I just returned from my first trip to Israel. I’m trying to refrain from descriptions like, It’s beyond words. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to stand in the very places Jesus would have likely stood. It’s life changing; I can’t really describe it. It’s just amazing.
Even though that’s how I feel, what does that really say? I was so privileged to be with author and speaker Joel Rosenberg, and his insightful, kind and well-studied wife, Lynn. Joel encouraged our group to give less vague accounts when we returned home. “Be specific”, he implored, “think about what exactly moved you, and tell that story.” Not that the descriptions I just mentioned are inaccurate—the trip really is hard to describe. Still, I wanted to heed Joel’s encouragement to put into words what’s so incredible about a pilgrimage through the Holy Land.
So here’s my best shot at taking him up on his challenge.
Taken from Mount Zion. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Walking Where Jesus Walked
One of my favorite stops in the region of Galilee was when we visited the town of Magdala. This site was only unearthed in the past several years. Now in plain view sits a synagogue dating back to Jesus’ time in a place we know he taught and ministered. We placed our hands flat atop the benches where the people would have sat while Jesus mesmerized them with His teaching. We know from the Scriptures that He didn’t teach like the Scribes and Pharisees but “with authority”.
There at that first century synagogue I could envision what those intimate moments would have looked like. I could see Jesus as an approachable human, I could picture Him weaving His way through the marketplaces, healing those who had long ailed, ultimately touching humanity’s deepest need: forgiveness of sin so we could be reconciled to God. Seeing what is now left of that ancient town took what I had always imagined about Jesus’ ministry and gave it walls, benches and streets paved with stone. The vague images I’d envisioned suddenly became tangible.Seeing what is now left of that town took what I had always imagined about Jesus' ministry and gave it walls, benches and streets paved with stone.Click To Tweet
Touring Jerusalem. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Grasping The Significance of The Temple Mount
A few years ago I wrote a Bible study on the Book of Nehemiah. I deeply connected with the idea of the Jews returning to their city, anxious to resettle in their homeland, broken down as the walls and gates were. The Book of Nehemiah describes the city as a pile of rubble with a people living in disgrace. The sacrifice of Nehemiah leaving the wealth and trappings of a Persian palace to restore a people has never ceased convicting me. What am I doing to restore the brokenness of the people around me in a way that costs me? The imagery and diversity of teamwork required to make bulwarks out of the rubble the enemies touted would be impossible to restore has always moved me. Who can’t relate to impossible rubble heaped in our lives, rubble that can only be restored by the grace of God? (I’m getting off on my favorite parts of Nehemiah. Back to the Temple Mount.)What am I doing to restore the brokenness of the people around me in a way that costs me?Click To Tweet
You might remember that in the same era that Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem, Ezra rebuilt Solomon’s Temple. Since Ezra was re-building the temple, and not building it for the first time, this is still considered the First Temple, even though the glory of its structure paled in comparison to Solomon’s. When Herod the Great came along around 400 years later, he leveled that temple and built the one we read about in the New Testament, the one destroyed in 70 A.D.
What I’d never considered or understood is that both temples were on the Temple Mount, the place where a retaining wall still stands, what we now know as the Western Wall. I know, someone fire me as a Bible teacher. (I won’t go into further details about what I’d missed about the tabernacle versus synagogues versus The First and Second Temples). At any rate, having context for what this Temple Mount represents to the Jewish people and to us as New Testament believers, who believe we ourselves are the temple of God, is beyond exciting and simultaneously sobering. Since learning about and seeing the Temple Mount, I have a lot of studying and thinking to do. And praying.
Southern steps of the old Temple Mount. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Standing In Front of the Water Gate
Our tour guide was a Jewish man whose mother was the only one of his family to survive the holocaust—his story is for another blog post. One piece of his story I want to mention though is that in 1967, when Israel regained control of the Western Wall, he and a throng of Jews rushed toward one of their most holy and sacred places for the first time in many cavernous years. As he reminisced about sprinting toward that Wall his eyes caught fire and the weathered lines of his face hinted at a thousand stories.
As I sat in front of the Western Wall I couldn’t help but think of a similar time in Jewish history when the Jews were reunited with something exceedingly sacred. Only this time they weren’t returning to what was holy, rather what was holy was returning to them. In Nehemiah 8, after the Israelites had resettled in Jerusalem, after the people had presented their papers of authenticity, the walls were strong, the cattle producing, the economy fledgling, something profound was still missing. Perhaps you could say it was everything. It was The Book of the Law of Moses (the first 5 books of the OT).
In front of the Water Gate, which I had been hounding my poor tour guide to see all week, Ezra stood on a wooden platform, and began to read to the men, women and children—anyone who could understand, it says—the very words of God given to the Jewish people. For the first time since having been in exile, the Jews heard God’s Law to them. The people wept until Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites implored them to rejoice and hold a feast because the Word of God had returned to Jerusalem!
How often my Bible sits unopened because life is busy, or the iPhone is more pressing, or I’ve got ministry to do. The Water Gate reminded me that the collection of those first five books of the Old Testament were life to the Jews. How much more should the whole counsel of God, from Genesis to Revelation, be for our very life and breath?
During our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Immersed in Jewish Culture
The joy of conversing with our Jewish tour guides, and now new friends, was perhaps the biggest surprise for me. While the two guides I grew to know best are not followers of Jesus Christ, they cast beautiful light on my understanding of My Savior by virtue of their traditions and religious practices and knowledge of the Old Testament. They were downright delightful, witty and astoundingly knowledgeable. Our conversations were stimulating, and I hope they will allow me to mine the depths of their hearts and understanding in the years to come.
While we have distinctly different and disparate views of how Jesus fits (or doesn’t, they might say) into their belief systems, they were gracious in allowing me to claim them and their people as my spiritual roots. We shared much in common as we conversed and broke bread together. My prayer is that one day together we will share the eternal bread, the Bread of Life.
Praying by the Wailing Wall. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Seeing the New Testament in Light of the Old
I’ve always adored the Old Testament, partly because I love story. The narratives of love and jealousy, sibling rivalry, wealthy kings and humble servants who sometimes trade places, doubt, faith, sinful and flawed human beings being used by Almighty God, plot twists… have captivated my heart from my earliest years. In more recent times I’ve deeply appreciated how the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms speak of Jesus and point toward the New Testament. Being in Israel helped me put more of this together.
When I was first learning to play the guitar I practiced forming a handful of chords. I’d play them over and over trying my best to change swiftly and accurately from one chord to the other. Eventually I learned how to take the same chords I already knew and string them together in a certain order and rhythm so I could play my favorite songs. Chords became music. In summary, that’s what this trip to Israel did for me. It took what I already knew about Scripture and formed those sometimes fragmented chords of knowledge into a song. For those who believe the Old and New Testaments of the Bible it’s a song of Redemption. A song about Jesus. For Israel and all the nations of the world.
Paige and I leading worship on Mount Olives. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Entry sign for the Garden of Gethsemane. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Sharing a message on Mount Precipice. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Enjoying the view on top of Masada. Photo Credit: Hannah Smith
Photo Credit: Hannah Smith Photography