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New Testament Comes Alive on a Trip to Greece, Turkey, and Rome

August 18, 2015
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"As a former athlete and current coach and PE teacher, I know the benefits of experiential learning versus reading or listening to words. This journey was the perfect immersion for understanding Paul, his life, and the vastly different world that he lived in compared to ours."

From June 15 to July 6, 2015, Professor Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn took a group of Regent College students, alumni, and spouses on a study tour to Greece, Turkey, and Rome. Zac Hood reflects on how the three weeks of travel in the footsteps of Paul renewed his commitment to missional living in an increasingly secular world, gave him confidence in God’s provisional hand in history, and provided a new understanding of the joy of fellowship with the triune God and his people.

Want to visit Hagia Sophia, the spice market, and Grand Bazaar in Istanbul? Yes. How about Troas Harbour where Paul set sail from Asia to Europe? Yes. Visit five of the seven locations of John’s letters in Revelation? Wow. How about the Oracle of Delphi or the ancient theatre and library in Ephesus? Yes, please. Climb to ancient monasteries on the cliffs of Meteora? Take a rest in Santorini? Swim in the Aegean Sea? Stop on the Isle of Patmos? Oh, wow. Yes. Set foot in ancient Corinth, Laodicea, Thessaloniki, and Athens? Check. Then after all of that, walk inside the Roman Coliseum, take a private tour of the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s, and eat some mouth-watering Italian food? (Heart is pounding.)

That was my inner dialogue as I read through the itinerary for this past summer’s course, The New Testament in Context: Greece, Turkey, and Rome (BIBL 685). In the vein of “lions, and tigers, and bears,” I was thinking with childlike excitement, “Turkey, and Greece, and Rome, oh my!”

Back in December 2013, I was in the Regent library trying to write my comprehensive exams. I was writing about Paul’s missionary strategies within the early church as an alternative to our modern approach to missions. On a brief, ADD-inspired break from writing, I emailed Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn about the idea of a Regent class taking a trip to Turkey, Greece, and Rome. Over a series of conversations and thorough investigation by Mariam, the pipe dream became an awesome reality this summer.

On this trip, which took place from June 15 to July 6, 2015, there were nine Regent students, alumni, and spouses (Ann Zlindra, Karenne & Alan Hartley, Stacey and Andrew Gleddiesmith, Peter Cheung, Val Kovalishyn, and myself), and our brilliant professor Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn. This group from Canada, America, Ireland, and Hong Kong joined a larger group coming from Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. The main purpose of the course was to gain a better understanding of the geography, topography, climate, and historical background of the biblical lands in Greece, Turkey, and Rome, which relate to the New Testament epistles and to the book of Revelation. On this journey, we would come face-to-face with the major social and cultural forces of the Greco-Roman era and understand the beautiful and difficult burden of our 1st-century brothers and sisters.

At the start of the journey, everyone was a bit jet-lagged but ready for the adventure that awaited us. The trip began in a city of 15 million people, Istanbul. All I can really remember was meandering through busy streets and dodging the maze of shops and salesmen in the Grand Bazaar. Then the visits to ancient sites began. The first days felt like an orientation (or disorientation) of the mind and body. Decades and centuries of various cultures and religions revealed themselves through the remaining ruins. While I felt well prepared, I was not an archaeologist. I felt unequipped to sort through the layers of history and culture piled on top of one another. 

The challenge felt much like my opening semester at Regent—diving into interdisciplinary studies that rapidly created and filled educational voids I never knew existed. Somehow, after several days, the blueprint of the Greek and Roman city-states started to make sense. My imagination clicked as I began to anticipate certain structures at each excavation. This is when the context of Paul’s missionary journeys became more real and made more sense than I ever imagined.

As a former athlete and current coach and PE teacher, I know the benefits of experiential learning versus reading or listening to words. This journey was the perfect immersion for understanding Paul, his life, and the vastly different world that he lived in compared to ours. The secret to the journey was being provided a time machine in the form of local guides and two New Testament professors, one being Regent's very own Mariam Kamel Kovalishyn. 

This trip was a lifelong dream-come-true in many ways. My faith and vocational journey kick-started through a career-ending back injury while playing college tennis. The climax of the ensuing identity crisis led to a deep trust of God’s heart, which resulted in my unexpectedly serving the beautiful children of Belize through sports for what will be ten years in 2016. In the initial years of that cross-cultural, quasi-missionary journey, Jesus held up Paul as a mentor, guide, and father figure for me. The result and impact of that trip were a deeper conversion and loyalty to the Triune God—what you could call redemptive, figurative heart surgery by God.

Ultimately, my desire to serve Belize and my need for Biblical studies and missiological learning brought me to Regent. At the end of my Regent education, I made my biggest life-changing discovery—the missio dei, or the missional nature and heart of God. It meant a disruptive paradigm shift away from Great Commission living (a passage plastered all over the walls of American churches and prominent seminaries, and serving as the mission statement of countless American mission organizations) and towards Greatest Commission-living, with much thanks to long-time missiologists David Bosch and Leslie Newbiggin and Latin American theologians such as Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar. Under the Greatest Commission in John 20:21, God is the missionary that we join. Knowing God and his mission allows us to join him in his mission instead of doing missions for God. In my Regent studies, there were no better examples of this kind of living than Paul and the people of the early church, who, quite frankly, relied on God to spread the Way and defied seemingly insurmountable odds.

Sadly but fortunately, there’s only so much you can learn in the beautiful Regent library and classrooms. Life must be lived, not memorized, written, or read. As every Regent professor reminds us, we must understand and locate ourselves within the biblical story. This heightened understanding of our Christian history is the greatest gift I received from this summer’s course. I can best explain this through our visit to ancient Corinth. 

Walking the site of Corinth brought to life both Paul and this supposed group of just fifty Christ followers. Locating the meat market within the forum, seeing the famous “Erastus” inscription, finding the storefronts where Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul most likely worked and lived, and seeing the intact engravings of starting blocks for athletic competitions brought incomparable insight. Learning that Paul most likely made temporary housing for traveling athletes and spectators for the Isthmian games brought new understanding of Paul’s use of athletic metaphors in his letters. I could finally understand the perishable victor’s wreath, whereby an athlete identified as being crowned by Nike and enjoyed life-long celebrity status back home. 

It was remarkable to see the audacious temple of Apollo and finally understand the importance of meat sacrificed to gods, whereby the rich would dine inside the temple and enjoy the “presence” of the god. I sat in the corner of the forum with a view above to the ancient Greek acropolis and down to the Roman temple of Octavia. Amidst ruins of Paul’s world, the most overwhelming feeling was the sense of Rome’s power and the dominance of the Greco-Roman culture. There was no modern way to explain how followers of the Way could spread the good news. It could only have been God and his spirit at work in this man Paul and in these broken, everyday, courageous people. “How did this happen?” I kept asking myself, doubting that it was really true. Yet our very lives and stories are evidence that this gospel did pierce through these overwhelming odds. 

Despite the many lasting impressions from sites like Corinth, the most important theme came in connecting Paul’s words to the beauty of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. I started to see Jesus and Paul’s teaching of Jesus in a new light. It may have been obvious, but it took me a while to realize that Jesus was given a juxtaposed crown on his way to victory over death. Moreover, I am seeing the last supper with new meaning. Jesus dedicated his own body and blood as a sacrifice that would seal our identity with him and bring us his presence through the Holy Spirit. This began to make complete sense within a context in which people not only worshiped other gods through sacrifices but also sought blessing by eating in the temple and in the “presence” of these gods. In contrast, our God sacrificed himself on the altar of this power, created a new kind of temple, and blesses us with his presence within this temple.

Like many students, I felt like such a novice, albeit an empowered one, walking across the stage to receive a Regent degree. The end of my learning felt like just the beginning. This trip was an opportunity to jump back into that world, be refreshed by the love and kindness of the Regent community and its professors, and continue the lifelong learning Regent calls us to. I will be doing my best to implement these new experiences into my work as a teacher, ministry co-worker with Belizeans, and creator of a blog co-founded with other Regent alumni dedicated to “a theology of sports” for young athletes and coaches. 

This experience drew me deeper into connection with the biblical story, Christian history, and the spread of the gospel in its infancy. It gave me gifts of relevancy for missional living in an increasingly secular world, confidence in God’s provisional hand in history despite worldly powers, and an understanding of the joy of fellowship with the triune God and his people.

It is our hope that this kind of course will be offered every two to three years. We invite you to pray about future trips as we explore how to give more Regent students and alumni these kinds of experiences of ancient times and treasures.

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