Walking in the Shoes of Paul and John: Unpacking from Turkey and Greece

Date Published

March 11, 2024

Home / Blog / Walking in the Shoes of Paul and John: Unpacking from Turkey and Greece

Published by Calvin Seminary

Over J-Term 2024, Dr. Jeff Weima and 23 Calvin Seminary faculty, students, and alumni spent two weeks traveling to biblical sites across Turkey and Greece, focusing on the ministries of Paul and John. Over the course of these two weeks, the group visited the Turkish cities of Antalya, Aphrodisias, Aspendos, Colossae, Didyma, Ephesus, Hierapolis, Laodicea, Miletus, Pergamum, Perge, Sardis, and Smyrna (Izmir), as well as Athens, Corinth, and Delphi, Greece.

Three trip participants graciously shared their reflections with us.

Leah Jolly

Our trip to Turkey and Greece was intellectually and spiritually transformative for me in many ways. It not only helped me develop stronger relationships with Calvin Seminary faculty and classmates, but it also opened my eyes to the historical nature of Scripture, the influence of idolatry in biblical history, the challenges Christians encounter in other parts of the world, and the necessity of bold Gospel proclamation, particularly in a day and age that resists it.

Over the course of our trip, we visited numerous biblical sites, including five of the seven cities that have sermons addressed to them in Revelation 2-3: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Sardis, and Laodicea. Either prior to or after our visit to each site, Dr. Weima gave a short lecture on the biblical text, noting six key elements of each sermon: the Christ title, commendation, complaint, correction, consequences, and contemporary significance. These lectures provided helpful insights on the interpretation, historical and cultural context, and significance of each of the sermons. Visiting these sites gave me a much deeper understanding of the historical nature of Scripture. Now, when I read of Ephesus in Scripture, it’s no longer some city far away, but it’s the city where I explored the Library of Celsus and sat in the very theater where the Ephesians rioted against Paul, declaring, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:28). When I think of Pergamum, I can feel the wind biting my face as I walk the steps of its theater, exploring the ruins of temples and temple dining rooms (a source of fierce debate in Paul’s day – see 1 Corinthians 8-10). When I imagine Pergamum, I think of seeing the white mineral cliffs of Pamukkale in the distance, and the Lycus Valley cities–Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea–and their geographical location, as it affected their water supply, participation in global trade, and ability to receive letters from the apostle Paul. As I walked around Athens, I imagined what it was like for Paul to preach at the Areopagus, in the shadow of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, surrounded by people who would much rather worship false gods than the one true God. Each city we visited on this trip further opened my eyes to the historical nature of Scripture. To visit these cities where Scripture took place is to have a better understanding of the text, its context, and the implications of that text for its original audience.

At each site and city we visited, it was inevitable that we’d see the remains of at least one temple, whether to a false god or goddess, or dedicated to the imperial cult (worship of the Roman state and its emperors, who thought they were gods). In the ancient world, a city’s deities were the key to its success. If you made the right offerings and decisions, you’d please the gods and receive blessings on your family, crops, health, and other aspects of life. However, to make the gods angry was a tragedy, as disaster would inevitably come in torrents until you found a way to appease the gods again. These false gods and goddesses were constantly ‘competing’ with God for the worship and allegiance of people and cities. Having walked through and examined the remains of so many pagan temples, I have a better understanding of the deep, profound influence of idolatry and the battle it posed to the early Church. When you’re surrounded by idol worship and the imperial cult, it would be tempting to stick with what you know and not worship the true God. This trip gave me a better appreciation for the boldness and tenacity of the early Christians to stand firm in their faith, even as idolatry surrounded them from every side. 

Two of my favorite experiences on this trip were opportunities to meet with and hear stories from Turkish and Greek pastors, as they honestly shared the joys and challenges of Gospel ministry in their context. In Turkey, Muslims make up almost 99% of the population. While the Church in Turkey is growing, conversion to Christianity from Islam brings deep shame upon a believer’s family and community. The Turkish pastor we met shared that his own family disowned him for a time because of the shame he brought on them due his conversion. Despite many challenges in evangelism, God continues to grow the number of believers in Turkey! While in Athens, we had the privilege of meeting with a local pastor who pastors one of the few evangelical churches in Greece. The majority of Greek citizens identify as Greek Orthodox, posing interesting challenges of conversation, debate and evangelism to this evangelical pastor. In addition, this evangelical church is located in a very impoverished, diverse area of Athens, home to immigrants from dozens of countries, many impoverished families, and rampant prostitution and sex trafficking. Even in the midst of these challenges, the Gospel is going forward in Athens, as this church seeks to meet the physical and spiritual needs of their community. I was encouraged to hear how God is using these pastors and their congregations to make His name known in Turkey and Greece, and will pray all the more fervently for them going forward.

Coming home from Greece and Turkey, I was left with a deep sense of conviction about the necessity of bold Gospel proclamation, especially in a day, age and culture that resists Christ in any way possible. Each city I visited further equipped me to analyze historical, social, cultural and political context in order to effectively proclaim the Gospel. Each temple reminded me that, even though my context might not have temples or physical idols, we have plenty of things we idolize in our hearts and lives, such as money, recognition, success, alcohol, and consumption, all of which remove God from His rightful place in our hearts and lives. As I reflect on the testimonies of the Greek and Turkish pastors, their stories and witness will continue to inspire me to proclaim Christ to others, even when faced with opposition, threats and hatred. As a follower of Christ living in the United States, the persecution the Church here faces is minimal. However, our culture is increasingly resistant to the Gospel and what it stands for, particularly in regards to sexuality, human life, and treatment of other people who are made in God’s image. Going forward, I will continue to proclaim the Gospel boldly to others, even if I face opposition from others. This trip reinforced to me that knowing and proclaiming Christ is the most worthwhile thing I’ll do, and I am grateful for the intellectual and spiritual transformation it provided me.

Cindy Madsen

Reflections on our visit to Perge

The first place that we visited on our trip were the ruins of the city of Perge. Although Perge is only mentioned twice in the New Testament, both times in connection with Paul’s missionary journeys, it was a large and wealthy city in ancient Rome. The ruins of Perge were an impressive introduction to ancient Rome. Perge has an enormous, monumental gate, or propylon, through which Paul and Barnabas would have entered the city. There is a well-preserved theater, stadium and Roman bath. There are the remains of a huge agora or marketplace. There is a large colonnaded street, the Cardo Maximus, down the center of which ran a waterway that led to a nymphaeum, or monument to water nymphs. There were columns with sculptures of Artemis, Perge, Tyche and Apollo.

Walking through the remains of Perge, I was struck with the fact that we are often very arrogant about our contemporary culture. We mistakenly think that history has an upward trajectory of progression. And yet, here was a highly sophisticated and established culture. It also brought home to me the difficulty that Paul would have had in converting the Gentiles. Becoming a Christian would have meant becoming completely countercultural. Later that day we went to the St. Paul Cultural Center in Antalya, a “coffee shop” run by Christians who support a local Turkish Christian congregation. We heard from a Turkish pastor, Ozgur, who told us his conversion story. He had been born a Muslim, had studied the Quran and yet had unanswered questions about God and Islam. In his teenage years, Ozgur experimented with drugs and alcohol and spiraled downwards into depression. However, one night after a drinking binge he awoke with the thought that he should investigate Christianity, which he did. His acceptance of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior eventually transformed him. But in a country that is 99% Muslim, becoming a Christian is countercultural. His family and friends berated him. His mother told him that she would rather that he had stayed and alcoholic and drug addict than become a Christian. He was insulted and threatened, but, Ozgur said, he had a new peace in
life that was worth fighting for. Hearing this faithful and courageous pastor after having visited the Roman ruins, I was reminded that persecution for being a Christian has not ended. Being a Christian means being countercultural. Being a Christian means putting our relationship with Jesus above even those important relationships of father and mother, brother and sister.

Reflections on our visit to Ephesus

The city of Ephesus was a highlight of the trip. We saw the huge theater of Ephesus which seated about 25,000 spectators. It was here that the riot of the silversmiths happened. The two- story facade of the library of Celsus is a symbol of Ephesus’s intellectual and cultural prowess, holding over 12,000 scrolls. There are four statues on the facade that represent the female personifications of four virtues: wisdom, knowledge, intelligence, and excellence. We visited the hillside terrace houses which were decorated with beautiful mosaics and frescoes. These gave us a snapshot of the rich domestic culture of Ephesus. Ephesus had two agoras, the first, located in lower Ephesus by the port, was the commercial agora. The second, located in upper Ephesus was the civic, or State Agora. The civic agora was the larger of the two and it was where citizens gathered for political and social reasons. At its center was a temple devoted to the Egyptian goddess Isis. There is a monumental fountain called the Nymphaeum of Trajan, which honored the goddess Artemis and the Emperor Trajan. It was a large two-story structure, which was once colorfully painted with columns and niches, once holding many statues. At the center front of the fountain, was a large statue of the Emperor of Trajan.At one time Ephesus had one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple of Artemis. Now, there is only one column standing to mark the site where it was.

There is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley called “Ozymandias” which says:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I thought about that poem a lot as I wandered through the many cities that we visited. We saw ruins of former bustling agoras, fragments of beautiful carvings, the remains of magnificent temples and the relics of mighty palaces and acropolis strongholds. We saw the rubble of one mighty nation on top of the remnants of another. These had been mighty empires and kingdoms, that had inspired great fear and also wonderful creativity. And yet, there was so little that remained. The underscored for me the salient point that our society and culture is no different. It too will fall. But it is Kingdom of God that will eternally endure and that is where we must put our loyalty, trust and allegiance.

Jun Soo Park

Visiting 17 ancient biblical sites in Turkey and Greece was like stringing together pearls. The numbers for city or building sizes that I have encountered in books and articles used to be not very useful in conceptualizing an ancient city as a whole, but they often failed to make a whole image but remained fragmentary. However, seeing ancient sites brought the contents from the texts to life, forming a vivid picture of ancient lives.

What was more, the ruins showed the worldview beyond them. When Calvin Theological Seminary prepared to renovate the building, Dr. Gary Burge, then- academic dean, told me that a place reflects the philosophy. This is not limited to modern constructions. It is also true for the ancient cities. The ruins told us their stories and worldview of the lives that were buried beneath them. 

The significance of idols in ancient times was one of the most striking aspects of the ancient world. The ancient world was saturated with idols. Every aspect of life was strongly connected with certain gods. Images of idols were used to embellish market areas, theaters, entrances, and street side columns. Temples devoted to idols were built in the most significant areas of a city. Idols were ubiquitous in the first-century Greco-Roman society, and they were an essential part of everyday life. The apostle Paul must have witnessed  them and related pagan religious practices such as, for example, emperor worship. Cities competed to build temples dedicated to honoring Roma and emperors or their families, with Rome’s consent. Not only that, but cities make conscious efforts to build temples to demonstrate their love for Roma and to promote Roman propaganda and its power. It was still quite evident what happened when whole cities observed political-religious practices with particular aims.

When I visited the cities and observed these things, fragmented knowledge merges and combines to make an coherent and vivid image of the ancient world and its worldview. At the sites, I could immediately imagine what an ancient city looked like, how densely populated it was with idols, how large the pagan temples were in comparison to the size of the whole city, how important locations were where they occupied in the city, and how difficult it was for first century Christians to turn from the idols to the one true God and maintained their faith.

In Turkey and Greece, we not only visited historical sites. We had the opportunity to meet church leaders in those countries. The gospel has been proclaimed in various forms and languages according to the times and cultures. Nonetheless, the meeting with those leaders enlightened us to the fact that just as the early Christians of the first century did, turning to and sustaining the Christian faith continues to demand tremendous bravery. In addition to feeling obligated to pray for the well-being of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world, I also feel compelled to contemplate my own life and faith, which, despite encountering different types of difficulties from what Christians in Turkey and Greece would do, is generally replete with peace and complacency.

At last, apart from the integration of disparate knowledge, enhanced comprehension of the Bible, and contemplation of current faith, an additional significant benefit of this trip was the opportunity to engage in fellowship with fellow travelers. Because the doctoral program fundamentally requires in-depth research with personal reflection, it is inevitable that students experience isolation despite devoting a great deal of time at school. During the trip, however, I could have opportunity to empathize with the fervor of those who are eager to investigate the biblical texts and who want to provide the congregation with more refined sermons based on better understanding of the Bible. It was time to increase the depth of my relationships with those I already knew, and to make new friends. I am grateful for wonderful fellow travelers. They are devoted Christians who seek a greater grasp of the Word, take pleasure in proclaiming it, and trust God’s plan for the church through them.

The study tour to Turkey and Greece had an indelible impact on what and how I interpret the Bible. The narratives about Paul’s missionary journeys and the sermons to the seven churches in Minor Asia will not be read in the same way they used to be. The time spent in Turkey and Greece gave me a better understanding of the ancient culture and environment in which the early Christians lived, as well as the Bible was written and accepted. It was an excellent chance for me to rethink and evaluate my faith and life while also enjoying fellowship with other passionate future ministers and friends.


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