On the Ambivalence of Place in the Gospels

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When I take students on study trips to Israel, there are always a number of places that are a thrill to revisit and to introduce to those students, even though these sites are typically characterized by either centuries of decay or centuries of building and development. The area around the lake of Galilee, and the lake itself, allow an opportunity to see in many ways what Jesus and his disciples would have seen. Although the size of the lake has changed a bit, and the shorelines have shifted here and there, the views of and from the lake approximate those of the first century. In Jerusalem, one can visit the pool of Bethzatha, where Jesus healed a man, and the nearby Mount of Olives. And though one can no longer see the temple that Herod the Great built, still visible are the spectacular stones in the base of the enormous platform that supported the temple and the vast grounds surrounding it. Here one can see and walk up the Southern Steps to the temple, which Jesus would surely have walked on. Sometimes we have to say, “We don’t know where such an event happened,” or “We can no longer see what Golgotha actually looked like.” But sometimes we can say, “It happened here: this is where Jesus walked.” Place matters.

Place matters because the ministry of Jesus was located historically and geographically in time and space. When the Gospel of John states, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” it has in view a specific time and place, a time when Jesus “dwelt among us” and a place where he did so. Real people live in limited time and defined space. Jesus, a human being of flesh and blood, did so as well. Thus, the Gospels name villages and cities (Cana, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Tyre, Sidon, Bethany, and Jericho), the homes of friends and interested parties by name (Simon Peter, Simon the Pharisee, Zacchaeus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), various regions (Caesarea Philippi, the Decapolis, Judea, Samaria, and Galilee), and geographical features (the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Olives, and the Jordan River).

Yet the Gospels display a certain ambivalence about the importance of “place,” and especially the importance of “holy place.” Jesus calls his disciples to leave behind their “places” in order to follow him, an occasionally itinerating herald of a kingdom that is not located in any geographical locale and whose adherents come from “east and west, north and south”—that is, from every place. The disciples owe their allegiance not to any one place, but to Jesus and to a kingdom that is not defined by place and that, in fact, transcends all places. Place is transitory and temporary. It is not, therefore, unimportant; but it is not ultimate. This is what the book of Hebrews has in view when it speaks about believers as pilgrims on the way to a heavenly city “whose maker and builder is God” (Heb 11:10) and what the book of Revelation envisions when it describes a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10).

Perhaps the ambivalence of the Gospels about “holy places” is best illustrated by the dialogue in the Gospel of John between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. She asks him where the proper place of worship might be: Mt. Gerizim, the site holy to Samaritans, or the site of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus answers her that the time will come when true worship will not be located on either mountain, but rather will be characterized as worship in Spirit and in truth. What then becomes of “holy space”? It is not simply eradicated. Jesus does not imply that all places are now holy, and that the boundary between “sacred” and “secular,” or “holy” and “ordinary,” has been eliminated. Rather, the dwelling of God, symbolically identified heretofore with the temple, is now to be located in the risen Lord. True worship won’t be bound to place because the Spirit isn’t tied to one place, and because the risen Jesus himself will be the temple in which true worship is located. All who worship truly worship in this temple, united by worship that transcends and apparently even minimizes the significance of any one place.

Jesus’ followers serve a risen Lord no longer bound to any place; they worship in a temple not identified by its locale; they are energized by the Spirit whose presence and work pays no heed to geographical limits; and they await their dwelling in that holy city, made holy by the gift and presence of God. In the meantime, Jesus’ followers serve a risen Lord here: they serve specific people in specific times and places, with the same purpose to which Jesus called them by the shores of the sea of Galilee—to proclaim and embody the eternal kingdom of God in the transitory times and places in which they now live. Place still matters.

Fuller Seminary professor Marianne Meye Thompson speaking

Marianne Meye Thompson, the George Eldon Ladd Professor of New Testament, joined Fuller’s School of Theology faculty in 1985. She has been instrumental in developing courses that integrate biblical interpretation with other theological disciplines. In addition to The Promise of the Father, an examination of divine fatherhood in Scripture, she has coauthored Introducing the New Testament, and written The God of the Gospel of John as well as commentaries on 1–3 John, Colossians and Philemon, and the Gospel of John.

When I take students on study trips to Israel, there are always a number of places that are a thrill to revisit and to introduce to those students, even though these sites are typically characterized by either centuries of decay or centuries of building and development. The area around the lake of Galilee, and the lake itself, allow an opportunity to see in many ways what Jesus and his disciples would have seen. Although the size of the lake has changed a bit, and the shorelines have shifted here and there, the views of and from the lake approximate those of the first century. In Jerusalem, one can visit the pool of Bethzatha, where Jesus healed a man, and the nearby Mount of Olives. And though one can no longer see the temple that Herod the Great built, still visible are the spectacular stones in the base of the enormous platform that supported the temple and the vast grounds surrounding it. Here one can see and walk up the Southern Steps to the temple, which Jesus would surely have walked on. Sometimes we have to say, “We don’t know where such an event happened,” or “We can no longer see what Golgotha actually looked like.” But sometimes we can say, “It happened here: this is where Jesus walked.” Place matters.

Place matters because the ministry of Jesus was located historically and geographically in time and space. When the Gospel of John states, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” it has in view a specific time and place, a time when Jesus “dwelt among us” and a place where he did so. Real people live in limited time and defined space. Jesus, a human being of flesh and blood, did so as well. Thus, the Gospels name villages and cities (Cana, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Tyre, Sidon, Bethany, and Jericho), the homes of friends and interested parties by name (Simon Peter, Simon the Pharisee, Zacchaeus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), various regions (Caesarea Philippi, the Decapolis, Judea, Samaria, and Galilee), and geographical features (the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Olives, and the Jordan River).

Yet the Gospels display a certain ambivalence about the importance of “place,” and especially the importance of “holy place.” Jesus calls his disciples to leave behind their “places” in order to follow him, an occasionally itinerating herald of a kingdom that is not located in any geographical locale and whose adherents come from “east and west, north and south”—that is, from every place. The disciples owe their allegiance not to any one place, but to Jesus and to a kingdom that is not defined by place and that, in fact, transcends all places. Place is transitory and temporary. It is not, therefore, unimportant; but it is not ultimate. This is what the book of Hebrews has in view when it speaks about believers as pilgrims on the way to a heavenly city “whose maker and builder is God” (Heb 11:10) and what the book of Revelation envisions when it describes a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10).

Perhaps the ambivalence of the Gospels about “holy places” is best illustrated by the dialogue in the Gospel of John between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. She asks him where the proper place of worship might be: Mt. Gerizim, the site holy to Samaritans, or the site of the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus answers her that the time will come when true worship will not be located on either mountain, but rather will be characterized as worship in Spirit and in truth. What then becomes of “holy space”? It is not simply eradicated. Jesus does not imply that all places are now holy, and that the boundary between “sacred” and “secular,” or “holy” and “ordinary,” has been eliminated. Rather, the dwelling of God, symbolically identified heretofore with the temple, is now to be located in the risen Lord. True worship won’t be bound to place because the Spirit isn’t tied to one place, and because the risen Jesus himself will be the temple in which true worship is located. All who worship truly worship in this temple, united by worship that transcends and apparently even minimizes the significance of any one place.

Jesus’ followers serve a risen Lord no longer bound to any place; they worship in a temple not identified by its locale; they are energized by the Spirit whose presence and work pays no heed to geographical limits; and they await their dwelling in that holy city, made holy by the gift and presence of God. In the meantime, Jesus’ followers serve a risen Lord here: they serve specific people in specific times and places, with the same purpose to which Jesus called them by the shores of the sea of Galilee—to proclaim and embody the eternal kingdom of God in the transitory times and places in which they now live. Place still matters.

Written By

Marianne Meye Thompson, the George Eldon Ladd Professor of New Testament, joined Fuller’s School of Theology faculty in 1985. She has been instrumental in developing courses that integrate biblical interpretation with other theological disciplines. In addition to The Promise of the Father, an examination of divine fatherhood in Scripture, she has coauthored Introducing the New Testament, and written The God of the Gospel of John as well as commentaries on 1–3 John, Colossians and Philemon, and the Gospel of John.

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