The title of this post has one purpose only – to annoy a friend of mine. When I was anticipating my recent trip to Israel, he gave me a little good-natured jibe, “Don’t come back saying that you will never read the Bible the same way again.” Of course, ever since then, I have wasted no opportunity to incorporate the line into my conversations with him. I’m not sure if he is annoyed yet, but I will keep it up until he reaches that point. (No, I will not name this young whippersnapper, because Drew Wales has had enough of a tumultuous year without me adding to it). Oops!
I understand his point. There is no special spiritual blessing conferred on those who travel to the Holy Land, no divine boon or benefit bestowed on those of us who make the trek that is unavailable to those who have not been. It is the work of the Spirit who brings illumination of the Word, not the work of an Israeli tour guide. I think that is what Drew…er…I mean…the unnamed young man was getting at. His point is well taken.
But, having admitted his point, I will still maintain that the last week was one of the most effective commentaries on Scripture I have ever read. There are passages of the Bible I will never read the same again. It is not that I gained some special hermeneutical insight, it is just that I now have pictures in my mind I didn’t have before that will help me to understand what is going on in some Old Testament stories and the life of Christ. Traveling to Israel is one of the most moving, powerful and insightful experiences I’ve ever had.
And I wish that every one of you could take a trip there.
It is expensive to travel there, but that expense is worth it. I wish it was a required class for our seminaries to take a trip to Israel for a couple of weeks as a part of their OT and NT survey classes. I wish churches would work to send their pastors (and his wife) to Israel as a continuing educational experience. It took a blessing fro heaven for me to finally go – having my trip paid for by someone else. But I wish I had made it a priority.
With apologies to Horace Greeley, “Go Middle East, Young Man.” And don’t wait until you are my age to do it. I would give the following reasons.
1) The Bible is an historical and geographical book. Visiting Israel provides firsthand historical and geographical insight.
Every truth in the Bible is grounded in historical facts – stories that took place in real places by real people. Listening to a secular Israeli archaeologist telling us that the excavation of the ancient City of David is confirming the accuracy of the biblical accounts on point after point is encouraging. Seeing where David lived, where his palace was, how people transported water in the tunnel – it is more than just fascinating, it is instructive.
If the Bible was just fanciful stories, traveling to Israel would be little more than a curiosity – an exotic vacation. But seeing where Paul may have stood as he was tried by Agrippa gave me a better understanding of the historical and factual underpinnings of that story. This trip was like an intensive seminary class!
2) The Bible came alive to me in Israel. No, the Bible is never dead. It is living and active. But there is something that came alive in my soul as I stood on the Mt. of Olives and looked over at the Temple Mount, as we walked up the steps that Jesus would have walked to enter the Temple, as we gazed at the ancient olive trees in Gethsemane. It is a sort of confirmation of what I have always believed. This is not fiction, this is fact. David did live. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.
3) Visiting biblical sites is spiritually moving. Again, we are not superstitious like those who pray at the Church of the Nativity or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre thinking that some special blessing can be gained by worshiping or praying at these sites. One can pray as fervently in Sioux City as one might in the grotto of Bethlehem. But, having admitted that, there was something powerful about joining with other pastors to celebrate communion at an outdoor chapel between the possible sites of Golgotha and the Garden Tomb – a powerful worship experience. It was spiritually invigorating to be at the Sea of Galilee, at Capernaum, at so many real places where real events in the Bible took place.
4) Visiting Israel is a visual Bible Commentary. Commentaries are meant to help our understanding of Scripture. Visiting Israel did that for me. I’ve studied the Bible. I’ve looked at maps and pictures. But when I study the life of Christ or historical narratives of the Old Testament, I will see things I didn’t see before. That is what a good commentary does. It does not replace the Bible, but it helps you to understand it better.
5) Visiting Israel is FUN! We had a great time of fellowship there. I made some new friends and intend to continue to be in contact with them. If you have never floated in the Dead Sea, you ought to have a chance to do that once! Negotiating for souvenirs with Palestinian shop owners is a hoot. Eating Israeli cuisine is a culinary experience not to be missed. Seeing the “John the Baptist Souvenir Shop” and the “Stars and Bucks Coffee Shop” in Bethlehem was good for a laugh. I know that fun is not one of our driving motivators as followers of Christ, but it was a ton of fun nonetheless.
6) I learned a lot about Israel’s recent history and wars. Our guide fought in the Six Day war and told us many stories about the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the wars of 1967 and 1973, as well as the Intifada and recent political struggles. We even saw the smoke of the fighting going on in Syria (from a great – and safe – distance).
7) Visiting Israel gave me insight into modern political affairs. Granted, you are only going to hear the Israeli side of things, but it is a good balance since most of what we hear in our press is slanted toward the Palestinian side.
It is well worth the trip, my friends. I am so thankful that a 35 year dream to travel to Israel was finally fulfilled for me. I just wish I had made the trip in my late 20s or early 30s. I certainly hope this will not be my last trip!
ONE BIG QUESTION: I was asked over and over again, “is it safe?” None of us is ever completely safe anywhere we go in the world today. But you are probably safer in Jerusalem than you are in New York City or any of our major cities today. They take security seriously – they had to, being surrounded by enemies. I never once felt a moment of fear for my safety – not a single moment – during my six days. The only problem I ever had was nausea when I saw the bikini bathing suits the men wore on the beaches there!
So, if you’ve never gone, GO! If you’ve gone once, go again. That is my plan!