I woke up early, slathered as much sunscreen on as possible, gathered my notebook and pen, and headed for the bus. Anticipation and excitement built inside me for this trip it was hard for me to believe I was finally there. It took months of prayer, leaps of faith, and a whole lot of heavy conversations between my husband and I to finally be there, in the very place God promised to take me over a year before.
It felt like I was in a dream. People were conversing all around me. I sat silent on our tour bus, only able to stare out my window, in shock at the landscape that was before me. It wasn’t at all what I expected from the second I stepped out of the plane. When I pictured Israel, I pictured dessert and camels. Instead, this land was lush, green, and thriving.
The mountains were soaring into the clouds, speckled with wild olive trees, green vineyards, and large date trees dripping with ripe fruit, just waiting to be plucked and eaten.
There went my first blinder of deceit. God called this land “fruitful”, but I thought that was a phrase used to describe what once was. No, it’s now; it’s today. Mike, my husband, grabbed my hand, and smiled. He pulled my mind back into reality as we boarded our tour bus.
“We’re here. Get your book bag,” he said.
I filed off the bus into a sea of other tourists, all wearing their wide-brimmed hats and “Whispers”, the tiny ear bud attached to the sound box hanging around our necks by a lanyard. These were small listening devices that allowed our tour guide the opportunity to speak softly into her microphone, allowing us to hear her no matter how close in proximity we stood. If you looked up “tourist” in the dictionary, there would have been a picture of me and my group. Never in my life would I have wanted to look this “touristy”, but halfway across the world? I invited it.
Nothing was familiar. The common language is Hebrew and/or Arabic, its’ letters indistinguishable, to an English-speaking girl from Virginia like me, even on the road signs. It was intimidating yet, intriguing. The currency is still Shekels; which took some getting used to.
Shekels? Like, straight out of the bible. It’s like I hopped off the plane into a time warp that dropped me off back in time, way back. It was both unsettling and intriguing, all at the same time.
The tower of tan rocks stood before our group. I stood staring at it, wondering what history those rocks would tell if they could speak. It reminded me of the coliseum in Rome, just on a slight smaller scale. This wall was the first sight I had of Caesarea. It was the amphitheater we would move into and sit, learning our first bit of information about this beautiful, coastal town.
Katherine, our tour guide, ushered us into the theater, and we all took our seat on the large, smooth stones that once held Roman leadership, gentiles, and where the launch of the great commission took place. The amphitheater once held between 3,000 and 5,000 people. It’s the place where the Romans made huge announcements and entertained their people. It’s where they imposed their Roman ideology on to the people of Israel.
But this is also the very amphitheater Peter preached to the Gentiles for the first time (found in Acts 10) and where he shares the gospels with Cornelius. I was sitting in the very place, envisioning the large stage in front of me with Peter, preaching to the gentiles, the starting point of missions. I pictured what it would be like, the holy spirit falling down on every person, hearing their shouts of joy and admiration for their savior. My pen was boring a hole in my notebook and it wasn’t even ten o’clock in the morning.
Back to the darker portion of history of this place. The Roman theatrics on this stage were extreme. The towering pillars would have held scantily dressed Romans, draped in togas, representing their Gods, parading their ideology in front of a crowd of Jewish people who sat in the very seats I currently rested in. They would fly down from the tops of the columns and swing down to the floor, trying hard to impress the onlooking crowd of Jewish people.
I could feel how frustrated and oppressed they must’ve felt as they were ushered in and forced to watch. This ideology went against everything they believed. It would’ve been offensive; blasphemous. My heart stung and my stomach turned as I imagined how they felt, completely disrespected and mistreated. I could feel the weight and darkness of oppression sweep over me as Katherine spoke into my ear.
This is the very place the Jewish revolt against the Roman empire took place. Just forty years after the death of Jesus, Rome used Caesarea, the capitol of Israel at the time, to institute “Pax Romana”. This term meant “Roman Peace”, but it was a false peace.
The Roman empire was “Christianized” in 313 AD, under Constantine, who used this false sense of peace to wreak havoc on the Jewish people. He made Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, illegal in 333 AD under the umbrella of Pax Romana. Removing the ability for the Jewish people to celebrate their holy rest, mandated by God, provoked the Jewish people into revolt against the Romans.
This was the root of separation of the bible. My mind was so confused. How could something representing peace under the guise of Christianity be used as a mask to hide some of the greatest oppression of the Jewish people, God’s chosen people? It all began where I stood. More weight, more darkness.
Rome used its conversion to Christianity to then illegalize the Old Testament. More oppression, but now to the cross. It started with God’s chosen people and then spread to the savior himself. The lies layered upon one another, building off the one before it. I could see the enemy’s hand laying on the backs of every Roman leader, deceiving the people, with crooked smiles and perverse joy. I swallowed the lump in my throat as the vision of evil passed through the confines of my mind.
“This is how the enemy works. He waits for us to accept a small sin, making room for more, distancing us further and further from truth.” I wrote in my notes.
This wasn’t a new tactic, but one that’s been used time and time again, from generation to generation, nation to nation. How could we see this and let it continue?
“We forget.” I whispered under my breath.
My heart was so heavy as we stood to walk into the next section of Caesarea. So many lies used to oppress the Jewish people and destroy the name of Jesus just forty years after He died on the cross. I walked with notebook in hand, recognizing this trip was already shaking up the foundations of what I’d always believed to be true.
Another blinder of deceit being lifted from my naïve eyes. I never fully understood how the Jewish people had been oppressed throughout the ages, and I was now learning that it’s been happening since the first temple period.
“The rocks with cry out”, Jesus said, in Luke 19:40.
Oh, how the rocks of Caesarea cry. Each one telling a story of their own. They stand to serve as a reminder of the truth we as humans so easily forget. My heart beat faster, the heat beat down on my chest as sweat trickled down my neck, landing on the collar of my already damp shirt.
“Remember to drink water,” I heard my pastor, Michael, say through my whisper.
I needed those reminders. My mind wandered in the things my eyes and mind were learning; the needs of my body were easily lost in the revelations pouring into my ear by Katherine.
We began to walk through the other side of the amphitheater. We learned about old sarcophagus’ and archeological remains scattered around. Katherine was the equivalent of a walking history book being played in my ear. I was in heaven. I couldn’t get enough. Writer’s cramp was a real thing on this trip.
A wall towered in front of me, separating my eyes from the sounds of the crashing waves just beyond it. We filtered through the door of the remains of the amphitheater and when I looked up, I gasped.
The sounds of the Mediterranean Sea crashed in the distance, just beyond the wall in front of me. As I passed through the small opening, I gasped. The remains of King Herod the Great’s seaside palace took my breath away. Was I really looking at his palace? My eyes took in the wonder and beauty as I stood overlooking the rest of the whole town.
Herod’s pillars still stood on top of the remains of his courtyard. The mosaic tile from his freshwater pool were being uncovered, chiseled away by archeologists meticulously uncovering thousands of years of history. Tarps covered their ongoing excavations and tourists, like me, were taking pictures of the things they were seeing. My hand reached out and touched the columns that King Herod may have once touched.
“How? How could he have built this type of palace, with a pool, at the very edge of the shoreline?” I rhetorically asked Mike, who seemed to nod, wondering the same thing.
I imagined Harrod soaking in his seaside pool, conversing with friends and leaders in his courtyard, surrounded by the colorful mosaics and lush botanicals. These rocks gave me a window into what life may have looked like so long ago. It seemed so silly, but I wanted to cry.
I could feel the tears welling up inside me, but I swallowed them down, and continued to walk and listen. It was too early to cry, after all, this was only the first stop. I was overwhelmed with where I was walking and what I was hearing.
The large, oval, sand covered area was where we would head to next. As the group walked along the coast, my feet felt the soft, dry sand underneath my sandal, cradling my every step. A false sense of comfort.
We found a little shaded spot with some rocks and wooden tables to sit. Our group gathered there to listen and learn about what we just walked through. I had no idea what it was or what it would’ve been used for.
Some of the remains of the fresh water pools just outside the palace walls pictured above.
The teens in our group ran down from the seaside palace and laughed as their bare feet touched the shores of the sea. Their eyes filled with excitement and joy as they soaked in the experience with friends and family. It made me happy to watch them, but it made me miss my kids. I wondered for a moment what they were doing and imagined one day bringing them to the very land I was walking. I imagined them as teens doing the very things the teens with us were doing.
“Herod the Great, known as ‘the great builder but also the great pretender’ dedicated much to different Gods”, Katherine said in her slightly English accent. Her voice would be a welcomed and regular sound in my ear for the next ten days. Every time her voice echoed in my earbud, I learned so much about the things my eyes were seeing. Her voice breathed life back into the rocks I was seeing.
Herod the Great was brilliant but evil. He was extremely wealthy, owning dozens of palaces. He was of Jewish and edomite. The edomites are a people stemming from the family line of Esau. Here lies one of the greatest revelations about Herod.
It says in Malachi 1, “I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated”. How could God hate Esau? Esau flippantly gave up his birthright as the first born to Jacob, for a bowl of soup. His birthright made him heir to the covenant made between God and Abraham. This birthright was a link in the line of descents through which the promised messiah was to come (Numbers 24:17-19).
The truth is, Esau considered God’s covenant and his birthright worthless, amounting to less than a bowl of stew. God knew Esau was a godless man and that he would produce a generation of enemies to Israel, God’s chosen land, but God also knew Jacob was a man of integrity. Therefore, Jacob was preordained to be the lineage of Jesus.
Herod, being apart of the lineage of Esau, was hated by God because of his own Godless character. He may have been brilliant and wealthy, but He worshiped himself. However, God is still God and can use the hearts of stone in any man for the His glory. And this He did in Herod.
“I guess all the lineage stated in the old testament really does have a purpose” I whispered to my husband. He gave me a little laugh, rubbed my back, and opened his eyes a little wider as we continued to listen and walk.
Mike and I standing on the overlook point of Caesarea, looking down at the palace and the hippodrome for the first time, pictured above.
Harrod the Great invented hydraulic cement making his seaside palace in Caesarea possible. He recognized the trade of the world was located in Israel and if he owned it, he would control the wealth of the world. So, he built the port of Caesarea to house over three hundred ships with huge jetties that held back the sea to make the port larger. He did this in honor of his then friend, Caesar Augustus.
In Herod’s day, the sandy floored hippodrome I walked through hosted the Olympic Games. This is the place where Romans would satiate their thirst for blood. Gladiator against gladiator, animal against animal, prisoner against gladiator, prisoner against animal, all different types of horrific fights to the death occurred on the beautiful, white sandy floor of this now, peaceful hippodrome.
The sand once absorbed the massive amounts of blood spilled on the very floor I walked on that day. The wind would carry the stench of death into the crashing waves as Romans would sit, shouting for more and cheering on the brutal games before them. This was entertainment. This, made my stomach curl in knots.
Worse than these games came a fate much more horrific for the Jewish people. During King Titus’s reign, he called for the heads of 2,500 Jewish people as a birthday present.
“A BIRTHDAY present?!?” I exclaimed, with an exasperated face.
My pen took a jarring stab at the paper underneath. I looked up and saw thousands of innocent men, women, and children, brought to their knees, and decapitated as Roman onlookers cheered this on.
Titus’s response to this massacre? “This wasn’t enough Jewish heads”.
The blood lust for God’s people now colored the white sand before me with crimson red. The sound of the sea billowing in the background turned from peaceful to heartache.
I stood up, choked back tears, placed my pen in the top of my notebook, and walked in silence toward the exit. We passed by souvenir shops, restaurants, and a little gelato shop where kids were enjoying a cool treat, laughing and running, oblivious to what once happened where we stood.
I hated it.
I couldn’t stomach the thought of people making money on the very ground where so many were killed. As our group took a bathroom break, I sat under a tree on a little stone wall near our pastor, Michael Hines, as he gathered people around. His voice in my earbud would soon represent the biblical context that would penetrate my own heart throughout the trip.
He reminded us that this was the place Paul tells his story of conversion to King Agrippa and began his fateful journey to Rome (Acts 27). How unlikely God would choose the setting of Caesarea for the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken in Isaiah 49:6. God chose the site of Paul’s imprisonment under Felix and trial before Festus as the very place that Israel would be “a light for all nations”.
God chose Caesarea, the place where both oppression of Jewish people and pagan worship sored to birth the promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as many “as the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). The very sand stained crimson red in the hippodrome would represent the promise He would fulfill for the gentiles, for Abraham, and for His people.
This place was filled with both great sadness and great hope and was the starting ground for the greatest faith journey I’ve ever experienced. This was the site that began my own pilgrimage, fulfilling Ephesians 2:12-13 for the gentiles. We, though “strangers and aliens” from the “covenants of promise” have been “brought near by the blood of Christ” came alive in the rocks of Caesarea.
I knew this land would invite me in and leave me completely transformed and inspired to deliver truth and hope to everyone willing to hear. This was the launching point of my own great commission, and the place where the holy spirit would begin to fall fresh on my heart, just as it did in the amphitheater, thousands of years ago, as the gentiles felt the holy spirit fall fresh on them listening to Peter.
Next stop, Mount Carmel.
Points of Reflection:
I believe you are the son of God and that you came and died on the cross for my sin. Please forgive me of my sins and for turning my back on you. I trust you with my life, as my Savior, and I wish to follow you as my Lord, and turn from my own ways. I invite the holy spirit to come and live in me from this day forward. Guide my life, Jesus, and help me do your will.
I pray this in the name of Jesus.
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