Session 2a: Telling and Living the Gospel by Scott Vander Ploeg

So, all right, thinking about how to live and tell the gospel post COVID and just thinking a little bit about the overall theme for this conference, I decided to… and I hope it will be okay to talk about geography. And hopefully, you won’t take offense if this is sort of a basic geography of the Bible and this is old hat, but eventually I’ll make a point.

So I’d like to just start with these words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, where He said, “You are the light of the world”. He said a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl; instead they put it upon its stand and it gives light to everyone in the house. And Jesus said in the same way, “So let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven”.

This is  a map of the ancient Near East and if you read in any history book, they’ll talk about the first kingdoms of the world starting in an area called the Fertile Crescent.

The ancient empire is really built up on an area called the Fertile Crescent because of this Crescent shape that incorporated two river systems, the Tigris and Euphrates, and then the Nile Delta. These were very fertile areas and so all the ancient kingdoms were built up in that area – Egypt to the south, and then Assyria, Babylon, and Persia in the area of the Tigris and Euphrates.

And of course between these two kingdoms was a land bridge where the holy land was(the place where God brought Abraham). That was significant because it was really the crossroads of the world. This was a place where everyone traveled through. If you wanted to go from one kingdom to the next, that was the land bridge that was there.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The ancient world had three continents, right? 1. Africa, which included the kingdom of Egypt. 2. Asia, which included the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. 3. Europe, which included the Hittites, the Greeks, the Romans. And if you draw it like that, you’ll say that the place where all of them intersect is right there in this small tract of land where God called his people to live.

And I think a very important verse from the Old Testament, Isaiah 49:6, says “I’ll make you a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” And that was the idea. God called to people to bear right there in the middle so they would put on display who God was and shine his light for the entire world to see to the ends of the earth.

All right, now let’s talk about typography. Most of us know that you have the Sea of Galilee in the north and that the Jordan River flows down to the Dead Sea. And this whole area is like a big rift in the earth. In fact, the Dead Sea is the lowest place in elevation on the earth. It’s often called the Rift Valley because it’s a big rift in the earth.

Right next to that, there’s a series of very tall mountains. And of course, Jerusalem is up in those mountains. And then to the west, there’s the Western foothills. But of course, down along the coast, there’s this area called the coastal plain. It’s called the coastal plain because it’s very flat. And if you now think about where Israel was located at the intersection of all these continents, this was the place where there was a major roadway that went through. This roadway was called the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, because it was near the Mediterranean Sea.

And if you were headed from Egypt to Greece, you would have to pass through this land. One location that is very important was Megiddo, and you can see its location. It’s right there at the intersection of these highways. And of course, most people who know anything about Megiddo, they know about Armageddon because the book of Revelation speaks about this.

You can imagine how all the kingdoms of the world, if you were a major empire, needed to control that spot. If you did, you controlled all international trade. And so there was just tremendous battles that were fought over that place, which is why the book of Revelation draws upon that imagery as it speaks about end times. Right across from that, if you look out the Jezreel Valley for Megiddo, you’ll see Nazareth where Jesus spent his boyhood.

I can just imagine as he sat there in his childhood, he could see in the nations the earth passing by. And of course in his adult ministry, he moved to Capernaum, which was right there on the north of the Sea of Galilee.  Just before you would take off to go to Zuora and then onto Syria or Damascus, you’d make a stop at the Sea of Galilee – a very important stopping point. And that’s where Jesus set up his ministry.

This whole area in Jesus’ day was called Galilee of the Nations. You just pick up that phrase – Galilee of the Nations. And of course you can see where Jerusalem was located. This generally was where Judah, the Southern kingdom, had its place up in the mountains. And here, just to kind of go back to this the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Nations, the people living in darkness have seen a great light on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. I’d like to talk about that verse just a minute.

When Jesus took up residence in Capernaum, Matthew says he fulfilled this scripture. And I think that’s very important. If you study the Old Testament, here’s where you’ll find out that God had commanded Joshua to take all of that land, including the coastal plain. But as the book of Joshua goes forward, it actually takes some work to figure this out. If you’re going to read in the book of Judges, you’ll find that they left the task uncomplete.

They took the mountain fortress, they resided from time to time in the Western foothills, but they never went down and conquered that plain where all the influence would have been. So although it was their task to be a light to the nations, it was easier to stay up in the fortress of Jerusalem than to go down and interact with all the nations that were passing by.

Really, if you study the Old Testament, it was only during the reign of Solomon that Solomon actually expanded the kingdom and he took over the major trading posts along this route. It was during that time for instance, the queen of Sheba heard about the greatness of God and traveled from afar to come and find out what this light was all about. But that was very brief in the history of the Old Testament. And for the most part, the rest of the Old Testament is just confined to this mountain fortress where Israel hid out and felt secure.

If you think about the great battles of the Old Testament, whether you’re thinking about Samson or you’re thinking about David and Goliath, they were always with the Philistines who are the ones who controlled that area for much of the Old Testament time. It should have been that God’s people went down there, but it was in the end, when it was time for Jesus to start proclaiming that the kingdom of God is at hand, you would expect for someone in the line of David to go up to Jerusalem, to take your scene in a palace and say, okay, the kingdom of God is at hand. But instead He moved to Capernaum, which was by the shores of the sea of Galilee along the way of the Sea of the Via Maris.

And that’s where He said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” That’s where he began to proclaim the good news of what would be his life, death, and resurrection, and how that would impact the rest of humanity. And the reason I just thought I’d take my 10 minutes to talk about this is I believe that if you look at Old Testament times, there was this what I call centrifugal force, where people had to come to see the light. But now we have the centripetal force and we have these commands and scriptures that tell us to therefore go make disciples of all nations. You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. And it’s striking to me that, whereas in the Old Testament, there was such a thing as the holy land and almost every other religion has a holy land.

Christianity is the one religion that has no holy land. The whole earth belongs to God and we, His people, wherever we go, we have this idea that, that’s where the light’s supposed to be. I detect as a pastor that we still have a temptation to have a fortress mentality, to withdraw from the crossroads of the world and here I mean, sometimes it’s just that we get busy with the administration and the people that we have and so we have no time left over to think about maybe how to get out to those crossroads.

Sometimes I even think about this with regard to COVID. We had enough to manage just trying to figure out how to get through this pandemic, with the people that we had to. How are we going to go out there in effect? But I think as a church we’ve got something very important to do, which is to resist the fortress mentality, to get out there on the highway and the crossroads of life and meet people where they’re at in their struggles and put God on display.

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