A couple days ago I shared the article I published with Geeks Under Grace on my pilgrimage to Israel. The article is really long, so here’s a shorter version of it.
The entire time I was in Israel—from when we first landed in Tel Aviv to our many walks throughout the Holy Land—it felt surreal. It was hard to believe my own two feet were touching the ground Jesus walked on. On our bus ride to our first hotel in Netanya, our tour guide, Hela Tamir, quoted two Scriptures I thought about the entire night going into the next day. She first quoted Isaiah 66:8, “Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labour she brought forth her children.” She connected this verse to when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared it the state of Israel on May 15, 1948. As a Messianic Jew who is influenced by dispensational theology, she views this date as the fulfillment of the Isaiah passage. I don’t think Israel becoming a state is a direct fulfillment of this passage, but I do think the historic event reflects God’s words here. After all, as God continues, “Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth? Shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb” (v. 9)? God’s providence may well be the reason for Israel becoming a state. Who are we to decide?
The other passage Hela quoted for us was Isaiah 2:2, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it.” Hela made the claim that we as Gentiles are fulfilling this Scripture by returning to the Holy Land, which, if she’s right, I found to be humbling. Again, I don’t think our coming to Israel is a direct fulfillment of this passage, but I do think our pilgrimage reflects it. As Isaiah continues, “and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3). I think our pilgrimage reflects these prophetic words because we all embarked on our journey to Israel in order to receive further and deeper teaching on God’s ways as we continue to walk on His path. I believe I can speak for everyone in the group when I say we all learnt many things from God in Zion.
The first major site we went to on our first day was a Roman amphitheatre in Caesarea. Here, Hela had us read Acts 10 with a focus on Peter’s vision of the descending sheet. When we read that Cornelius sent his men to Peter in Joppa, Hela told us it is only 60 kilometers away, which is about 37 miles. That’s not very far. I had never realised how short of a travel it was. For some reason I always thought it was a long distance.
Yet what stuck with me most as we read this passage was Peter’s words, “God has shown me I should not call any person common or unclean.” Neither should we. We should never consider someone too unclean—or unworthy—of hearing the Gospel. The Gospel is for all, not something we keep just to ourselves. After all, the word for Gospel is the same word for Good News—εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion). And what do we do with good news? We share it! So why keep it all to ourselves?
I remember a time, not too long ago, when I accidentally brought a Muslim woman to Christ, whose name I will not give for her own protection. We met, and as we talked with each other it became clear to me she was Muslim. Not wanting to face any possible hostility, I had decided not to bring up anything about Christianity or Jesus. Yet the Lord had other plans. As is inevitable when we first meet someone, she asked me what I’m doing for a living. So I was honest and told her I’m a full-time student and didn’t say anything more. Wanting more details, she asked me what I’m studying, so I mentally sighed and told her I’m studying to be a Lutheran pastor. Her next question was surprising, “Can you teach me about Jesus?” Astonished, I happily obliged and gave her the basics about the Fall of Man and why that called for our necessity for a Saviour, how each of us strive to attain salvation on our own especially through works of the Law, how Jesus fulfilled the Law for us, and how His sacrifice was sufficient to cover our sins and thus justifies us by faith. Her next question was even more surprising, “How can Jesus be my Lord and Saviour?” So I prayed with her and continued to have her pray in silence with her own words to confess Jesus as her Lord and Saviour. To this day, this woman is on fire for Christ in a Muslim country that hates Christians.
The next powerful spot for me was Mt. Precipice. The first thing that surprised me the most about Nazareth—and Jerusalem—is how hilly it is! Hela had us read Luke 4:18-30, where Jesus read a scroll from Isaiah claiming He was the One who came not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles, which made the people in the synagogue extremely angry. One thing I hadn’t thought about before for their anger was when Hela said the Jews were expecting to be saved from the tyranny of the Roman Empire, so when Jesus said He came for the Gentiles—which includes these wicked Romans—it’s no wonder they were so angry. Thinking about that for the first time, I can understand their anger. If Jesus’ first coming were today and He said He also came to save people who perform abortion procedures, homosexuals, and other people who disregard His Word, in all fairness I would probably be angry too.
What’s even more interesting is that the text says the people brought Jesus to the hill, so Jesus let them take Him. That hill is very likely Mt. Precipice that we stood on. I once heard the atheistic saying, “Jesus couldn’t have existed because there’s no hill in Nazareth to throw Him off of.” Well, obviously they’ve never been to Nazareth. As I already noted to my astonishment, Nazareth is a very hilly place. The people could’ve easily thrown anybody off Mt. Precipice to their death. So it’s interesting that Jesus let them bring Him to the hill since He obviously knew what they wanted to do with Him, yet, “But passing through their midst, He went away” (Luke 4:30). I always knew this was an amazing feat the other times I’ve read this passage prior to coming on this trip, but as I stood on the high elevation of Mt. Precipice, the feat became more real to me. The people could’ve pushed Jesus off any end of the cliff. He was, after all, outnumbered. Yet He just walks through them as if nothing ever happened. Since Jesus knew they wanted to kill Him, why did He let them take Him in the first place? The text doesn’t say.
Considering the context—Jesus revealing He’s the fulfillment of the One who is to come to the Gentiles—I believe He was demonstrating exactly that. It wasn’t time for Jesus’ death; He still had a mission to accomplish, and that was to reveal Himself to the Gentiles, much like Elijah and Elisha revealed God to the Gentile widow and leper. By walking through the angry crowd, it was as if Jesus were saying, “This is foolishness. I have a ministry to accomplish for these Gentiles I told you about. You cannot stop Me. Move aside.” So by walking through the angry crowd, He wasn’t just showing His power but also His ministry directly founded on His love for us.
The Sea of Galilee was a powerful moment for me as well. Our first night at the kibbutz, I read Matthew 14:22-33 when Peter walked on the Sea of Galilee with Jesus, looked at his surroundings and realised what was happening, doubted, and began to sink. I couldn’t help but think of what a picture of our faith life this is. We’re living by faith, life is going smoothly, walking on water, then we get distracted by the things happening around us and we lose our focus on Christ. Yet when Peter cried out to Jesus, “Lord, save me,” I find the following words incredibly encouraging, “Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him” (Matthew 14:30-31). I find this encouraging and strange because Peter called out to Jesus even though he’s a great swimmer. Peter swam to Jesus when He appeared to the disciples after His resurrection (John 21:7). So why would Peter, a man who’s clearly a great swimmer, call out to Jesus when he falls in the water? Why not just swim back to the boat?
We can make many speculations, and I’ve heard many terrific sermons on the subject, but I like to think it’s because trusting in Jesus’ ability is far better than trusting in our own. We may be able to do it ourselves, but Jesus is capable of doing so much more. Like Peter, when we become distracted and fall, we ought to recognise our complete helplessness without Christ and call out to Him, for He will immediately reach out to us and pull us out of deep waters.
One of my favourite sites we visited was En Gedi, where David had the opportunity to kill Saul in a cave while Saul was relieving himself, but he chose not to kill him (1 Samuel 24). When I read this account in the past, I always imagined the cave as this boring, brown coloured cave with a random puddle of water inside it. Yet in actuality, as you can see in the photo, it’s a luscious green place with an abundance of water—a fantastically beautiful oasis. The amazing thing about this place is that it’s right in the middle of the desert. More amazing still is God told David to come here. He told him to go out into the desert for refuge from Saul, which might have seemed crazy, and he trusted God and found He led him to this amazing oasis with plenty of greens and water.
As I thought about all this, I couldn’t help but think of where God is calling me to go—to seminary, and then whichever church He calls me to after ordination. I won’t get into the story because it’s too long, but there was a time when I left the Pre-Seminary programme I’m in because I essentially did not trust God with the abilities and skills He gave me and that my introverted personality was not a good match for ministry. Last year I returned to the Pre-Seminary programme and I leave for the LCMS St. Louis seminary this fall. Here at En Gedi, I felt God’s affirmation to just go. Like David, I just need to trust where God tells me to go without questioning Him.
The last powerful site for me was the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed the night He was betrayed. Hela had us read Matthew 26:36-46, but after I prayed inside the church, I felt the Spirit leading me towards reading John’s account of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. Jesus’ last words to the prayer stuck with me the most, “I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (v. 26). One of the things I often struggle with is the concept that I’m somehow unlovable.
At the root of it is when my ex-fiancé betrayed me. Back in 2010, while I was at basic training in the Army, my ex-fiancé—unbeknownst to me—married a guy I don’t know and got pregnant with his child because she had convinced herself I would no longer love her after basic training was over, which was not true at all. I didn’t find out until a month after basic training. Because of this, I entered a state of depression in which I strongly believed I was incapable of being loved by women, other people, and eventually God. It wasn’t until three years later that God cured me of those dark thoughts. However, as it is a part of my dark past, these feelings still come up every now and then, which they had come up before we left for Israel.
I found strong affirmation of God’s love for me by reading Jesus’ high priestly prayer at the garden of Gethsemane, especially, “that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.” As a son, I know my father’s deep love for me. So I can only imagine how much more love God has for His only begotten Son. Yet it is with this same exact love God has for His Son that He also loves me! I always knew God loved me, but I felt His love in a real, new way at Gethsemane. At times I may feel unworthy of being loved, yet I have the satisfaction of knowing that God’s love for me does not depend on whether I’m worthy or not. Instead, it is because of God’s love that He makes me worthy; that is a truly remarkable thing.
We saw a lot of amazing sites in Israel, and God spoke to me in many new ways. After all the awesome things we saw, and the amazing experiences I shared with new friends, it was difficult for me to summarise my big take away from the pilgrimage. That is, after all the things I saw and experienced, what is the one thing I can take away from this trip? Hela said something at the beginning of our trip that I didn’t fully understand until the end. The night we arrived in Israel was in the middle of Shabbat (Sabbath), and she said while we Westerners plan our Sunday around our week, the Jews do it the other way around: they plan their week around the Shabbat.
As I walked throughout Israel, I began to relearn how central God is to my life, and how He needs to remain the focal point of my life. As Peter walked on the Sea of Galilee while He looked towards Jesus his focal point, so I need to continue walking on my path with God while keeping Jesus my focal point. One great way I think I can do this—and all of you can do this as well—is doing what the Jews do: planning my week around the Sabbath rather than the other way around. The Sabbath is a great blessing God has given us in which we can find rest in His Word and the sacraments. Not only does the Spirit convict us of our sins on this day, but we also receive comfort in the receiving of His Word and the sweetness of His forgiveness in Jesus’ body and blood. What a blessed way to end our week—rest in our God. Every week we can find rest in Jesus’ words, “Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Every week, I can re-centre myself on Christ and find rest in His grace and mercy when I find my burdens too heavy to carry.
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