Amanda and I had an unparalleled opportunity this past week as we traveled to lead worship on our church’s annual trip to Israel. This has been a dream of ours since before we ever met and we jumped at the chance. For months, we have been preparing our hearts for an encounter with God, and the day after Christmas, we began a journey that would change us forever: to walk where Jesus walked.
Everything about Israel surprised me and surpassed all my expectations. I’m not really sure what I expected, but I fell more in love with God’s word as it continued to come alive to me, more and more with each day that passed. From the breathtaking topography, to the rich history of its beautiful people, to the stunning architecture – this is an enchanting place.
It was a fast-paced week with not nearly enough sleep as we drank from a fire hydrant, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
After flying in to Tel Aviv, we stayed a night at the hotel there and left bright and early for Caesarea. This was a Roman-style port city on the Mediterranean built by Herod for one of his palaces. It included an amphitheater, hippodrome, aqueduct, and more. From there we went to Mount Carmel where Elijah faced down 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah in 1 Kings 18. Drove through the Valley of Jezreel (Armageddon) on our way to Megiddo, the nearby chariot city of Solomon. From there we continued on to the Mount of Precipice overlooking Nazareth, before finally landing in our hotel in Tiberius, situated on the Sea of Galilee.
We began our day at the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount, before heading on the Caesarea Philippi where in Matthew 16, surrounded by temples to various “gods” and pagan child-sacrifice altars, Jesus asked his disciples the same question he asks us today: “Who do YOU say I am?” We ate a delicious feast of “St. Peter’s Fish” before driving to the Syrian Border and finishing up the day being baptized where John the Baptist baptized Jesus himself – in the Jordan River, which was chilly to say the least.
We started out the morning by embarking on the Seas of Galilee for a little worship in a couple of fishing boats. Upon landing on the opposite side, we headed for the Church of Saint Peter, where it is believed Jesus restored Peter after his denial in John 21. We moved on to Capernaum, the place where Jesus did most of his ministry, and likely stayed with Peter in his mother-in-law’s home near the Synagogue where he taught. We then headed to Jerusalem, where we stayed for the remainder of our trip.
Jerusalem is an incredible city. We arrived right as Sabbath started and it is incredible how the city just shuts down. People walk everywhere, elevators are pre-programmed to stop at certain floors. But the thing that stuck out to me most is how family-oriented the entire city is. Kids are out with their parents anywhere and everywhere, no matter what time of day or night. We started our day at the top of the Mount of Olives and overlooked the city. It is breathtaking, both for its beauty and its history. It is covered in white above-ground tombs from top to bottom that date back thousands of years. We walked down the mountain to the Garden of Gethsemane where in Matthew 26, Jesus prayed and sweat blood asking the cup pass from him before Judas betrayed him. We made our way from there to the Model City and The Shrine of the Book, where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls are on display. On to the Upper Room, which many scholars believe would have been in Joseph of Arimathea’s home and down to Caiaphas’s home, where Jesus was kept the night before he was crucified and where Peter denied him 3 times.
We began our day at the City of David, which is discovering new archeological finds each day as they continue to excavate it. From there we walked over to the Southern Steps of the Temple, where Jesus would have taught his disciples. As you look to the left from the temple steps, you see the startling view of an entire mountainside of white tombs. This would have been where Jesus called the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs.” That afternoon we drove to Bethlehem to the Shepherds fields and Church of the Nativity. This town is under Palestinian control and you could definitely feel the tension, especially as a PLO parade marched by the restaurant where we ate lunch.
We drove a few hours south of the city to Masada on the Dead Sea. This was one of Herod’s greatest accomplishments to place one of his palaces on top of a mountain. Masada felt like the peak of a mountain overlooking a monochrome Grand Canyon. We rode a lift up to the top and studied the history of the last place where Israel was free within its own country before it was completely destroyed in 73 AD. One of the coolest parts of this day was seeing a scribe carefully copying scripture inside of a partially reconstructed synagogue. From there we went to Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by Bedouin Shepherds in the 1940s, and then on to the lowest place on Earth – the Dead Sea. We floated in its waters but were careful not to consume any of the water as 1 cup of it will kill a camel.
Our last day of touring was a full one. We started out at the Temple Mount, where Muslims and Jews continue to battle over who has rights to it. Currently the Dome of the Rock is situated where the Temple used to live. This is a constant source of tension between the two people. One day, the Dome will be removed and the Temple will be rebuilt, but for now, they fight over this sacred location where the Presence of God once dwelled behind the veil of the Temple. Down below on the West Wall (or Wailing Wall) Jews pray fervently for God to give them this land and the temple to be rebuilt. While we believe we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, we did take the opportunity to pray for Jesus to return and make all things right and all things new and fulfill his promise to Israel, whom we as Gentiles have been grafted into. We walked through the city to the Pool of Bethesda, where in John 5, Jesus healed the lame man so that he could walk, and then down the Via Dolorosa to Pilate’s Pretorian where soldier’s mocked Jesus and drew lots for his clothes, on Golgotha (the place of the Skull where Jesus hung on the cross). It is a bit startling at first that Calvary is now a bus station, and yet if you think about it, the Romans crucified criminals on the hustle and bustle of main roads for all to see and mock as they passed by. Jesus would have died on a cross near the bus station of his day. Finally, we came to the Garden Tomb – still empty. This was a highlight. To step in where many believe Jesus was buried and raised to life was surreal. To worship Him there as we took communion together is something I will never forget.
I am blown away. I can’t even begin to describe everything I felt and everything we saw. I took 2000 pictures this week and it is more than difficult to sum it all up as matter-of-factly as I have done. All I can say is I will never be the same. I can’t recommend highly enough that you go to Israel and see your heritage, but beyond that, see your Savior. He is real. He walked this earth. He healed the sick. He bled and died and he raised from the dead. And he will return. To him belongs all glory.