Today was day one of our field study along the northern part of the Coastal Plain and the region of Galilee. The focus today was Caesarea and the Great Commission.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:18–20 NIV)
When Jesus spoke to His disciples about being His witnesses to Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth what did his disciples think of as the “ends of the earth”? In that time the “ends of the earth” for Judeans would have been the Coastal Plain. This is the area that once belonged to the Philistines and Phoenicians but had more recently been controlled by Greece and then Rome.
In the first century the city of Caesarea was a beautiful and affluent city of the Coastal Plain. It was one of Herod the Great’s crowning architectural achievements.
There is only one natural port along the coast of Israel. This is at present day Haifa, behind what ancient Egyptians called “The Antelope’s Nose”, aka Mt. Carmel. The rest of Israel’s coast is perfectly straight.
Why did Herod choose to build a port city here at Caesarea? Because he liked to accomplish what was considered impossible. Also, it was a political location which provided good access for administrating his territory. But wait, wasn’t Herod supposed to be a Jew? What is a Jew doing building along the coast?
In Genesis 1 Moses could have used many words to describe the sea and yet he chose the word tahom which means “the deep/the abyss”. In Revelation 21:1, John could have ended his book in many ways and yet he chose to write
“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.”
Why does the ocean get picked on? In Canaanite religion, one of the malevolent gods was Yom, whose name meant “sea”. He was a god of chaos. In Isaiah 57:20-21 the prophet says,
“But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’”
Every time you look at the sea there is mire and mud being washed up onto the shore. It is a good picture of our lives as long as we are held captive by the selfish paradigms of our own life. Yet this is where Herod chooses to construct one of his greatest projects. In doing so he seems to be turning his back on Judaism and turning his face to Rome. Even the theatre demonstrates this as it is facing east towards Rome, rather than west towards the setting sun. Herod was sold out to Rome. He turned his back on the Jewish roots he claimed to have and set up a thriving metropolis that was all about turning its back on Jerusalem and accepting Rome and its pagan culture.
Here on the shores of the Mediterranean were the “ends of the earth” that was known to Jesus’ disciples. The city of Caesarea represented everything that the Jews considered to be wrong in the world. It also represented the good life that everyone desired.
Here in Caesarea a Jewish synagogue has been found during excavations. There is ongoing debate over the identity of the Jews of Caesarea. Were these Jews who had sold out like Herod? Did they give in to the allure of the good life and adapt their beliefs to accommodate their lifestyle? Or, could they have been a group of devout Jews living in the midst of paganism on the shores of the tahom?
Perhaps this is where the first Jewish revolt began. No one knows for sure who these Jews were, but there is a story in the Bible about Peter coming to Caesarea and meeting with Cornelius, the centurion of the Italian Cohort. According to the story, Cornelius and his household all became Christians because of God’s message spoken through Peter. Something interesting about this story is that the Greek word used for the sheet which was lowered down with all of the unclean animals is the word used for the sails of ships on the Mediterranean Sea. So not only was this a sheet full of unclean animals, they were also held in a sail from tahom, the abyss! Peter was not about to fail this test and turn his back on the Torah. He thought this was a test from God. When Peter meets Cornelius he realizes that the “ends of the earth” includes all people, both Jews and Gentiles.
Some people ask where it is that the church should be. Are we wasting time and effort in ministering to those who do not want to hear us? Should the church be set up in only the places where we think it has a chance of taking root and growing?
No one is so lost that God does not desire to bring him or her back unto Himself. He is not willing that any should perish. Who are we to even consider limiting Him and His rescue mission for all of humanity? He is entirely capable of bringing His life and love to the whole world without those who call themselves Christians. Yet, He chooses to include us in this adventure.