What I Learned in Israel, July 2016

What I Learned in Israel

As I traveled around Israel last month with over thirty other pastors, I learned so much from our guide. Erez, a messianic Jew, did a phenomenal job of explaining how biblical events were affected by the geography of the land. For example, it was easy to understand why Gideon was afraid to attack the Midianites after the Lord shrunk his army from 32,000 to 300 (Judges 7). Not only was his army much smaller now, but the Midianites camped at the hill of Moreh were within eyesight of the springs where Gideon and his men were camped. The Lord wanted Gideon to face his fears, literally.

This is but one of many examples of what I learned in Israel. The Bible came to life in new ways for me as I was able to associate actual places with stories in the Bible. But there was one lesson that I learned that I did not expect – one thing that the Lord drove home to my heart and mind above everything else.

The most important thing I learned in Israel is that God’s power is preeminently revealed in the Bible, not in a place. This truth is something that I would have gladly affirmed before I went to Israel. This was not a new idea or concept for me. But the weight of this truth did not really sink in to my heart and mind until the last few days of the trip.

Before I left for Israel, several people told me about their wonderful spiritual experiences in Israel, how they had felt closer to God, sensed his presence in special ways, or felt something different than they did when they were at home. I’m sure these folks had a great experience while in Israel – it truly is a once in a lifetime kind of trip.

But what if traveling to Israel is so powerful for so many people, not because there is some special power within the borders of the modern nation-state of Israel (which is significantly smaller than the land promised to Abraham), but because being there reminds us of the special power of God which is revealed clearly in the Bible? What if a great experience in Israel is the result of being reminded that we worship a God who acted in history? A God who used real people with real fears to do real things at real places? What if being in Israel is life-changing because it reminds us what we already know from Scripture – that God is real and powerful?

Several times on the trip, I thought I’d “feel” something more than I did. For example, when we visited the Garden Tomb, I expected to be overwhelmed with emotion. It had been a long day and a long week, but the emotions I expected to feel simply were not there when we saw the probable locations of Golgotha and the empty tomb. Don’t get me wrong, it was very encouraging to be reminded that real blood was shed by a real Savior at a real place. But I did not feel the emotions there that I thought I would.

Interestingly, my personal bible reading times that week came from the end of John’s Gospel where John gives the account of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. On several mornings in particular, I noticed that I was more overwhelmed with awe and wonder and thankfulness and worship as I read the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection than I was when we visited the probable sites where it happened. God was showing me that his power and truth and grace and glory are most clearly revealed in Scripture, not at the sites where the events of Scripture took place.

It concerns me that many evangelicals, like many Catholics, view the various sites around Israel, and even Israel itself, with superstition. Some folks – myself included, go to Israel expecting a great emotional or spiritual experience, expecting to experience more of God’s presence by visiting different sites. Again, visiting Israel was extremely encouraging for my faith, but only because it challenged me to know God deeper through his Word and prayer, not because I got chill bumps at the empty tomb.

All the way back to Mount Sinai, God has revealed himself to his people by speaking to them, by giving them a testimony, by revealing his nature and character through words, not images. God has decided to make himself known through words, not places. We can only know God through his written word, the Bible, as his Spirit shows us the glory and grace of the Living Word, Jesus Christ. If we want to be close to God, we need to go to God’s Son Jesus, not any place. And the way we go to God’s Son Jesus is by knowing and placing our confidence in God’s word the Bible.

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:7-11).
May we desire God’s word more than gold, and may it be sweeter to us than honey,

Pastor John