Lessons from Israel
Lessons From Israel
What comes to mind when you think about visiting Israel? Is it biblical sites and a spiritual experience? Do you imagine the scenes of conflict and terrorism shown on the news? Or are you more likely to picture a small home with unfamiliar decorations and even more unfamiliar food? Maybe you just imagine the Jerusalem city scape, dominated by domes and white square buildings, or a harsh desert wilderness.
I imagined all of this and none of it going into my trip to Israel. That is, I had these images in my head, but I knew they were inaccurate. I went in trying to keep my eyes and heart open, so that I could take in whatever God wanted to show me. He showed me a lot; it would be impossible to share everything. And while I’ll write more in the future about specific insights, for right now I just want to share some of the lessons I learned.
Lesson One: Israel is a Modern Country
Maybe it sounds obvious that Israel is a modern country, but if your image of Israel is informed mostly by what you see on the news, it may not be. I knew going in that I wasn’t heading into a third-world country, but I didn’t know exactly how it would compare to the life I know in America.
The first experience was the airport, where everything was automated and went super smoothly. Then as we traveled, we found it mostly easy and convenient. Water was readily available; their water system guarantees safe, drinkable water from every tap and faucet. It’s easy to shop with modern tap-
and-go point-of-sale systems everywhere; no extra fees and no need to exchange money. I felt safe, with friendly police and military personnel present anywhere there were lots of
people. At every border site you can hear the drones that are constantly on patrol, with dedicated personnel watching for danger, and their cybersecurity is top notch. And all the skylines of every city are dominated by what our guide referred to as the “National Bird of Israel:” the construction crane. You can even buy an “American style” lunch at an
Elvis themed diner!
Israel truly feels like a welcoming place for people from the West. Their big cities have their crime as any place does. They do have conflict with their enemies, and it is much closer for every Israeli citizen than anything we experience in America. But they have dedicated themselves to developing a strong and robust nation.
Lesson Two: The Stories Are True
A hundred years ago or so, it was common to hear historians and archaeologists say that the stories in the Bible were largely fables. They would say that there’s just no evidence that any of these things happened. Archaeology has refined itself as a science over the past century, and it turns out the more stuff they dig up, the more they are finding exactly what they should find if the Bible is true. This doesn’t surprise me. But it’s cool to stand there and see the evidence with your own eyes.
After David kills Goliath in the Elah Valley 1 Samuel 17, it says that the Philistines are pursued and slaughtered all along the Shaaraim road. “Shaaraim” means “two gates” and it was a mystery what that referred to until they excavated a trading village overlooking the Elah Valley that has two gates – one facing the Israelite lands, one facing the surrounding non-Israelite lands. A detail like that in Scripture grounds the story in place and history, so that as we stood at Shaaraim and look down on the Elah Valley, we could be confident that as incredible as it sounds, a young shepherd really did kill a giant with a sling and a stone.
Throughout Israel we saw settlements dating to around 1400-1300 B.C. that feature “four-room houses.” Prior to that time period, you never see them, and suddenly they show up everywhere. God’s Law directed that you keep your work and your cooking and your animals all separate, so when they came into the land from the Exodus, the Israelites built their homes with separate rooms for animals and storage, work, cooking, and living. While skeptics will claim the Exodus was really just a small contingent of tribes escaping slavery in Egypt, and that God’s Law was developed over centuries after they rooted in Israel, the emergence of the four-room house pattern can only be explained by the biblical record.
Scripture tells us that King Hezekiah built a tunnel to bring fresh water and to provide
a possible escape route for Jerusalem when the Assyrian army was approaching. That
tunnel is still there, and we walked through it, a narrow passage of darkness and ankle-to-knee deep spring water longer than five football fields.
Scripture tells us that Jeremiah was lowered into a cistern in Jerusalem and sank into the mud. We went into the only cistern large enough to lower a man into it, and sawthe mud layer still there under the excavated sand and rubble.
We visited the pool of Siloam where Jesus healed a blind man and a paralytic. We stood on the Southern Steps of the temple where Peter preached his Pentecost sermon. Again and again we were reminded
that the stories are true.
Lesson Three: There’s More by the Sea
I thought going into this trip that visiting Jerusalem would be the most fulfilling part. To see the place where God worked salvation, where Jesus died and rose and the Church began… But actually, I found so much more for my heart by the Sea of Galilee.
The majority of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Galilee, and it’s easier to identify the places he went. For example, we cannot say for sure where Jesus was crucified, where he was buried, or where he was born. But we know where Peter’s house was in Capernaum (Jesus’ base of operations), we can stand by the synagogue in Magdala where Jesus taught, and we can stand on the hill on the eastern shore where Jesus cast the demons into the pigs. We even have a good idea of where Jesus met the disciples on the lake shore after his
You can wade into the same waters that carried our Savior in a boat. The same waters that obeyed his command to be still. You can walk dirt trails along the sea with nothing but tall grass and trees on either side, no sound but the lapping of waves, and imagine for a moment that you’re just following Jesus down the path.
Right there, in the place where Jesus sat, where he walked, where he taught, I had a collision of realities. Jesus was a real man. He was really here. And he was God in the flesh. And he’s still living. He’s still loving you and me. He’s still God. He’s still the human he was when he walked the earth. That is, Jesus didn’t stop being human when he rose from death. Though glorified, he is still human. A glorified human. To get specific, he was a Jewish man, and now he’s a glorified Jewish man. I don’t know what that means to him, but I think it should mean something for us. That’s the next lesson I learned.
Lesson Four: Jesus’ People Today
If Jesus is a glorified Jewish man, then that means that the Jewish people are still his people. Yes, it’s true that all human beings are his people. But God chose the Jewish people to carry his Word, and chose the Jews to be his people on earth. Jesus came as their Messiah out of love for them, just as he came as the Savior for all because he loves all of us. Jesus still loves his people, and I think we should too. I’m not saying that our view of the End Times is tied to their fate, as some Christian groups do. But we should be concerned about their salvation.
In Romans 11, Paul makes the case that non-Jewish Christians are like “wild olive branches,” and that we only have a place on the tree because some of the original branches were dead and were cut off. The Jews that rejected Jesus were the dead branches. But Paul then asks, “If you, though you were a wild olive branch, could be grafted in, how much more can God graft back in those who were cut off?” Jesus has not abandoned his people; he longs to bring them
Israel is a beautiful country, and an important part of the
global scene today. But they don’t have peace. The
situation between Israel and Palestine is tense, and there are no clear solutions. We heard from
representatives of both sides of the conflict, and how deeply hurt each side feels by the actions and rhetoric of the other. We heard how much families on both sides long for peace.
We heard how other nations in the Middle East, like Iran, want to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. Imagine knowing that a nearby nation is developing nuclear weapons and wants to aim them at your country, and that if they do, they can wipe you out in a single day. The Jewish people remember that once evil men wanted to annihilate them; they still face that evil.
What is our role as Christians? We ought to pray for them, for their safety, security and peace. Whether or not the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 was wise or right politically, they are there now, and we should be a voice for peace. I don’t know enough about politics to say how that should happen, but I know that the Gospel has the power to overcome everything. That’s the final lesson: Israel needs the Gospel.
Lesson Five: Jesus is the Boundary Line
This is difficult because for the vast majority of Jews, being Jewish and being Christian are incompatible. Many Jews know too little about Christianity… and many Christians know too little about Judaism. But for many Jews, they would say that you can be non-practicing or non-religious, you can have serious doubts about the truth of the Torah, you can be Buddhist, you can be an atheist… and you can still be a Jew. But more than four out of five Jews will say that you cannot be Christian and Jewish. For many Jews, the attempt to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus feels like trying to make them non-Jewish, and that feels like a threat.
But there are also Jews who want good relationships between Jews and Christians, though. We even heard from one presenter who said, “My prayer for you as Christians is that you would be Christ-like and that you would obey his commands. And I know that means trying to convert me. The moment my Christian friends stop trying to share Jesus with me is the moment I stop trusting them.”
So should you try to convert a Jew, or should you not? Well, obviously, if we take Jesus’ Great
Commission seriously, without a doubt we need to share Jesus with them. All the more so because Jesus is their Messiah! He is the fulfilment of their Scriptures and their prophecies. If anyone needs to know who he is, it is the Jewish people. To do that, we need to know how to talk to them. I guess that’s one more lesson I learned.
Lesson Six: I Need to Understand the Old Testament and Judaism Better
If there’s one thing I learned for sure during my trip, it’s that there are Bible stories I either don’t know very well, or don’t understand very well. It was humbling to hear that many Jews grow up memorizing whole sections of the Old Testament, and whole Bible stories. These stories are the basis of my faith; I should know them better! To understand how these stories find their fulfilment in the person of Jesus and in the New Testament, I first must understand them.
That’s one key to understanding the Jewish people. Another key is to become more familiar with their customs. We were invited into a family’s home to celebrate their Friday evening Shabbat dinner (you’d pronounce it Sabbath). I never realized the beauty of this gathering and how central it is to the identity of most Jewish people. There’s a saying, “The Jews didn’t keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jews.”
The rituals, the Scripture they recite, the celebration of rest – it was beautiful. Something I long to take hold of. And that’s just one of the many things unique about Jewish culture.
If we’re going to love the Jewish people well, and if we’re going to show them how much Jesus loves them, it starts with knowing Scripture, and continues with seeking to understand their customs. Who knows? Maybe all that will happen is we’ll grow in faith and knowledge and Christian living. That would be okay. Or maybe we’ll have an opportunity to impact someone’s eternity. That would be great too.