Returning from our recent Israel tour, my mind was crowded with impressions. As I write this, a sort of spiritual roadmap is still forming in my thoughts. There are changing scenes of people and places. I had the opportunity to experience special fellowship with a number of faithful Christians. Each of them had come to catch a glimpse of Scripture as they interacted with the windblown and dusty reality of the Holy Land. They, too, were drawing their own spiritual roadmaps.
Echoing the tour, prophetic Scripture wells up into my consciousness from time to time, reminding me once again how deeply the Word is connected to this blessed Land, from Abraham, Moses and Joshua, David, then Jesus in the time of the Romans and Herodians, and rolling forward to the present, with its thousands of tourists speaking hundreds of languages. I ask myself, “Why are they drawn here? Are there that many Bible-believers in the world?” Walking and watching, I had made my pilgrimage, and now seek perspective.
A pilgrimage is a trip, as Webster’s New Third International Dictionary puts it, “… a journey of a pilgrim; esp.: one to a shrine or a sacred place.” There is no more sacred place on planet Earth than Israel – centered as it is, on the heights of Jerusalem, the focal point of biblical history that dates back four thousand years to the time of Abraham.
There is only one book in this world that can serve as a dependable guide to this place, and it also just happens to be the book that defines God’s redemptive plan for his holy people … Jew and Gentile. And so, with my timeworn Bible in my shoulder bag and accompanied by wife, associates, friends and too much luggage, we had left for the Holy Land.
The journey began well, but soon jolted us with one of the many realities of international travelling: For reasons known only to God and certain obscure administrators, JFK International Airport was closed. Sunday morning, March 15th, as we departed, we had expected to make connections there for Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Suddenly, in Atlanta, we were confronted with a new alternative. We would fly from Atlanta to Amsterdam (not JFK, as expected) then to Israel. What would have been twenty hours of flight was instantly converted to almost two days of sitting in airports at Atlanta and Amsterdam before flying to our final destination.
Others on the tour had arrived ahead of us at a beautiful kibbutz hotel in Galilee, enjoying fantastic weather and amazing sights. We sat … and sat … in airports, watching the passing of frantic masses as they tried their best to make connecting flights. I suppose it was then, for the first time, that I realized that we were really pilgrims, in the true sense of the word. Thousands before us had endured the rigors of “going up to Jerusalem.” Now, we could get some idea of what they had gone through. Not really, of course. Many of them had truly suffered. Modern transportation has made travel merely painful and inconvenient, and that, only for a few hours. I should not complain. Tired and hungry, we arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in the dark hours of early morning, then were whisked to the aforementioned lodging in Galilee.
In a flash, a panorama unfolded before us. We were instantly enveloped in an atmosphere … a presence. You can’t be on that historic seashore without thinking of those ancient fishermen who became disciples, then Apostles. Fishing, the ultimate metaphor for Christian conversion, is a vision that thrives there in the very air. The climatic volatility is alive with ancient sights and memories. The slightest meteorological changes evoke a variety of biblical scenes. From my prospect, high in the west, Mount Arbel towered above. The Golan heights loomed on the distant eastern shore. Looking slightly northward, Capernaum could just be made out. Floating on the sea itself, one is engulfed in emotion. Our tour boarded a boat, and as we took in the moving sights and sounds there was hardly a dry eye to be seen.
Two thousand years later, fishermen still launch from tiny towns and cities. One of the names of this place is the Sea of Tiberias, as it is called in John 21, in perhaps the most poignant of all Bible scenes, as Peter’s net was filled with fish … foretelling the work of the Gospel. Not to mention an intimate conversation with Jesus.
Nearby was a museum, where we saw the “Jesus Boat,” as it is called … abandoned in the first century, lying underwater in the mud for two thousand years, until recently, when it was miraculously excavated and restored. Now, it silently testifies that the biblical scenes, alive in our thoughts, are not all that far away. One can still almost see Peter standing on its planks and casting his net on the right side, as Jesus directed.
Soon, we transferred to Jerusalem. There, our hotel was located near Mt. Scopas, affording a view of the Temple Mount, with its emblematic but alien golden dome. On our first venture out, we saw Qumran, Masada and the various unique features of the Dead Sea.
At every juncture of the pilgrimage, I silently asked myself, “Why am I here?” Recalling the months that preceded it, I was constantly struck with the thought that I didn’t really have the time to make this trip. Immersed in the process of founding a new prophetic ministry; overseeing many of the details of its rapid growth; planning articles and programs, I was already exhausted. All of us were overwhelmed. And now, pushing my aging and sedentary body, I hiked forward on the tour … a series of short journeys on foot, mostly up and down steep hills … praying for energy, health and strength. That prayer, I must say, was granted.
On the morning of March 20th, we began our walk at Beth El … perhaps one of the most inspiring places on earth, where relics and ruins take one by stages back to Abraham, and a significant number of biblical events. Aaron Lipkin did a masterful job there, recounting the history whose shadows fill this place.
Nearing noon, we arrived at Shiloh, and viewed a solar eclipse (it was partial over Israel), conveniently visible through a thin layer of cloud! We excitedly noted that it took place on the eve of the first day of Nisan, of the Jewish calendar year of 5775. This began a fourteen-day countdown to Passover, at which time, there would be a total Lunar eclipse … part of the blood moon tetrad so much in the news lately!
The next day – Saturday – Shabbat – came the Israel Museum and the Garden Tomb.
After that, Sunday, we toured the Herodion (much hiking!), followed by Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs. We were all staggered by the riches and self-aggrandizement of the evil monarch.
On Monday, the tour turned back to Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the Temple Institute. If only these halls, tunnels and grounds could speak! But, thinking about it … they do. The clashes of the Romans, Herodians and Jewish authorities still ring here, echoing history in a way that must be felt. Two thousand year old broken stones littered broken streets, as if they had fallen yesterday.
It is not a settled feeling that follows one through these places. The faces of every nationality and the constant clicking of cameras tell us of one thing: There is something powerful and unresolved here. These historic hills, walls and gates remind us of something incalculably powerful: “His foundation is in the holy mountains. 2 The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. 3 Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God. Selah” [Ps. 87:1-3]. Somehow – though it is often denied – the Lord is a close, discernable presence here. He loves this place, and He is watching.
Tuesday, we hiked the Western Wall Tunnel, then went to the city of David, lying to the south, below the huge platform with its two mosques. Many made the soggy trek through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. David built his palace here, and his city was the spiritual center of the world. Unfortunately, greed and apostasy overwhelmed the holy places. From the Babylonian captivity, through the days of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty, David’s city was time and again reduced to rubble. After the Roman era, it was left crushed again. Still, his Kingdom’s best days lie in the future, with the coming of the Messiah to rule and reign. Amazing evidence is being unearthed here. While touring, one’s thinking is crowded with contemplations such as these.
By this time, the “Why am I here?” question had resolved itself into the powerful imperative of the Land and its people. There is a spiritual quality here that dwells in the very air one breathes. Our tour leader – a religious Jew with a pioneer spirit – sees with eyes that view scenes beyond the horizon. As he speaks of these historic places, his view is trained on the future. There are millions like him, living with a strength of faith that simply defies description. It is perceived as a non-verbal commitment … a determination.
Having visited Israel over three decades ago, I was amazed at what had changed since. Then, there were few tourists. One could walk through the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque without a guide. The Western Wall tunnel had only begun to be excavated.
Today, a chain of national parks at these key historical sites shepherd thousands of tourists, who come from all over the world to catch a glimpse of some anticipated reality in the land of the Patriarchs … and of Jesus. Israel is a giant stage, whose fallen-down props remind one of the great reality play in the distant past. It is the only place where one can stand at the spiritual intersection of past and future, with the assurance that the very stones here speak of the world to come. And wherever you look, there are stones, the very same ones about which Jesus spoke: “And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Lk.19:40).
On Tuesday, March 24th, was our farewell dinner in Jerusalem. To the friends I met, I would say that I watched your faces as we ate the delicious produce of the Land that night. Fruits, vegetables, salads, breads, fish, lamb, beef in profusion. These are gifts of the Lord, Who promised that this place would be blessed in a special way: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose: (Isa. 3:1).
We all realized that we had touched, and been touched by, the physical reality of biblical prophecy. We are all reflections of an event that we’ll not truly understand until we’re with the Lord. I watched you all in varying states of transition back to the “real world.” And I also realized that each of us, in our own way, knew why we had come here.
And regarding the personal question that had haunted me, I discovered that I had come to regain perspective. Book knowledge of the Land is one thing; seeing it alive with prophetic intensity is another. The faith one sees in modern Israel is alive. It is real, as real as our tour guide’s eyes, peering into a not-too-distant future.
Thanks to each of you, with whom I shared significant moments in our common personal pilgrimage. I’ll be writing about what I saw, and continue to see through Scripture. From the regions of Galilee to the giant Argaman footprint near the River Jordan, to the Temple Institute and its hopeful plans, the Bible has been given new power; new emphasis, and the reality of those stones. They still speak, now more loudly than ever.