We returned from an 11-day trip to Israel this past Saturday (February 22). I wanted to share a few thoughts and memories, while they’re still fresh.
I first went to Israel in 2014. It was a trip led by a teacher in my uncle’s church, an American man who has a lot of experience and expertise in the Holy Land. I didn’t know anyone in my group before the trip started, but enjoyed getting to know them (many were from the same church, but welcomed me). We did it as cheaply as possible, staying in a hostel and preparing some of our own meals. We woke up every morning very early and were out the door before dawn, walking fast from site to site. I got lots of exercise, very little sleep, and I saw tons of great things. I never thought I’d have an opportunity to return.
This trip was quite different. This time, I wasn’t simply a learner; I was leading a group from my own church. Our tour company brought my entire family along with me, so my wife and kids were able to experience Israel too. It was beyond amazing to share this with them. We stayed in hotels, so I slept pretty well, and ate waaaaaaay more than I should have. We didn’t cover as much ground as our group did six years ago, but we spent more time in some locations, and saw some things I didn’t see before. Our guide, Aviv, was wonderful. He’s a young guy, but very passionate about making sure people have a great experience in his homeland. His knowledge of Scripture and doctrine, along with his excellent communication skills and care for our group, made the trip amazing. George and Diane, our hosts from the tour company, went above and beyond the call of duty to take care of our group as well. I didn’t know if it was possible before, but now I can definitively say: This time was even more special than the first.
Here’s a brief look at our itinerary:
Days one and two: We landed in Tel Aviv at night. Aviv was there to meet us. The next morning, Moshe our bus driver took us to Caesarea, where we explored the city Herod built to impress the Romans (He named it after Caesar, after all), with its aqueduct, bathhouses, theater, palace built on the shore of the Mediterranean, and the harbor from which Paul sailed to be tried in Rome. This was the city where the Gospel was first preached to Gentiles, by Peter. We ate lunch at a restaurant run by a Druze family. We visited Mt Carmel, where Elijah took on the prophets of Baal. We made it to Nazareth just before sundown, so we could enjoy a look over the city from a nearby hill.
Day three: We drove to the Sea of Galilee, where we visited the traditional site of Sermon on the Mount, walked through Capernaum and Magdala, and took a boat ride (more on that later). Our lunch was fish, naturally. We ended our day at the Jordan River.
Day four: We had a walking tour of Nazareth, including the Church of the Anunciation, the Orthodox Church, and a visit to a shop in the marketplace, where the owner shared stories with us of life as an Israeli Christian. My family and I had some amazing kebabs for lunch, then we all went to Nazareth Village, a recreation of what the city was like in biblical times.
Day five: We left our Nazareth hotel and journeyed to Jerusalem. Along the way, we stopped at Megiddo and Beth Shan. In Jericho, Moshe pulled over for a bathroom break, and several people (including my wife) paid $5 each to ride a camel. That wasn’t on my bucket list. We got to the Old City in the evening. My family and I decided to do some exploring. We made it to the Western Wall, which is spectacular to see by night.
Day six: We walked through the Old City, visiting the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the pool of Bethesda, the tower of David, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Day seven was a free day in Jerusalem. My family chose to visit the Herodian Quarter, which contains ruins of a neighborhood near the Second Temple in Jesus’ time. We also found St Mark’s Syrian Orthodox church, one of two possible sites of the upper room, and walked atop the walls of the Old City (Will’s favorite thing of the week).
Day eight: This was our only bad weather day…it was cold and drizzly. We drove up the Mount of Olives, two miles outside the walls, where we saw the traditional site of Christ’s ascension, and an olive grove that may have been the Garden of Gethsemane (some of the olive trees date back that far). We drove to Bethlehem, stopping first at the Shepherd’s Field church outside the city, and then visiting the Church of the Nativity.
Day nine: We drove to the Dead Sea, where we stopped at Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, then took a cable car up to Herod’s mountain fortress, Masada. We finished the day by soaking in the Dead Sea itself.
Day ten: Our last full day in Israel, we spent in the Old City again, visiting Mt Zion, David’s tomb, another presumed site of the Upper Room (where a group of charismatic Christians held a spontaneous worship service). We visited the Garden Tomb, where we shared communion. We tried to witness worship at an Armenian church, but just missed it.
I could write paragraphs about every single experience and location, but here are a few highlights and thoughts:
The Old City: Jerusalem is a modern major city with all the trappings you expect: Culture, shopping, diverse neighborhoods, traffic. But inside that metropolis is a walled city that has existed for thousands of years. I’ve just about decided it’s my favorite place on earth. The Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian. Each has its own unique personality. On Friday, we saw Muslims shut down all their shops and walk to the noon prayer service, then a few hours later, saw Jews gather at the Western Wall, singing and dancing at the beginning of their Sabbath. We saw people from all over the world there: We met tons of Koreans, including in our hotel. Once they left, a group of Italians took their place. But what I love most is the history. It’s a small enough area that you can walk across it in twenty minutes, but I feel like I could spend months there and never see it all.
Nazareth: Six years ago, I spent a few hours in the city where Jesus grew up. This time, we spent three days there. Most Nazareth residents today are Arab, not Jewish, including a significant Christian minority. Like everywhere else we visited, most speak English, and they are extremely hospitable. The Nazareth Village that we visited is run by a Christian ministry. Our guide was a young British man who is married to a Palestinian Christian. The presentation was so well done, we took up a collection and purchased a brick in the church’s name to help with their future plans for expansion.
The Sea of Galilee: We had a memorable time on our boat tour. It was already a windy day, but when we got out on the water, it started to gust. At times, the water would sweep over the side and spray us. Our captain was a Jewish Christian who was sharing his story with us through music, but he had to cut it short. He handed me the microphone at one point. I hadn’t expected that, so I asked everyone to imagine Jesus stilling the storm. I said, “Peace! Be still!” It didn’t work. No one was surprised. Nor did anyone attempt to walk on the water.
Beit Sahour: That’s the name of the village where the Shepherd’s Field church is located; it means “House of Shepherds” in Arabic. Because Bethlehem and Beit Sahour are in territories governed by the Palestinian Authority, Aviv wasn’t allowed to serve as our guide. Instead, he turned the mic over to Rafa, a resident of Beit Sahour and a Christian. From Rafa, we learned not only about what life was like for the shepherds long ago, but what it’s like for Christians like him today in the West Bank.
Magdala and Masada: These were two places I didn’t see last time. Magdala was a prosperous village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time. We assume it’s where Mary Magdalene was from. The ruins of the city were found ten years ago by accident, when a church tried to build a guest house on the site. There is a synagogue there where, quite likely, Jesus spoke. Masada was Herod’s clifftop fortress overlooking the desert. Going up that cable car, I had to suppress my fear of heights, but it was worth it. Standing up there, you get a sense of Herod’s insecurity and paranoia, and his tendency to show off his wealth. In the last stages of the Jewish war with Rome, in the lifetime of most of the apostles, a gang of Hebrew rebels made their last stand here against the Romans (some of us are old enough to remember the mini-series about this, starring Peter O’ Toole).
Tourism is booming in Israel. When I scheduled this trip, I knew it would be cold, but I thought it would also be fairly quiet, since the peak season is March-April. But everywhere we went, we saw huge tour groups. It was a little annoying at times. Sites I had enjoyed six years ago as quiet, contemplative spots were now packed (The Garden Tomb was a perfect example). Aviv confirmed that tourism has grown in Israel lately. There has been a long stretch of peace in Israel (the last major violence, the Second Intifada, was nearly twenty years ago), and he thinks that has something to do with it. I’m happy to see that people are visiting Israel in greater numbers today, even if it made our visit more hectic.
Politics here are complicated, but people are good. If you watch the news, you may think you understand the political situation here, but you don’t. Americans, both on the right and the left, have a tendency to see things here in terms of good guys and bad guys, but after hearing from both Aviv and Rafa, two men on different sides of the racial and religious divide, we know it’s more complicated than that. Are there still tensions? Absolutely. Aviv let us know the places in Israel that tourists should not visit. When we were on the Temple Mount, we had to follow strict rules to keep from offending the various groups who hold that site as holy. There is still a wall between the West Bank and Jerusalem, and still plenty of rifle-bearing soldiers patrolling the Old City. But we encountered nothing but kindness from Jews, Muslims and Christians. Many in our group were unaware that most of the Christians in Israel are Arab, but thanks to our Nazareth shopkeeper and our Bethlehem guide, we now know two. The politics here are definitely complicated, but we learned there are good people on both sides of that wall.
Israelis love fried chicken: In Nazareth, we passed a building with a long line of people waiting patiently to get in. Was this some holy site? Not exactly. It was the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in Israel. I can only imagine how much they would love Chick Fil A. By the way, if someone reading this decides to start their own Chick Fil A in Israel, I want a percentage of the profits!
Most Christians will never go to Israel…and that’s okay. I feel extremely blessed to get to visit Israel, especially twice. I felt a bit guilty about it, in fact. Most Christians will never have that chance. Few have the time, the money, AND the health for it (Much of Israel is very hilly and not wheelchair-accessible). If you possess all three, then I recommend you go. If, for instance, you are trying to decide whether to visit Hawaii or Israel, by all means, go to Israel. But if not, remember this: We call Israel the Holy Land because it’s where so many biblical events took place. But it is not “holy” in any spiritual sense. Islam has a teaching called hajj, in which visiting Mecca is part of one’s duty to God. There is no such doctrine in the Bible. In other words, God is not more present in Israel than He is in Conroe. Wherever you are, if you seek Him you will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13), and that makes wherever you are potentially The Holy Land.
And don’t forget, my Christian friend. When Jesus returns, there will be a New Earth. Even if you never visit Jerusalem in this life, you will have all of eternity to visit the New Jerusalem in the next. Hallelujah!