From the noisy bus station reeking with diesel fumes, we gazed past the teeming people to the low-lying cliff just outside the north wall of the ancient city of Jerusalem. There before us on the cliff face were the unmistakable eye and nose sockets marking “the place of a skull.” Christians know it as Golgotha or Calvary.
There were five of us—John and Eunice Douglas, David and Madge Herron, and myself—who hoped to be able to visit the top of the hill where Jesus was crucified. It would not be easy because the place is now a Muslim cemetery surrounded by a formidable fence. Our first attempt had found the gate closed and locked, but we determined to come back. Here we were a few days later to try again. We walked to the entrance and surprisingly found the gate open and no warden in sight.
We entered quickly and began the climb before anyone could hinder us. We were joined by a pleasant Arab boy of about eight or nine years old, who offered to show us the way to the top. He also offered to carry my camera and my hat. I gave him a good tip and the hat, which I had hastily purchased for protection from the hot Israeli sun, but kept the camera. That was the last I saw of him and my hat, for he ran off with the hat, leaving me very thankful I had not given him my camera as well!
The site is known as Gordon’s Calvary, named after General Charles Gordon, a well-known British military leader of Khartoum fame. Gordon lived near Jerusalem in 1882 and identified what he believed was the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It appears more authentic than the traditional site at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Excavations below the present-day Damascus Gate confirmed that the traditional site would have been inside the city wall at the time of the crucifixion. Since Jesus was crucified “without the camp” that would render the traditional site unauthentic.
Calvary, then and now, is a place of death. It was the place where Jesus was crucified, and today the hill is a Muslim cemetery covered with headstones. At the top we saw a large, abandoned artillery gun and were told that the hill had been a Jordanian gun post in the famous Six Days’ War three years earlier. So fierce was the fighting then that still hanging from the trees were small fragments of the clothing of defenders who had been blown to bits by the incoming shell fire. We spent about an hour perusing the scene and meditating upon the events of two thousand years ago.
I have always been of the opinion that Jesus was crucified on Mount Moriah where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22). Yet Mount Moriah has traditionally been identified as the site where the Jewish Temple stood, the site now occupied by the Islamic mosque the Dome of the Rock. While standing at Gordon’s Calvary, I was thrilled to see that Gordon’s Calvary is a continuation of the Temple Mount, interrupted by an east/west road that was excavated through the rock in the days of King Solomon. Had that excavation not been made, Gordon’s Calvary and the Temple Mount would have been one continuous part of Mount Moriah.
Standing on the hill convinced me of the authenticity of Gordon’s Calvary. It is above the cliff, “the place of a skull” (John 19:17). It is across the road from the original Damascus gate that marked the northern wall of Jerusalem. It is outside the city wall as Mrs. Alexander put it when she wrote of the “green hill far away without [outside] a city wall, where the dear Lord was crucified.” To the east, about a hundred and fifty yards away, lies the Garden Tomb. “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre” (John 19:41).
After exploring the site and convincing ourselves of its authenticity, we decided to have a time of prayer. The five of us sat on some rocks beside a big tree resplendent in an abundance of green foliage. We felt we were not far from the place where the cross would have been placed. It was far enough back from the
top of the cliff face to allow people to read the inscription on the cross. The luxuriant tree, magnificent evidence of life in a place of death, reminded us that the cross, the tree of death, became a tree of life to the believer.
That prayer meeting was a memorable event. Right there, near where the cross was erected, each of us led in prayer. It was an emotional time and many tears were shed. The moment was such that, after prayer, no one could speak, but we lingered quietly just a little longer in thanksgiving to the Lord. We had climbed Calvary by faith many times, but being at the actual place was emotionally overpowering.
Our reverie was unexpectedly arrested when we heard strains of the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.” We looked over towards the cliff and saw a group of Spanish Christians singing in their native tongue. What a precious moment that was!
We followed our visit to Calvary by going to the nearby Garden Tomb, a favorite meeting place for evangelical Christians. The tomb lies in a beautifully tended garden with an abundance of trees, flowers, and fruit, including pomegranates. The tomb itself has two compartments and two places for the dead, no doubt having been prepared for Joseph of Arimathaea and his wife.
The tomb was excavated from a vertical limestone rock. Outside, and below the entrance, is a rocky channel, along which a stone could be rolled. Alongside is a piece of such a stone which would be circular like a wheel. From our observations, assuming the stone would be about eight feet in diameter and about one foot thick, it would work out at about three-and-a-half tons of limestone. Mark records that the stone “was very great” (Mark 16:4), giving rise to the obvious concern of the women who went there on the resurrection morning: “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?” (Mark 16:3). If the Garden Tomb is not the actual tomb of Christ, then it certainly is the type of burial place used for the Saviour. Later in Northern Israel we saw a similar tomb with its circular stone intact.
That first visit to Calvary and the Garden Tomb in 1970 was a thrill of a lifetime. I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to go on a tour to Israel to take it. Even a brief two-week tour of the Holy Land is worth two years in Bible school. Seeing the biblical sites firsthand makes their stories come alive. When you read of place names in the future you can immediately identify with them and say, “I was there.”
However, whether you visit the present Jerusalem is of no real importance. What is critical is that you be able to stand in the new Jerusalem spoken of by John in Revelation 21:2. There are difficulties in the way, the main one being that “there shall in no wise enter into [the new Jerusalem] anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27). In other words, your sin has to be removed before you can enter there. Only Jesus Christ can do that: “The blood of Jesus Christ [God’s] Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). You need Christ to enter heaven. He is the only “door” (John 10:9). You can enter that door today by calling on the Lord’s name to save your soul.
Dr. Frank McClelland is minister emeritus of Toronto Free Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Ontario