Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

The Other Holy Land

Since 1995, I have been part of a team leading people on study tours. Every other year we go to places like Israel and Greece and Italy and Turkey. I’m currently headed back from the latest trip. I find study tours a great way to open a space and explore the world, and there are few places so interesting and beautiful as Turkey. It is not a common destination for many of the people that I know, but it should be. The majestic mountains, the stunning seascape, the valleys, the people, the food, and the spiritual history beg to be visited with notebook.

It is here the persecuted church found refuge from the likes of Paul, hiding in remote regions like Cappadocia. Here, the first sending church commissioned a converted Paul and Barnabas and others to plant churches in places like Lystra and Ephesus. The Spirit moved in powerful ways, upending Roman, Hellenistic, and Jewish layers. Much of the NT was written to early believers in these regions. Here, the church was officially recognized, and here the capital of Christendom was established. This was the epicenter of early Christianity. Giants of the faith, like Paul and John and Philip and Timothy transformed their worlds.

Hence, one might expect to find a flourishing church today, built upon this solid foundation. But like the other holy land, this is not so easy to find. One has to hike around ruins to find evidence Christianity ever existed. The contemporary church shows signs of little life. It is hard to find a gathered community of believers that is impacting this land. What happened?

We find hints in John’s letters to the very first church plants. Ephesus was the poster church, faithful to keep the rules (Rev 2), but it began to lose its affection for Jesus by the end of the first century. Others like the church at Thyatira began to grow inward. The church at Sardis became apathetic, and the church at Laodicia became, like its world, self sufficient. Laodicia was once on the royal Persian trade route, one of four prominent cities in the Empire (the New York, Paris, London of the day). Laodicia was a leading banking center, medical center, and fashion center. Over time, the church was impacted more by culture than culture impacted by Christ. The church became like all too many churches when times are good—tepid and lukewarm (Rev 3).

God warned these earlier churches that their light would eventually be snuffed out if they ignored His warnings. Apparently they did. It’s hard to find much light today. Turkey is a prosperous and secular nation with a certain ambivalence towards any faith at all, including Islam. Imams call the people to prayer throughout the day, but it is hard to find evidence anyone listens. As I enjoy my own comforts, I am challenged to ask—is there a certain ambivalence in me?

One can also lay some blame at the feet of Constantine, the Emperor who changed Christianity from a persecuted community to official status. In many respects, he is rightly honored for defending the church against the barbaric practices of the day. But bringing church and state together and forming an eastern capital of Christianity was also the church’s undoing. Those on the far right who yearn for a Christian America seem to overlook the price the church pays for getting into bed with political power.

Cruising near the opening to the Bosphorus, one also begins to see how the Ottoman Empire eventually destroyed the Byzantine Empire. It was not merely a strategy of bypassing defenses and crossing over land. There was an eventual internal rot within Christendom, thanks in part to a politically powerful clergy, a baptized congregation reflecting little personal faith, and an east/west division that splintered the church. Even crusaders on their way to the other holy land occasionally did their best to diminish and destroy Byzantium.

Still, I come to be inspired by the courage and vision of an apostle Paul. I come to cross the formidable Toros Mountains and gain insight as to why John Mark bailed on Paul. I come to step into underground cities and caves and see how the early church worshipped. I come to read Acts 13 in the ruins of a synagogue in Psidian Antioch; sit on the coast of Troas and imagine what it must have been like to hear a Macedonian call; cruise on wooden boats along the coast of the Turkish Mediterranean and visualize Paul at sea; explore an ancient church in Myra and discover the real “Santa Claus”; imagine what Istanbul looked like when Constantine called the early bishops to form our creeds; and bring fellow explorers to grow deeper with one another and God.

Lord willing—another group of adventurers will be ready to explore in 2017.

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