Baptized

Series: Israel 2022

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?2

We’ve come to the river at last. Not just any river. I’m talking about the Jordan River. And I was ready – ready to be baptized in the same river where John the Baptist had baptized the Messiah – Jesus. I was so ready that I had planned my whole trip around that one event. From the time we booked the tour way back in January 2021 right up until the day we got on the plane in February 2022, I had told everybody who would listen that I was going to get baptized in the Jordan River. The Jordan River. It was going to happen.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site where tradition says that John the Baptist baptized Jesus near Bethany. It is on the eastern side of the Jordan River in Jordan. The photo was copied from Wikipedia4.

It wouldn’t be my first baptism. Way back, maybe sixty years ago, I was baptized when I became a believer and joined Watkins Memorial Baptist Church somewhere in northwest Atlanta. Two things I cannot remember (how I wish that I had been smarter and had written it all down). I cannot remember the exact date and I cannot remember the exact location in Atlanta. I cannot find the church no matter how many times I’ve gone to Google and searched. I’ve heard that the name was changed to Oakdale Baptist shortly after mama & daddy moved on to start another church closer to our home…but I cannot find that name on the internet either.

So, old Watkins Memorial remains only in my memory now along with the memory of my getting baptized. This was back in the day before every church had a built-in baptismal and your friends and family had smart phones to record every minute of it. It was back when you got baptized in a creek or a river or a pond or some other natural waterway outside.

It was a creek for me – I wish I knew exactly which one. I know it was by Mrs. Bogazan’s house somewhere near Atlanta. I’m not even sure who Mrs. Bogazan was or even if there was a Mr. Bogazan. She wasn’t a member of our church that I recall. But her house and that creek is a clear picture in my mind – a beautiful place where I wished that I could live back then. The creek ran down through huge granite rocks and had been dammed up right by the house to form a pool – a swimming hole, I suppose, for the Bogazan family. This spot was used by several churches in the area for baptisms. (And, yes, it was a place I wanted to swim and play and explore every single time we were there, but I was never allowed because, of course, we were only there for baptisms, a sacred ritual and not there to play or wade and certainly no jumping off those big rocks into the pool.)

Being baptized in a creek was not particularly a choice on my part at that time. I was very young, maybe 10 years old. I hadn’t a clue that there were some churches that had indoor pools (heated, no less) or that some churches only sprinkled water on the head and that they didn’t actually immerse people completely in water during baptisms. Every denomination has its own traditions, but I didn’t know about any of them. I only knew this was how it was done by our church, and I knew that, when I walked the aisle and asked to be baptized, this was how it was going to be…. the “full dunk” as I’ve heard it called more recently.

I was baptized in Mrs. Bogazan’s creek by our pastor, Reverend Lamar Gentry. I think it was a lovely summer day. The church members were all there standing along the side of the creek with my mama & daddy, brothers & sisters. They all sang Shall We Gather at the River2 as they did at every baptism as we waded into the water. Preacher Gentry had on his church clothes – suit pants and white shirt minus the tie and the suit jacket. My dad might have been there to help, I don’t remember. Knowing him, he probably was… who’s gonna miss the baptism of one of his babies?

I would have been wearing one of my Sunday dresses…. probably just what I wore to church that morning. I think there were others getting baptized, but I cannot tell you who or how many. Afterwards, I was allowed to go into Mrs. Bogazan’s house for just a bit to change out of my wet clothes (we weren’t allowed near or in her house otherwise). It’s a good memory of a very special event for me but a faint one…. like an old blurry photograph that’s tattered and fading around the edges. If I ever got baptized again, I promised myself that I would write everything down and remember…. maybe even take some pictures.

And I was determined. We were going to Israel and going to be near the Jordan River, and I could not think of any good reason why I shouldn’t be baptized there. I am reminded of the eunuch in Acts 8:36 after Philip shared the gospel with him asking Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  Indeed, where there is water, there can be a baptism and, if Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, then all the more reason that I should be.

Our first look at the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee.

The River Jordan is just about 251 kilometers (155.3 miles) long flowing north to south right through the Jordan Rift Valley. The upper course flows from its source springs down to and through the Sea of Galilee. The lower course flows out of Galilee and through the Jordan Valley into the Dead Sea.

Source tributaries are the Hasbani River and the Lyyon Stream that flow out of Lebanon. The springs at Banias (read about Banias and Caesarea Philippi here) and the Dan River (Springs of Dan – future blog coming soon), both at the foot of Mount Hermon, are also major tributaries. Originally, these tributaries ran together to form swampy wetlands called Lake Hula. This lake no longer exists as the land is fertile and has been drained and cultivated for hundreds of years. From “Lake Hula”, the river drops steeply about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) and flows into the Sea of Galilee. It leaves Galilee at the Degania Dam3 which is about 210 meters (688.97 feet) below sea level. The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth at 422 meters (1384.5 feet) below sea level.1

Aerial View of the Jordan River. Photo copied from Wikipedia4

Just below the Degania Dam at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee is the location called Yardenit where you can get baptized today. The Hebrew name for the Jordan is Nahar ha-Yarden – so it makes sense this baptism site is called Yardenit.1

Yardenit Baptism Site on the Jordan River just below Degania Dam. Photo was copied from Wikipedia – Jordan River 1

The Hebrew concept of “living water9 appeals to me. Water that flows naturally from springs in the land. Water that was used for purification and cleansing. Being baptized in a natural setting whether Mrs. Bogazan’s creek or the Jordan River, was, well…just perfect!

I had waited patiently through several days of touring and the day had finally arrived. I had asked and received permission for my husband (an ordained minister – retired) to baptize me. It was going to happen for me and for about 25 others on the tour. In the beginning, it was all pretty well orchestrated. We had planned ahead and wore our “baptizing clothes” – something that could get wet – and something that wouldn’t be transparent when it got wet. We waited in line by the entrance, paid our $20 per person, received a white linen shift, which we put on over our clothes. Then we all went down to sit and wait on stone benches by the water.

Waiting to be baptized. This photo was taken by Rob Young from our tour group.

Drs. Mark Yarbrough6 and Stephen Bramer7 were officiating and had already been in the water to check things out by the time we got changed and down to the baptism site. Jerry and I took a seat at the end of the line and waited as the proceedings began. There was no singing of “Shall We Gather..”2 by the onlookers; I would have been too excited to notice it anyway. Dr. Bramer advised us that the water was cold this year as it was coming from the snowmelt on Mount Hermon and gave us instructions on how things would proceed. There was a handrail (the riverbed was slippery) and 7-8 people at a time would go into the river and wait in line for their turn to be baptized. As an individual was baptized and exited to the right, the line would be replenished with those waiting on the stone benches. We would be in the last group to enter the water.

Dr. Yarbrough prayed asking God’s blessings on the baptisms and then began. As each person was baptized, either Dr. Yarbrough or Dr. Bramer would ask them a question about their belief in God and Jesus. Most just answered “yes” and were then lowered into the water backwards with both men holding them. I thought about what I would say, how I would answer, when asked the question. Of course, I felt like I should say something more than “yes”. Ultimately, I decided that I should just try to be “in the moment” and that “yes” would be quite enough.

Dr. Bramer from DTS giving us instructions. Dr. Yarbrough stands on the left in the photograph just behind Dr. Bramer. This photo was taken by Rob Young from our tour group.

When we finally stepped into the water, it was freezing. I was shivering before I had taken more than three steps in. I was next to last in line. There were about six people in front of me including Jerry. Things moved quickly. Soon it was his turn and then it was mine. Dr. Bramer stepped to one side and Jerry moved into his spot. As I stepped into the now vacant spot between Dr. Yarbrough and Jerry, I was beyond nervous. I felt Dr. Yarbrough’s hand on my shoulders to help support me and I placed my hands on my chest; Jerry laid his hand over mine and then asked me,

“Joan, are you trusting in the finished work of Jesus on the cross as complete payment for your sins? Are you trusting in Jesus alone for your salvation?”

I am not sure where it came from as I had fully intended to just say “yes” just like I’d decided earlier but, in that moment, I answered, “with all my heart and soul”. Then, I was lowered into the river which was like ice water; I gasped as I came back up into the warm air.

Then I raised my hands to heaven. Yes!  After all those months of dreaming about it, I had finally been baptized in the Jordan River. I could not have been happier. This memory and this feeling will be with me for a long time if not forever. (And I have written down the date this time – won’t be forgetting now.)

I was helped out of the river by Jerry and Dr. Bramer, and I turned for a moment to watch the last person being baptized.

Afterwards, we headed into a communal dressing room where everything was wet, and those white robes stuck to our bodies like glue. I thought I’d never get out of it and into dry clothes. But all too soon we were back on the bus and headed to the hotel. It was over way too quickly, and I was exhausted.

Did I need to be baptized a second time? Of course not. My salvation came when I believed. The baptism is just a way of telling the world that I do believe. I like how Dr. Andrew Farley8, from the Grace Message Church in Texas, explains it as being like a birthday celebration. You’ve been born of the spirit and you’re celebrating your “birth” day with all your friends in Christ. Indeed. I might even do it again in another fifty years or so.

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.”2

Sources for References and Additional Information About the Jordan River:

  1. Jordan River – Wikipedia
  2. Shall We Gather at the River? > Lyrics | Robert Lowry (timelesstruths.org); Robert Lowry; 1864; Public Domain:
  3. Degania Dam – Wikipedia
  4. File:Bethany (5).JPG – Wikipedia (Photo of Bethany Baptism site)
  5. File:The Jordan River loops, aerial view 1938.jpg – Wikimedia Commons (Aerial View of Jordan River from Wikipedia)
  6. Dr. Mark Yarbrough – Dallas Theological Seminary
  1. Dr. Stephen J. Bramer – Dallas Theological Seminary.
  2. The Grace Message with Dr. Andrew Farley
  3. Living Water – Wikipedia

A Blessing & A Curse – Capernaum

Series: Israel 2022 – Continuing our adventures in Israel in Feb/Mar 2022

Jesus chose a sleepy fishing village on the Sea of Galilee as the central location for his ministry. Not much there really…. then or now.  The town itself was established by the Hasmoneans in the 2nd century before Christ was born (BC or Before the Common Era, BCE, if you prefer) and lasted until sometime in the 11th century after His death (AD or CE) when it was abandoned after a second major earthquake.1 (The first major earthquake was on January 18, 749 AD and destroyed much of the surrounding cities and towns. That very precise date comes from Wikipedia. The second major earthquake which resulted in Capernaum being abandoned was about 1049 AD – they weren’t so sure on the date here.4)

Well, I suppose in terms of the history of this country (USA), more than 1300 years would be quite something for a town, but in terms of Israel and the ancient near east, it wasn’t such a long span of time at all.  Even though it lasted many years, I think (IMHO – In My Humble Opinion) Capernaum’s heyday and time of great fame had to have been those few short years when Jesus was teaching there, healing the sick, and casting out demons in the name of God, the Father.  It was only about three years but, make no mistake, He did quite a bit of healing in that short time with crowds following Him day and maybe even night all over the place…sometimes just to get a glimpse of Him or sometimes just to touch the hem of his robes.

Ancient olive press – a reminder of the passage at Luke 17:2 – “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”

At one point, Jesus fed 5000 men (not counting the women and children) and at another 4000. (Matthew 14:17-21 and Matthew 15:4-39) Whether you believe (like I do) that He did this with just a few fish and loaves of bread is one thing…. the fact that so many could be fed at all is pretty miraculous. Ask any caterer how much preparation goes into feeding a couple hundred tired hungry people, let alone 5000 plus, on short notice!  Twelve apostles passed out food and gathered the leftovers in baskets…. consider how many wait-staff a caterer would need to serve 4-5000 people!

View of the Franciscan Monastery from the ruins.

But, notwithstanding any of that, Capernaum, “the village of comfort”, was estimated to have had about 1500 people living there at the time of Christ. It is amazing to think of the population being increased by 5000+ people for even a short period of time. That’s quite a boost in population that would strain on the local economy for any small town. But it is recorded in the scriptures that they came and kept coming. They came to see this new teacher, to hear His words, and to be healed…. both physically and spiritually….and many became His disciples.  

We also came to this place…. to see the ruins of this village that is mentioned so prominently in the four Gospels of the New Testament.  Not only did Jesus adopt this town as His own (Matthew 9:1), but it was also the place where He called Peter, Andrew, James, John, (Matthew 4:18-20) and, later, Matthew to come and follow Him. He promised the four fishermen that He would make them “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19 and Mark 1:17) and He did.  Five of the twelve apostles coming from one small village is also quite amazing to me.

The large wall in the background was built by the Franciscans in the 1800’s to protect the site from treasure hunters seeking gold and from developers looking for building materials.

Capernaum wasn’t what I had expected.  I’m not really sure what I expected at this point. Israel so far had been so much more than I had thought it would be. And I was finding that, the more I saw, and the more I learned about this land and its relationship with God, the more I wanted to know. This feeling has stuck with me, and I find myself doing more and more research as I go through my photos and work on these blogs.  As my mama would say, Israel has sorta gotten stuck in my craw and I gotta keep working at it until I get it all figured out.

The ruins of Capernaum (Kfar Nahum to the Romans) were excavated as part of Tel Ham (Arabic Talhum)1. From the 11th century until the 19th century, it had been lost.  There was tradition and stories about where it was but no archaeological evidence.

Briefly, in a nutshell:

1838    Synagogue Ruins found by Edward Robinson

1866    Site was finally identified as being Capernaum by Charles William Wilson

1894    Site was purchased by a Franciscan Friar, Giuseppe Baldi, Naples

1905    Study of the synagogue & an ancient octagonal church nearby begun by Heinrich Kohl & Carl Watzinger

1968    The apostle Peter’s house was discovered by Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda1

Peter’s house – that’s what I really wanted to see. I had no idea there was a synagogue there that was important. Maybe I could have assumed that there would be a synagogue in a Jewish town, but it had not really crossed my mind to think about it. (Of course, now, having been to Israel, I would certainly realize that every town of any size would have a synagogue.)

As you enter the compound, you first pass a Franciscan monastery on site and then move into the ancient ruins. The first thing you see is the modern church/training center that looks like a gigantic flying saucer come to roost on top of the ruins. It was built in 1990 1. Not that I want to offend anyone, I really have to ask “why?”  Why build right on top of the ruins? I didn’t particularly like contrast of the ultra-modern building hovering over the ancient ruins and I really didn’t like that it covered the very thing I wanted to see! I understand that there is a glass floor and that you can sit and contemplate the ruins underneath looking through the floor (if the building is open to visitors). That really doesn’t change my opinion.

The Franciscan Church/Training Center located just over the ruins of “Peter’s House” in Capernaum. Doesn’t it look a bit like a spaceship?

The ruin that has been identified as Peter’s house from the 1st century is there – under the building. Here’s what tradition and some of the archaeology cites say about the site.  Peter lived there at the time of Jesus who may or may not have stayed with Peter when He [Jesus] was in Capernaum. We know from scripture that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at home (Matthew 8:14), and it has been assumed that she was at Peter’s house at the time. Sometime, in the latter part of the 1st century AD, the house became what is referred to as a “domus ecclesia”, i.e., house-church 1. It was no longer used for living quarters but was used for worship 2. It was known traditionally as Peter’s home where Jesus stayed, and early Christians went there to worship. In the 4th century, an octagonal basilica was built over the main room of the “house” and, later, in the 5th century, that smaller basilica was dismantled and replaced by a larger octagonal basilica 1&2. It is believed that the two octagonal churches were built over Peter’s house to preserve and memorialize the site. The octagonal church was known to medieval travelers & pilgrims who visited the area 2.

Inscription on a statue of Peter by the Franciscan monastery.

When Peter lived in the house (if he did – I’m still a bit skeptical), it was made of rough basalt stone which is plentiful in the area with a roof made of wooden poles covered with thatch. It is referred to by the Franciscans as “sacra insula” or “holy insula” described as a block of rooms around a central courtyard. 1 When the “house” became a “church”, it was upgraded to have plaster on the walls of the larger main room and a more permanent roof and floor was added. The plastered walls in the main room were decorated with mosaics.  And there is graffiti – some crosses – a even a prayer or two, “Lord Jesus Christ help thy servant” and “Christ have mercy2.

But, of course, I couldn’t see any of that.  The archaeologists who excavated the site reported it, but I couldn’t see anything that even looked like a house or a church or anything…. just what looked like roughly made rock walls up under that big memorial disk. The trouble with ruins is that you only have bits and pieces, so you really have to use your imagination.

As close as I could get to the ruins identified as Peter’s House (the roundish ruins in the center). Note the octagonal walls of the two basilicas built over it.

In my photos, I can see that the walls form an octagon, and I can see a smaller octagon inside and a circular wall (room?) inside that although I could not see all the sides of the octagon from where I stood.  There is a better photo in Wikipedia that shows the site without obstruction which must have been taken prior to the construction of the memorial disk-shaped building on top. 6

So, is that Peter’s house? I don’t know. There does seem to be quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that the house that was covered/marked by those two octagonal basilicas was an important place for the early Christians. And Peter did live somewhere in Capernaum, so I suppose the possibility is good that Peter lived in that house and Jesus visited Peter’s house while at Capernaum.

Now, about The synagogue. The ruins are beautiful, and you can clearly see that it was an important building in town and a place of worship for the Jewish people. While the rest of the town was seemingly built of the black basalt, the synagogue was built of limestone brought in from a quarry possibly at Taybeh1. Odd, maybe, but not unusual for a prominent and special building in a village or town.

Inside the synagogue ruins.

The synagogue was built on a platform that raised it up higher than the rest of the town as was the Jewish tradition. One would have to enter using several steps on the southwest & southeast corners of the building. The synagogue included a prayer hall with a nave and two columned aisles. There are two rows of stone benches that would have been for the elders. There was also a school room to the eastern side.2

The steps to the synagogue on the southwest corner. The steps are thought to be the oldest part of the synagogue.

Was this the synagogue that Luke 7.5 tells us was built by the centurion who admired the Jews living there in Capernaum…the same centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant? Turns out, it is not. This synagogue was built in the 4th century AD so was definitely not a place where Jesus would have taught. But, then again, turns out, this synagogue was built on top of another more ancient synagogue (as is the habit to build the new over the old) that was made of black basalt and has been dated back to the 1st century. That original ancient synagogue of black basalt is more likely to be the one that Jesus knew2.

The synagogue viewed from the side/just to the north of Peter’s house. Note the homes are made of basalt stone that is dry-stacked or without mortar which was typical of the 1st century AD. Also, note the contrast with the walls of the synagogue which is made of limestone and from about the 4th century AD.

The excavation continues at Capernaum and, no doubt, more things will be learned as the site is explored. Part of the site is owned by the Eastern Orthodox Church just over the wall built to enclose the Franciscan part. The part of the city owned by the Eastern Orthodox Church has not been excavated. Who knows what may be found there if it is ever excavated? Maybe more proof will be discovered that the house under/within the octagonal walls really was the house of Peter. Maybe more will be discovered in the synagogue that points back to Jesus. We know from scripture that Jesus was there along with Peter, James, John, and Matthew…and the rest of his disciples. And we know that many people followed Him there looking for the promised Messiah.

However, notwithstanding all the miracles and the amazing sermons, the overall populace (priests? Pharisees? officials?) of Capernaum did not believe. In the end, Jesus cursed Capernaum for its unbelief. Matthew 11:23 states that Jesus said that Capernaum would be thrown down to Hades. A village that was blessed by the presence of God in the beginning only to be cursed by Him in the end.

Sculpture in the Garden at Capernaum. It was referred to as the “Homeless Jesus”.

Scriptural Sources – As shown throughout the text.

Sources for Historical Information:

  1. Capernaum – Wikipedia
  2. Top Ten Biblical Archaeological Discoveries, © 2011 Biblical Archaeology Society 4710 41st Street, NW Washington, DC 20016 www.biblicalarchaeology.or ,  pages 68-84. (This is a free e-book available at the link shown above.)
  3. Hasmonean dynasty – Wikipedia
  4. 749 Galilee earthquake – Wikipedia
  5. New Testament places associated with Jesus – Wikipedia
  6. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=743768 (Credit for photo from Google)
  7. www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Capernaum, pages 185-189
  8. Saint Peter – Wikipedia