Said Goethe, “Wer den Dichter will verstehen, muss in Dichter’s Lande gehen,” which means (roughly translated) “whoever wants to understand a poet must go to the poet’s homeland.” If one really wants to understand Wordsworth, one must visit the landscapes of his imagery. The same applies to biblical writers, not only the psalmists but the prophets, such as Isaiah, who was a poet par excellence. The writings of prophets, apostles, and the Master Teacher Jesus Himself, may be fully understood only in the physical context and setting in which they were given.
The church father Jerome (5th century A.D.) wisely observed, “Just as those who have seen Athens understand Greek history better, and just as those who have seen Troy understand the words of the poet Virgil, thus one will comprehend the Holy Scriptures with a clearer understanding who has seen the land of Judah with his own eyes . . .”1
The renowned biblical archaeologist G. Ernest Wright, concluded that “geography, history, and religion are so inextricably bound together . . . that the religious message cannot be [fully] understood without attention to the setting and conditions of the revelation.”2
Biblical events and teachings are somehow related to the places where they occurred or were given. Why did Elijah choose the top of Mount Carmel as the location to enact his convincing and conclusive contest to see who was God (1 Kings 18)? The foremost threat to Elijah’s mission was Israel’s king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, and the religious perversion they promoted, Baalism.
Jezebel was a Phoenician princess and worshipper of Baal. For centuries through the Old Testament period, Phoenician influence extended south to Mount Carmel. That mount, therefore, was the geographical meeting-point between the worship of Baal and the worship of Jehovah. On Carmel Elijah staged the direct confrontation between his God, Jehovah, and Jezebel’s god, Baal. The prophet accused and demanded, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” Elijah, using the power of his God, had brought a curse on the land of Israel — three and a half years with no rain. Baal was supposed to be a fertility god, capable of bringing on the rains and restoring fertility and life to the land. What Jezebel’s Baal could not do, Elijah’s Jehovah did. When the hundreds of false prophets of Baal were executed under Elijah’s direction at the Kishon River, which runs along the northern or Phoenician side of Carmel, then Jehovah caused the storm clouds to form over the Mediterranean and brought on the torrential rains in an awesome downpour of life-giving water and witness.
Could it be mere accident that the lowest, most degenerate people of whom we read in the Old Testament also lived at the lowest spot on earth, at Sodom? Or that the site where some of the highest precepts of ethical behavior given to Old Testament Israel were revealed on one of the highest mountains in the Bible lands, on Sinai? We do not regard it as physical or symbolic coincidence that the low point of unethical behavior was at the low point of earth, and that a high point of teaching was at a high point of terrain.
When Isaiah pleaded, “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down . . .” (Isaiah 64:1), how far was God willing to come down? Jesus condescended to this mortal sphere and was willing to show others the way by being immersed in the waters of baptism. The only Sinless One submitted to baptism not just anywhere, but at the bottom of the world. He not only descended to our condition, he descended below it. His baptism by John occurred in the Jordan River (Hebrew yarden deriving from yarad, meaning “to go down”). Indeed, he went down to the Jordan, to the point lowest in elevation in all the world, then he went even lower in the water, so he could raise all humankind up to newness of life.
At Jacob’s Well Jesus understandably spoke of living water. For centuries Jews and Samaritans had drawn water from cisterns — underground water storage chambers — and from wells, like Jacob’s Well. Jesus told a Samaritan woman about the source of “living water,” that is, ever-flowing or perennial water. He Himself was the source from which any person could draw spiritual water and quench spiritual thirst: “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).
Jesus appropriately spoke of the “bread of life” at Capernaum, where a greater quantity of grinding mills used for making bread has been found than at any other place in the country, leading some to conclude that mills were manufactured in this Galilean town and exported to others. Where these mills were produced for making bread, Jesus taught of spiritual bread, the partaking of which could nourish one to eternal life (John 6).
At Caesarea Philippi Jesus used paronomasia, a word play, on Peter’s name. Said He, “Thou art Peter [Greek petros, or a rock], and upon this rock [Greek petra or rock mass] I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Because of the context of the statement, which immediately follows Jesus’ blessing of Peter for receiving a revelation or witness of His Messiahship and divine Sonship, the rock — petra — in this case could signify revelation. Or, in mentioning rock, Jesus could have gestured to Himself, meaning that He was the Rock of Salvation, the Stone of Israel.
Jesus may well have been saying, “Peter, you are a rock (as the president of my church, holding the keys of the kingdom), and upon the Rock of Salvation, which will give revelation, firmness, strength, and stability [the symbolic meanings of rock in the scriptures], I will build my church.” The image was particularly appropriate to the location, as Caesarea Philippi sits at the foot of Mount Hermon, the most massive rock formation in the country.
Where healing powers were attributed in the early Roman period to the Pool of Bethesda, Jesus came to heal. “Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches” (John 5:2). The double pool called the Pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha – possibly from the Aramaic, meaning “House of Mercy”) was situated just north of the Temple Mount gate called in Greek probatike (“pertaining to sheep”), the gate through which sheep are supposed to have been taken into the Temple for sacrifice.
There were five porticoes, or porches, surrounding the twin pools: four around the sides and one dividing them. Certain medicinal or curative properties were ascribed to the pools. “It may well be that already in the Second Temple period healing powers were attributed to the waters of these pools, because a temple for healing was erected there in the Roman period following the destruction of the Second Temple.”3 The healing tradition continued after Jesus’ day with a temple of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, erected on the site.A superstitious tradition had an angel coming down and “troubling” the waters — probably the result of a siphon-karst spring flowing into the pools, causing bubbling at the surface.At these pools, Jesus met an invalid man, lame or paralyzed for thirty-eight years. On the Sabbath day, He raised him up, completely healed.4
On Jerusalem’s Temple Mount during Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus referred to Himself as the living water and as the Light of the world, responding to the water-drawing ceremony enacted on that occasion and to the illumination of the Temple with menorahs or lampstands. It was customary during each day of the week-long celebration of Succot to make a procession with a golden pitcher of water from the pool of Siloam to the Temple Mount for ritual libations — except, according to some Jewish and Christian authorities, on the last day of the feast. “In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me . . . out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38).
While crowds of Jewish pilgrims continued on the Temple Mount into the nighttime during this Feast of Tabernacles, artificial lighting was needed. Contrasting Himself to the great menorahs which shined through the darkness on the Mount, Jesus again spoke unto them, saying, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).5
The Mount of Olives is where Jesus descended below all (the Atonement) and where he ascended above all (the Ascension). The word olives occurs eleven times in the Gospels, all of them referring to the Mount of Olives, where olive trees grew in antiquity and still grow today. The olive tree had occupied first place in agriculture throughout Israel’s history to the time of Jesus, and it even provided one of the country’s designations: a land of olive oil (Deuteronomy 8:8). It thrives well in the hill country and needs no irrigation. It can endure long periods of drought, and little care is needed until the harvest. The upper side of the olive leaf is dark green, while the underside is covered with miniature whitish scales, giving it a silvery sheen. “Israel was called ‘an olive tree leafy and fair’ [Jeremiah 11:16] because they [Israel] shed light on all.”6
Olive oil was used anciently for culinary, cosmetic, funerary, medicinal, and ritual purposes. Its most important use, though, was to provide light. Olive oil provides the clearest, brightest, and steadiest flame of all the vegetable oils. In one of Jesus’ last recorded parables, He described a procession of young women (members of God’s kingdom) going out to meet the bridegroom (the Messiah). Lamps were required for brilliancy and beauty. The oil for the lamps was symbolic of spiritual preparation on the part of the members of His Kingdom, those who desire to participate in the marriage feast, which symbolizes His coming in glory.
In early Israelite history, olive oil was used for sacred functions. Objects and persons set apart for the work of God, such as prophets, priests, and kings, were anointed with consecrated oil. With the Messiah (Hebrew mashiah, meaning “anointed one”), the roles of prophet, priest, and king come together. Jesus, citing a messianic prophecy from Isaiah (61:1), told those attending the synagogue in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach” (Luke 4:18).
On the slope of the Mount of Olives was a garden area to which Jesus liked to retire for meditation and prayer. John wrote that “Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples” (John 18:2). The garden was appropriately named Gat Shemen, which in Hebrew means oil press. Just as the juice (or blood) of the grape or olive is pressed and crushed by the heavy stone in the press, so the heavy burden of the sins of the world that Jesus carried would press the blood out of the body of this Anointed One. In Gethsemane, among the olive trees that were themselves symbolic of the people of Israel, was accomplished along with its consummation at Golgotha, the most selfless suffering in the history of humankind.
From the beginning to the end of Jesus’ life, teachings and events were somehow appropriate to those places where they occurred. As Farrar wrote, “It was His constant plan to shape the illustrations of His discourses by those external incidents which would rouse the deepest attention, and fix the words most indelibly on the memories of His hearers.”7
The Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, the toponym meaning “house of bread.” And the Branch was raised in Nazareth. Matthew noted that “He came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). Matthew saw fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy in Jesus’ connection with Nazareth. We actually have no specific reference in biblical literature to prophets declaring that the Messiah would be a Nazarene, unless this is a paronomastic allusion to Isaiah 11:1. Isaiah prophesied that a “Branch” (netzer) would grow out of the root of Jesse (that is, from the Davidic line), and thus Jesus would be a Nazarene (notzri). Both Hebrew words come from the same root.
Jesus once said to his disciples, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you” (John 14:27). It is ironic that this Prince of Peace was killed in a city called Urushalem, meaning “City [or Foundation] of Peace.”
Jesus, accepted by millions of people as the Holy One of Israel, came to a land many denominate as the Holy Land, and His purpose was to raise up a holy people. The term “Holy Land,” interestingly, is not derived from Ha’aretz Hakadosh, which could be translated “the holy land,” but from Eretz Hakodesh, which means literally “the land of holiness.” The intent is that a holy people, living with the holy spirit, will live in a holy city in a holy land. The Holy One could even appear to his people in a Holy Temple, specifically in the Holy of Holies.God’s people were known as his “holy ones.
Jesus’ Apostles continued the tradition of teaching with illustrative lessons appropriate to the places where they taught. Paul’s teachings given in various cities during his missionary journeys often reflect local conditions. At Corinth, for example, he learned that on the Acropolis or Acrocorinth, nearly 1900 feet above the city, at least 1,000 priestess-prostitutes were functioning in the temple of Aphrodite.9 With the perversion of worship in the notorious temple, it is no wonder that at Corinth Paul emphasized the true role of the temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17), the temple representing both the body of the Church and the bodies of individuals, and the urgency of not defiling them.
John’s images also reflect the local geographical setting. John is shown to be intimately acquainted with the details of physical position, terrain, water supply, and history of the cities to which he addressed letters in the Apocalypse. Laodicea is the seventh of the cities of The Revelation, and is a case in point. “These things saith the Amen” (Rev. 3:14) — the great Jehovah and Creator of the earth was known also by the name “Amen,” signifying agreement and commitment. It was for lack of commitment that the Laodiceans were condemned.
“Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor . . . I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich” (Rev. 3:17-18) — this is an apparent allusion to the affluence of the city which rejected imperial assistance to rebuild following the destructive earthquake in A.D. 60. The Laodiceans were proudly independent of Roman reconstruction finances, and some felt spiritually self-sufficient, sensing no need for the help of God. They were now encouraged to seek assistance from the Source of lasting treasure and richness. As Jesus had earlier taught, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal [and where earthquakes destroy and bury]: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19-20).
“I counsel thee to buy of me . . . white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear” (Rev. 3:18) — white garments are here contrasted to the celebrated soft, raven-black wool for which Laodicea was famous in John’s day. White garments were symbolic of cleanliness and purity, as revealed in the Lord’s words to the church at Sardis: “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment . . . and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:5, 4).
The Amen also counseled the Laodiceans to “anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see” (Rev. 3:18). The eyesalve seems to be referring to a particular powder or ointment used by the famous medical school at Laodicea. Applying the Lord’s own kind of eyesalve would cause these disciples to see with spiritual sight and be zealous in his cause and repent and overcome the world.
The most poignant message to the Laodiceans, employing the most striking images, is the following exclamation: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).
The Lycus Valley was home to three New Testament cities: Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea. Laodicea, the last of John’s seven cities, and the one cursed in the strongest terms, was located approximately one hundred miles east of Ephesus and twelve miles from the confluence of the Lycus and Maeander rivers. The valley has been subject throughout its history to seismic activity. In consequence of its lying in the heart of an earthquake-shaking zone, the valley is also characterized by hot springs with their hot mineral waters. Six miles to the north of Laodicea was the city of Hierapolis, famous in antiquity (and in modern times) for its remarkable terraced travertines consisting mostly of calcium carbonate, in appearance like a series of small, frozen or petrified cascading waterfalls (as Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs).
The hot mineral waters of Hierapolis were known for their therapeutic, healing properties. Colossae, ten miles east of Laodicea, not only featured the usual hot, calcareous waters, but also some good, cold, fresh waters. In contrast to the cold waters of Colossae and the hot waters of Hierapolis, Laodicea’s water was tepid and emetic (inducing vomiting). The water of Laodicea originated at an abundant spring in the upper part of modern Denizli, about five miles to the south, and was transported via stone aqueduct to the city. Remnants of the aqueduct show heavy encrustation in the stone pipes. One of the ancient city’s most unusual remains, a sixteen-foot-high water tower which distributed water to all parts of the city, has in its center a number of terra cotta pipes which are also encrusted and choked by lime deposits.
Laodicea’s water was lukewarm, as were its inhabitants’ works, according to John. The standard definition of a lukewarm person is somewhere between the “cold” of an unbeliever and the “hot” of a believer, though that definition may in this case be misleading, actually false. There is no evidence that the ancients used cold and hot in similar metaphorical sense as we do now. In the context of the Laodicean letter, and in reality in the Lycus Valley, both cold and hot waters were acceptable and useful, one for refreshing drink and the other for therapeutic and healing purposes. In this context, either is a commendable option. Lukewarm, emetic waters, on the other hand, would entice the drinker to spew them out of the mouth.
John’s use of the local geographical condition in and around Laodicea is effective and profound. The Lycus Valley’s cold, hot, and lukewarm waters were comparable to members of the Lord’s Church: cold and hot were commendable and could be a blessing to others (“I would thou wert cold or hot”); lukewarm was distasteful and rejected.
The Laodiceans stood uncommitted between cold and hot, and to the Lord they produced only a reaction comparable to vomiting. Indeed, Laodiceans were “spewed out” — there are no Laodiceans living at that ancient place today.
1 Cited in Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible — A Historical Geography. London: Burns and Oates, 1974, x.
2 Wright, George Ernest and Filson, Floyd Vivian, eds., The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible, revised edition. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956, 5.
3 Dan Bahat, The Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, 72.
4 See John 5:1-16.
5 See also Frederic William Farrar, The Life of Christ. London: Cassell and Company, 1898, 417-418, 432-433, and Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Mclean, Virginia: Macdonald Publishing Company, n.d., 2:158-160, 165-166.
6 Midrash, Shmot Raba, 36, 1.
7 Farrar, op. cit., 432-433.
8 Ten times the Hebrew Bible — the Old Testament — uses the terms kadosh or kadoshim, and nineteen times the terms hassid or hassidim, all four terms being translated as “holy ones,” “pious ones,” or “saints.” Sixty times in Delitzsch’s Hebrew translation of the New Testament, the Greek term hagios is translated as the Hebrew kadosh or kadoshim — saints.
9 Strabo, Geography 8.6.20.
10 For further information on the physical setting of Laodicea and its role in The Revelation, the following may be consulted: Bean, George E. Turkey Beyond the Maeander – An Archaeological Guide. London: Ernest Benn, 1971, 213-217; Hamilton, William J. Researches in Asia Minor, Pontus and Armenia; with some account of their Antiquities and Geology, 2 volumes.London: John Murray, 1842, 514-517; Harrison, R. K., editor. Major Cities of the Biblical World.Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985, 247-248; Hemer, Colin J.
The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986, 178-182; Johnson, Sherman E. “Laodicea and its Neighbors” in The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 13, no. 1, February 1950, 5-13; Ramsay, William Mitchell. The Historical Geography of Asia Minor. Originally published in 1890, reprinted by Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., New York, 1972, 85-86; The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia and their Place in the Plan of the Apocalypse. Originally published in 1904 by Hodder and Stoughton, London; reprinted by Baker Book House, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1963, 414-423; Rudwick, M.J.S., and Green, E.M.B. “The Laodicean Lukewarmness” in The Expository Times, vol. 69, no. 6, March 1958, 176-178; Wood, Peter. “Local Knowledge in the Letters of the Apocalypse” in The Expository Times, vol.73, no. 9, June 1962, 263-264.