A holy event

The beautiful, rock-cut Garden Tomb is a holy Christian site of witness and worship located just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

August 15, 2019 09:13
A holy event

The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The beautiful, rock-cut Garden Tomb is a holy Christian site of witness and worship located just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, and is considered by some to be the site of both the burial and resurrection of Jesus.

“Within this peaceful and contemplative garden there are several antiquities of interest, including an ancient Jewish tomb that many believe is the site of Jesus of Nazareth’s burial and resurrection,” it says on its website.

Pastor Paul Weaver, who hails from Birmingham, studied theology in London and pastored two churches before leading the Assemblies of God in the UK as general superintendent for 13 years, was elected chairman of the Garden Tomb (Jerusalem) Association in 2017. He and his wife, Jenn, have two children, Sally and Joel, and six grandchildren.

How did you get involved in the Garden Tomb?
I got involved in the Garden Tomb many, many years ago. In the 1980s I used to bring tours to Israel, and my wife fell in love with Israel. We did that for probably 10 years or so and then my life got so busy that we weren’t able to do it anymore. I was the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God in Great Britain and Ireland, so that took me all over the world, and when I retired I said to my wife – because she has sacrificed me being away all that time –  “What would you like to do when we retire?” And immediately she came back, “I would like to work in the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.” I said “OK, then, let’s see if we can do that.” And so we made an application like everybody else that comes here and they accepted us, and so we started as volunteers and then we had been here a few years and then I went on to their board and then finally I became chairman of the board and so that is where we are today. But it’s my wife, she is the one who keeps bringing me back. I mean I love to come back too, but it was her desire, and she loves this place. So she is a guide, she works in the shop and she does communion. She does all sorts of things here.

Tell me about the milestone you are celebrating at the Garden Tomb.
We are celebrating 125 years of ministry here in Jerusalem, which is quite remarkable. I was just trying to do some sums the other day and realized that literally millions of people have come through this garden in those 125 years. And of course when people come to the garden here, every person receives the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some days we would have 3,000 people in the garden in one day; this gives you a sense of the volume of people that are coming through. So it was a big celebration of all those years. Many, many people have been involved in the journey of 125 years, in fact when you go right back to the beginning, Prince Edward and Prince George of Wales came here and tried to raise money to buy this land. Royalty, dignitaries and even the Archbishop of Canterbury were all involved in the process of trying to purchase this land all those years ago, so it was a great celebration!

Have you had special celebrations here to celebrate 125 years?
We had a special celebration on a recent Sunday evening, and we invited all the people that would be connected with the garden itself – people like suppliers of materials to us, to our shop, people who are guides coming in regularly, and then other people who represent the embassies and the various people and dignitaries in the area.
So it was just one lovely celebration. Many people will know the Garden Tomb, but many have probably not been here at night. At night it’s very beautiful, lit up very beautifully, and it is like a grotto so the ambience is just perfect for that sort of celebration – and we had a good jazz band too!

How did this place come about 125 years ago?
First of all, there was General Charles Gordon, who first visited Jerusalem in 1883. He was a very influential man in this area, and he discovered what he called Golgotha – you remember that Jesus was crucified outside the city wall of Jerusalem, at a place called Golgotha. People were also crucified down on the roadside but it was at Golgotha that Christ was crucified.
Now when that was discovered about 50 years before the Garden Tomb was found, there was great interest in that discovery. Then this tomb was discovered, accidentally – the person who owned this land was farming it, and they were looking for water, they weren’t looking for a tomb. And they dug down about 15 feet into the ground and they found the tomb, and it was then excavated with experts. It was a tomb that was considered to be very important, and also the link to Golgotha – it’s about 200 yards from Golgotha. When you read the biblical story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then all these things are close together.

So you have got the crucifixion, and then the carrying of the body of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea into the garden, 200 yards away. That shows you the sort of duration of distance. And then, of course, the garden itself has been dated as being here at the time of Jesus. It was a vineyard.

You have three elements that are involved in the death of Christ –first the garden, and then Joseph of Arimathea, and his tomb. The shape of the tomb is also recorded in the Bible. Many people don’t know that but the Bible actually gives you the shape of the tomb, and this tomb here fits that perfectly. So you have all those elements that bring the message of the Gospel, and also the visualization of it too. As one walks around, one gets the feel of that journey so long ago.

How much did it cost to purchase this land 125 years ago?
Well, that might surprise you. It cost 2,000 British pounds.
I suppose that was a lot of money in them days!
It was a lot of money, and we have to put the negotiation down to a lovely lady called Louisa Hope. She had to negotiate with three different governments of the world to bring about the purchase because it was very complicated years ago in the Ottoman period, but she brought it about and then she was part of a group of people that set up the trust, and then the garden was handed over to the trust for posterity.

And how did they raise that £2,000?
They went around the churches in the UK. So it is a UK charity, one of the very few on the holy sites here in Israel, and so people literally gave and some wealthy people gave too but mostly it came from churches.
This must have been a real step of faith.
It was a massive step of faith, not knowing how that was going to develop totally, but just to own the land where the connections were was the first intent really of the group. Since then it has been developed massively. And, of course, we are continually developing the garden, which is only so big – this last year we had an extra 100,000 people coming round, and then this year we have another extra 100,000 on top of that, so the growth is huge, but, of course, the garden stays the same size. So we have to logistically look at plans and ways in which we can maximize the use of the garden so people aren’t disappointed when they want to come.

So 125 years forward, are you now really a victim of your own success because you are getting so many people coming in?
Yes, you could well say that, and it is very interesting because we have all sorts of experiences going on here. This is normally where the evangelicals come. The Orthodox churches normally go to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That and the Garden Tomb are the two sites in Jerusalem where possibly the death and resurrection of Jesus could be. But we have a number of people who are coming from the Orthodox Church now to our garden and calling it the 13th station – the place of resurrection – which is quite new for us.

So we are seeing expiation at a massive rate and we hopefully are going to cope with the next stage of growth that we all know is happening in Israel, because tourism is up in a big way.

How many visitors come here a year?
We have about 460,000 people who will come this year, and we think probably our ceiling will be about half a million.

Do you get encouragement from around the world?
Massively so. We handle over 90 different languages in the garden here and 30 different languages as a first language. So we are obviously meeting a wide spectrum of worship, and you can come here and hear in perhaps 10 different locations 10 different expressions of worship and liturgy, and when you stand back from it and you hear all the different sounds and the different languages, you just realize how big this wonderful body of Jesus Christ is globally and that is very inspiring.

What is your prayer for the next 125 years?
I think we have got a simple prayer really. The prayer is that we might by the grace of God keep this garden open, with an undiluted proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ – until that day when the clouds separate and Jesus comes back.

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