Having lived in a ‘bubble’ during a lengthy tour of Israel visiting sites connected with the gospel that has changed the world, it came as a shock to re-enter the atmosphere of nations in turmoil – Germany in trouble, Mugabe finally deposed in Zimbabwe and Britain continuing to fight both internal and external battles in the wake of Brexit.
There is perhaps a message in this strange transition – the countries in difficulty have been built largely on a Judeo-Christian ethos, but have begun to cast off its ‘shackles’ in favour of a no-holds-barred secular humanist system.
The last ten days of our four-week trip was spent at Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, an old port city known in Bible times as Joppa, where the Apostle Peter had a vision that brought the good news of Jesus to the entire Gentile world. He was staying at Simon the Tanner’s house (which is still there) and was resting on the rooftop when he fell into a trance and saw a vision of all kinds of animals including those regarded as unclean by Jews.
This was not, as some suppose, a license to eat pork, but a supernatural message that he was not to regard Gentiles as being unworthy of God’s love. It coincided with a similar encounter experienced by a Roman centurion called Cornelius in the coastal city of Caesarea, some 40 miles north. Cornelius was a god-fearing man who loved the Jews, and an angel appeared to him saying that his prayers had been heard and he was to send for a man called Peter, who was staying with Simon the Tanner at his house by the sea. The rest is history.
Cornelius and his extended family heard the triumphant message of the gospel and were filled with the Holy Spirit, just as the Jewish disciples had been on the Day of Pentecost. This opened the door for the good news to spread across the nations, bringing kindness, compassion and justice with it which helped to establish a powerful force known as Western civilization.
Tragically, the Jewish people were exiled throughout the world within a generation of Jesus’ death and resurrection after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and massacred many of its inhabitants. And Christians eventually translated the Bible into hundreds of languages, further enabling the gospel to spread. But God had not forgotten the people with whom he had made an unbreakable covenant and, in fulfillment of many ancient prophecies, the scattered seed of Abraham finally took root in the Promised Land after nearly 2,000 years.
Just as the gospel was originally ‘exported’ from Joppa, so it has now become a re-entry point for Jews – not only coming back to the land, but in being restored to their Lord.
My stay there was unplanned as I was initially prevented from returning to the UK due to new restrictions on ‘foreigners’ like me. Though South African-born and still a citizen of that country (my wife is British), I have lived in England for nearly 50 years. Yet I now apparently need a visa – though an inked stamp in an old passport sent over by neighbours eventually proved sufficient!
We stayed in a guesthouse which also hosts two Messianic congregations (Jews who follow Jesus) as well as a music school led by a former director of the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a very moving experience to witness hands and eyes lifted to the skies in adoration of the Lord in a revived form of ancient Hebrew as we worshipped together on a Friday night – the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Headsets were provided for Russian members and English visitors like us.
Committed to the spiritual restoration of Israel, this peaceful oasis is perfectly placed to go some way towards achieving this divine goal, with its great potential for reaching out to Greater Tel Aviv where almost half the country’s Jewish population lives. The whole ethos of the place beats loudly with a heart of love for the largely lost world around them, who find welcome, warmth and hospitality in this gem of an international community steeped in history and within a short walk of some of the most significant sites in biblical history, not to mention magnificent beaches.
Life in Tel Aviv is tough, rough and expensive! I watched poor people struggling as they waited in the swamp of a filthy launderette while others begged for food and wandered the streets with no apparent hope. But there are also swanky high-rise hotels and a bustling downtown area overshadowed by skyscrapers, with many indulging in a hedonistic lifestyle of clubs and coffee bars. But they are living in a bubble, afraid to confront reality.
I met one of them at the airport, a charming young lady commuting between London and Tel Aviv, confessing to being a ‘secular Jew’ yet listening with interest when I shared of our study tour learning about the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. She admitted to being shocked when she left her ‘bubble’ to visit friends in the north who lived within the sound of exploding bombs across the border in Syria where violence continues to rage. But even in Tel Aviv the mangled wreck of a beachside café stands as a stark reminder of the constant threat facing its inhabitants – a bloody terror attack killed 21 mainly young people enjoying a night out there just three months before 9/11.
Although in general we sensed an atmosphere of profound peace throughout our tour, there were a couple of incidents to remind us of the conflict that has raged here ever since the Jews began returning to the land. The IDF bombing of a Hamas terror tunnel raised a security alert as the organization had promised vengeance, and the suicide bombing in a Druze village just across the border in Syria caused another alarm – and a long wait at a checkpoint.
The resettling of Jews in Israel following their long exile is very reminiscent of the time of Nehemiah 2,500 years ago when they returned from 70 years in Babylon. Nehemiah was given authority by King Artaxerxes of Persia to restore the broken walls of Jerusalem, but his work was strongly opposed by others in the surrounding lands. Now the Jews have returned once more to the Promised Land, and yet again they face fierce opposition. Nehemiah’s men built the walls using one hand for construction and the other to hold a weapon – exactly as Israel has developed since the birth of the modern state as ancient ruins have been rebuilt, barren wastes have been richly cultivated and wars have been won against all odds.
When, in Nehemiah’s time, the city was finally rebuilt and made secure, Ezra was assigned to read the Book of the Law, as a result of which the people repented of how far they had strayed from God’s rule. And now Jewish people are returning to the Lord once more in fulfillment of ancient prophecies, with Jeremiah adding that there will come a day when they will all know the Lord, “from the least of them to the greatest”. (Jer 31.34)
If Jews are thus turning back to God, it means the return of Jesus is that much closer. (Zechariah 12.10 & 14.4, Romans 11.26) But what of the nations to whom the gospel was graciously given? Will they be among the sheep or the goats on Judgment Day? (See Matthew 25.31-46) On the closing page of the Bible, Jesus says: “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon, and Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com