by Mike Kennedy, guest contributor to Bible Lands Explorer
“Wagwan!” That’s how I was greeted when I walked out of the international airport in Montego Bay. My driver pointed me to a small bus already packed with people and their luggage. This was not my first trip to the tropical island. However, this was the first time that I would be teaching at Jamaica Bible Seminary. My assignment was to teach a course on “Bible Lands and Culture.” When Richard Geringswald called me up and offered me the opportunity I was both excited and a little intimidated. I was excited because I had gone on a couple trips with Mark Ziese and I was eager to share some of the stories and photos from my adventures. However, I was intimidated because I had never taught a Bible lands class before and my first attempt would be teaching students in a different culture. How could I teach a class on the geography and culture of the Bible and make it relevant to ministry in Jamaica?
“Wagwan!” There was that word again. This time it came from one of the students as I stepped off the bus. Behind the grinning student I could see the concrete church building where the Bible college classes would take place. The student told me that he was looking forward to my class. I was pleasantly surprised. However, I wondered if he was serious or if he was just being polite. I asked him why he wanted to take a class on “Bible Lands and Culture.” He told me that he wanted to gain a visual picture of some of the places in the Bible. I told him about some of the photos from my recent trip that would give him a good visual of places in the Bible.
However, pictures are just not the same as actually being there and taking it all in with all your senses. When you actually experience how desolate and dry the Judean wilderness is and then see how the springs of Engedi are refreshing and lush, you gain a whole new perspective of Psalm 42:1, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” When you visit Qumran and see the caves in the cliffs where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, you can’t help but gain a greater appreciation for the way God has preserved His word down through the centuries. And when you walk through Hezekiah’s Tunnel and feel the chisel marks on the rock walls you begin to understand how important it was for the people in that time to have a strong fortified city with a source of abundant water.
I also mentioned that with each of these lessons there would be a practical application for their lives and ministries in Jamaica. “When we study what was going on in the culture of the Ancient Near East we gain a better understanding of how God wanted His people to apply His word in their world.” I knew I was tipping my hand before the first day of class, but I couldn’t help myself. I was eager to share what I had learned from my trip. I continued the shameless promotion of my class, “When we study the connection between the culture of the Bible and the text of the Bible it helps us to think about what is going on in our culture and how God wants us to apply His word in our world.”
“Wagwan!” Overhearing our conversation, another student had come out of the church building and greeted us. As he joined the discussion he expressed his doubts concerning the relevancy of the class to their current ministries. “I can see how learning about the culture of ancient Israel will help us to understand the Bible. But how can the culture of ancient Israel be practical for ministry in Jamaica?” he challenged.
I pointed out that as far as we know Jesus never took His ministry beyond a geographical area about the size of Jamaica. I said, “Even though the Promise Land was a relatively small area, it was intentionally and strategically located on a land bridge that connected three continents. God wanted His people to use the trade routes through their land to be a blessing to all the nations. I know that Jamaica is not a land bridge, but it does have two international airports, and number of tourist attractions, as well as several seaports for cruise ships. In this study we are going to see how God’s people took advantage of what was going on in their world and used it to spread the gospel. From there we will talk about how Christians living in Jamaica can consider what’s going on in their world and how they too can use it to spread the gospel.”
Thinking that I was changing the subject I asked, “Now I have a question about your culture. Since I got here several people have greeted me by saying “Wagwan!” What is “Wagwan”? They all laughed and one of them enlightened me, “Wagwan is how we say, ‘What’s going on?’”
In 2003 I went on a trip with Mark Ziese to Greece and Turkey. Three years later I took a trip with my wife to Israel and Egypt. That first class I taught at Jamaica Bible Seminary was a couple years after the 2006 trip. This year (2017) I was blessed to go to Israel with my son. Every time I take a Bible lands trip with Mark I learn something about what was going on in Bible culture and how to apply it to what is going on in our culture.
Mike Kennedy is a pastor at the Minnehaha Church of Christ in Vancouver Washington. He also teaches at Northwest College of the Bible in Portland Oregon.