Last year, my husband and I made our first trip to the Holy Land. We went with a group called the Order of St. John, with the dual purpose of engaging in a spiritual pilgrimage and visiting the Jerusalem Eye Hospital, which is the only charitable provider of expert eye care in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, and treats patients regardless of ethnicity, religion or their ability to pay.
Because we were with the Order and had a Christian Palestinian guide, we were able to access places that the majority of people going on a Christian pilgrimage would never be able to go. In addition, our leader, Canon Nicholas Porter, arranged for us to have dinners with bright young people who were both Israeli and Palestinian, which allowed us to process our questions and experiences after our excursions. I gained a new appreciation of the complexities of the Middle Eastern dilemma and saw first-hand things I could not have anticipated in the daily life of those living on both sides of the conflict.
The highlight of the trip for me, from both a scientific and spiritual perspective, occurred unexpectedly the day that we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is considered to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The area had been a large limestone quarry in 600-700 BC. In response to the second Jewish revolt in 132-135 AD, the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, built a pagan temple there in an effort to Romanize the city and eradicate the site of Calvary and Jesus’ tomb. It was common for conquerors to build over the important sacred sites of a defeated group. Later, in 326 AD, Queen Helena and her son, Emperor Constantine, became convinced this was indeed the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and built the first Christian church on this same site.
One of the main focal points of the church is the altar built at the top of the Rock of Calvary (Golgotha), where Christ was crucified. The Rock of Golgotha can be seen through a glass covering on either side of the altar, and beneath the altar is a small opening that allows pilgrims to touch the rock at the base of the cross.
Our group was able to go around to what would be the back of the rocky area where the crucifixion took place to visit the Armenian Chapel of St. Vartan, which is closed to the public.
In the 1970s, Bishop Guregh Kapikian of the Armenian Orthodox church began secret excavations under the Chapel of St. Vartan. Monks had hidden pockets sewed under their robes where they excavated handfuls of dirt at a time. The quarry and artifacts that were discovered date back to the Iron Age (7th or 8th BC). Six ancient walls were found, four dating back to Hadrian from the 2nd century, and two to Constantine, who built the church in the 4th century.
This chapel lies deep beneath and directly adjacent to the back of Golgotha, and you can see and touch the ancient rock quarry. What struck me while in the chapel were the blood red blemishes running through the rough untouched rock. All around there is evidence of quarried limestone that clearly were used as building blocks in Old Jerusalem. The red color is oxidized limestone where water has discolored the white rock and made it not worthy as building material.
Immediately, the scripture came to mind from Psalm 118:22-23, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the LORD had done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” This stone was left and carved around because it was literally rejected by ancient builders. And this was the very stone upon which Jesus was crucified. Should we then be surprised to see in three of the four Gospels, that Jesus directly quotes Psalm 118 and refers to Himself as the Cornerstone in the parable of the rejected son (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17)?
The Ship Drawing
Still, there are ancient quarries all over the Middle East, so why would this spot be special?
Here we come to the etched drawing discovered in November 1971 on the side of one of the Hadronic (2nd century) walls. It would have been incised right on the wall of the pagan monument built on this spot by Emperor Hadrian sometime after 135 AD, almost 200 years before the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was constructed!
The drawing is of an ancient ship with a broken mast that is about 26 inches long and 12 inches high. It bears a Latin inscription that is believed to refer to Psalm 122:1, (“Let us go to the house of the Lord”), also meaning “Lord, we went” or “Lord, we shall go.” The most plausible explanation of the meaning of this drawing is that the artist was likely a Christian pilgrim who nearly perished in a shipwreck on the way to the Holy Land, and carved the ship to give thanks for a safe arrival at a sacred destination.
The artist is clearly indicating, “We have arrived!” This simple drawing is the earliest known inscription and drawing made by a Christian pilgrim to the Holy Land. Its’ message is considered to be one of the most profound historical and archaeological discoveries of Christianity.
How awe-inspiring to see how scripture is LITERALLY true, as the science of archeology verifies actual places and events!
There are numerous references throughout prophecies in the Old Testament to Jesus as the Cornerstone, the most important element of a building with a sure foundation. We also see Peter referencing these words when he and John were asked by what power they had healed a crippled beggar. Scripture says,
“Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is ’The stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4: 8-12
Jesus Christ has become the Cornerstone of his new building, the Church of believers.
We are again encouraged by the words of Peter:
“So, keep coming to him who is the Living Stone, though He was rejected and discarded by men but chosen by God and is priceless in God’s sight. Come and be His “living stones” who are continually assembled into a sanctuary for God. For now, you serve as holy priests, offering up spiritual sacrifices that he readily accepts through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter: 2:7 (TPT)
May we be encouraged in our faith that Jesus is real, He is who He says He is, and welcomes all of us into the household of Christ, where we have the privilege to serve him as living stones, called to build up and serve this broken world.
No matter what people believed about Jesus, He was known as a healer for all people- Jews, Gentiles, Pagans, and outcasts by being in relationship with everyone- especially the outcasts. This made him very offensive to many, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Cor. 22-24.
As Christians, we are living stones, under the headship of the cornerstone of our faith. Let us never forget whose we are, whose mission we are really on, and who is the one true healer and reconciler of all peoples, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For further information, visit www.generationword.com, and search Jerusalem 101, section 52, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
*All scripture is taken from the NIV version, except where indicated.
*Article originally published in the May 2019 issue of the The Carolina Compass.