As I reflect on a much-anticipated study tour of Israel, I am conscious more than ever that this is God’s land.
Partially thwarted by security alerts both in the north and south, we nevertheless experienced the miracle of modern Israel in the context of its connection to an ancient and glorious past on a tour run by Shoresh (Hebrew for ‘root’), part of the work of the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish people (CMJ), which has been established in this region since the 1840s.
Our journey followed a biblical route via the wilderness through which the Israelites wandered for 40 years after escaping from slavery in Egypt when the sea opened up to make a way where there was no other way.
We marvelled at how, some 3,500 years ago, that vast multitude survived in these arid conditions, with water scarce and vegetation hardly visible. No wonder they needed manna from heaven, and water from the rock. It was designed to teach them to trust in the Lord – for “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”. (Matthew 4.4)
Even today Bedouin shepherds watch over their sheep in this desert, leading from the front, not behind. It is an extremely dangerous environment for sheep – especially at night, with steep ravines, rock faces and sink-holes waiting to catch them off guard, not to mention wolves and other predators.
So they need to stay close to the shepherd in order to hear his voice above all others, and so avoid falling into traps and being taken captive by deceitful hirelings.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus taught his disciples (John 10.27).
We travelled through the vast and magnificent Wilderness of Zin, stretching as far as the eye can see. Surely God is in this place. Indeed, he is our only sure refuge in the great wilderness of sin through which we travel in an increasingly wicked world that has turned its back on the living God.
At the Dead Sea, we are reminded of the ultimate fate of those who pursue unrighteousness and licentiousness – the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are no more, buried in salt after being destroyed by fire and brimstone.
It’s fun floating on the water there, at 1,200ft-below-sea-level the lowest point on earth, as salt also has a positive role in lifting you up to a higher place. We are called to be salt of the earth in raising the standards of the communities and institutions in which we live and move.
As we ascended the hills of Galilee, our excellent guide explained how sheep cut the grass as they graze while goats pull it out by the roots. I thought of the separation of the sheep and goats at the end of the age (Matthew 25.31-46). The sheep feed on fresh pasture as they closely follow the Shepherd while the goats, thinking only of their present needs, cut themselves off from the roots of their faith by considering Israel forsaken by God.
At Caesarea Philippi, we see why Jesus asked the question, “Who do men say that I am?” For there are remains of temples to idols along with a huge cave in an overhanging cliff said at the time to have been the gate to Hades (Hell). So Simon Peter made his great confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16.16) And Jesus adds that on this confession of faith he would build his church (body of believers), and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it.
On the shores of Lake Galilee, we stand on the beach where the risen Christ cooked breakfast for his disciples, who had toiled all night for a catch of fish, to no avail. He told them to cast their net on the other side of the boat, and they landed 153 fish. And we learn that, in Jewish tradition, the numerical value of this figure adds up to the statement, “I am God.”
Jesus asks Peter, restored and forgiven of his earlier denial: “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21.15) Could it be that he was referring to the fish (i.e. his business) rather than his fellow disciples? Are we prepared to forsake all else in order to follow the Lord’s leading?
But disturbing news followed in our wake. We heard of Hamas terrorists killed in the bombing of a tunnel into Israel from Gaza in the south, and of a suicide bombing in a Druze village across the border in Syria, naturally also affecting the Druze community within Israel.
This caused a long delay at a checkpoint coming out of Palestinian territory and meant missing part of the tour schedule, including the area where Paul had his dramatic encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.
Just 70 years since being recognized as a re-born state by the United Nations, Israel has developed into a powerful, high-tech democracy now with the world’s second strongest currency after Jews returned from every corner of the globe in fulfilment of ancient prophecies.
But it remains threatened both from without and within – in the latter case largely through lack of trust in the God of Israel. The Bible says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20.7)
This was soon to become a personal challenge, but before I explain, let me say that Jewish people are beginning to discover the truth about their Messiah (known as Yeshua in Hebrew). A Jews for Jesus survey has found that an astonishing 20% of Jewish Millennials, when asked who they considered Jesus to be, replied that he was “the Son of God”.
One day soon he is coming back. The Bible says he will stand upon the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem (Acts 1.11, Zechariah 14.4) and all Israel will recognize him as their Saviour (Zech 12.10, Romans 11.26).
As I stood on the Mt of Olives, with an awesome view of the city before me, I reflected on this amazing event – on how Jesus ascended from this very place and will return in like manner. But I also thought of how much it cost him, how he sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane below, with its ancient olive trees symbolic of the Messiah, who was whipped for our transgressions (sticks are used to beat the fruit off at harvest) and crushed for our iniquities, as olives are crushed for their oil. (Isaiah 53.4-6)
We know the Bible is true, and that Jesus fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies of Messiah. So too will the much-prophesied great spiritual ingathering of God’s chosen people take place in the coming days. God has not forsaken them, but loves them with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31.3).
And just as he has not finished with Israel, he is apparently not yet finished with our tour, which was unexpectedly extended when I was prevented from boarding my El Al flight home – because of not having a visa in my South African passport. The British government is now fining airlines allowing ‘foreigners’ to enter the UK without a visa. The fact that I have lived in England for nearly 50 years doesn’t seem to count.
I won’t dwell on the details of the stress involved in having to re-organize our lives over this past week. Suffice to say that we too (my wife Linda and I) do not put our ultimate trust in flying chariots or horses, but in the Lord our God, who clearly has a purpose for our extended stay.
Our first extra night was something of an emergency stop, because it was close to the British Embassy, in the luxurious surroundings of Tel Aviv’s Herods Hotel, where we were given a champagne reception on being handed the keys to our $300 a night room. This was somewhat ironic in view of our pilgrimage as Herod, who also enjoyed the high life, was no friend of the Messiah!
Thankfully we have since temporarily settled in nearby Jaffa, known as Joppa in biblical times and famous for Jonah and the whale and for Peter’s vision in the house of Simon the Tanner which opened the way for the gospel being shared with the Gentiles. How eternally grateful we are for that – and so here we are sharing with the Jewish people the precious gift they passed on to us so long ago. May they be truly blessed with Yeshua’s perfect peace!
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon, and Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com