length and breadth of the Bible lands, which is helpful in connecting the dots on the maps with the actual distances, but also the third dimension--the height and depth of the terrain.
This is important to me for two reasons. First, I was raised in Colorado and now live in Illinois. Mountains inspire me, whether I'm looking up at them or enjoying a vista from a peak. Psalm 121 is a favorite: "I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth." It's a psalm of ascent, meaning it was meant to be recited while looking up and walking upward. After being used to seeing mountains every day, I now live in a state that is, uh, topographically challenged. A psalm of ascent isn't quite the same in Illinois.
Second, the topography of Israel is important because it reveals something about Jesus. The man was fit! I hadn't seen this in Scripture until I visited the land where he walked. I came away impressed that Jesus was fit in at least three ways.
Jesus was physically fit. The land of Israel is topographically rich. As you travel, you are constantly going up and down. Having hiked in both Colorado and Illinois, I can attest that hiking in the mountains is more strenuous than in the flatlands. And Jesus walked a lot and in very hilly terrain. Elevation matters! Just from Nazareth to the neighboring town of Cana, 6 miles away, is a slope of 500 vertical feet. Whether you are going or coming, your legs will feel that one.
The Sea of Galilee is 682 feet below sea level. That doesn't sound like much until you visit the place and descend from the surrounding heights. About halfway down the steep grade, you pass the sign saying you are at sea level. You still have 682 vertical feet to go.
By comparison, the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall. As a high schooler I climbed down every one of the 897 stairs from top to bottom. Afterward my thighs burned and my legs were trembling from that descent.
From that sea level sign, I realized the vertical drop from there to the Galilee shore was every bit of the Washington Monument ordeal, and then some. Actually it was an additional descent the equivalent of a 12-story building.
Guidebooks in Israel say that to walk the 60 km trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, the fishing village on the Sea of Galilee, takes 3-5 days. One guidebook offered this warning, without a hint of irony: "Wear sturdy hiking boots. Do not attempt this in sandals." It was a laugh-out-loud moment. But it made the point without having to say it: Jesus and his disciples, who walked that grade regularly, in sandals, had to have been physically very fit.
Jesus was historically fit. Not only was Jesus physically fit, a visit to Nazareth convinced me that he was also historically fit.
I hadn't realized it until I got there, but Nazareth is a mountain town, on a ridge approximately 1,650 feet above sea level. As a Colorado boy, I felt at home walking the inclines of Nazareth's streets.
More significantly, the panorama from the top of the ridge is not only spectacular but historically rich. It's a living history lesson. From there you can see:
Mount Tabor, where Deborah and Barak defeated Sisera's Canaanite forces (and later where Jesus' Transfiguration likely took place with Moses and Elijah).
The valley where Gideon and his 300-man force routed the Midianite army.
Mount Gilboa, where Saul and Jonathan were killed by the Philistines.
Mount Carmel, where Elijah defeated 400 prophets of Baal after God miraculously sent fire to consume his sacrifice.
Har Megiddo.The strategic crossroads city where many battles have been fought throughout history and where the climactic battle of Armageddon is foretold to occur.
I wondered if Jesus ever contemplated the historic richness of this place. How could he not? He certainly knew the Hebrew Scriptures. To me it felt like walking with my dad, a history professor, along Boston's Freedom Trail—with significant sites at every turn. You are overwhelmed with the closeness of the past, and your part in a much larger story.
Seeing what Jesus could view from the ridge near Nazareth, it became clear in a way I'd never seen before that Jesus was historically fit.
Jesus was spiritually fit. Three experiences in particular impressed me with Jesus' spiritual fitness. One was walking the hillsides where Jesus would either stay up all night or get up very early in the morning to pray. Jesus took seriously his time with the Father. If he did, how can I not also spend time in prayer?
A second experience was driving through the wilderness near Jesus' baptismal site, where Scripture says "he was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil" (Luke 4). After 40 days, he was hungry and the devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread." The wilderness is a barren, intensely rocky environment. When all you can see is stone, and you've had nothing to eat for more than a month, that temptation to turn stones to bread must have been powerful. But Jesus overcame the temptation.
The third experience was following the path Jesus took from the Garden of Gethsemane to Caiaphas's house to the site where Pilate examined and then condemned him, and then along the Via Dolorosa to the place traditionally identified as the site of the crucifixion.
Walking that distance, almost four miles, knowing that for much of it, Jesus, having been arrested, was likely roughed up and beaten, makes you appreciate his fitness, strength, and determination. Climbing the stairs, ascending the slopes, making your way through the crowded and narrow streets, seeing the places where it's believed that Jesus fell, only to get up again and continue his journey to the cross—it all deeply impressed me with the spiritual strength that Jesus had. How tempting it must have been to just give up!
The verses from Hebrews kept replaying in my mind: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12:2-3).
Yes, during my time in Israel, I was able to "consider him" who endured such things, consider his physical and historical and spiritual fitness. And that consideration continues to nourish me and helps make me more fit so as not to grow weary or lose heart.
Marshall Shelley is editor in chief of Leadership.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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