Since I’m doing a series of Holy Land & Egypt cruises visiting several cities considered “holy” – Patmos, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ephesus – I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the origin of the term “holy cities”. What makes a particular city “holy”?
In some cases it is because of events which took place. One thinks of Jerusalem, Patmos, Nazareth, the Jordan River and places where miracles took place. Or it may focus on significant people and places they lived or visited, for example the missionary journeys of Paul, or Ephesus where not only Paul lived for a while, but where the Apostle John and Mary the mother of Jesus traditionally lived in retirement. There are places that have become centers of devotion & scholarship like Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, Angkor Wat and the Ganges River.
As an adjective holy can refer to something recognized and declared sacred by religious use; dedicated to service of religion; saintly, godly, pious, devout; having a pure spiritual quality; entitled to worship or veneration or inspiring fear and awe. As a noun it can refer to a place of worship or sanctuary.
Biblically the word holy comes from the ancient Hebrew “qadosh” meaning “to be set apart for a special purpose“. So in the Old Testament Israel was set apart from other nations as servants of God. The furnishings of the Tabernacle were set apart for religious use. And while we may not think of ourselves as “holy”, in the Biblical sense we are in fact set apart from the world to be God’s servants.
When you are assaulted by the crass commercialism of Israel it is easy to forget that you are visiting a “holy” land filled with “holy” places.
Driving from the port of Ashod to Jerusalem you encounter your first real view of the Holy City from the Mount of Olives where . . . it is mass confusion! There are more tour Jerusalem confusion buses crammed onto a narrow street that one even knew existed. All of the buses are disgorging hundreds of tourists with guides shouting in multiple languages. To add to the confusion there are camels and donkeys offering rides, and, just for us, a huge pilgrimage group of evangelical tourists followers of some televangelist, all of whom interpret the Bible in a predictive, futuristic sense. This group concerned that the new Temple be built exactly on the Temple Mount less Jesus be confused by the temple being at the “wrong” location when he comes again. Much shouting, praising God, and raising hands . . . not frankly that there is anything wrong with shouting,
group praising God, and raising hands, but with the camels, donkeys, scores of tour buses, zillions of tourists and general mass confusion . . . it was interesting!
But it WAS never-the-less drop dead impressive! This was it! The Holy City of Jerusalem!
This popular song is not a hymn or religious song but was actually written in the nineteenth century when sentimental religious-sounding songs were popular. The writers were Masons and so the universalist message . . . “The gates were opened wide, and all who would might enter and no one was denied” . . . is actually more Masonic religious doctrine than Christian religious doctrine.
Jerusalem is sacred to three major faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is mentioned 656 times in the OT, 140 times in the NT as well as being mentioned in the Koran. For Jews this is the place where Abraham was willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, the place where Solomon set up his kingdom, and the place where Solomon and later Herod built temples. And the Dome of the Rock is the place of the Foundation Stone, believed to be the exact spot where the original Tabernacle and later the Temple stood and where the “holy of holies” was located, the Ark of the Covenant, and the place where God met his people. For Jews it is the spot where God intersected human history.
For Christians it is the place where Jesus held the Last Supper Passover feast with his disciples, where he was betrayed, crucified, buried and the place where he arose from the dead and appeared to his disciples making Jerusalem the place where God in the person of Jesus Christ intersected history and redeemed humankind.
For Muslims the Dome of The Rock is the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by angel Gabriel to talk with Abraham, Moses and Jesus before returning to earth to call the world to Islam
Jerusalem was a center of civilization for over 4000 years and today is the disputed capital of the modern day state of Israel.
That’s a lot of baggage for any city, and the result is a city divided politically, ethnically, by three major religion, each with various subgroups and with everyone fighting over who controls what. Some kind of holy. Looking out from the Mount of Olives, midst all the confusion, I cannot help but think if Jesus visited here today, once again Jesus would weep.