In the immortal words of the great philosopher Stephen Tyler, “I’m back!” And, let me tell you, it is great to be here. I loved my time in Israel, but as Toto and his little friend reminded us, “There’s no place like home.” I know that every one of you is anxiously waiting for me to give you a literary slide show of the beauty and significance of each place that I visited, followed by a several page soliloquy of what it all meant to me. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to disappoint you. I, too, have had the experience of being trapped in a living room watching a slide show of someone else’s vacation, only keeping my sanity by trying to discern patterns in the gold flecks in the popcorn ceiling (by the way, if you’re the one who made me endure the fascinating visual narrative of your Mediterranean cruise, you have a narwhal eating a cheeseburger right above your love seat). Based on just the average modicum of human kindness housed within my heart, I will not do that to you. Instead, I am going to give you a few highlights housed within four categories. Hopefully, that will make this at least tolerable. If it doesn’t, set your device’s accessibility to allow spoken content, then write down in the comments section what you discover in your own ceiling as your computer reads this blog post out loud.
“Reality” became my key word as I viewed the sites in Israel. The distance of time and culture can sometimes separate us from the historical nature of the Bible. When you are in the Holy Land, however, the actuality of the events you have only read about is solidified. There were two locations where this particularly hit me.
First, in Capernaum, we visited Peter’s house. Our guide, Eli, would regularly rank the probability of the places we visited between a 1 and a 3 – 1 means this is definitely the correct location (Masada, the Temple Mount, the town of Magdala); 3 means it is very unlikely the real deal (Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Upper Room). Peter’s house ranked a 1.5, so it is very likely the spot. Archaeological excavation has uncovered the actual walls and flooring of this ancient building. This means that I was gazing into the house that Jesus considered to be His home away from home – the base of all His operations. As I half-listened to Eli, my mind was taken away picturing Jesus’ bare feet walking across the cold stones on an early morning. I visualized Him and Peter sitting on the smoothed benches talking about fishing or joking about Thomas or thinking through how to break it to Peter’s wife that they were about to hit the road again. That moment put flesh and bones and rock and dust to the Word of God.
Second, we visited the Elah Valley where David fought Goliath (which is a 1 in Eli’s ranking system). I had pictured the two hills and the dividing flatland very differently. In my mind it was all kind of barren and brown. Instead, that whole area located a distance south of Jerusalem is lush and green, and the valley was filled with freshly plowed farm land. It is also much wider than I had pictured. However, despite it being different than I had thought, it all fit the story so perfectly. It wasn’t difficult to visualize the armies camped on top of the hills, then the two figures – one great and one small – having their confrontation in the valley below. Sunday School stories become Sunday School history in the Holy Land.
It isn’t just the reality of history that is confirmed in Israel, but the truth of God’s future plans. Again, there were two moments when this was driven home. First was when we were driving along the Dead Sea, traveling from Masada toward Jerusalem. There is a passage in Ezekiel 47 that describes in the Millennium when water will flow from under the temple and eventually reach the Dead Sea. So much water will pour out that ultimately this fresh water will bring life back to that salty body in which no fish could previously survive. As we drove, the water was to our right and cliffs were to our left. Suddenly, there was an opening in the cliffs through which we could see a rocky ascension. “This,” announced Eli, “is the place where the rainwater collected in the Kidron Valley outside of Jerusalem pours out into Dead Sea. Thus, this is where the fresh water from the temple will pour out from our left bringing life to this dead water on our right.” In that moment, the physical and practical reality of that prophecy became very real. Actual water will flow through actual valleys and will actually pour out bringing actual life to this barren body.
The second moment was when I first caught sight of the walled old city of Jerusalem. I’ve seen it many times before, but this was the first time I saw it with the eyes of biblical prophecy. It was not just the glory, the battles, the victories, and the devastation of centuries past, but the amazing future of this city. This is where devastation to the Jewish nation will once again occur, where a new temple will be raised, where the Antichrist will betray the nation, where Jesus will physically return, and where He will reign for one thousand years. Again, it was the reality, the physicality, the actuality – right in front of my eyes.
As I anticipated the trip, there were three sites that I was most excited to visit. I wanted to see the new excavations at Magdala, the southern steps to the temple (where you can walk on the actual stones on which Jesus stepped), and the Garden tomb. Of those three, I was able to see only Magdala.
I had my plans and God had His. Guess whose plans won out? Amir Tsarfati (the founder of Behold Israel – the ministry which brought my dad and me on the trip) and I had begun working on his third book. I’m the guy that takes all his amazing teachings and puts them into book form. We were planning on spending a few evenings while I was there to put some final touches on the book outline we had put together. When we got to Masada, he asked if I would be willing to skip going up to the mountain fortress so we could meet about the book. I’d been up there a couple times before, so that was no issue. As we began working, it became evident that the Holy Spirit was leading us in a very different direction that we had originally planned. The problem was that we wanted to submit a final outline to the publisher by Friday, and this was Wednesday. There was no way that we could meet our deadline if I were to continue on the tour.
So, when we got to Jerusalem Wednesday night, we checked into where we were staying, and I didn’t end up leaving the hotel again until we checked out Saturday morning. Amir and I met together all day Thursday, then I stayed behind again on Friday to put onto paper all that we had talked about. While it was disappointing to miss the old city of Jerusalem, it was obvious that God had another plan. And I’m so thankful that He did. What the Lord poured out into us those few days turned into an outline for an amazing book. In fact, we submitted it to our publisher, Harvest House, on Friday and by Monday they had sent an email back to Amir with a contract attached.
We have our plans. God’s plans are always better. We just have to remain flexible. I had seen Jerusalem several times before. While I would have liked to see it again, I was okay missing it. The Holy Spirit had something greater in mind than some sight-seeing. Besides, I know that there will come a day in the future when I, along with the rest of the Church, will get to know that city very, very well.
My dad and I were asked to participate in this Pastors Tour of Israel in the role of pastor to the pastors. In other words, we were asked to be there to encourage, teach, and counsel the other pastors as needed. The first few days there were a number of opportunities to fulfill this role with these wonderful church leaders gathered from ten different countries. But what was very exciting to see was the gradual irrelevancy of our pastor to the pastors role. 20-plus couples from the U.S., Romania, France, South Africa, the Netherlands, Russia, Latvia, Canada, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Oregon (which is rapidly becoming its own separate, weird little country) all started as total strangers, but by the third day were one big family. The pastors began pastoring each other – listening to each other, blessing each other, building each other up. I was never so happy to be unneeded. My dad still did some great teaching, but that became more with small groups during the meals and through posting great charts and mind-maps in our tour’s group chat. But as for loving on each other, they took care of that just fine. That is the joy of being part of God’s family. There are no strangers – just brothers and sisters that you haven’t yet met.
All in all, it was a wonderful tour. Some of my most memorable times were those special moments alone with God. I purposely kept my internal time clock a few hours off, so I would crash at 9-10pm each night and be up by 3am each morning. After taking a quick shower, I’d go down to the empty lobby and have my time with God. Then I’d start working until dawn was just breaking, at which time I’d go outside and watch the sky slowly lighten until the sun would finally break over the horizon. That was when my soul was refreshed – just God, me, and the Sea of Galilee (sounds like the beginning of a bad ‘70s Christian folk song). Thank you to my wonderful church for allowing me the time to go. Thanks to Behold Israel for footing the bill. It’s impossible to leave the Holy Land unchanged – I am no exception.