I’ll never forget my first visit to Bethlehem. In the city of Jesus’ birth, we spent the bulk of our time shopping. Sounds like Christmas, doesn’t it?
(Photo: Bethlehem olivewood shop. By ecjones)
Gold jewelry set with opals and diamonds sat alongside bowls, oil lamps and other imitation artifacts. Olivewood statues filled the interior of the large establishment, coloring the whole room light brown.
Name any biblical character or animal, and there was an olivewood statue for you! Favorites included:
- Samson pushing the pillars.
- David slaying Goliath.
- And, of course, Nativity scenes of every shape, size and price—from a few bucks to a few thousand.
And the tourists fell upon the plunder.
One wooden figurine caught my eye, a bust of Elvis Presley, and I had to grin. Elvis in Israel? I called over the owner, a proprietor who can smell a tour bus a mile away, and asked him my question.
He corrected me and told me who it really was.
Bethlehem’s main attraction centers on the oldest standing church in Israel. The ancient structure marks the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, and yet, it isn’t much to look at.
Built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian, the Church of the Nativity sits on top of the location of the original octagonal church Constantine’s mother, Helena, constructed just a few centuries after Jesus.
When I went there earlier this year, it looked altogether uninspiring and unassuming.
To me, that’s appropriate.
There has always been only one way to God—even in the Old Testament. That way is by grace through faith in the object of God’s choosing. Bethel gives us a peek at that way.
In his flight to Haran, Jacob spent the night at Bethel, where years earlier his grandfather Abraham had heard God promise that he would receive all the land as far as he could see. There, Jacob dreamed of a stairway to heaven, and the Lord repeated to him the promises that Abraham received.
Shaken, Jacob awoke and cried:
How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. —Gen. 28:17
Jacob named the site Bethel—“house of God.” The dream gave more than a vision of God’s house.
It offered a foreshadowing of how to get there.
One morning when I was in Jerusalem, I chose to have my devotions on the Mount of Olives at sunrise. Making my way through the Old City’s dark and narrow streets, I passed beside the Temple Mount and exited the city on its east side.
(Photo: Overlooking Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Photo: צולם ע, via Wikimedia Commons)
After climbing the steep ascent of the Mount of Olives, I sat near its summit as the sun began to warm my back. Turning to Matthew’s Gospel, I read about Jesus leaving the Temple, predicting its destruction, and sitting on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:1–5).
Looking across the Kidron Valley at the Temple Mount—now crowned with a Muslim shrine—I thought about how Jesus’ prediction proved true. Because Israel rejected Him, they ultimately lost the very objects they hoped to secure through His death—their Temple and their nation (John 11:48).
Suddenly I heard a sound that jerked my mind in another direction.
The event in Cana of Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine also occasioned the first gentle shove He would receive from His followers to get God’s kingdom rolling. The first of many.
Jesus’ mother, Mary, may have been the first to nudge Jesus toward dispensing the blessings of the kingdom—but she wouldn’t be the last. Many times, the Lord would have to rein in the pushing of others in favor of God’s timing for blessing.
It’s all about timing. God’s timing.
Sometimes it’s tough to serve God in the shadows. You show up faithfully. You contribute your part, but no one seems to notice. Matthias may have felt that way.
Ever since John the Baptist had prepared the way for the Messiah, Matthias had followed.
- He had walked in Jesus’ footsteps from the Jordan River to the rugged hills of Galilee.
- He had followed the Savior with passion and persuasion.
But without recognition. Matthias was a willing unknown.
In those moments we beg God to rescue us from our insignificant lives, believing nothing important is happening with us, Matthias reminds us that just the opposite is true.
His name is a byword for betrayal. But it never began that way. “Judas” is the Greek form for the Hebrew name Judah—a common designation in ancient Israel.
(Painting: “The Judas Kiss” by Gustave Doré, Public Domain, via Wikimedia)
Judas’s treacherous betrayal came as a complete shock to all who knew him. On the surface, he appeared as dedicated as all the other apostles.
- Chosen by Jesus.
- Worker of miracles.
- Even entrusted as treasurer.
So when Jesus foretold His betrayal at the Last Supper, no disciple at the table pointed and said, “Aha, Judas! I knew there was something about you!” The whole group remained clueless. Each one, in fact, asked, “Surely not I, Lord?” (Matthew 26:22).
Strangely, even Judas asked. Don’t you wonder why?
Sometimes what you expect is not what you get. You come to a situation that promises one thing, but you get another. Monday of Passion Week proved that way for Jesus.
The day before that Monday, on Palm Sunday, Jesus hopped on a donkey His disciples had borrowed from Bethphage (meaning “house of unripe figs”).
After His Triumphal Entry on the colt, Jesus entered the Temple area and found the Court of the Gentiles—the area for Gentiles to worship God—filled with markets and moneychangers. Jesus promptly cleaned house, saying:
It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer;” but you are making it a “robber’s den.” —Matt. 21:13
Monday morning, Jesus returned to Jerusalem along the same road He had traveled before. He saw a fig tree in leaf, which typically indicated that it would have unripe figs to eat. But the tree offered only leaves. No fruit for breakfast.
So Jesus cursed the tree. And His disciples heard Him. We should hear Him too.
His words indicate what Jesus is looking for in our lives.
It’s always easier to react to life rather than to shape it. To go with the flow rather than to dig a new trench. Obviously, we want to respond well to what life throws at us. It’s assumed we should do that.
But I believe God gives us help to choose the direction of our lives. To live intentionally for Him. I don’t mean we choose what happens to us, but rather, that God has given us the freedom to make significant choices in spite of our circumstances.
Jesus’ example shows us what choices to make to live intentionally for God.
Two questions can help us do that.
We are more than physical creatures with physical needs. Notice in most prayer meetings that you’ll hear requests for God to help with the tangible needs. That’s fine, except it often ends there.
We don’t always realize how desperate our need is for truth beyond the tangible.
The trouble is, when we face temptation, our challenge is anything but physical—even when the temptation appeals to a physical needs or desires.
Overcoming temptation begins long before temptation.
Jesus shows us how.