As sons and daughters included in God’s family by grace alone, we are part of the spiritual Jerusalem that has infinitely more worth than the temporal city now under the rule of Christ-hating and hedonistic Jews.
Nonetheless the temporal city of Jerusalem still holds a special place in Christian history. It is where Christ and the apostles fought their most bitter spiritual battles against unbelieving Jews and worldly pagans. It was the capitol of the ancient Israelite kingdom under David, and was the site of the temple where God’s people came to worship Him.
Out of Christian love for their Eastern brethren and in order to show their devotion to God, our Western European forefathers liberated Jerusalem and the surrounding regions of the Holy Land from Islamic rule during the Crusades.
Legend tells us that towards the end of the Third Crusade in 1191, when Richard the Lionhearted had decided that he would have to leave the Holy Land to crush a plot to overthrow his kingdom in England,
There came to King Richard a certain man-at-arms, who was well acquainted with the country, for indeed, he had travelled on foot as a pilgrim from the coast to Jerusalem, and this not once only but twice or thrice.
This man said, “My lord King, if you are minded to see the Holy City, you can do so at little pains. If you will ride a mile or so you will come to a hill from whence you can see the walls, and the hill on which the temple was built and other of the Holy places.”
But the King answered, “I thank you much, nor, indeed, is there any sight in the whole world on which I would more gladly look with my eyes, but I am not worthy of so great a favour. If it had been the will of God that I should see His city, I do not doubt that I had done so, not as one who looks upon some spectacle from far, but as the conqueror in some great battle looks upon the thing that he has won. But of this grace I, by reason I doubt not of my sins, have been judged unworthy.”
Unfortunately Islamic counterattacks and the internecine power struggles amongst Christians led to the loss of the Crusaders’ Latin Kingdom, and not until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I would Europeans again rule the Levant. Foolishly, the French and British Empires handed over the Holy Land to vicious Zionists, who have since terrorized both Arab Muslims and Christians in and around the modern nation of Israel.
Without condoning the Israeli regime or doting too much on the tangible to the neglect of the undeserved grace of God — which is available everywhere and is not earned by pilgrimages and the like — it is fitting for Christians to value the places and things of historic significance where Jesus and the prophets and apostles lived and ministered. It is only human to cherish those things that make up one’s spiritual, ethnic, national, familial, or other heritage. We prize our parents’ and grandparents’ favorite watches, hats, furniture, and such when they pass them on to us. We take special pains to pass on heirloom jewelry and china to our children. How appropriate, then, for Christians to make sure that the places we and our children read about daily in the Bible — such as where Jesus was born, died, and rose again — might be accessible for our descendants to enjoy.
In this generation we not only have the problems of distance to solve, but we also have to work around and through the Israeli regime to do anything in Emmanuel’s land. God willing, it will not always be thus.
Nonetheless even with those obstacles in place, there are actions Christians can undertake to preserve our spiritual heritage. In the past year a great restoration project has taken place at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This is where Jesus is said to have been buried after the crucifixion. Archaeologists, engineers, and scientists of various sorts have taken painstaking care to make this place of monumental import accessible to people after having been in a state of disrepair and inaccessibility for many years. What’s amazing is to think that the reason this site got into such a sorry state is because of the same problem that sank the Crusades: the tragedy of the commons.
When nobody owns something outright but must negotiate with other, independent partners over every facet of its management, care of the resource in question will inevitably decline. In this case, the resource is an historical site. The people in charge of it are caretakers from separate, rival Christian sects: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Egyptian Copts, Syriacs, and Ethiopians. Protestants aren’t even included in this — and that’s something I would like to see change.
Disagreements over how to do the smallest things have led to serious problems.
First, the site has been under the care and rule of non-Christians for centuries. A Muslim family has been custodian of the keys to open and close the Holy Sepulchre since the days of Saladin’s reconquest of Jerusalem in 1192. A Turkish sultan decreed in 1853 the rules still in place for managing the Christian site. Israeli authorities exercise the power to open and shut the site at their discretion. What other religion doesn’t even own its own holy sites?
Second, things like the Immovable Ladder crop up. At some point before 1852, somebody put a small wooden ladder on a window ledge above the main entrance. Since the sultan made his “status quo” decree in 1853, that ladder has not moved.
And they say Baptist church committees can’t get anything done!
This inability to get anything done made this year’s restoration work especially noteworthy. There is apparently much more to be done to shore up the foundation of the site. Only a few million dollars could make it all possible, but incredibly, money to protect the most historically significant sites in our faith is hard to come by.
Third, and most tragically, this site and others like it have become sources of contention among people who ostensibly come to exercise love towards God and one another. Centuries of deep-seated, theologically- and historically-based rivalry permeate the Christian sites in the Holy Land. Jesus’s prayer for Christian unity in John 17 is thus still relevant today.
Love is the essence of the real Jerusalem, the one to which every true follower of Christ belongs. As we practice love towards God and each other, love for our ancestors and descendants should prompt us to preserve the places and things — whether in Jerusalem, Europe, or elsewhere — that God providentially used to bring us our faith and heritage.