We’ve been home from Israel for a week now, but I’m still reflecting on our days there…
On our first day of traveling around the Sea of Galilee, there was a slice of me that wished the churches at the sites we visited weren’t there. I could’ve done without the buildings and the tourists and the souvenir shops. That rock that marks where Jesus took five loaves of bread and a couple fish and fed 5,000 people – yeah, I don’t need the church and the famous mosaic around it. They are beautiful in their own right, but let me see the rock as it was nearly 2,000 years ago in the open air. Let me sit on it and feel the same breeze that came in off the Sea of Galilee that the crowd felt, and let me close my eyes to see Jesus in that moment. I don’t need the pews and the stain glass to make this a worshipful site.
Then I got some perspective.
In 326 AD, Queen Helena of the Romans and mother of Emperor Constantine took a Christian pilgrimage to the land of Israel. Constantine insisted that she be protected as she journeyed, so thousands of Roman military went with her. As she traveled, she asked, “Where did Jesus do this?” and “Where did Jesus do that?” When she was shown a historic site, she ordered a group of soldiers to stay behind to build a church there.
In the case of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, as implied thousands of people were first-hand witnesses to the location of the event. In fact, crowds of people often watched Jesus, listened to him, followed him, and believed in him. Here are just a few of the dozens of examples that evidence this throughout Jesus’ ministry –
“Even as he spoke, many put their faith in him” (John 8:30).
“Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak…” (Luke 12:1).
“For he healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him” (Mark 3:10).
“Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name” (John 2:23).
“Then, because so many people were coming and going that [Jesus and his disciples] did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to [his disciples], ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’…But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them” (Mark 6:31, 33).
“When they heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon” (Mark 3:8).
Not only were there many witnesses at the time of Jesus, but these events were well documented in both Biblical and non-Biblical accounts. Three hundred years after Jesus’ time the people of Helena’s time were able to identify where many prominent events occurred. Here’s an analogy. In the United States, it is impressive to see a battlefield from the Civil War or to stand in Independence Hall where our forefathers adopted our Declaration of Independence 232 years ago, but we don’t question the sites of these events. They didn’t happen in our lifetime or our grandparents’ lifetime or even the generation before that. No one around us today was alive in 1776 and there certainly weren’t any computers or telephones or any sort of technology to spread the word of the momentous occasion taking place in Independence Hall. Three hundred years in some contexts is a long time, but in identifying major historical milestones it’s relatively short, particularly for sites that are well documented.
Well, thank God for Queen Helena. Not only did her church planting prevent the construction of WalMarts and Jiffy Lubes on these most precious places, but it also provides additional evidence and validity to the stories of the New Testament. Suddenly my perspective of these 4th century churches all over Israel was one of appreciation and reflection. Suddenly I was able to close my eyes and let each site become a worshipful, meaningful place.
Two thousand years later in a land far away from Israel, people live as though Jesus’ existence were a matter of opinion. This is not like choosing to believe in the existence of Santa Claus; this would be like choosing to believe in the existence of George Washington. No one in Jesus’ time doubted his existence. No one doubted that he said what he said. When the followers of Jesus wrote the New Testament, it would have been so easy for the naysayers of the time to dispute what was written if the events of Jesus’ life were not written factually. They wanted to prevent the spread of Christianity and discrediting the New Testament would have been a quick and simple way to do it. But those opposed to Jesus didn’t do that. They couldn’t do that. Jesus claimed to be God and the Messiah. His opposers hated this concept so much that they crucified him for it and they martyred those that preached Jesus’ message, but they could not ignore the reality of the events. They didn’t like what was happening, but they couldn’t just dismiss it as fiction.
Likewise, we may not like history, but we can’t deny it or redefine it. Fact: Two thousand years ago this man named Jesus spoke to thousands. He preached to thousands, he fed thousands, he healed thousands, he claimed to be God and a Savior for all mankind, and he died on a cross because of his proclamations. This aspect of the story is non-negotiable.
But we do all have a choice. Jesus repeatedly claimed to be the Savior for the sins of the world and claimed to be the only way to heaven. He was either telling the truth or he was very wrong. Choice: Do you believe what he said? Can you defend your choice?