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Please help us get the word out this week about our "Spring Revival" - It begins this Sunday morning, April 2 and runs through Wednesday, April 5. We would appreciate so very much your sharing this information on your Facebook page or any other social media outlets. Please also be in prayer for these services and our speakers: David Lovering and Big Lee McBride! God bless you and thank you for your help. ... See MoreSee Less

2 days ago

Please help us get the word out this week about our Spring Revival - It begins this Sunday morning, April 2 and runs through Wednesday, April 5. We would appreciate so very much your sharing this information on your Facebook page or any other social media outlets. Please also be in prayer for these services and our speakers: David Lovering and Big Lee McBride! God bless you and thank you for your help.

Smiths Station Baptist Church added 4 new photos.

Dear SSBC Family,

As I sit in my office this morning trying to catch up on emails from my time away, my heart and mind keep taking me back to Israel. I am still basking in the glow of what I experienced. And I want to thank each of you for allowing me to go. It was important to me to somehow show you and share the experience of the sites that we visited. So, I worked hard to try and let you follow along by way of Facebook.

Each night, after we returned from our day’s activities, I sat down and made detailed notes of what we saw that day and my impressions of it all. So, each night I posted those reflections on social media so that our congregation could catch a small glimpse of our experience. In this news article I have compiled them all together in a single document. I'm going to share with you a rather lengthy overview of my experiences over 10 days in the Holy Land. May God bless you richly as you read over my reflections!

Grace and peace, Pastor David

"Reflections for Trip to the Holy Land"

Day 1

We left on Monday morning, February 13 and landed safely in Tel Aviv ten and half hours later. I was sitting on the next to last row of a Boeing 747, which gave me a vantage point for something very interesting. Not surprisingly there were a number of ultra orthodox Jews on the flight, with their long black coats, prayer tassels, black hats, and distinctive long sideburns. Several times during the course of the flight, some of these men donned their prayer shawls and phylacteries and congregated in the back of the plane for morning or evening prayers. They rocked back and forth and even chanted in Hebrew from their prayer book. It was fascinating to see them turn that airplane into a kind of mobile Wailing Wall.

After arriving we took a 40 minute bus ride to our hotel, which is in the city of Joppa, on the Mediterranean coast. In addition to having a recorded history that goes back over 6000 years, Joppa also is featured in the Bible. It is where Jonah came to get on a boat for Tarshish in an effort to run from God's call to go to Nineveh. It is also where Peter came in Acts 9 to raise a widow named Tabitha from the dead. In the next chapter in he was still in Joppa when Cornelius sent for him to come to Caesarea to preach the gospel. It was then that Peter realized that the gospel was for Gentiles as much as Jews.

Our hotel was directly across the street from the beach. It was rainy and extremely windy, but after dinner several of us walked across the street to stand at the water's edge. Today Joppa looks like a modern beach resort with high rise hotels all around, but with almost gale force winds slapping the waves against the rocks it was not hard to imagine the kind of storm that would have come upon Jonah's boat as he tried to sail for Tarshish. Tuesday we made our way up the coast heading eventually toward Galilee, where Jesus' ministry began. We made several stops along the way as the weather permitted to see some very historical and significant sights.

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Day 2

Our 2nd day began with a walking tour of the ancient city of Joppa (pronounced Joffa in Hebrew). We saw the traditional site associated with the home of Simon the tanner, where Peter stayed in Acts 10. We also saw the traditional site of Peter's vision from God, telling him to rise and eat animals that were previously declared unclean by the Levitical law. This vision marks the visible moment when the mission of the apostles turned to intentionally include the Gentiles.

(Note: The term "traditional site" will be used very often on this trip. Usually it is impossible to determine the precise location at which an event in Scripture occurred, because the Bible does not give us an exact street address. Over time, traditional teaching has stated that this or that event likely occurred in this or that place. We know it occurred somewhere in the vicinity, but we cannot be sure.)

We climbed back on the bus and dried out from a cold rain while we drove north along the Mediterranean to Caesarea Maritima, the site of one Herod the Great's ambitious building projects. He constructed an artificial deep water port right off the beach in order to curry favor with Romans. This led to great prosperity, but it also put Caesarea in the cross hairs of other interested powers. Over the centuries, Caesarea would be conquered and reconquered by varying armies, and today it's ruins are a source of great archeological interest. We know from Acts 25 that Paul made his defense before Festus and Agrippa here before finally being shipped off to Rome. It is likely that trial occurred in one of the ruin sites we visited today. It is also likely that Pontius Pilate resided in Caesarea. A stone that was uncovered there carries an inscription of his name.

Next we traveled slightly north to visit Mt. Carmel, where a Carmelite monastery marks the traditional site where the prophet Elijah had his famous duel with the prophets of Baal, recorded in 1 Kings 18. From the roof of the monastery you can look west across the Jezrel Valley to see Nazareth on a hillside opposite. This valley is also called the Valley of Armageddon, which is mentioned in the vision of John in Revelation 16.

After lunch we visited Megiddo, a walled city that dates back to the 7th century BC. Archaeological digs have revealed that over the course of its history, the city was destroyed by invading armies and then rebuilt by the conquerors no less than 25 times. At least one of these times would have included the conquest of Megiddo by the Israelites. Megiddo is also known in Hebrew as Armageddon, which is where the valley to its north gets is name.

Our day concluded with a visit to Mt. Tabor, which is the traditional site of Jesus' transfiguration, recorded in Matthew 17, which simply refers to "a high mountain." Tabor certainly fits that description, rising sharply 1800 feet from the valley floor below. A shuttle service is necessary to get to the top, where a Franciscan monastery has been built. (If this is the mountain that Jesus and three disciples climbed, you can only be impressed by the physical prowess it would have taken.) The wooden floor of the church is literally built directly above the summit of the mountain. Again, we don't know exactly where the transfiguration occurred, but a plexiglass section of the wooden floor is positioned directly above the traditional site. Tonight we are staying at a lodge house in a kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We spent the next couple of days exploring this area, which was home to the beginning of Jesus' ministry.

Day 3

It's a strange way to put it, but today it felt like we finally caught up with Jesus, because we spent the day in the area that he called home: Galilee. The day began with a short boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. We probably didn't go more than 500 yards from the dock, but getting out on the water gave us a wonderful panoramic view of the northern end of the lake, which is where Jesus' ministry was concentrated for the first three years. Our guide pointed out that the area Jesus covered during that time - from Magdala on the eastern shore around to the region of the Gerasenes on the west - is an arc that probably does not exceed 25 miles in length. It is amazing to think that something that was confined to such a small area in such an out-of-the-way place would soon go on to turn the world upside down. After the boat ride we spent the day traveling around to various sites in the area to see things up close. We first went to the traditional site where the Sermon on the Mount was preached. The landscape there forms a kind of natural amphitheater, and it was not hard to imagine the crowds gathered as Jesus taught them. Next we went to Corazin. Biblically, this village is significant because it is included in a list of cities Jesus cursed in Matthew 11:20, because of its failure to repent. Archaeologically it is significant because the ruins there have given us tremendous insight into village life at the time of Jesus, including the uncovering of a mikveh, or ritual bath that was used for ritual cleansing. Though there is debate, many scholars believe this was the antecedent to the practice of baptism. Next it was on to Capernaum. This was Jesus' adopted hometown and home base after he was rejected at Nazareth (see Luke 4). There are ruins of a synagogue there that date back to the 4th century AD. Obviously, this is later than Jesus' time, but that synagogue appears to be built on top of the ruins of an even older synagogue. This would almost certainly have been the very synagogue that Jesus attended! Also in Capernaum are the ruins of a 4th century Byzantine church, which in turn was built on top of what tradition says was the location of Simon Peter's house.After lunch we visited briefly the traditional site of the multiplication miracle in Matthew 14. There are no ruins there dating to Jesus' time, but there are ruins from a church that dates back to roughly 350 AD, which was built to memorialize that miracle. Those ruins have been incorporated into the current day church that sits on that same spot. One of the most fascinating visits was to the village of Magdala, which was the home of Mary Magdalene. For the longest time no one could identify Magdala's location, but it was discovered accidentally during a construction project just a few years ago. Among the discoveries were the amazingly intact ruins of the village synagogue, a place that Jesus almost certainly visited. There is a portion of a still intact tile mosaic on the floor on one end. It was both humbling and exhilarating to think that Jesus' feet very possibly stepped on that very floor! Our day ended with a visit to the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee. Several people from our group braved the chilly weather (the temp hovered in the high 40's to around 50 all day) and waded into the river for a baptismal renewal experience. The rest of us cheered and took pictures. There is no way to know where along the roughly 60 miles of the Jordan River exactly where Jesus was actually baptized, but it was never the less fascinating to think that this is the very river where it occurred. The next day we will go to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and attended school in Sephoris just a few miles away, this is where most scholars believe Jesus was educated. We ended our day by leaving Galilee and heading toward Jerusalem, where we would spend the remainder of our time.

Day 4

Our day began with a visit to the ruins of Sepphoris. Even though it is not mentioned in the New

Testament, it is located just across a small valley from Nazareth, within an easy walk. Because Sepphoris was known to be a center of education and the headquarters of the Sanhedrin at the time, some have theorized that Jesus might have received his education there - especially given that Jesus was known as a rabbi when he finally emerged as an adult, a fact that would suggest some level of formal training.

Then we were off for a brief visit to Cana, where according to John's gospel Jesus performed his first miracle. There is a Franciscan church built atop the ruins of the traditional site where he turned the water into wine. While there is no way to know for sure, a large wine press was found among the ruins, which would suggest it was a location where wine would have been served as public events (such as a wedding). However, just to keep the things interesting, the Greek Orthodox around the corner claim that their church is the actual location. I suppose there have always been arguments among denominations!

Our next stop took us to Nazareth. In Jesus' day it was just a small, out-of-the way place. Remember Nathaniel's question: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Today it is a bustling city with 180,000 people, with Jews, Christians, and Muslims all living peacefully together. Our first visit was the Church of the Synagogue. This is a church that dates back to the 12th century. It is believed that the builders of the church converted it out of the synagogue from which Jesus preached his first sermon in Luke 4. Next we walked over the Church of the Annunciation. The current church, which is architecturally magnificent, was built in 1969, but it was built on top of the remains of a Byzantine-era church, which in turn is built on top of the traditional site of Mary's home. According to tradition, this is where the angel Gabriel visited Mary, though again the Greek Orthodox claim that the annunciation happened at nearby well. Sure enough, down in the grotto of the church are excavated remains of a small home that dates from the time of Jesus. Next door is a smaller chapel dedicated to Joseph. In the basement are the excavated remains of what very well could have been a carpenter's shop. There is no way to know if it was Joseph's shop, but it does tickle the imagination to think that it might have been!

After lunch we visited the magnificent ruins of Beit She'an. Biblically, the site is significant because of 1 Samuel 31. When King Saul and his sons were killed in battle on Mt. Gilboa, the Philistines hung their bodies on the wall of Beit She'an. Later, in the Roman and Byzantine era, the site became a bustling center of Roman life. It was destroyed in 789 by an earthquake and apparently abandoned and forgotten. It was rediscovered in the late 19th century. The ruins that have been unearthed there are absolutely phenomenal. The engineering, craftsmanship, and artistry that has been discovered there rival anything we have produced in our modern era.

Finally we turned southward and began our journey toward Jerusalem, following the Jordan valley. Off to our left, in the east, was the Mt. Gilead mountain range, which marks the beginning of the country of Jordan, just on the other side of the River Jordan. We passed through a military check point as we entered into the West Bank. There was a distinct feeling of going down, because the Jordan (which we could not see from the road due to the low water level) flows all the way down to the Dead Sea. At 1400 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. Just as the Dead Sea came into view we turned westward and began our ascent into Jerusalem. In the short distance of 15 miles we went from 1400 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea up to 2500 feet above sea level at the entrance to Jerusalem. When the Bible speaks of going up to Jerusalem, it is not just speaking spiritually. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the fictional character who traveled from Jericho to Jerusalem would have followed

the same basic route we took. It is not hard to understand how it would have been such a dangerous journey. What a climb!

There are few words to describe entering into Jerusalem. Though the city is busy and crowded (with a population of 800,000), the dominant image of the skyline immediately comes into view: the glittering Dome of the Rock. This Muslim holy site sits atop of the Temple Mount, which is where both the first Temple (built by Solomon) and the second Temple (built by Herod) once sat. We made our way through the city until our bus driver brought us to an amazing overlook to the south of the city. We piled off to get a glimpse of the panoramic view of the city, both the old city and the new city. Old city refers to the portion within the wall, where most of the biblical events occurred. The new city is the portion that has sprung up in the modern era.

As the we took our photos, our guide gathered us together. He is a wonderful, warm, and brilliant man who knows both history and the Bible like the back of his hand. He is also a conservative Jew and an Israeli, so there is no way to describe how much the city of Jerusalem means to him. Speaking of the joy of seeing Jerusalem for the first time, he pronounced a traditional Jewish blessing over us, saying it first in Hebrew and then in English: "Blessed are you, O Lord, for bringing me alive to this point in my life." How true! The next day we began the tour of the old city and surrounding areas.

Day 5

I am trying to decide tonight which is fuller - my head or my heart. Or maybe it is better to say that I am trying let my head catch up with my heart. We spent the first half of the day taking in the area around the Kidron Valley, which is where the climatic events of the final week of Jesus' life took place. We began by walking down in the Kidron Valley itself, which looks up to the east to the Mount of Olives and up to the west to the city wall of Jerusalem. So much of the biblical story - Old and New Testament - took place within sight of where we were that it was almost too much to absorb. We viewed ancient tombs, where it is believed that at least some of the kings of Jerusalem are buried. We viewed the entrance to the Spring of Gihon, where Solomon was anointed as King. This spring also forms the source of the waters for the pool that King Hezekiah had built in 2 Kings 20:20, in anticipation of a siege by Sennacherib. That pool would later become known as the Pool of Siloam, in which Jesus healed a blind man in John 9. We eventually walked all the way down to that pool, though the view is obstructed by a fence which has been erected by the Greek Orthodox church which owns the property.After reaching the pool, we turned and walked back up the valley. Our guide pointed out that this was almost certainly the route Jesus would have walked after leaving the Upper Room to head towards the Garden of Gethsemane. Walking through what is essentially a graveyard, the surroundings must have weighed upon him with the knowledge of what lie ahead in the next few hours. We then got back on the bus and drove further up the eastern slope of the Kidron, up to the top, known to us as the Mount of Olives. From there you can look down across the Kidron to see the city of Jerusalem stretching out before you from south to north. We first visited the Church of the Pater Noster. According to the Carmelites who are custodians of the church, this is the site where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord's Prayer in Luke 11. From there we visited the site where tradition says that Jesus stopped and wept over the city in Luke 19 for its failure to repent. As is the case in almost every such traditional site, a church has been built there to memorialize the event. It is called Dominus Flevit, Latin for "The Lord Wept." From there we walked down the path that Jesus would have

taken on that Palm Sunday as he made his way toward and into the Holy City. The throngs of other visitors there with us gave us a sense of what it must have been like for Jesus to ride among the crowds of other pilgrims on that Sunday before Passover.

Near the bottom we stopped for a while in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus would come several nights later to pray before being arrested. We sat for a while among the olive trees to sense what that moment must have been like. There are a couple of trees still in that garden that are estimated to date back 2000 years. There is at least a possibility that Jesus might have prayed beneath one of them.

We did not go up the other side of the Kidron and enter into the city, though we could see the gate where Jesus entered. Instead, we boarded a bus and made the five mile journey to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in an area of the West Bank that today is under Palestinian control, so we had to pass through the wall and checkpoint that separates the Israeli and Palestinian areas. Israeli citizens (in other words, Jews) are not permitted inside Bethlehem without a permit, nor are Palestinians from that side allowed into Jerusalem without a permit. Our guide, who is Jewish, bid us farewell for the day, and a Palestinian Christian woman from Bethlehem took over the duties of guiding us.

First we visited the Shepherd's Field. The significance of this piece of real estate goes all the way back to the Old Testament story of Ruth, where we read that Ruth the Moabite went to glean in the fields of Boaz. The two met, married, and had a child named Obed. Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David. This is how Bethlehem would become known as the city of David, which of course sets the stage for the Nativity story in Luke 2. We stood and looked out over those very fields, which 1500 years later would be the same fields where a group of shepherds would be "watching their flocks by night" when a heavenly choir of angels appeared with a stunning announcement.

From there we made our way to the Church of the Nativity. This church dates back to be the oldest church building in history. It was built after Constantine converted to Christianity and ordered a church to be built on the site where Jesus was born. (The original church was destroyed in the sixth century, but was rebuilt in the 8th). Though almost 300 years had passed between the birth of Christ and the construction of the church, local tradition still pointed to a site in a cave where the birth was reported to have occurred. The church is built directly over that cave.

As I have said before, there is no way to know for sure the precise location of most of the events reported in Scripture, but there is some high degree of probability that in this case the tradition got it right. As we made our way down into the cave and touched the place where Jesus was supposedly born I could feel my eyes moisten with tears. Even if the tradition is off slightly and Jesus was born a 100 yards in another direction, the story suddenly became much more real to me. This is the place where heaven and earth met in a tiny baby who is fully human and fully divine. The universe is far more open than most of us have dared to dream. Visiting the place of the Bible changes a lot of things for you, and the visit to Bethlehem is no exception. It is too complex to explain here, but let's just say for now that most of our traditional notions of the nativity need to be reconceived. A baby placed in a wooden box in a shed out back because some mean-spirited inn-keeper wouldn't give them a room - that's likely a misreading of the story. It doesn't change the basic meaning of the story, but there are nuances to it that we have not fully grasped. Stay tuned to a future Christmas Eve sermon for more. The next day we will began our day with a

communion service at one of the stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa - the traditional path Jesus walked on his way to the crucifixion.

Day 6

I am in no hurry for this trip to end, but I fear that if we stay here much longer I will run out of words to describe my experience. The surprises and delights of each day seem to surpass those of the day before, and today was no exception. This morning - Sunday - began with a communion service inside the walls of the old city. We are a group of 45 protestant ministers of varying denominations from around the country, and we gathered in a small Franciscan chapel above station number 7 of the so-called Stations of the Cross to share the bread and cup of our Lord's Supper, while bells from nearby churches and the Muslim call to prayer from nearby mosques mingled in the air above us. There were no disputes among us about our denominational and theological differences. We simply gathered as one fellowship of believers to celebrate our common identity as the body of Christ - a body born out of the events from the streets below us. It was a small foretaste of heaven. After the brief service we made our way in small groups just around the country to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As our host put it, if you are a Christian, this spot marks the center of the universe, for the church is built on the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The presence of the church, which is elaborate and sprawling, makes it a bit challenging to envision what the place was like in Jesus' day. Calvary, or Golgotha as it is called in Hebrew, was just a hill comprised of a stone outcropping just outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a place where the Romans took convicted criminals to execute them. Criminals like Jesus. I don't know the detailed history of the church, but it was first constructed sometime after the conversion of emperor Constantine as a way of honoring the place where Christ's sacrifice was made. The church is designed in such a way that an altar is literally built on top of the very summit of the hill. On either side of the altar there are cut outs in the floor where the stone protrudes slightly into the room with you. Over the years they have been covered with plexi-glass, but there is a hole in the floor beneath the altar so that if you kneel down you can reach through and touch the rock with your hand. As I have said before, there is no way to know if this is the exact spot where the cross of Christ stood. After all, his was one of many executions that the Romans carried out, so it could have happened anywhere within that small landscape. But therein is the point: it is a small landscape. Mount Calvary is only so big, so we can say with absolute certainty that Christ was executed somewhere upon that rocky hillside. Even though the rest of the hillside is now obscured by the church and by the rest of sprawling city that has grown up since, you are standing in the very spot where the sins of the world were atoned. There are no words.

Not far from the place of crucifixion - down a flight of stairs and over a few hundred feet, within the same church complex - is the traditional burial site. Like the Calvary Mount, the tomb has now been built over by the church, so you have to use your imagination to envision a cave in a hillside, but that's what it once was before the emperor had a church built around it. Two or three at a time you can climb down into the cave and see the ledge upon which a body would have been laid. It has now been overlaid with marble as a way of protecting it from Christian pilgrims who over the years have wanted to chip away a piece of limestone from the cave to take home with them, but you can lay your hand and head on the very spot.

After the visit to the Holy Sepulcher we had the afternoon free to explore the city. There is more to see than a lifetime of Sunday afternoon strolls could capture, so we broke up into groups based on our primary interests. A group of six of us decided to tackle Hezekiah's tunnel. As I mentioned in an earlier post, King Hezekiah in the 8th century BC had a tunnel dug from the spring of Gihon down to what is known as the Pool of Siloam in order to provide a water source within the walls of the ancient city in the event of a siege. The tunnel is 533 meters (or 1748) feet long, and is never more than a three or four feet wide. It was carved by hand in a snakelike manner through the limestone bedrock underneath the ancient City of David. Workers started from either end and met in the middle. We know this because of an inscription in the wall that dates back 2700 years, in which a worker marks the fact that he can hear workers on the other side. "Only one more rock to go," he writes. It is an engineering marvel.

Today, for the low price of $8 you can crawl through that tunnel. At that price, how can you resist? We changed into shorts, rounded up some flashlights and started our trek. And yes, the water still flows from the Spring of Gihon. At one point the water is almost waist deep. I think the water was cold, but after a few steps I was numb from my knees down, so I can't be sure. It took about 30 minutes of walking and stooping and sometimes almost crawling through the pitch dark water, but we eventually emerged at the other end at the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed a blind man in John 9. I don't think climbing Mt. Everest could be any more exhilarating.

After we dried off and thawed out we worked our way up through the old city, past the Temple Mount and the Western Wall (which is the only remaining edifice of Herod's Temple) and visited the Tower of David Museum. The history of this site is too complex to describe here, but it allows you to take a self- guided tour through the fortress walls of Herod's Palace. (Interestingly, the palace and the famous tower has little to do with David. That's another story for another time.) The tour offers a wonderful overview of the history of Israel and how it relates to the story of the Bible and to post-Biblical history. The highlight of the tour is the chance to stand atop the only remaining tower from Herod's original palace. As the highest point in the old city (which itself is built atop a mountain), it is the most stunning view I have ever seen. In one sweep you can see structures commemorating all the major events of three faiths that still drive world history today - from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on your left, to the Dome of the Rock in the middle, to the location of the Wailing Wall slightly to your right. Plus, you can see the magnificent mountains of Jordan just beyond the Jordan Valley. You are literally standing at the center of the world.

Day 7

The next day we met back with our trusted tour guide who took us through the Via Delarosa - the traditional way that Christ walked as he was led to the site of the crucifixion. We visited the Stations of the Cross as we walked. We've walked for nine straight. A pilgrimage indeed.

Day 8

Our adventure today took us out of the city of Jerusalem. We turned east and slightly backtracked the route by which we came in order to visit the area around the Dead Sea. On the way we stopped briefly at the Good Samaritan Inn. This archaeological site is named after the famous parable Jesus tells in Luke's gospel. It is believed that these are the ruins of a hostel or hospitality station along the way from

Jerusalem down to Jericho. Such places existed every 10 or 15 miles - about the distance someone could travel in a day's time. Jesus' parable was a fictional story meant to teach a kingdom lesson, so there is no need to overstate the connection between this particular archeological site and the biblical text, but when Jesus says that the Samaritan took the wounded man to an "inn," this would have been the kind of place he would have taken him. It merely illustrates that when Jesus taught, he pointed to things that his audience could easily understand. Most everybody would have been familiar with the dangers of the route from Jerusalem to Jericho, and with the inns along the way.

From there we continued our drive down the mountain into the low valley of the Dead Sea. We turned south and drove along the rim of the sea for most of its length. The landscape is stunning - barren, rugged, severe, inhospitable, and yet strangely inviting. To your left, on the other side of the Sea you can see the country of Jordan, with occasional villages dotting the mountain ridges. On your right you see limestone mountains that shoot 1500 feet up into the air. Cave openings dot the cliff facings. Due to a variety of reasons the Dead Sea has been receding at the rate of about 3 feet per year. This has exposed part of the sea bed around the rim, revealing large flats of the salt-encrusted mud that is so highly sought after.

Our first stop, down near the southern end of the Sea, was Masada. Herod the Great came there in the 1st century BC to build a palace - another one of his audacious building projects. Masada sits on the relatively flat top of a mountain peak that his rises roughly 1500 feet from the Sea down below. It provides a high position of control over both invading armies and the caravans of spice traders coming north from Africa. But Herod had other priorities, so he only stayed at Masada about 3 months.

I am unclear what became of the real estate in the immediately following years, but in less than a century it would become a vitally important place for a band of Jewish rebels. In the mid 60's AD (about 35 years after the death of Christ), there was a Jewish revolt against Roman rule. Rome's response was a brutal crackdown on the Jewish people, a crackdown that included the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. (This is why there is no Temple anymore). As Rome's noose tightened, a group of rebels from the Galilee area fled south and took up shelter in the fortress of Masada. From there they were able to fend off the advancing Roman army for several years. Finally, the Romans figured out a way to breach the fortress, and these Jewish warriors made a fateful decision. Rather than be taken as prisoners of war by a pagan army, they covenanted to kill each other. The last remaining man then killed himself. Two women and three children who managed to survive were taken as prisoners and lived to tell the story.

Today Masada still figures strongly in the Israeli identity. The determination of these 967 rebels to hold off an army of tens of thousands of armed soldiers informs how Israelis think of themselves in the midst of a hostile world. "Masada must never fall again," is a saying that is often repeated, especially in military circles. For most of history there has been only one way up to Masada: a winding footpath that switches back on itself multiple times. It takes almost an hour to do it. At least, that's my estimate. I can't be sure, because we rode the new gondola. It took us only three minutes to accomplish what it took those silly Romans five years to do! After Masada we came back north until we arrived at Qumran. This is where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The community that lived in this area is still shrouded in some mystery, but it appears to have been home to a group of Jewish zealots who withdrew from Jerusalem sometime in the late first century BC or early first century AD. In other words, they were active during the time of Jesus. They were seeking to purify themselves from the corruption of daily life in the city, so

they withdrew to this remote location along the shores of the Dead Sea, most likely in anticipation of some sort of apocalyptic event. In fact, there is evidence that at least some of them were later counted among the Masada rebels. There is also a disputed theory that John the Baptist was a member of this community for some period of time.

Aside from the necessary tasks of daily life, these zealots devoted themselves to the study of the Torah and the prophets. They had scribes who apparently did nothing but make copies of these texts. These "scrolls," some written on leather and others on papyrus, were stored away in the caves that dot the landscape when, for some reason, they were forced to flee the area. They sat there, untouched and unknown for 2000 years, until 1947, when a Bedouin shepherd boy went into one of the caves looking for a missing sheep. What he discovered has set the world of religious scholarship on fire. The caves of Qumran have now produced hundreds of scrolls. And the work is not done. A new set of scrolls was just discovered three weeks before we visited.

While scholars continue to dig and explore and piece together just who these desert dwellers were, the one thing that has come through is the remarkable reliability of the Bible. Qumran has given us countless manuscripts of the Old Testament, and they all line up exactly with manuscripts we already had. Qumran verifies that the Old Testament from which we read today is the exact same text from which Jesus read. In fact, we have complete Qumran copies of the entire Old Testament, with the exception of two books - Nehemiah and Esther. Interestingly, these are the only two books in the Old Testament that never mention the name of God. If you are a Jewish zealot living in the desert waiting for God's apocalyptic intervention in history, you probably don't have much use for a book that never mentions Him.

When we were done with our history lesson for the day it was time for a little rest. No trip to the holy land is complete without a dip in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is named such because it is just that - dead. The salinity of the water is over 33%. For comparison, the average salinity of the ocean is 3.5%. With that concentration of salt and other minerals, the water cannot support any marine life. But the high salt content also makes for extra buoyancy, so you easily float on your back on the surface of the water. In fact, floating is all you can do. You have to try to force your legs down, because they naturally float back to the top. You almost have the sense of walking on water. It felt like I was violating some law of physics! Leave it up to God to create such an incredible and unusual wonder in a land that is defined by such an incredible and unusual history. The next day we visited some of the area museums before heading for the airport after supper for our 12 hour flight home.

As our trip came to an end I cannot help but think of what this visit has meant to me. I suspect I will spend many years trying to answer that question, but as I sit here tonight looking out over the old city of Jerusalem I am struck with two competing thoughts. On the one hand, the Holy Land means everything to me now. This is the place where it all happened. This is where God made himself known. As Christians we don't worship a set of abstract principles or moral ideals. We worship a God who intervened into human history in a definitive and decisive way. And this is where He did it. Over there is where God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then intervened with a lamb. Over there is where David built the first palace. Over there is where Jesus healed a blind man. And over there is an empty tomb that a dead man walked out of after three days. Seeing and touching these places makes these stories come to life in a

new way. I now have connections and insights I did not have before. In this way, this trip has changed me forever.

And yet, at the same time I also have a sense - and this will sound strange - that the Holy Land means very little to me. What I mean is this: because of what God did in this place, his decisive action is no longer limited to this place. Because of the resurrection and because of Pentecost, the Holy Land is no longer any more holy than any other land. Jesus now walks the streets of my neighborhood just as much as he once walked the Via Delarosa through downtown Jerusalem. God no longer dwells in a box in the Holy of Holies in the inner sanctum of the Temple Mount. Now he dwells directly in the hearts and minds of those who call on his Son as Savior.

This came home to me on Sunday morning when I visited the church of the Holy Sepulcher. When it was my turn I knelt beneath the altar and reached down through the hole in the floor and touched the very rock upon which Jesus was crucified. And guess what happened! Nothing. There was no rush of power, no flash of insight. The tendinitis in my right knee was not suddenly healed, and I didn't find myself levitating above the floor. That's because that rock doesn't have any magical power. The power is in the resurrected Jesus, who is no longer confined to that rock but who now lives on every rock on every continent where ever anyone calls on his name.

I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and for all of Israel. They are the caretakers of the stage where the great drama of redemption played out. As Paul says in Romans, “I as a Gentile owe a debt to the Jewish people into whose family I have been adopted because of my Jewish Messiah. God willing, I will come to their homeland again.” But if for some tragic reason Jerusalem ceased to exist tomorrow, my walk with Christ would continue on unchanged, because Jesus has gone forth from this place and will continue to press ahead until every corner of the creation has been reconciled to God.
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4 weeks ago

Dear SSBC Family,

As I sit in my office this morning trying to catch up on emails from my time away, my heart and mind keep taking me back to Israel. I am still basking in the glow of what I experienced. And I want to thank each of you for allowing me to go. It was important to me to somehow show you and share the experience of the sites that we visited. So, I worked hard to try and let you follow along by way of Facebook.

Each night, after we returned from our day’s activities, I sat down and made detailed notes of what we saw that day and my impressions of it all. So, each night I posted those reflections on social media so that our congregation could catch a small glimpse of our experience. In this news article I have compiled them all together in a single document. Im going to share with you a rather lengthy overview of my experiences over 10 days in the Holy Land. May God bless you richly as you read over my reflections!

Grace and peace, Pastor David

Reflections for Trip to the Holy Land

Day 1

We left on Monday morning, February 13 and landed safely in Tel Aviv ten and half hours later. I was sitting on the next to last row of a Boeing 747, which gave me a vantage point for something very interesting. Not surprisingly there were a number of ultra orthodox Jews on the flight, with their long black coats, prayer tassels, black hats, and distinctive long sideburns. Several times during the course of the flight, some of these men donned their prayer shawls and phylacteries and congregated in the back of the plane for morning or evening prayers. They rocked back and forth and even chanted in Hebrew from their prayer book. It was fascinating to see them turn that airplane into a kind of mobile Wailing Wall.

After arriving we took a 40 minute bus ride to our hotel, which is in the city of Joppa, on the Mediterranean coast. In addition to having a recorded history that goes back over 6000 years, Joppa also is featured in the Bible. It is where Jonah came to get on a boat for Tarshish in an effort to run from Gods call to go to Nineveh. It is also where Peter came in Acts 9 to raise a widow named Tabitha from the dead. In the next chapter in he was still in Joppa when Cornelius sent for him to come to Caesarea to preach the gospel. It was then that Peter realized that the gospel was for Gentiles as much as Jews.

Our hotel was directly across the street from the beach. It was rainy and extremely windy, but after dinner several of us walked across the street to stand at the waters edge. Today Joppa looks like a modern beach resort with high rise hotels all around, but with almost gale force winds slapping the waves against the rocks it was not hard to imagine the kind of storm that would have come upon Jonahs boat as he tried to sail for Tarshish. Tuesday we made our way up the coast heading eventually toward Galilee, where Jesus ministry began. We made several stops along the way as the weather permitted to see some very historical and significant sights.

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Day 2

Our 2nd day began with a walking tour of the ancient city of Joppa (pronounced Joffa in Hebrew). We saw the traditional site associated with the home of Simon the tanner, where Peter stayed in Acts 10. We also saw the traditional site of Peters vision from God, telling him to rise and eat animals that were previously declared unclean by the Levitical law. This vision marks the visible moment when the mission of the apostles turned to intentionally include the Gentiles.

(Note: The term traditional site will be used very often on this trip. Usually it is impossible to determine the precise location at which an event in Scripture occurred, because the Bible does not give us an exact street address. Over time, traditional teaching has stated that this or that event likely occurred in this or that place. We know it occurred somewhere in the vicinity, but we cannot be sure.)

We climbed back on the bus and dried out from a cold rain while we drove north along the Mediterranean to Caesarea Maritima, the site of one Herod the Greats ambitious building projects. He constructed an artificial deep water port right off the beach in order to curry favor with Romans. This led to great prosperity, but it also put Caesarea in the cross hairs of other interested powers. Over the centuries, Caesarea would be conquered and reconquered by varying armies, and today its ruins are a source of great archeological interest. We know from Acts 25 that Paul made his defense before Festus and Agrippa here before finally being shipped off to Rome. It is likely that trial occurred in one of the ruin sites we visited today. It is also likely that Pontius Pilate resided in Caesarea. A stone that was uncovered there carries an inscription of his name.

Next we traveled slightly north to visit Mt. Carmel, where a Carmelite monastery marks the traditional site where the prophet Elijah had his famous duel with the prophets of Baal, recorded in 1 Kings 18. From the roof of the monastery you can look west across the Jezrel Valley to see Nazareth on a hillside opposite. This valley is also called the Valley of Armageddon, which is mentioned in the vision of John in Revelation 16.

After lunch we visited Megiddo, a walled city that dates back to the 7th century BC. Archaeological digs have revealed that over the course of its history, the city was destroyed by invading armies and then rebuilt by the conquerors no less than 25 times. At least one of these times would have included the conquest of Megiddo by the Israelites. Megiddo is also known in Hebrew as Armageddon, which is where the valley to its north gets is name.

Our day concluded with a visit to Mt. Tabor, which is the traditional site of Jesus transfiguration, recorded in Matthew 17, which simply refers to a high mountain. Tabor certainly fits that description, rising sharply 1800 feet from the valley floor below. A shuttle service is necessary to get to the top, where a Franciscan monastery has been built. (If this is the mountain that Jesus and three disciples climbed, you can only be impressed by the physical prowess it would have taken.) The wooden floor of the church is literally built directly above the summit of the mountain. Again, we dont know exactly where the transfiguration occurred, but a plexiglass section of the wooden floor is positioned directly above the traditional site. Tonight we are staying at a lodge house in a kibbutz on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We spent the next couple of days exploring this area, which was home to the beginning of Jesus ministry.

Day 3

Its a strange way to put it, but today it felt like we finally caught up with Jesus, because we spent the day in the area that he called home: Galilee. The day began with a short boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. We probably didnt go more than 500 yards from the dock, but getting out on the water gave us a wonderful panoramic view of the northern end of the lake, which is where Jesus ministry was concentrated for the first three years. Our guide pointed out that the area Jesus covered during that time - from Magdala on the eastern shore around to the region of the Gerasenes on the west - is an arc that probably does not exceed 25 miles in length. It is amazing to think that something that was confined to such a small area in such an out-of-the-way place would soon go on to turn the world upside down. After the boat ride we spent the day traveling around to various sites in the area to see things up close. We first went to the traditional site where the Sermon on the Mount was preached. The landscape there forms a kind of natural amphitheater, and it was not hard to imagine the crowds gathered as Jesus taught them. Next we went to Corazin. Biblically, this village is significant because it is included in a list of cities Jesus cursed in Matthew 11:20, because of its failure to repent. Archaeologically it is significant because the ruins there have given us tremendous insight into village life at the time of Jesus, including the uncovering of a mikveh, or ritual bath that was used for ritual cleansing. Though there is debate, many scholars believe this was the antecedent to the practice of baptism. Next it was on to Capernaum. This was Jesus adopted hometown and home base after he was rejected at Nazareth (see Luke 4). There are ruins of a synagogue there that date back to the 4th century AD. Obviously, this is later than Jesus time, but that synagogue appears to be built on top of the ruins of an even older synagogue. This would almost certainly have been the very synagogue that Jesus attended! Also in Capernaum are the ruins of a 4th century Byzantine church, which in turn was built on top of what tradition says was the location of Simon Peters house.After lunch we visited briefly the traditional site of the multiplication miracle in Matthew 14. There are no ruins there dating to Jesus time, but there are ruins from a church that dates back to roughly 350 AD, which was built to memorialize that miracle. Those ruins have been incorporated into the current day church that sits on that same spot. One of the most fascinating visits was to the village of Magdala, which was the home of Mary Magdalene. For the longest time no one could identify Magdalas location, but it was discovered accidentally during a construction project just a few years ago. Among the discoveries were the amazingly intact ruins of the village synagogue, a place that Jesus almost certainly visited. There is a portion of a still intact tile mosaic on the floor on one end. It was both humbling and exhilarating to think that Jesus feet very possibly stepped on that very floor! Our day ended with a visit to the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee. Several people from our group braved the chilly weather (the temp hovered in the high 40s to around 50 all day) and waded into the river for a baptismal renewal experience. The rest of us cheered and took pictures. There is no way to know where along the roughly 60 miles of the Jordan River exactly where Jesus was actually baptized, but it was never the less fascinating to think that this is the very river where it occurred. The next day we will go to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and attended school in Sephoris just a few miles away, this is where most scholars believe Jesus was educated. We ended our day by leaving Galilee and heading toward Jerusalem, where we would spend the remainder of our time.

Day 4

Our day began with a visit to the ruins of Sepphoris. Even though it is not mentioned in the New

Testament, it is located just across a small valley from Nazareth, within an easy walk. Because Sepphoris was known to be a center of education and the headquarters of the Sanhedrin at the time, some have theorized that Jesus might have received his education there - especially given that Jesus was known as a rabbi when he finally emerged as an adult, a fact that would suggest some level of formal training.

Then we were off for a brief visit to Cana, where according to Johns gospel Jesus performed his first miracle. There is a Franciscan church built atop the ruins of the traditional site where he turned the water into wine. While there is no way to know for sure, a large wine press was found among the ruins, which would suggest it was a location where wine would have been served as public events (such as a wedding). However, just to keep the things interesting, the Greek Orthodox around the corner claim that their church is the actual location. I suppose there have always been arguments among denominations!

Our next stop took us to Nazareth. In Jesus day it was just a small, out-of-the way place. Remember Nathaniels question: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Today it is a bustling city with 180,000 people, with Jews, Christians, and Muslims all living peacefully together. Our first visit was the Church of the Synagogue. This is a church that dates back to the 12th century. It is believed that the builders of the church converted it out of the synagogue from which Jesus preached his first sermon in Luke 4. Next we walked over the Church of the Annunciation. The current church, which is architecturally magnificent, was built in 1969, but it was built on top of the remains of a Byzantine-era church, which in turn is built on top of the traditional site of Marys home. According to tradition, this is where the angel Gabriel visited Mary, though again the Greek Orthodox claim that the annunciation happened at nearby well. Sure enough, down in the grotto of the church are excavated remains of a small home that dates from the time of Jesus. Next door is a smaller chapel dedicated to Joseph. In the basement are the excavated remains of what very well could have been a carpenters shop. There is no way to know if it was Josephs shop, but it does tickle the imagination to think that it might have been!

After lunch we visited the magnificent ruins of Beit Shean. Biblically, the site is significant because of 1 Samuel 31. When King Saul and his sons were killed in battle on Mt. Gilboa, the Philistines hung their bodies on the wall of Beit Shean. Later, in the Roman and Byzantine era, the site became a bustling center of Roman life. It was destroyed in 789 by an earthquake and apparently abandoned and forgotten. It was rediscovered in the late 19th century. The ruins that have been unearthed there are absolutely phenomenal. The engineering, craftsmanship, and artistry that has been discovered there rival anything we have produced in our modern era.

Finally we turned southward and began our journey toward Jerusalem, following the Jordan valley. Off to our left, in the east, was the Mt. Gilead mountain range, which marks the beginning of the country of Jordan, just on the other side of the River Jordan. We passed through a military check point as we entered into the West Bank. There was a distinct feeling of going down, because the Jordan (which we could not see from the road due to the low water level) flows all the way down to the Dead Sea. At 1400 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. Just as the Dead Sea came into view we turned westward and began our ascent into Jerusalem. In the short distance of 15 miles we went from 1400 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea up to 2500 feet above sea level at the entrance to Jerusalem. When the Bible speaks of going up to Jerusalem, it is not just speaking spiritually. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the fictional character who traveled from Jericho to Jerusalem would have followed 

the same basic route we took. It is not hard to understand how it would have been such a dangerous journey. What a climb!

There are few words to describe entering into Jerusalem. Though the city is busy and crowded (with a population of 800,000), the dominant image of the skyline immediately comes into view: the glittering Dome of the Rock. This Muslim holy site sits atop of the Temple Mount, which is where both the first Temple (built by Solomon) and the second Temple (built by Herod) once sat. We made our way through the city until our bus driver brought us to an amazing overlook to the south of the city. We piled off to get a glimpse of the panoramic view of the city, both the old city and the new city. Old city refers to the portion within the wall, where most of the biblical events occurred. The new city is the portion that has sprung up in the modern era.

As the we took our photos, our guide gathered us together. He is a wonderful, warm, and brilliant man who knows both history and the Bible like the back of his hand. He is also a conservative Jew and an Israeli, so there is no way to describe how much the city of Jerusalem means to him. Speaking of the joy of seeing Jerusalem for the first time, he pronounced a traditional Jewish blessing over us, saying it first in Hebrew and then in English: Blessed are you, O Lord, for bringing me alive to this point in my life. How true! The next day we began the tour of the old city and surrounding areas.

Day 5

I am trying to decide tonight which is fuller - my head or my heart. Or maybe it is better to say that I am trying let my head catch up with my heart. We spent the first half of the day taking in the area around the Kidron Valley, which is where the climatic events of the final week of Jesus life took place. We began by walking down in the Kidron Valley itself, which looks up to the east to the Mount of Olives and up to the west to the city wall of Jerusalem. So much of the biblical story - Old and New Testament - took place within sight of where we were that it was almost too much to absorb. We viewed ancient tombs, where it is believed that at least some of the kings of Jerusalem are buried. We viewed the entrance to the Spring of Gihon, where Solomon was anointed as King. This spring also forms the source of the waters for the pool that King Hezekiah had built in 2 Kings 20:20, in anticipation of a siege by Sennacherib. That pool would later become known as the Pool of Siloam, in which Jesus healed a blind man in John 9. We eventually walked all the way down to that pool, though the view is obstructed by a fence which has been erected by the Greek Orthodox church which owns the property.After reaching the pool, we turned and walked back up the valley. Our guide pointed out that this was almost certainly the route Jesus would have walked after leaving the Upper Room to head towards the Garden of Gethsemane. Walking through what is essentially a graveyard, the surroundings must have weighed upon him with the knowledge of what lie ahead in the next few hours. We then got back on the bus and drove further up the eastern slope of the Kidron, up to the top, known to us as the Mount of Olives. From there you can look down across the Kidron to see the city of Jerusalem stretching out before you from south to north. We first visited the Church of the Pater Noster. According to the Carmelites who are custodians of the church, this is the site where Jesus taught his disciples the Lords Prayer in Luke 11. From there we visited the site where tradition says that Jesus stopped and wept over the city in Luke 19 for its failure to repent. As is the case in almost every such traditional site, a church has been built there to memorialize the event. It is called Dominus Flevit, Latin for The Lord Wept. From there we walked down the path that Jesus would have

taken on that Palm Sunday as he made his way toward and into the Holy City. The throngs of other visitors there with us gave us a sense of what it must have been like for Jesus to ride among the crowds of other pilgrims on that Sunday before Passover.

Near the bottom we stopped for a while in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus would come several nights later to pray before being arrested. We sat for a while among the olive trees to sense what that moment must have been like. There are a couple of trees still in that garden that are estimated to date back 2000 years. There is at least a possibility that Jesus might have prayed beneath one of them.

We did not go up the other side of the Kidron and enter into the city, though we could see the gate where Jesus entered. Instead, we boarded a bus and made the five mile journey to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is in an area of the West Bank that today is under Palestinian control, so we had to pass through the wall and checkpoint that separates the Israeli and Palestinian areas. Israeli citizens (in other words, Jews) are not permitted inside Bethlehem without a permit, nor are Palestinians from that side allowed into Jerusalem without a permit. Our guide, who is Jewish, bid us farewell for the day, and a Palestinian Christian woman from Bethlehem took over the duties of guiding us.

First we visited the Shepherds Field. The significance of this piece of real estate goes all the way back to the Old Testament story of Ruth, where we read that Ruth the Moabite went to glean in the fields of Boaz. The two met, married, and had a child named Obed. Obed became the father of Jesse, and Jesse became the father of David. This is how Bethlehem would become known as the city of David, which of course sets the stage for the Nativity story in Luke 2. We stood and looked out over those very fields, which 1500 years later would be the same fields where a group of shepherds would be watching their flocks by night when a heavenly choir of angels appeared with a stunning announcement.

From there we made our way to the Church of the Nativity. This church dates back to be the oldest church building in history. It was built after Constantine converted to Christianity and ordered a church to be built on the site where Jesus was born. (The original church was destroyed in the sixth century, but was rebuilt in the 8th). Though almost 300 years had passed between the birth of Christ and the construction of the church, local tradition still pointed to a site in a cave where the birth was reported to have occurred. The church is built directly over that cave.

As I have said before, there is no way to know for sure the precise location of most of the events reported in Scripture, but there is some high degree of probability that in this case the tradition got it right. As we made our way down into the cave and touched the place where Jesus was supposedly born I could feel my eyes moisten with tears. Even if the tradition is off slightly and Jesus was born a 100 yards in another direction, the story suddenly became much more real to me. This is the place where heaven and earth met in a tiny baby who is fully human and fully divine. The universe is far more open than most of us have dared to dream. Visiting the place of the Bible changes a lot of things for you, and the visit to Bethlehem is no exception. It is too complex to explain here, but lets just say for now that most of our traditional notions of the nativity need to be reconceived. A baby placed in a wooden box in a shed out back because some mean-spirited inn-keeper wouldnt give them a room - thats likely a misreading of the story. It doesnt change the basic meaning of the story, but there are nuances to it that we have not fully grasped. Stay tuned to a future Christmas Eve sermon for more. The next day we will began our day with a

communion service at one of the stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa - the traditional path Jesus walked on his way to the crucifixion.

Day 6

I am in no hurry for this trip to end, but I fear that if we stay here much longer I will run out of words to describe my experience. The surprises and delights of each day seem to surpass those of the day before, and today was no exception. This morning - Sunday - began with a communion service inside the walls of the old city. We are a group of 45 protestant ministers of varying denominations from around the country, and we gathered in a small Franciscan chapel above station number 7 of the so-called Stations of the Cross to share the bread and cup of our Lords Supper, while bells from nearby churches and the Muslim call to prayer from nearby mosques mingled in the air above us. There were no disputes among us about our denominational and theological differences. We simply gathered as one fellowship of believers to celebrate our common identity as the body of Christ - a body born out of the events from the streets below us. It was a small foretaste of heaven. After the brief service we made our way in small groups just around the country to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As our host put it, if you are a Christian, this spot marks the center of the universe, for the church is built on the traditional site of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. The presence of the church, which is elaborate and sprawling, makes it a bit challenging to envision what the place was like in Jesus day. Calvary, or Golgotha as it is called in Hebrew, was just a hill comprised of a stone outcropping just outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a place where the Romans took convicted criminals to execute them. Criminals like Jesus. I dont know the detailed history of the church, but it was first constructed sometime after the conversion of emperor Constantine as a way of honoring the place where Christs sacrifice was made. The church is designed in such a way that an altar is literally built on top of the very summit of the hill. On either side of the altar there are cut outs in the floor where the stone protrudes slightly into the room with you. Over the years they have been covered with plexi-glass, but there is a hole in the floor beneath the altar so that if you kneel down you can reach through and touch the rock with your hand. As I have said before, there is no way to know if this is the exact spot where the cross of Christ stood. After all, his was one of many executions that the Romans carried out, so it could have happened anywhere within that small landscape. But therein is the point: it is a small landscape. Mount Calvary is only so big, so we can say with absolute certainty that Christ was executed somewhere upon that rocky hillside. Even though the rest of the hillside is now obscured by the church and by the rest of sprawling city that has grown up since, you are standing in the very spot where the sins of the world were atoned. There are no words.

Not far from the place of crucifixion - down a flight of stairs and over a few hundred feet, within the same church complex - is the traditional burial site. Like the Calvary Mount, the tomb has now been built over by the church, so you have to use your imagination to envision a cave in a hillside, but thats what it once was before the emperor had a church built around it. Two or three at a time you can climb down into the cave and see the ledge upon which a body would have been laid. It has now been overlaid with marble as a way of protecting it from Christian pilgrims who over the years have wanted to chip away a piece of limestone from the cave to take home with them, but you can lay your hand and head on the very spot.

After the visit to the Holy Sepulcher we had the afternoon free to explore the city. There is more to see than a lifetime of Sunday afternoon strolls could capture, so we broke up into groups based on our primary interests. A group of six of us decided to tackle Hezekiahs tunnel. As I mentioned in an earlier post, King Hezekiah in the 8th century BC had a tunnel dug from the spring of Gihon down to what is known as the Pool of Siloam in order to provide a water source within the walls of the ancient city in the event of a siege. The tunnel is 533 meters (or 1748) feet long, and is never more than a three or four feet wide. It was carved by hand in a snakelike manner through the limestone bedrock underneath the ancient City of David. Workers started from either end and met in the middle. We know this because of an inscription in the wall that dates back 2700 years, in which a worker marks the fact that he can hear workers on the other side. Only one more rock to go, he writes. It is an engineering marvel.

Today, for the low price of $8 you can crawl through that tunnel. At that price, how can you resist? We changed into shorts, rounded up some flashlights and started our trek. And yes, the water still flows from the Spring of Gihon. At one point the water is almost waist deep. I think the water was cold, but after a few steps I was numb from my knees down, so I cant be sure. It took about 30 minutes of walking and stooping and sometimes almost crawling through the pitch dark water, but we eventually emerged at the other end at the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed a blind man in John 9. I dont think climbing Mt. Everest could be any more exhilarating.

After we dried off and thawed out we worked our way up through the old city, past the Temple Mount and the Western Wall (which is the only remaining edifice of Herods Temple) and visited the Tower of David Museum. The history of this site is too complex to describe here, but it allows you to take a self- guided tour through the fortress walls of Herods Palace. (Interestingly, the palace and the famous tower has little to do with David. Thats another story for another time.) The tour offers a wonderful overview of the history of Israel and how it relates to the story of the Bible and to post-Biblical history. The highlight of the tour is the chance to stand atop the only remaining tower from Herods original palace. As the highest point in the old city (which itself is built atop a mountain), it is the most stunning view I have ever seen. In one sweep you can see structures commemorating all the major events of three faiths that still drive world history today - from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on your left, to the Dome of the Rock in the middle, to the location of the Wailing Wall slightly to your right. Plus, you can see the magnificent mountains of Jordan just beyond the Jordan Valley. You are literally standing at the center of the world.

Day 7

The next day we met back with our trusted tour guide who took us through the Via Delarosa - the traditional way that Christ walked as he was led to the site of the crucifixion. We visited the Stations of the Cross as we walked. Weve walked for nine straight. A pilgrimage indeed.

Day 8

Our adventure today took us out of the city of Jerusalem. We turned east and slightly backtracked the route by which we came in order to visit the area around the Dead Sea. On the way we stopped briefly at the Good Samaritan Inn. This archaeological site is named after the famous parable Jesus tells in Lukes gospel. It is believed that these are the ruins of a hostel or hospitality station along the way from

Jerusalem down to Jericho. Such places existed every 10 or 15 miles - about the distance someone could travel in a days time. Jesus parable was a fictional story meant to teach a kingdom lesson, so there is no need to overstate the connection between this particular archeological site and the biblical text, but when Jesus says that the Samaritan took the wounded man to an inn, this would have been the kind of place he would have taken him. It merely illustrates that when Jesus taught, he pointed to things that his audience could easily understand. Most everybody would have been familiar with the dangers of the route from Jerusalem to Jericho, and with the inns along the way.

From there we continued our drive down the mountain into the low valley of the Dead Sea. We turned south and drove along the rim of the sea for most of its length. The landscape is stunning - barren, rugged, severe, inhospitable, and yet strangely inviting. To your left, on the other side of the Sea you can see the country of Jordan, with occasional villages dotting the mountain ridges. On your right you see limestone mountains that shoot 1500 feet up into the air. Cave openings dot the cliff facings. Due to a variety of reasons the Dead Sea has been receding at the rate of about 3 feet per year. This has exposed part of the sea bed around the rim, revealing large flats of the salt-encrusted mud that is so highly sought after.

Our first stop, down near the southern end of the Sea, was Masada. Herod the Great came there in the 1st century BC to build a palace - another one of his audacious building projects. Masada sits on the relatively flat top of a mountain peak that his rises roughly 1500 feet from the Sea down below. It provides a high position of control over both invading armies and the caravans of spice traders coming north from Africa. But Herod had other priorities, so he only stayed at Masada about 3 months.

I am unclear what became of the real estate in the immediately following years, but in less than a century it would become a vitally important place for a band of Jewish rebels. In the mid 60s AD (about 35 years after the death of Christ), there was a Jewish revolt against Roman rule. Romes response was a brutal crackdown on the Jewish people, a crackdown that included the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. (This is why there is no Temple anymore). As Romes noose tightened, a group of rebels from the Galilee area fled south and took up shelter in the fortress of Masada. From there they were able to fend off the advancing Roman army for several years. Finally, the Romans figured out a way to breach the fortress, and these Jewish warriors made a fateful decision. Rather than be taken as prisoners of war by a pagan army, they covenanted to kill each other. The last remaining man then killed himself. Two women and three children who managed to survive were taken as prisoners and lived to tell the story.

Today Masada still figures strongly in the Israeli identity. The determination of these 967 rebels to hold off an army of tens of thousands of armed soldiers informs how Israelis think of themselves in the midst of a hostile world. Masada must never fall again, is a saying that is often repeated, especially in military circles. For most of history there has been only one way up to Masada: a winding footpath that switches back on itself multiple times. It takes almost an hour to do it. At least, thats my estimate. I cant be sure, because we rode the new gondola. It took us only three minutes to accomplish what it took those silly Romans five years to do! After Masada we came back north until we arrived at Qumran. This is where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The community that lived in this area is still shrouded in some mystery, but it appears to have been home to a group of Jewish zealots who withdrew from Jerusalem sometime in the late first century BC or early first century AD. In other words, they were active during the time of Jesus. They were seeking to purify themselves from the corruption of daily life in the city, so

they withdrew to this remote location along the shores of the Dead Sea, most likely in anticipation of some sort of apocalyptic event. In fact, there is evidence that at least some of them were later counted among the Masada rebels. There is also a disputed theory that John the Baptist was a member of this community for some period of time.

Aside from the necessary tasks of daily life, these zealots devoted themselves to the study of the Torah and the prophets. They had scribes who apparently did nothing but make copies of these texts. These scrolls, some written on leather and others on papyrus, were stored away in the caves that dot the landscape when, for some reason, they were forced to flee the area. They sat there, untouched and unknown for 2000 years, until 1947, when a Bedouin shepherd boy went into one of the caves looking for a missing sheep. What he discovered has set the world of religious scholarship on fire. The caves of Qumran have now produced hundreds of scrolls. And the work is not done. A new set of scrolls was just discovered three weeks before we visited.

While scholars continue to dig and explore and piece together just who these desert dwellers were, the one thing that has come through is the remarkable reliability of the Bible. Qumran has given us countless manuscripts of the Old Testament, and they all line up exactly with manuscripts we already had. Qumran verifies that the Old Testament from which we read today is the exact same text from which Jesus read. In fact, we have complete Qumran copies of the entire Old Testament, with the exception of two books - Nehemiah and Esther. Interestingly, these are the only two books in the Old Testament that never mention the name of God. If you are a Jewish zealot living in the desert waiting for Gods apocalyptic intervention in history, you probably dont have much use for a book that never mentions Him.

When we were done with our history lesson for the day it was time for a little rest. No trip to the holy land is complete without a dip in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is named such because it is just that - dead. The salinity of the water is over 33%. For comparison, the average salinity of the ocean is 3.5%. With that concentration of salt and other minerals, the water cannot support any marine life. But the high salt content also makes for extra buoyancy, so you easily float on your back on the surface of the water. In fact, floating is all you can do. You have to try to force your legs down, because they naturally float back to the top. You almost have the sense of walking on water. It felt like I was violating some law of physics! Leave it up to God to create such an incredible and unusual wonder in a land that is defined by such an incredible and unusual history. The next day we visited some of the area museums before heading for the airport after supper for our 12 hour flight home.

As our trip came to an end I cannot help but think of what this visit has meant to me. I suspect I will spend many years trying to answer that question, but as I sit here tonight looking out over the old city of Jerusalem I am struck with two competing thoughts. On the one hand, the Holy Land means everything to me now. This is the place where it all happened. This is where God made himself known. As Christians we dont worship a set of abstract principles or moral ideals. We worship a God who intervened into human history in a definitive and decisive way. And this is where He did it. Over there is where God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then intervened with a lamb. Over there is where David built the first palace. Over there is where Jesus healed a blind man. And over there is an empty tomb that a dead man walked out of after three days. Seeing and touching these places makes these stories come to life in a

new way. I now have connections and insights I did not have before. In this way, this trip has changed me forever.

And yet, at the same time I also have a sense - and this will sound strange - that the Holy Land means very little to me. What I mean is this: because of what God did in this place, his decisive action is no longer limited to this place. Because of the resurrection and because of Pentecost, the Holy Land is no longer any more holy than any other land. Jesus now walks the streets of my neighborhood just as much as he once walked the Via Delarosa through downtown Jerusalem. God no longer dwells in a box in the Holy of Holies in the inner sanctum of the Temple Mount. Now he dwells directly in the hearts and minds of those who call on his Son as Savior.

This came home to me on Sunday morning when I visited the church of the Holy Sepulcher. When it was my turn I knelt beneath the altar and reached down through the hole in the floor and touched the very rock upon which Jesus was crucified. And guess what happened! Nothing. There was no rush of power, no flash of insight. The tendinitis in my right knee was not suddenly healed, and I didnt find myself levitating above the floor. Thats because that rock doesnt have any magical power. The power is in the resurrected Jesus, who is no longer confined to that rock but who now lives on every rock on every continent where ever anyone calls on his name.

I pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and for all of Israel. They are the caretakers of the stage where the great drama of redemption played out. As Paul says in Romans, “I as a Gentile owe a debt to the Jewish people into whose family I have been adopted because of my Jewish Messiah. God willing, I will come to their homeland again.” But if for some tragic reason Jerusalem ceased to exist tomorrow, my walk with Christ would continue on unchanged, because Jesus has gone forth from this place and will continue to press ahead until every corner of the creation has been reconciled to God.

Jenny Searcy, Joe Wagner and 2 others like this

Debbie Reagan McGreggorWhile I have only begun to read your daily accounts, I will definitely continue to the very end. Thank you so much for taking the time to share not only a wonderful pictorial but an outstanding narrative as well.

4 weeks ago   ·  1
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Day 4: What an amazing adventure Bro David is on right now! Can you imagine what it must be like to walk the same paths that Jesus, Moses, the Disciples traveled? I can't even wrap my mind around it. Bro David is posting some wonderful pictures on his personal facebook page and upon his return, will devote a service to sharing with us all about this wondrous opportunity.
Keep those prayers coming for Bro David, his tour group, Deedee, Addison, and Will. Thanks!
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1 month ago

Day 4: What an amazing adventure Bro David is on right now! Can you imagine what it must be like to walk the same paths that Jesus, Moses, the Disciples traveled? I cant even wrap my mind around it. Bro David is posting some wonderful pictures on his personal facebook page and upon his return, will devote a service to sharing with us all about this wondrous opportunity. 
Keep those prayers coming for Bro David, his tour group, Deedee, Addison, and Will. Thanks!

Smiths Station Baptist Church feeling excited.

Day 3: Bro David arrived safe & sound in Israel yesterday afternoon - unfortunately, his phone charger did not. :/ Hopefully, there is an Apple store somewhere along the Road to Caesarea.
Check back often to follow Bro David's adventurous journey through the Holy Land.
Continue to pray for his group as they make this once-in-a-lifetime trek.
... See MoreSee Less

1 month ago

Day 3: Bro David arrived safe & sound in Israel yesterday afternoon - unfortunately, his phone charger did not. :/  Hopefully, there is an Apple store somewhere along the Road to Caesarea. 
Check back often to follow Bro Davids adventurous journey through the Holy Land. 
Continue to pray for his group as they make this once-in-a-lifetime trek.