I got mixed reactions from people when they heard I was going to Israel. Many were excited, thinking about the history behind the part of the world I’d be walking in, but others didn’t understand the point of going. It seemed too risky and expensive.
Jenn and I got to join our pastor from Albuquerque, and about 140 others from his church, on a 12-day tour of Israel. We walked the hills, streets and valleys where Jesus, David, Joshua, the disciples, and so many more walked thousands of years ago. It was definitely worth the cost and the risk!
I won’t even try to discuss the whole trip and all the things we saw – I don’t have time and a blog post or some pictures will never do it justice. We purposely chose not to take thousands of pictures, as we didn’t want to live the tour through the screens of our iPhones. We snapped a few hundred pictures, but we have lots of experiences that we will never forget!
Here are the highlights…
Our first main touring day took us to Mt. Carmel (where Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal – 1 Kings 18), then across to the valley of Megiddo, overlooking the valley where the battle of Armageddon will be waged (Revelation 16). It was a beautiful, lush valley, that Napoleon once called “the perfect battlefield.” On our left, we could see Mt. Carmel, and to the right was Jezreel, where Elijah outran King Ahab’s chariot when the rainstorm hit in 1 Kings 18. We stopped at Megiddo at lunch and even played frisbee in the place that will one day be the bloodiest battlefield the world will ever know.
Near where we stayed in Tiberius, close to the Sea of Galilee, were the ruins of the ancient city of Magdala (where Mary Magdalene was from). Interestingly, this city was discovered only because a Catholic ministry wanted to build a sanctuary on the site, but had to check the ground beneath before they started building. Where they planned to build a sanctuary ended up being the site where they unearthed the oldest synagogue to date! Due to the date of this synagogue and its proximity to the Sea of Galilee, where most of Jesus’ miracles took place, it is highly likely that Jesus actually sat and taught in this exact synagogue! In America, when we prepare to build, all we have to worry about hitting is a gas line or a water main!
One of our group times of worship was held on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee! Not only was it perfect weather and beautifully picturesque, but it was a panoramic of Biblical scenery. We sailed through the very waters where the disciples caught fish, faced storms, and where Jesus and Peter both walked on the water! On “the Jewish side,” we could see Tiberius, the Mt. of Beatitudes, where Jesus taught the famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and Hippos, the city Jesus would have pointed to when He mentioned His followers being like “a city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14). On “the other side” (what would have been the Gentile, pagan side in Jesus’ day) was the Decapolis, where Jesus healed the demon-possessed man called Legion (Mark 5). Jesus cast the demons out of the man into a herd of swine, which then proceeded down a mountain cliff and drowned in the Sea. We know which cliff it must have been because pig skeletons have been found beneath it in the Sea of Galilee! In the distance we could see the mountain cliffs where wind could quickly whip in, causing quick, dangerous storms, like the disciples faced a few times throughout the Gospels.
One of my favorite sites in Jerusalem was the City of David – the original Jerusalem. We stood on the ruins of what is believed to be King David’s palace, as it overlooked the city below. That site really helped us visualize Biblical culture even more as we looked out over the neighboring village. In American culture, it’s hard for us to understand how David would have seen Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop, or why she was even on the rooftop to begin with. But as you look out from his mountaintop residence over the flat-roofed houses below, it’s easy to understand. In addition, as our group took in the sites, we spotted a shepherd in the valley below, herding his sheep through the street up onto the nearby mountainside pasture.
The old city – what you typically think of when you think of Jerusalem – was quite an experience. We toured the Western Wall, where thousands of Jews celebrated Shabbat (Sabbath) on the first evening we were there. Later that week we also got to see a few Bar Mitzvahs in progress! The Western Wall always has people at it, praying, reading prayers and Psalms, and writing prayers that they leave in the cracks of the rocks. The Jews believe the wall is the closest they can be to the former Holy of Holies, where God’s presence dwelt in the old Temple before it was destroyed. You’ll even read signs that say that God’s presence has never left the wall. Although I believe differently than the Jews who worship at the wall, I was convicted by their passion and commitment to their beliefs. What would our world look like today if Christians lived with that type of passion?
When we walked down below the level of the Western Wall, we saw the actual stones of the Temple that were the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24 of the city’s coming destruction, which happened in 70 AD.
The old city is huge, and we didn’t have time to navigate most of it, but we walked through parts of the Arab Quarter and Jewish Quarter, where we did some shopping and eating along the way. The city walls are not only beautiful and artistic, but they are incredible feats of architecture. Some of the stones in the wall weigh between 400-600 tons (800,000-1,200,000 pounds) each!
EN GEDI, MASADA, THE DEAD SEA
We spent one day doing a bunch of hiking in the Negev Desert, as we toured En Gedi, where David and his men ran from Saul (1 Samuel 22-24). In the middle of the desert, we came across some beautiful, refreshing streams of water pouring out of the rocks. This was where David penned the famous words of Psalm 57 & 63:
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” – Psalm 63:1
Masada gave us a great overlook of the Dead Sea and surrounding desert area, and some incredible facts about the area that was once Herod’s mountaintop hideout. Floating in the Dead Sea was quite the experience as well. The Dead Sea is the lowest part of the earth – 1,300 ft below sea level. The water is over 10X saltier than any other water, and no animals can survive in the water. The minerals are very good for the skin though, and people from around the world come there for therapeutic skin treatments and products. We rubbed the mud all over ourselves, just to say we did it.
A few of us got to go twice to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was betrayed, arrested and abandoned. The whole group went during the day on one of our final days, and we had a beautiful view of the city and a great time of worship in the Garden. My favorite visit to the Garden however, was during one of our first nights in Jerusalem. Me and a couple other guys accompanied our Pastor, Skip, down the road that Jesus and His disciples would have walked after they met in the Upper Room, down through the Kidron Valley, and into the Garden. Sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane that night brought me to tears as I tried to visualize the agony Jesus fought through right there in that garden. I tried to visualize the panic of the disciples as they scrambled for their lives to escape the mob, and ran from the garden in dismay, not understanding what had just happened to their leader. What a night that was for them, and what a night it was for us, as we took in the sights and sounds, and spent some time praying together.
We wrapped up the tour by visiting the sites where they believe Jesus was crucified and buried (for the weekend!). We saw what is believed to be Skull Hill (which now has an Arab bus station at the base of it), then got to walk into the tomb that they believe was Jesus’ actual 3-day resting place and the site of the resurrection. We had our final session of worship and teaching there at the Garden Tomb, and took communion together there as we remembered the price Jesus paid for us. I’ll never forget that scene!
It was a trip of a lifetime, and I hope to take a group of Awakeners back one day! A blog and some pictures will never do it justice – one day, you’ll have to see it for yourself. If you never make it to the current Jerusalem, that’s ok – you’ll get to see the all-new Jerusalem in the future. But it would be nice to have a before and after, just to compare Jesus’ future renovations!