I had the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving break in Israel. This was not a mission trip, outreach trip, or anything else other than a sightseeing tour. But, it ended up being more than just sightseeing. I spent almost a week with 16 other people who were in some way or another associated with my high school, Providence Christian Academy. The trip was led by two of the most influential men in my life to this point who mentored me throughout high school and continue to speak into my life today. The next few posts will catalog the trip the best I can. There is no way I can write down everything we did, saw, or experienced, because I could probably start an entirely new blog of just pictures, videos, and stories from the trip. However, I will do my best to show as many pictures and videos and keep the narration to a minimum. I hope you enjoy these glimpses into Israel and, whether you have been 100 times or never step foot in the land where Christianity was born, it helps the Bible come alive in a new way for you. Enjoy.
We left our hotel in Tiberias to begin our journey to Jerusalem, but we had a few stops before we would make to the Capital city. Our next stop on our trip was Nazareth. We ended up leaving earlier than usual because we were making a special stop not originally planned for our tour. We were going to visit a school in Nazareth.
My high school began to develop a relationship with a school in Nazareth called the Baptist School of Nazareth. It is a private school, much like my high school, but it is the top private school in all of Israel. There are around 1,000 student–roughly the same size of Providence–but there is a waiting list that is extremely long and difficult to make it through. So those students at this school are very bright and very fortunate. The ratio at the school is about 75% Christian to 25% Muslim. While they are required to take Bible classes every day and attended weekly chapel services, this does not mean it is a “Christian” school as we define it. Many of the teachers are Christians and the head faculty is Christian but they have to be careful what they teach because of government regulations and culture implications.
We spent about 45 minutes at the school talking with the administration and hearing their heart for Nazareth, the people, and especially the students. It blew me away what they were accomplishing in Nazareth and the excellence with which they were doing everything. I was filled with such joy to see how they were following Jesus and were burdened for their city.
While I wish we could have spent more time actually seeing the school and talking with the students, we had a tight schedule to keep and headed off to our next stop, which was luckily still in Nazareth.
Nazareth today was not like Nazareth in Jesus’ time. In fact it is much the opposite. In Jesus’ day it was a tiny town. You will remember that Nazareth was where Jesus called home during his ministry on earth. Jesus was from a small town much like many midwest cities today. It was a place where everyone knew everyone.
However, today Nazareth is a sprawling city that is known as the “Arab Capital of Israel.” It is predominantly Muslim and is home to 80,000 people in an area of around 5 square miles. To say it is a densely populated city is an understatement.
The video above shows a view of Nazareth from the Mount of Precipice. If you remember the story from Luke 4 where Jesus takes and reads from the scroll of Isaiah and proclaims that in hearing it the passage has been fulfilled, the people are furious and drove Jesus out of town to a nearby cliff to throw him off because they did not believe he was the messiah. Yet, when Jesus got to the cliff he just passed through the crowd and went on his way.
Our next stop was at a small place almost in the middle of Nazareth called the Nazareth Village. The purpose of the Nazareth Village is to paint an accurate, historical picture of what Nazareth could have looked like during the time of Jesus. Since it is hard to divorce yourself from the buildings and houses surrounding so many of the sites in Israel, this open-air museum tries to carve out a space that you can imagine what it would have been like to be in a setting similar to what Jesus would have lived in 2,000 years ago. They walked us through a terraced vineyard, showed us what housing would have been like, and reconstructed what a small synagogue would have been like for the town. It was definitely one of the most insightful experiences walking through a house or sitting in the synagogue trying to imagine what it would have been like to be in the same city thousands of years earlier during the time of Jesus.
Nazareth, despite its modern size, was the city where I could definitely put myself into the shoes and mindset of what it would have been like to be where Jesus was. Thanks to the Nazareth Village for making that experience possible. It was a very special moment to experience.
As we neared Jerusalem we made two more stops. The first was of Old Testament significance.
In Judges 7, we are brought into the middle of the story of Gideon. He is about to fight the Midianites but God tells him he has too many men. God tells him to lead his men to a spring and to only take the ones that cupped the water in their hands and drank. That only left Gideon with 300 men, yet, with God on their side, they defeated the Midianites.
We visited this spring. It is another location that the authenticity is not debated. It is the only spring that matches the description in Scripture, and it fits perfectly. The Jewish people have also held the site to be the traditional spot as well. These kind of spots always gave me chills because we know this is a place where God showed up. We know that He spoke to Gideon at this spot. We know that the Bible accurately pinpoints this location. It is just another way that God uses history and geography to affirm my faith. It was a very reflective moment in which I just worshipped.
Our next stop on our way towards Jerusalem was another very special moment. Just outside of Jericho Moshe had made arrangements for those of us that wanted to, we could be baptized in the Jordan River. As Scripture tells us, the Jordan River is where Jesus was baptized by John and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove and the Father spoke is favor over Jesus.
There is no way to tell where the exact spot where Jesus was baptized, but we did get the chance to go to a spot that had just opened up not long before our trip. The interesting thing about this spot was based on historical evidence, scholars believe Jericho to be the area that John did much of his ministry. So when Jesus came to John, this could have been the area he came to. Also on our drive to the spot, we a couple 11th century or earlier remains from churches that were apparently memorialized this site. Like I have said before, just because there is a church on top of it does not mean it is the undisputed site, but it does help us understand tradition and track locations based on them.
I was not going to pass up the opportunity to be baptized again but this time in the Jordan River. I, along with many in our group, donned white robes and waded into the unbelievably cold water. I have never been in colder water in my life, no joke. But, it was one of the most memorable experiences being baptized by my mentor in the same river that my Savior was baptized. I know the water in Israel is no more holy than in America, but the memory I have of that moment will be with me forever.
While it was an incredible stop at the Jordan River, it was not our final destination for the day. Jerusalem was still a couple hours away and Moshe was really pushing us to make it there before nightfall. So we hopped on the bus and continued our ascent to Jerusalem.
A little bit of geography to help that make sense. Although we were traveling south, because Jerusalem was built on a mountain, you have to ascend in order to get to the city. No matter which direction you are coming from, you have to travel up to Jerusalem. That is why in Scripture there is a section of Psalms called the “Psalms of Ascent.” These were the songs the people of Israel would sing as they approached Jerusalem for feasts and festivals. Go back and read them with that in mind. It puts them in a a whole new perspective.
As we passed through a tunnel and the cityscape of Jerusalem was laid out in front of us, I can remember my breath being taken away. Seeing the sprawling landscape of houses and the Old City walls was just beautiful. Remembering all the history that had taken place there was overwhelming. Understanding that the entire world revolves around this one city just blew my mind. It was unbelievable.
While we were staying in Jerusalem we were going to be staying in the newer part of the city, not in the Old City. But before we called it a night at our hotel, we had planned to stop at the Garden of Gethsemane.
This was where Jesus spent his final few hours before being arrested by the Sanhedrin beginning his journey to the cross. It was right at dusk when we visited this olive garden which made it really easy to imagine what it would have been like to have been in the garden on that Passover night. The video shows what the view of Jerusalem might have looked like–minus the Dome of the Rock and cars–the night Jesus was betrayed.
We were given a few minutes in this garden to reflect on the suffering of Jesus, contemplate what he did for us, and pray. It was a very sobering moment sitting in the garden that Jesus was betrayed in knowing my sin was the reason he had to go to the cross.
Next to the garden there was a church that had been built over top the rock that tradition says was the rock Jesus prayed on and sweated tears of blood. The church is called the Church of the Nations and rock it is built over is called the Rock of Agony. Once again, we do not know if it is the exact rock but it does fit the Biblical description of being a “stone’s throw away” from the garden where the disciples slept.
We checked into our hotel after that which completed the journey Jesus made from Galilee to Jerusalem so many times in his life. It is an easy 2-hour bus ride today, but would have been quite the journey on foot. With such treacherous terrain surrounding Jerusalem, no wonder the Psalms of Ascent praised the Lord so much for how much a beautiful sight the city of Jerusalem was.
And what a beautiful city she still is. As we looked across the city from our room, we knew Jerusalem had so much to show us in the coming days. We knew that much of the important events in Jesus’ life took place in this city, and we could not wait to explore the city on which so many world issues hinge. We knew Jerusalem had a lot to share, but she definitely exceeded our expectations.