Friday, February 24, 2017

Our Trip to Magdala: Glimpses of Mary's Transformation

Demon possession was a very real phenomenon in the ancient world.  And while it remains an issue today, many in the secular-dominated West fail to comprehend its reality.  But in Jesus’ day, many came to Him for release from evil spirits—or others interceded for their healing.  One woman in particular stands out as a masterpiece of the healing powers of Jesus.  Her name?  Mary Magdalene.

Often viewed through the lens of popular culture, this Mary has received a bad reputation.  In the 14th century, for example, a "Magdalen House” for women of ill repute was erected in Naples. The Scripture, however, indicates no such connection between Mary of Luke 8 and the sinner woman of Luke 7. From paintings and other traditions, some have guiltily construed this “woman which was a sinner” as an adulterous Mary Magdalene.[1]   With the fiction of popular culture dragging Mary’s name through the mud, it is high time her reputation be restored to the reputable place she occupies in God's Word.

As Peter’s name is mentioned first in the list of disciples, so, in all but one instance (John 19:25, where, at the scene of the crucifixion, one would expect Christ’s mother to be given preeminence), Mary Magdalene’s name is listed first among other women who followed Christ (Matt. 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 24:10).  This is no accident, and it appears Mary stood at the forefront of other women disciples.  Luke tells us of

            certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of      their substance” (Luke 8:2-3).

The life of Mary Magdalene took on even greater significance for me as I visited her village on my recent trip to Israel.  As I walked, listening to our tour guides describe the city at the time Mary lived here, I began to place myself back in time, in the days before Mary Magdalene became a Christ-follower.

Imagine walking through the streets of a first century town in this region which the biblical writers refer to as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  The streets, five feet wide, with stone houses standing parallel to one another, speak of a presence that is both Jewish and Roman.  Here, a tower stands--from which the city gets its name—Magdala—or Tower. 

Site of the fish market at Magdala
The marketplace, a bustling, noisy place that smells distinctly of fish, is alive with activity.  (In Greek, the town’s name is Tyreche, or “the place of smoked fish,” for it boasts a thriving fishing industry.  Tilapia, or St. Peter’s fish—a kosher fish for Jews since it has both scales and fins—dominates the fish trade that exists here with Jerusalem. ) Raucous laughter greets the ears of those passing the House of Dice, as Roman soldiers cast their dice in a gamble for some silver trinkets acquired from a recently convicted felon.   

Many  Jewish homes come complete with their own private mikvehs, or ceremonial baths—for the Torah demands cleansing--after touching a dead body, having any running issue, or for a host of other situations, as the first five books of the Bible clarify.  Greco-Roman homes include floors of intricate mosaics, some with swastika-type designs.  (This symbol for most of history was considered a positive one until it became distanced from that reputation by Hitler and the Nazis.) 

A mikveh at Magdala
One woman emerges from her home.  Her long, flowing hair covered by a veil, she walks, basket in hand, toward the fish market.  You’ve seen the sight countless times but watch in fascination, anyway, for none know just when the demons will overtake her.  And there, at the corner, it happens.  A child has accidentally stepped into her path and, helplessly, the woman stops, eyes glazed, as foam appears at her mouth.  The once placid features become immediately contorted into a grimace.  Her basket falls to the ground in the frenzy.  Moments after, a gray-haired man, her father, quickly hastens to her side, seeking to pull her near him and motion her homeward.  Her brothers appear next on the scene and eventually, ten of her male relatives are able to carry her back home.

Why do they insist on allowing her to travel to the market alone?  You wonder.  Is it that they need some peace in the house?  Or is it that she is only affected at certain times?  That she goes days without being overcome and then, it happens?

This is how I imagine life might have been for Mary Magdalene, Mary of Magdala, from whom Christ cast seven devils.

The Magdala Stone

Oh, how many times in her possession might Mary have sat at the synagogue at Magdala, eyes fixated upon the Magdala Stone?  (This stone artwork bore upon it a representation of the Temple at Jerusalem, complete with a flowered pattern, it would seem similar to the covering for the Holy of Holies, a menorah, and a wheel, indicating, perhaps, the wheel which carried Ezekiel heavenward in his spirit).  Her brown eyes fastened to the stone before her, in those moments of clarity, she no doubt wished beyond measure that her body might be free from her devilish inhabitants.  Oh, that a deliverance might occur!  Oh, that she might get to God without these devils always interfering!
A mosaic on the floor of the synagogue at Magdala
One day, a new Rabbi enters the village.  His fame has already gone before Him as the Healer of the sick.  If one would but come to Him in faith, it is reported, her sins would be forgiven; her infirmities, healed.  And so, upon hearing He would be arriving to teach at their synagogue, the crazed woman finds a seat in the audience.  The next thing you know, she is cured.  No more frenetic fits.  No more lunacy.  No more crazed outbursts.

Mary becomes a devoted follower, a calm and controlled woman, dominated by a passion to serve a new Master.  Now, her daily market escapades bring back extra fish and you learn that she, along with other women, have been preparing it to assist the new Rabbi and His disciples.  She makes frequent journeys these days, always carrying a sufficient supply of food and provision for this Teacher Who has revolutionized her life.

For the next few years, her dramatic devotion is witnessed by all who know her.  She organizes supplies, plans routes for journeys of assistance and aid, arranges the women’s quarters, and seems to nearly perfectly manage the affairs of this ministry of providing of her substance for the physical well-being of Jesus and His followers.

And, most likely, because her life has been dramatically affected by this Master, we see her, as a matter of habit, accompany Him on His most dramatic journey, from the shores of Galilee to the foot of the cross.  As Christ wept in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He sweat great drops of blood with His disciples dozing in sleep, full from their Passover supper, unaware of the incredible cup of suffering their Lord was about to taste, she and the women may likely have hovered in the shadows.  As Christ stood in Pilate’s judgment hall, while Peter denied Him about the fire, Mary Magdalene would have been nearby.  As He walked the Via Dolorosa, she and the others would have watched, grieving at their hearts, that this Master, Who had rescued them, would be taken so unfairly, punished so severely, and hung so cruelly upon the worst of Roman punishments, the cross.

            And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him:  Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.—Matthew 27:55-56.

When Joseph of Arimathea came to beg the body of Jesus (John 19:38), when he and Nicodemus prepared Christ’s body (John 19:39-41), carrying it to Joseph’s new garden tomb, Mary saw (Mark 15:47).  That was Friday evening.  On Sunday, John tells us, the first to appear at the tomb was Mary.

            “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark,      unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre”—John 20:1.

Reporting that Jesus’ body was gone was Mary.  And when the disciples "went home," one woman stayed on at the site of the grave, weeping for her Lord.  That woman was Mary. 

I believe those tears she shed were saturated in sorrow.  Where had her Lord gone?  She and the others had come to anoint His body, but it was not there.  And then, at a pinnacle moment in all of Scripture, our Lord appears first to this one from whom He had cast seven devils, Mary.   Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15) says the grief-stricken woman in sorrow to the Man she believes is the gardener. But one word from His lips stills her murmuring heart cry. 


At His words, she answers, "Master."   

And Christ gives her a commission:  Go..and tell...”

And that is what she did.

Now, nearly 2000 years from that moment, stones from an ancient synagogue at Magdala remind us of a woman who may have been healed there, for Christ no doubt came and taught in that exact synagogue.  (A mudslide from Mt. Caramel behind the town of Magdala covered the town and preserved it for 2000 years and today, archaeologists have discovered evidence of a town’s last attempt to save their lives, for in unearthing the ancient town of Magdala, synagogue pillars were discovered at the entrance to a roadway, suggesting that the inhabitants here started dismantling their synagogue.)

In 67 A.D., Magdala was destroyed.  Josephus records that thousands of people lived here at the time of the Roman conquest and that the sea ran red with their blood.  No human remains nor weaponry were discovered at the site possibly because these inhabitants were killed, captured, and sold into slavery, for there was no resettlement of this village. 

Would Mary have been a victim in that destruction?  Likely, if she had been still alive, she would have fled, having believed Jesus' words that such destruction was coming.   While such details are not stated in Scripture, what we can learn from Mary of Magdala is what one delivered and devoted Christ follower can accomplish for Him.

What about us, who have likewise been delivered from the chains of our sin?  While few can say that seven devils have emerged from them, anyone who partakes of Christ's eternal salvation has been delivered from the awful penalty and power of sin's reign in our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11).

Is our devotion in like measure to that of Mary from Magdala?  Have our entire lives been offered as a service to this Divine Master?  If not, may we learn from the woman from Magdala and offer Christ our all!

[1] Lockyer, Herbert.  All the Women of the Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Press, 1967, pg. 100.
Top picture from
Food picture from
Fish picture from
Mary telling Peter and John picture from

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Best. Trip. Ever.

A view of the stream bed where David chose 5 stones
--> "If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?" I asked Thomas, years ago, before we were married.

He didn’t miss a beat.  “Israel” was his immediate reply.

Israel?  I thought.  What’s the rush to see Israel?  I’d been to Asia and several European countries.  I wanted to see all the British Isles before I worried about seeing Israel.

But, since going, I have to say my recent trip to Israel was the best trip of my life.  While I’ve only been to sixteen other countries outside the States, I would have to say I love Israel best. 

There’s an electricity in the air, an all-things-Jewish feeling that one gets who experiences the culture first-hand.  A land of immigrants who long to be there, many of whom have voluntarily arrived to build up a land that is rich in God’s blessing--who understand, to some degree, the biblical past and embrace whole-heartedly the Jewishness of the future—so many people share this vision of hope.  The Temple Institute, whose employees are carefully investigating the correct dimensions of each piece of temple furniture, portrays the vision of an Israel where, once again, a temple will be rebuilt.

Israel stands as an island in a sea of Islamic nations.  It serves as a beacon of hope, of democracy, of freedom.  And, for the believer, it functions as a very real picture of fulfilled prophecy.  These are God’s chosen people.  This is the Promised Land.  And so many of the Jewish people there get it.  Their embrace of God’s plan to inhabit this land is seen all around.

At the beginning of the Snake Path that leads up to Masada
Traveling during the Bush years throughout Europe, I saw numerous anti-America signs.  Not in Israel.  Nearly every shop we went to was selling the t-shirt that read, “Don’t worry, America:  Israel is behind you.”  Several Jewish people that I met commented positively on the recent inauguration and election. 

How different it was the very first morning, arriving back in the sleepy Midwestern town of 7000 where I live and heading to the coffee shop to wake myself up after a very short night, to hear an elderly woman remark, “Any real news?  Nothing happens here.”  She was trying to locate a newspaper other than the town’s insignificant one. 

In Israel, the center of the world, terrorism threatens; here, soldiers and police openly carry machine guns on their person.  The morning before, I had looked about the lobby of our hotel and saw twenty soldiers, preparing to embark on a mission, each of whom carried a machine gun, slung from the shoulder.  We felt safe, knowing that they would protect us if danger threatened.

Outside a gas station, armed security guards stand on duty.
 Tears budded in the corners of my eyes at various, unforeseen moments throughout the trip.  The first time it happened was in the plane, on the way to Tel Aviv.  Throughout the plane stood various Orthodox Jews, moving back and forth, prayer books in hand.  So many Jewish people flew with us on that flight and I was seated next to a girl who, leaving her fiancé in the United States, was going to be getting married in Israel, with a traditional Orthodox Jewish ceremony, within the month. 

We had a wonderful conversation, and I shared with her my love for the Jewish people.  She was eager to get out of Israel and away from her very orthodox family.  The rules had seemed oppressive.  She was drawn in by America, where, on the streets of Manhattan, Orthodox Jews wore their yarmulkes openly.  The tolerance she felt in America trumped the alienation from other cultures she felt at home.  She’d even met several Arab friends in America, she told me—and they were really nice girls.  Why did her people and their Arabic neighbors always have to fight? She lamented.

But Israel wants peace.  “Shalom,” they say in greeting.  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” they quote.  They’ve willingly given up territory with Muslim neighbors just to have peace, and yet many countries in the Arab world refuse to acknowledge their existence or even their right to exist.  We passed by what the new media reports as “refugee camps” and were shocked to find that those Palestinian refugee camps sport no tents:  these built-up towns, though dirty (certainly more so, in comparison to Jewish-dominated towns) were a far cry from “camps” for refugees.

The entrance to the cave (now a church building) where Christ was born
What made this the best trip ever?  Knowing that I was in the very place that God had chosen for Himself.  Knowing that these people are the ones God has chosen, the apple of His eye, the care of His heart.  I could finally visualize Zion, see the Valley of Jezreel, locate features of Jerusalem with my very own eyes.  And getting to know Jesus and His first-century followers better. 

Now, as I open the Scriptures, I see many more places than I ever did before.  I view the landscape; I see the towns; I consider the cultural significance in a way I didn’t realize was possible.  When I read of Peter and Mary Magdalene, I feel they are my friends:  I was at Peter’s house and saw the streets of Capernaum.  I was in the synagogue at Magdala and stepped on the streets that Mary Magdalene once did.

“As a result of this trip,” our guide told us, “you will come to know Jesus in a deeper way.”  I didn’t believe his statement at first:  I’ll admit, I was skeptical.  After all, isn’t the Bible sufficient for all understanding?  Yes, it is.  But putting the Bible in its context in a way this trip did—that did reveal Jesus to me in a new way.  And our guide, also a student of the Bible, was able to help us connect Jewish symbols and images of Christ’s teaching to the land we saw before us.

Our guide encouraged us to read Mark on the plane ride home—“It’s only sixteen chapters,” he reminded us.  And, as I did, I could visualize Capernaum, where Peter lived and Jesus stayed.  I could see Jarius leaving the synagogue and the woman in the crowded street touching the hem of Jesus’ garment.  Now, as I hear or read Scripture, I find myself seeing the place it was written and finding this perception of the geographic and cultural context of Israel revolutionizing my understanding of the Word.

And when I got to the end of Mark, the words of Jesus, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (verse 15) took on an even greater significance, for they reminded me of what I had just seen:  the physical location of His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection; the physical place of His birth; His mother Mary’s home in Nazareth, the synagogue where He taught.  And now, having walked in His footsteps, having seen His vision for the world, having experienced, to some degree, the Scriptures come alive like never before, I too long to take His precious, life-giving Gospel to every individual the world over.  It is His plan of redemption for all mankind.

Hiking into a water vat
In the next articles, I plan to chronicle for you my adventures in detail.  This was the best trip of my life, and I highly recommend that every student of the Bible take this trip—and do so while you’re young.  That way, you can hike up Masada, like Thomas and I did.  You can wade through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. You can trek down the steps to the water shaft at Megiddo.  (As the youngest members of the group, we took advantage of the extra hiking opportunities, which others had difficulty managing.) 

So go to Israel.  Start saving now.  Within the next couple of years, Thomas may be leading a group.  I know that I, for one, can’t wait to go back to the place that’s central to God’s plan, the beautiful gem of Zion, the land of Israel.