Israel Immersion Trip, Day 7

THE TOMB WAS NOT EMPTY!…but more on that in a moment. It was a cold and fridged day in Jerusalem. No matter how many layers I had on, nothing blocked the power of the cold wind that was blowing. We began our day by going to the worst possible place for the cold wind. The Temple Mount sits on top of Jerusalem with no walls around to impede the wind from hitting us. I had many mixed feelings about being on top of the Temple Mount. First, the Temple Mount is controlled by the Islamic regime. The Temple Mount area is not a place that is friendly to non-Muslims. There is absolutely no other religious symbols, literature, or acts of worship allowed on the Temple Mount. We saw one man who had kneeled down be harassed by guards for being in a Christian posture of prayer. The Rabbi we were with was told to take off his kippah or else he would need to be escorted by armed guards for his protection. Even upon the Temple Mount, we weren’t allowed to call it as such but rather “the Noble Sanctuary.” It’s bad enough that the Israelis have lost their most sacred place, but the Muslims deny that there was ever a Temple that stood there. It was hard for me to enjoy being in this sacred place. While it was cool to walk in this most sacred place, it was hard to enjoy a place that has taken away all the rights of the Jews to their most sacred place.

We exited the Temple Mount and made our way to the Church of Saint Anne’s. St. Anne’s is a Romanesque Church built in 1138 by the crusaders. The Church was built like a fortress and had thick stone walls with very little decor. I thought the Church had a very simplistic beautiful look to it. The best part of the thick stone walls was the acoustics it created. So as a group we sat and sang numerous songs. The reverberation from the walls would last as long as 8 seconds, and it sounded incredible. The Church is also positioned catty-cornered to the Pools of Bethesda.

In John 5, Jesus comes to a public pool where people go to be healed. “Bethesda” means “house of mercy,” a fitting term given the desperate state of the people lying there in hope of a miracle cure.  There remains strong reason to identify this pool with a single large two-pool complex near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem and adjacent to the modern Church of St. Anne. The two pools are separated from each other by a partition. The remains of columns found around this site help confirm that the partition between the pools, along with each of the four sides surrounding the pool complex, likely contained the five roofed colonnades (i.e., five stoas, which are covered walkways; a “colonnade” is a row of columns). A fifth-century Byzantine basilica was built over this site. While overlooking this site, I couldn’t help but think of the healing that Jesus had performed here. There was this man laying there for 38 years along with numerous other people waiting to be healed, and here comes Jesus and he heals this one man. We must look at it from two perspectives. First, all those who are laying beside the pool hoping for healing. Here comes Jesus and he heals this one man. You have to be thinking to yourself what about me? And secondly, this man who was special enough to Jesus that Jesus would heal him on the Sabbath and no one else. There are so many things about this story that are miraculous and mysterious.

After leaving the Pools of Bethesda, we traveled to the Via Dolorosa, or “the way of suffering.” The Via Dolorosa is the traditional fourteen stations of the cross ending at the Holy Church of the Sepulchre. Millions of pilgrims over the last two thousand years have walked the path that we did. So it was a privilege and honor to walk in the footsteps of so many saints that came before us.

As stated before, the Via Dolorosa ends at the Holy Church of the Sepulchre, which is a massive basilica that is now only one-third of its original size. I must say that I have been to the Vatican, and it pales in comparison to the Holy Church of the Sepulchre. I really wish time travel was a possibility to see this church in its prime. The Sepulchre contains the last 4-5 stations of the cross depending on how you count them.

We first visited Golgotha or the place of the skull. This is the place where Jesus was stripped naked and then hung on a cross to die. I stood in line to see the stone on which the cross was placed into. I got the chance to kneel before the place where Jesus died, place my hand on the rock, and pray to Jesus and thank him for his love, sacrifice, and grace poured out in this place.

We next headed down to the place where Jesus was prepared for his burial. At this place was a beautiful mosaic that depicted what happened in this place. Below the mosaic was a beautiful red stone slab that is thought to be the place that Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body of Jesus for burial.

Next, we made our way to the tomb of Jesus, which was far from empty. We waited in line for almost an hour to see the small room in which the body of Jesus once laid but is no longer occupied by his body. Instead, the tomb is occupied by pilgrims of faith who have traveled all across the globe to see the place where Jesus rose from. This small dark room where Jesus once laid was now a room of hope and light for all those who believe.

The interesting thing about the Holy Church of the Sepulchre is that the more research you do, the more probable it is that this was the sight of Christ crucifixion, tomb, and resurrection. However, we traveled to another place that also “claims” to be the place of the skull and where Jesus was buried, known as the Garden Tomb. The Garden Tomb allows for people to experience what the setting might have been like at the time of Jesus, but it is highly improbable that this was the crucifixion and burial site of Jesus. The tomb dates to the 8th-9th century b.c. and thus would contradict the testament of the Gospels of being a new tomb.

This day was a very impactful day for me. It was in these places that the revolution for humanity began through the death of Jesus on the Cross. In these hollow places where so many have traveled, I too was now a pilgrim to these sacred places. One of the most beautiful things were these cross carved into the side of the wall by thousands of pilgrims from hundreds of years ago. While I did not carve a cross into the wall, I became a part of the group of pilgrims who did.

May the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!


Israel Immersion Trip, Day 5

After traveling to the birthplace of Jesus the day before, we spent our day in between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. We set out early this morning toward the Herodion. The Herodian was a dead volcano that King Herod the Great had heightened and then turned into a mountain fortress. It could be seen from all over the Judean countryside. Actually, Herod wanted the mountain to be so high that he could see the city of Jerusalem from it. At his death, he had this mountain turned into his burial site. This mountain was also used as the main hide out for the Second Jewish revolt known as Bar Kokhba in A.D. 132-135. As we were driving up this huge mountain just stood out from all the others, and from the top on a clear day, you can see for miles around. It is almost like Barad-dûr from the Lord of the Rings. This fortress was the all-seeing eye of the Judean countryside.

When we read the story in Matthew 17 of Jesus teaching about the faith the size of the mustard seed producing the ability to move mountains, I have to believe that he is talking about the Herodion and other military mountains. This is not only a common metaphor in Jewish literature for doing what is seemingly impossible, but it is also an attack on the powers and principalities of darkness in this world. The Herodian represented the tyranny of the Roman government over the Israeli people. Jesus wasn’t only saying that you have the power to do the impossible, but you have the power over evil forces in this world. Therefore, there is nothing in this world that should restrain you from doing what God has called you to if you have faith in him. As I stood at the foot of this mountain I wondered, do I have enough faith to attempt the impossible?

After leaving the Herodion, we returned to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity. In case you didn’t know, today is Christmas Day in the Eastern Rite of the Church. The Church of the Nativity is said to have been the birthplace of Jesus, and there is a grotto underneath the Church that thousands of people visit. The Church was first built in the fourth century by Saint Helena and has stood there ever since. With it being Christmas Day, it was almost impossible to go and see the grotto. It would have been at least a three hours wait. Instead, our tour guide gave us a few minutes to walk around the church and take pictures. Rocky and I wanted to get candles and bring them back to use for Christmas Eve services in the future. What ended up happening is that our friend, Elizabeth Heft, led us down into the space where the grotto was, and we saw the “traditional” birthplace of Jesus. We were the only ones in our group to get to see it, and it was an amazing experience that took only three minutes instead of three hours.

While the birthplace of Jesus is in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity, we left and went into the basement of the Catholic Church that is connected to the Church of the Nativity. On the basement, we witnessed the Tomb of the Innocent, which is commemorated to the children killed by Herod in Matthew, chapter 2. This is also the location for where St. Jerome wrote the Latin Vulgate, which would be the Church of the West for 1,100 years before the King James Bible. It is the location for the Tomb of St. Jerome. There is a lot of history and tradition that surrounds the Church of the Nativity, and since it was Christmas Day, it also added another layer of meaning to our adventure there today.

After leaving the birthplace of Jesus, we headed to the place where the first people heard about the birth of Jesus in Shepherd’s Field. This location is said to be the traditional site as to where the shepherds were watching over their flocks when the angels and heavenly host appeared. I heard an interesting interpretation recently that these shepherds might have been the shepherds who raised the sacrificial lambs for the Temple sacrifice, which adds a whole other layer to the Christmas Story.

Also in these fields, we entered into a natural cave, which would have been pretty close to the cave Jesus was born into. Stepping down into this cave brought to life the nativity scene. It’s not the nice stable/barn that we alway betray at Christmas time, but rather a natural cave that was cold and dark. We also saw a feeding trough that Jesus would’ve been laid in. While we always picture it as this lovely modern, wooden feeding trough, but it was rather a round stone filled with hay. It was a humbling experience to see the shepherd’s fields and a cave much like the one Jesus would’ve entered into this world in.

In just a matter of a few short hours, we went from Jesus’ birth to his death. After leaving Bethlehem, we entered into Jerusalem where we first went to the Upper Room. Now, we did not actually go to the Upper Room where Jesus had his last supper with his disciples. The buildings that stood in this area no longer exist. However, we know historically that where this site is built was a wealthy part of the city and most likely where Jesus would have hosted this very important meal. The room we stood in was a Roman or Byzantine type room that was built on this site.

We ended our day with visiting a church that is built on the site where the High Priest Caiaphas lived. If you remember the Passion Story, Caiaphas was the high priest who had Jesus arrested and handed him over to the Roman authorities. From this site, you can see the Garden of Gethsemane, the steps in which Jesus climbed to Caiaphas’ house, and the cell that he was held in under Caiaphas house. To stand in the place where Jesus spent his last night before his crucifixion brought mix feelings. As we stood in this cell that Jesus would have been lowered into by ropes, we began to read Psalm 88. It is a Psalm of despair. It is a psalm of isolation. It is a psalm of what Jesus went through on his last night. To read it in that place in light of knowing what Jesus went through, it just makes my love for Christ grow stronger all the more.

As we begin to wrap up our time here in the Holy Land, God had really been moving in my life. I cannot wait to spend these last four days here in Jerusalem.

May the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

Israel Immersion Trip, Day 4 

Editorial Note: This will be one of two blogs posted today. This is about my experience yesterday which will be more political than theological. The second post will be more theological on places I visited today in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. 

We began our day by traveling from Tiberius to Bethlehem, which took about three hours of driving. We stopped for restrooms and coffee half way through the trip and some curious happened. Apparently in Israel some bathrooms are just co-ed. They don’t worry so much about having separate bathrooms in some places. The plus side to this was that every stall was kept very clean, which isn’t always the case in the men’s bathroom.

When we arrived in Bethlehem, we went to an organization known as Roots. It was there that we talked the leaders and founders of this movement; one a Israel rabbi and the other a Palestinian revolutionary. They are attempting to foster a grassroots movement of understanding, nonviolence and transformation among Israelis and Palestinians. The conversation was engaging and intriguing, and I agreed with their sentiment for doing so; however, I did disagree with some of their theological reasonings and conclusions. Nonetheless, it is a movement that is trying to bring peace in a deeply divided society.

After settling down in Bethlehem, we all split up and had dinners at local Palestinian homes in Bethlehem. I was fortunate enough to eat with woman named Emily and her family. They are practicing Greek Orthodox Christians that live in Bethlehem. When we first arrived, we introduced ourselves and presented gifts from our local regions to them in gratitude for having us over. We then sat down and ate the dinner they prepared for us: chicken, rice, and salad. After dinner we had carrot cake for desert along with some of the best tea I have ever had. They truly knew how to show radical hospitality.

While I was impact by the way they loved and cared for us, I was deeply impacted by their stories of their oppression from the Israelis. In America, we have this belief that the Israelis are the good guys, and the Palestinians are evil. However, that is not the case from my experience. We have this notion that we must support Israel to be be blessed as a country, but I believe we have confused the (secular) state of Israel with the people of YHWH. I know this will be unpopular to some, but the truth is, what the State of Israel is doing to the Palestinian people is exactly what happened to them in the holocaust; at least, it is moving in that direction. Palenstinian cities have become glorified concentration camps. Palestinians are not allowed to leave their cities because the roads are controlled by the Israelis. No Israeli is allowed to enter into the cities of Palestine. The Palestinians are literally walled in and kept within their cities at the discretion of the Israelis.

Emily was telling us about her studying abroad in France. Since she is Palestinian, she is not allowed to fly out of Tel Aviv. If she flew from Tel Aviv to France, it would cost 200 euros. However, she is forced to fly out of Jordan, which costs 800 euros.

The Palestinian people have had their land stolen from them forcibly and are treated as less than humans. There is a law left over from the Ottoman Empire that says if you do not till you land for 3 years, then it belongs to the government. Because the Palestinians have been forced into walled off cities, farmers have not been able to work their fields. They have lost their land to the Israeli government because the Israeli government has contained them within cities by force.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that we shouldn’t support Israel, but we also shouldn’t turn a blind eye to what they are doing to the Palestinian people. As Christians we should fight and pray for the rights of all people. We need to stop looking at the Palestinian people as enemies of Israel. We need to look at them as fellow human beings. Many of those who are being oppressed are fellow Christians.

We cannot turn a blind eye to our brothers and sisters for the sake of a misread and misused Bible verse. Let me prepose a question: Did God call us to support this predominately secular State of Israel who oppresses other human beings? YHWH is a God of liberation and reconciliation. I believe the God who had liberated and reconciled us to him and one another can do the same for the people of Israel and Palestine.

On a lighter note, Rocky and I met a Muslim guy named Hamzah and his family. They were awesome, and also made some of the best tea I’ve ever had. Rocky was offered 12 wives, but he politely declined.

The great thing about being in Bethlehem at this time is that it’s Christmas Eve/Day in the eastern church. Rocky and I decided we wanted to try and get into the Church of the Nativity for Christmas Eve Mass. Hamzah took us and was able to navigate us through the crowd. It started with me getting stopped by an armed guard and a metal detector, which went off with because of my phone and camera. From there, Hamzah was able to get us through three barricades of armed guards. We got within 30 feet of the door but was unable to get into mass. However, it was an awesome and exciting night.

I will tell you more about my day today in Bethlehem and Jerusalem once I get more down time tonight.

May the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

Israel Immersion Trip, Day 2

Today we woke up to it storming outside, which is a rarity for Israel as it only rains here 30 days per year. But through the rain, we made our way to Caesarea to start our day. Caesarea became a prominent city in Israel towards the end of the 1st century b.c. when Herod the Great built it into a major port city. The construction was completed in 12 years around the 10 or 9 b.c. The city would transform rapidly into a great commercial center, and in 6 b.c. it became the headquarters of the Roman government in Palestine. Caesarea would become a prominent city in the Book of Acts starting in chapter 8. It is also in Caesarea that we have archeological evidence of the existence of Pontious Pilot, who erected a building in dedication to Emperor Tiberius in the First Century. As prefect, Pontious Pilot would have left Caesarea and traveled to Jerusalem to try Jesus as a criminal. It was a humbling experience to walk through the ruins of the grandest city of ancient Israel. It was from this place that God’s people would be ruled and oppressed by the Roman government; however, today it is a city of ruins.

Luckily, the rain had stopped towards the end of our time in Caesarea before we headed to Mount Carmel. We visited the site that is traditionally believed to be the place where the events of 1 Kings 18 took place. We stood atop of the mountain and looked down into the Kishon Valley. In this moment the story of Elijah became all the more real. High on top of this mountain, Elijah represented YHWH, the God of Israel, and challenged the prophets of Baal and Asherah. It was in that spot that Elijah called down the fire of heaven. It was in that spot that Elijah captured the false prophets. And it was from there that Elijah led the false prophets down into the Kishon Valley and slaughtered them.

From where we were standing, we could see a land soaked with biblical history, from the story of Elijah, to the history of the Kishon Valley, and off in the distance we could see Mt. Precipice and Mt. Tabor. It was on Mount Precipice that the people of Nazareth rejected Jesus as Messiah and tried to throw him off the edge. It was also on Mount Tabor that the Transfiguration of Jesus took place. In our eye-view, we could see the places where Jesus lived and ministered to the people of Galilee.

After leaving Mt. Carmel, we traveled to the other side of the Kishon Valley to Sepphoris (alternate spellings: Zippori). Sepphoris was the third largest city in Israel back in the time of Jesus. This major city was only an hours walk away from the town of Nazareth. As we walked through the ancient city’s ruins, we could look over to the mountain where present-day Nazareth stands. It was surprising to find out that Jesus lived only a few short miles from this major ancient city. In this city, there were 18 synagogues found in excavation (the average being 1 or 2 per city). It was also a very Hellenistic Jewish city. While we were there, we walked the limestone paved streets to the Nile House. The Nile House was a grand house with three massive wings connected by corridors and beautiful mosaics that ran throughout the house. We then traveled to the top of the hill where we visited the Dionysus House, a mansion built in the 3rd century a.d. and later destroyed a century later by an earthquake. Before leaving, we also saw another Roman Theater.

We finished our night with a visitation to the Jezreel Valley Winery, where we shared stories and tasted three different wines. The owners told us of how the art of wine making was lost and how they were attempting to rediscover and re-establish this lost art that meant so much to the nation of Israel. We said a blessing before we drank the wine roughly translated as: “Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,

Creator of the fruit of the vine.” Wine is a powerful symbol for us as Christians. First, it represents the blood of Jesus that takes away the sins of his people. We drink of the wine in remembrance of what he has done for us and in anticipation of his return until we dine at his eternal banquet table.

Secondly, wine represents the life that comes from death. It is only by the death of the grape that wine can be made. When the grape is pressed, the natural yeast in the skin begins to ferment from the natural sugars in the grape and wine begins to form. It is only through the death of the grape can we receive the new gift of wine. So when we drink of the cup, we remember that through the death of Christ we are being made into a new creation.

So on our second day, we experienced many places that were vital to the story of God throughout the bible. While the day began and ended with rain, we did experience the warmth of the sun for most of the day. We finished by celebrating with good wine and fellowship in the Valley where Jesus made wine for his friends at a wedding. Tomorrow we will experience the Sea of Galilee and visit the hometown of Jesus.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

Israel Immersion Trip, Day 1

After a 10 hour flight from Newark, we landed in Tel Aviv at 6:30 a.m. local time and hit the ground running. With no time for coffee, we began our day with modern day Israel. Our first stop was to a Jewish Boys School, where we learned about the education system in Israel. We also heard from a man named Aviv, who served as deputy mayor of Lod, Israel. He explained to us how the Jews and Arabs live at peace in the city.

After leaving the school, we traveled to Save A Child’s Heart Hospital, followed by Save A Child’s Heart Home (think Ronald McDonald House). Save A Child’s Heart is one of the largest undertakings in the world, providing urgently needed pediatric heart surgery and follow-up care for indigent children from developing countries. Their mission is to improve the quality of pediatric cardiac care for children from countries where the heart surgery they need is unobtainable. Thousands of children are alive today because of a small group of medical professionals who volunteer their time and expertise to perform life-saving cardiac surgery and train local medical personnel. All children, regardless of race, religion, sex, color, or financial status receive the best possible care that modern medicine has to offer.We even got to hang out with some of the children who are recovering or preparing for surgery.

After leaving the hospital, we traveled to Tel Aviv and ate lunch at a local restaurant, and it was interesting. We received many dishes of different foods, which pushed me beyond my comfort zone because I am a picky eater. However, I did try the majority of the food brought before us, but ultimately I stuck with lamb and kouskous as my main meal.

Following lunch, we went to the old city of Jaffa (the biblical city of Joppa). While traveling the city on foot, we saw the “traditional.” site for “Simon the Tanner’s House” in Acts 10. I say traditional because it’s believed to be where Peter had his vision of eating uncleaned food before going to Cornelius’s house; however, there is no way to prove it. In light of being there, we took out our Bibles and read a portion of the story.

We then walked down to an opening where we could see the Mediterranean Sea.If you are familiar with your Bible, then you know that Joppa was the major port city in the story of Jonah. It was in Joppa that Jonah set sail for Tarshish instead of going to Ninevah. This opening we were standing at looked out over where the port used to be. So while today was more about modern day Israel, we did get to experience some history of the biblical narrative.

We finished our day by visiting Independence Hall in Tel Aviv. It was here in 1948 that Israel announced and signed their Declaration of Independence, and for the first time since 70 A.D. were once again their own country. As I reflect back on my first day here in Israel, it’s striking to see how secular this part of the country is. Only 20% of Israel considers themselves religious. In a land steeped in religious history, the majority of the people do not even consider themselves religious. A nation that was birthed out of and defined by God choosing them no longer sees that as defining. While I have enjoyed this first day, I look forward to visiting the more historical and biblical sites on our trip.

Thanks for reading, and may the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!


Port of Joppa
Simon the Tanner’s House
Statue of Jonah’s Whale