What do you think when you hear the word? What do you feel? And more importantly, why do you care what you think or feel about Israel?
Would you think as much if I asked you about the political maneuverings of the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Would you feel as deeply if I commented on the Prime Minister of the Principality of Andorra?
No. Israel conjures political, theological and emotional upheaval like few other words, or nations, can.
In my personal life, Israel has always meant a great deal. It’s the land where my faith was born. The land where Jesus grew up. The land where he healed the sick, slept, ate, laughed, preached, died and rose again.
Israel is the land God chose for his people through Abraham. Israel is where Jesus made the promise to establish His kingdom.
For all these reasons, Israel evokes strong emotions from people all over the world. Israel is unlike the Congo, or Andorra or Canada or the United States. Israel is special. Israel is unique among nations because it is the literal, historical, geographical location where heaven met earth.
My own emotional connection to Israel sparked when I was very young – probably 11 or 12. I remember reading the Psalmist’s command, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” I faithfully did pray for Jerusalem as a kid and I continue to do so today.
This emotional connection has only deepened over the years and no more so than when I traveled to Israel this past year. My trip convinced me of many things, but mostly this – every Christian should visit Israel at least once in their life. Here’s why:
SCRIPTURE COMES TO LIFE IN ISRAEL
How many times have you read the story of the final days of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion? 100 times? But I bet you’ve never journeyed along the banks of the Jordan River, from the Roman ruins of Tiberius, past Jericho and the Dead Sea, into Jerusalem to the Temple Mount and eventually to Golgotha itself. That’s the journey Jesus made just a few days before his crucifixion. I too made that journey in Israel (although my journey was on a tour bus)!
The terrain is surprisingly mountainous and rugged. It would have been an unbelievably tough, days-long hike on foot through the mountains to get to Jerusalem. I’ve read the story 100 times but never understood what the journey was like – what it took for Jesus to arrive at His crucifixion.
Jesus’ final days – his final journey – came alive for me in Jerusalem.
There is a mountain you drive up as you enter Jerusalem. As you reach the top, Jerusalem slowly reveals itself on the horizon. As the sights of Jerusalem become clear, you see what Jesus saw as he walked up and over the mountains into Jerusalem – knowing very well he was walking to his death.
I saw what Jesus saw, just a few short days before his death.
While in Israel, I matched my Scripture reading with our geographical location. If I was in the mountains outside Jerusalem, I read about Jesus in those mountains. If I was on the Jordan River, I read about Jesus in the Jordan River. If was in Capernaum, I read about Jesus in Capernaum and imagined him as a boy at play in his hometown.
I journeyed where Jesus journeyed. I saw much of what he saw. I humbly attempted to envision his experiences as I, unbelievably, stood where he stood and walked where he walked.
The events of Scripture can never be the same in your imagination after a visit to Israel – the land where all the stories we hold so dear took place.
JESUS’ HUMANITY COMES TO LIFE IN ISRAEL
Christians take it for granted that Jesus was fully God and fully human. But what does this really mean? Many of us lean to either extreme; he is more God than man or more man than God. While in Israel, my imagination was continually brought back to Jesus’ divinity, but also his very real humanity.
In the ancient town of Magdala, there is a small synagogue discovered relatively recently in 2009. It is generally agreed upon that this was probably Jesus’ home synagogue and possibly where he preached. I visited this synagogue. I stood at the entrance and imagined Jesus stepping over the threshold stone which is still there to this day. I observed the ornate craftsmanship which decorates the floors. I wondered if Jesus himself had done the same 2000 years ago.
Jesus probably spent a good portion of his social time at this synagogue. It’s one thing to imagine Jesus at his local synagogue learning Torah and spending time with friends – it’s another thing to see, and be in, that very place.
Jesus is indeed divine. But we rob Jesus of His full Being when we do not also consider his humanity. Israel brings to life the fact that Jesus was a first century Jew living under the rule of the Roman Empire. Jesus went to his local synagogue as a faithful Jew does – I visited that very Synagogue. Jesus went fishing with his friends on the Sea of Galilee – I enjoyed a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus made the journey from the north of Israel to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount – I made the same journey.
The soil under Jesus’ feet. The water in which he swam. The shores he walked and the trees’ shade under which he sat, are there to see today.
If you really want to know who Jesus is, you must start with where he is from. Yes, he is from the Father – divine. But he is also from Roman-occupied first-century Israel. Jesus is a Jewish man and to really be understood, he must be discovered in that context. There is no better place to make this discovery than Israel.
RELATIONSHIPS COME TO LIFE IN ISRAEL
While in Israel I had the pleasure to speak with a Greek Orthodox priest, a Palestinian Muslim, a Palestinian Christian pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, and several average Israeli citizens. To top it off, I was invited to participate in Shabbat in a Jewish family’s home.
Of all the experiences I enjoyed in Israel, the interactions I shared with the local people were some of my favorite. There is a great diversity of people in Israel and each person I met was wonderfully warm and inviting.
The Israeli people take great pride in their country. Everywhere I went, I experienced a very gracious welcome and a little nugget of local insider knowledge. I noticed that the locals were all very proud of the history of their land, and each person I met was very ready to give little pieces of history, education, and insight on the historic happenings of wherever I found myself that day.
FAITH COMES TO LIFE IN ISRAEL
I cannot say God is nearer in Israel. It would be wrong to say God is more present in Israel than He is anywhere else in the world. But I can tell you, I felt God’s immanence in Israel like I have few other times in my life.
I don’t think God spends more time in Israel than he does in Tulsa or Toronto or Buenos Aires – He doesn’t have a beach house on the Mediterranean. But I do know that Israel demands your attention and focus on the story of scripture, and the person of Jesus, like few other geographical locations, can.
How could that not be the case?
My attention was drawn to Jesus’ crucifixion because I was standing where it happened. My focus was intent on the Sermon on the Mount because I sat on the hillside where Jesus delivered it. My thoughts and hopes were drawn to Jesus’ resurrection because I stood in the very tomb he walked out of.
In Israel, around every corner you turn, there are reminders of the journey of the Hebrew people, of Jesus’ sermons in the Gospels, of the miracles he performed, of the sick he healed, of the promises he made, because you are standing in the very place where it all happened.
Israel focuses attention like a laser on the story of Scripture – How could faith not come alive in such a place?
This month is the one-year anniversary of my first trip to Israel – I am already planning a second. Until then, I continue to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” I pray you too will join me in that prayer, and maybe one day, join me in a pilgrimage to that great land.