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Saturday, 30 July 2016

He Went All That Way Just To...

As this is written at the last weekend in July, here in the UK all the schools have closed for the Summer - and individuals, couples, and families take their car for the long drive to their resort, or take the train, as one friend of mine is doing today, or head for the airport. The annual break involving long distance travel in one form of another can be the source of either excitement or stress, often both. Bored kids making a fuss at the back seat of a car stuck in traffic, trains delayed or even cancelled, your reserved train seat taken by someone else and are left to decide whether to stir up a fracas or humbly find another vacant seat. Then the hassle of airport check-in, passport and security hold ups, flights delayed up to six hours, sharing the cabin with a nearby screaming infant whose parents are unable to pacify, or to find yourself sitting directly behind a passenger who punches the seat recline button from the moment of take-off. Not to mention in-flight meals which is practically inedible.

The in's and out's of the annual dose of the Three S's - Sun, Sea, and Sand. People who has worked hard all year to save enough to afford such a break, others who had exhausted their credit cards and so pushing out of their minds the reality of a huge bill awaiting their return home. There are even some who boarded the 'plane holding a special deal ticket, like I did in 1997 on a flight to Singapore, and are not only 38,000 feet above the ground but over the moon as well. And so, with a generation which takes long-haul travel for granted, away from the workplace, Summer life beats on.

Like the year I did a little backpacking in the Holy Land back in 1993, 1994 and again with Alex in 2000. Not only were these exciting in themselves, they were spiritually enhancing, visiting sites mentioned in the Bible. In all three trips I stayed at a small backpacker's hostel, a medieval building near the heart of Jerusalem Old City, from where it wasn't difficult to board an Israeli Egged Bus to any part of the country, including Haifa up north or Eilat near the border with Egypt. Other routes I have used includes Haifa to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, one route stopping at Nazareth while another taking the main road bypassing this ancient city. Also Haifa to Acre, a comparatively short ride of just a few miles, along with a considerably longer journey from Jerusalem to Masada, passing through En Gedi Nature Reserve and Resort on the west coast of the Dead Sea. Then the route I have used often, the Egged Bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. And finally, why not mention the Palestinian-run buses to Bethlehem and Hebron from the Arab bus station, situated well away from the Jewish bus station on the western side of the New City, which involved a 15-20 minute walk from Jaffa Gate of the Old City.

It was on one of these bus rides that have gotten me to think about Jesus Christ and how he got about throughout his ministry. Purely on the human, physical side, by comparing myself to Jesus Christ, I couldn't help feeling a little embarrassed. If I was late to catch a bus, I would feel panicky. The same if I had found myself in the middle of nowhere if the passing bus failed to turn up. The sheer remoteness of the En Gedi Nature Reserve bus stop in the middle of nowhere amidst a desert environment was rather unsettling for me as well as my wife who was with me, then over eighteen weeks pregnant with our first daughter. 

And that she was pregnant whilst in the middle of the desert is food for thought here, even at the time such thoughts never crossed my mind. But supposing she had a sudden bleed at that bus stop? Yes, what then? Most likely panic would have compelled me to step onto the deserted road and flag down the first car that came along, to beg for a rush to the nearest hospital. Fortunately, nothing of any of that occurred. The bus arrived, a little late, but a rush of relief as the modern, air-conditioned bus began to speed us back to Jerusalem.

And all this takes me back to the days of Abraham and his wife Sarah, living in tents as nomads out in the desert. There were plenty of pregnancies successfully coming to term, leading to healthy births taking place in such an environment during that time. No hospitals, no monitors, no medicine or any medical or surgical procedures. No teams of doctors or nurses. Yet a record of successful births. Abraham's firstborn, Ishmael out of Hagar, then Isaac out of Sarah, Midian and four other sons out of Keturah. It seems apparent that being much closer to Creation in time than the present day, the human genome used to be far more robust back then. Therefore the chance of miscarriage and stillbirths were very few and far-between. The vast majority of births occurred without incident, but according to Genesis 35:17, well-trained midwives existed, giving a clue that Hagar, Sarah, and Keturah all gave births under trained supervision, when hospitals were non-existent.

The theory of the human genome enjoying a far superior and robust existence in the distant past may clear up a mystery of the aged Sarah being taken in the harem of Abimelech King of Gerar (Genesis 20). She might have been already pregnant with Isaac. Yet she was already in her nineties, and herself admitting "I'm well past child bearing, as with my master. So should I have pleasure?" (Genesis 18:11). I tend to imagine a woman in her nineties to be stooped, in need of a walking aid, her body skin very crinkly, and crowned with thin white hair. But apparently, in the days of Sarah, with stronger genome, she was still strikingly beautiful with an element of youthfulness, even at her old age, therefore attracting the king's attention, just as Pharaoh king of Egypt attempted to take her into his harem some years earlier.

But it was the mode of travel which intrigued me while sitting in an Israeli bus that day in 1993. I have wondered whether the robustness of the human genome at the time of Jesus Christ had made him and generally most men at the time far more hardier than our present generation, with the ability to travel over miles without any motorised or mechanical aid. True enough, donkeys were available for long journeys, and Mary, then pregnant with Jesus, most likely rode on one from Nazareth to the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Jerusalem, a distance of about seventy miles 113 km, as well as with Joseph to Bethlehem a few months later. Then there is a case of the two men from Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. The resurrected Lord met them along the way, and he agreed to enter their home and have supper with them. After revealing himself to them, they both were excited enough to return to Jerusalem to inform his disciples (Luke 24:13-33). And according to verse 15, they were both walking and not riding on donkeys. Therefore to walk fourteen miles 23 km, in the space of an afternoon was quite something, by comparison to our present mode of travel. Whether they returned to Emmaus straight after, making the entire walk some 21 miles, 34 km, all in an evening, we are not told.

Jesus travelled entirely on foot throughout his ministry, only using a donkey for his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The overall distance from Jerusalem to Caesaera Phillipi, where Peter confessed Jesus "to be the Christ, the Son of the living God" is 105 miles, 170 km, which is in the region of northern Galilee (Matthew 16:13-20).  Throughout his ministry, Jesus covered that distance and more, including his visit as an adolescent to Hebron to pay honour to his founding fathers buried at the Cave of Machpelah. To be honest, I would be very surprised if throughout his life, Jesus had never seen the very fortress built over the cave by Herod the Great a few years before the Nativity, and the very same structure still standing now, which I have seen with my own eyes.

The fortress at Hebron, familiar to both Jesus and me.

But of all his journeys, the most intriguing for me must have been the one he made from the Gennesaret region of Galilee, on the east coast of the lake, to Tyre in Sidon, a journey of about 38 miles, 62 km, and recorded in Matthew 15:21-28. He starts on a journey, again by foot, with his twelve disciples. The trip must have taken them at least two days, into a territory that wasn't even within the ancient area of Israel, but in the Phoenician stretch of coastline which is now Lebanon. There a Canaanite woman approached Jesus to heal her daughter of demonic possession. In this case Jesus walked by, ignoring her, and looking as if they whole journey was wasted, for there is no record of him having ministered to anyone else in Tyre. 

As Jesus turns to the woman, he declares that he is here to minister to the house of Israel, and not to the dogs. According to some scholars, the reference to "dogs" here is more akin to a household pet rather than a feral beast such as a wolf. The Canaanite mother apparently realises this, because she goes along with the analogy:
Yes, but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which falls from the master's table.
-Which depicts a household pet. Jesus was impressed with her faith and proceeded to heal her daughter.

This may be a little story almost hidden within the midst of the Lord's ministry to the Jews. But it is a story which tells a lot. The moment he summoned his disciples to start on a journey north to Tyre, he already knew the purpose of his mission. He was fully aware of this Canaanite woman, most despised by the Jews, and her suffering daughter. We read of just these two, mother and daughter, with no record of a husband and father whose duty was to love and look after his family, as it would have most likely have been his duty to inform Jesus about his daughter's plight.

The unnamed mother was despised by the Jews as one being outside the Covenant with God and therefore rendered unclean by them. Even his disciples, their patience already running low, tried to persuade Jesus to ignore her. I guess it was Peter who made the loudest protest, as it was he who later found it difficult to come face to face with Cornelius, another non-Jewish convert. Peter simply saw this woman as an abomination, in keeping with Jewish culture and customs. But not for the Lord Jesus.

Despite the gruelling history of the Canaanites and their mistreatment of ancient Israel, Jesus still loved this woman, just as God loved Rahab the Canaanite prostitute who gave shelter to Joshua's spies during the siege of Jericho, and her faith was rewarded by becoming the ancestress of King David and of Jesus himself. Along with Cornelius, God will always have respect for anyone with faith in him, whether he be Jewish or not. And Peter had to learn the hard way. After her daughter was delivered from the demon who possessed her, Jesus began to make the 35+ miles back to Galilee to continue his ministry, to eventually walk the 85 miles, 138 km, from Capernaum, to be crucified in Jerusalem.

What a demonstration of God's love! To hike 38 miles just to save the daughter of one woman, who wasn't even Jewish, then to hike back to his normal region of his ministry, a round trip of almost eighty miles. But the healing of her daughter meant much more. It was to demonstrate to the city of Tyre itself that the Messiah has arrived, and by believing, many more will be redeemed. Although not recorded in Scripture, there is a slight possibility that this woman and her daughter had made their way south, where the fame of Jesus was a lot more prevalent, and there is an equal possibility that she and her daughter might have been two of the 120 in the upper room, recorded in Acts 1:15-16. This is only a speculation, of course.

But a Canaanite at a predominately Jewish assembly of believers? And Peter himself at that point still unconvinced that their Messiah has atoned for the non-Jews as well? But this is the result of being under the Shadow of the Cross. Their conviction of sin and redemption must have been so strong, that every ethnic, cultural, and gender barrier has been removed, at least temporary at the time. A leader of the Pharisees sitting next to a Canaanite woman with both of them deep within the Shadow of the Cross will be more conscious of their crucified and risen Messiah than his awareness of who is sitting beside him, especially of his own guilt in being involved in his crucifixion in the first place.

And that is what the Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ has come to achieve: the removal of ethnic, cultural, and gender barriers, reconciling the Jew to the Gentile as well as mankind to God. It was an effort worth demonstrating, even if the Lord had to undertake an eighty mile 130 km, walk just to heal the daughter of a non-Jewish woman. There is something about the love of Christ for this person with which the car, or for that matter, even a donkey, would have never sufficed. 

I guess most of us who read Holy Scripture, and particularly the Gospels, may read through the reality of the Lord's ministry in a glib way, overlooking the comparatively difficult way Jesus had to get around when compared to today's methods of motorised transport. And not only Jesus, but the whole of the population, as it's recorded that a large crowd of people journeyed with him to many locations, covering many miles on foot. Perhaps with a more robust genome within the population, the feelings of tiredness and lethargy we would have experienced might have been less obvious.


  1. Dear Frank,
    Thank you for this excellent post, which reminds us of the amazing hardships Jesus and His contemporaries faced, even Paul and the early church boldly going way beyond their comfort zone to share the Gospel. We now have so many conveniences, yet I know I am often guilty of being "too busy," or there being "too much traffic," or "bad weather," or having some other lame excuse not to go witnessing or giving out Scripture.
    I think you raise a great point about the human genome being much more robust then than it is now. Once Adam's choice brought the curse of sin upon the world, mutations developed and diseases became more rampant. Throughout the generations this became worse and worse, which is why, biologically speaking, marrying one's relatives is forbidden in recent times. Yet back in Adam's day, siblings could marry (and had to, because there was as yet no one else) without genetic ill effects.
    God bless,

  2. Frank, I agree with you that modern conveniences often interfere with our understanding of scripture, not only of the gospels but of the Old Testament as well. Because they walked everywhere they came in close contact with a lot of people we would sinply drive past. They were aware of natural things, things God had made to degree most people anre not. Their choices of routs were largely controlled by the availability of water. They were in general healthier than people today, simply because they got more exercise, and ate more natural food. They understood that survival required rain and suitable weather for the crops to grow adn the importance of the farmer or shepherd to their society. Modern conveniences have separated us from these things, with the result many people don't seem to understand why they matter.