My Trip to the Holy Land
November 13, 2017 – 5:30 p.m. on the plane to Tel Aviv
I have always longed to go to the Holy Land… the land of promise, for God’s chosen people, through whom the Messiah would come… the land of milk and honey, the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… where the House of David was established, and will have One on the throne forever and ever. This is the land where Jesus was born, where he walked, grew up, chose His disciples, preached, healed the sick, delivered those who were possessed and oppressed… where He was crucified, buried, rose again, ascended into heaven, and where He will return again one day soon, in the Father’s time. With a tour group of 12 people: seven from Texas and five from Ohio, I am going to see the greatest place on earth, the place where my Lord put on human flesh to be a sacrifice for my sins, and the sins of the world.
We left DFW, on our way to Newark, New Jersey at 7:45 a.m. After about a four-hour layover in Newark’s friendly, enormous, and well-laid out airport, our Texas group boarded our flight for Tel Aviv. Traveling at nearly 31,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, parts of the Mediterranean, and Middle East, we should reach our destination in just about 10 hours, at 9:35 a.m. Israeli time.
Now, I have a chance to collect my thoughts. The plane is full. There are various tour groups on board; and I have seen several orthodox Jews wearing their black hats, yarmulkes (or kippahs) and speaking another language (I presume it’s Hebrew). It’s real! I’m really going… the trip of a lifetime!
We Hit the Ground Running
November 14, 2017
After nodding off and then, waking up several times during our near-ten-hour flight to Tel Aviv, we got off the plane, went through customs, showed our passports for the third time in 24 hours, and met our tour group of 12 people at baggage claim. Reverend David Cartwright of Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point was our Pastoral Guide on this trip, although Educational Opportunities Tours provided local tour guides and drivers to take us where we were scheduled to go throughout the Holy Land.
We only thought we were going straight to the hotel in Tiberias, across from the Sea of Galilee right away to grab a nap and catch up on sleep. On the way, our knowledgeable tour guide, Yair (pronounced, Yah-ear) told us about the sights, answered our questions, and told us how to say, good morning in Hebrew: “Boka Tov,” we all repeated obediently. The next morning we were well-rested, more chipper, and practically sang, “Boka Tov!”
Straightaway (after leaving the airport) the driver took us to Caesarea. We hadn’t all worn walking shoes, but we visited the lovely excavated ruins and partially reconstructed Theatre and the Palace at Caesarea on the shores of the Mediterranean, where Pontius Pilate spent most of his time.
We then drove on to a monastery on top of Mt. Carmel where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call on their gods to burn the sacrifice on the alter, without anyone lighting the fire. The prophets cried out to their false gods, cut themselves, and otherwise abused their bodies, yet no fire lit the alter. After many hours, Elijah had water poured over the alter, completely drenching the animal sacrifice and the wood. He then prayed to Jehovah, the One true God, Who is an all-consuming fire, and He not only consumed the sacrifice with fire, but the flames licked up every bit of moisture. From Mt. Carmel, there was a picturesque view of the Valley of Harmegiddo (Armageddon). This valley was much larger than I had imagined it. It is a gateway to other key points in the Middle East.
November 15, 2017
The comfortable Mercedes small passenger bus picked us up at our hotel at 8:00 a.m. sharp. First stop: Cana, where Jesus turned the water to wine. We visited a Church where many couples renew their wedding vows, and there was a huge stone vessel used to store wine, which the tour guide told us would have been similar to the ones Jesus had told people to fill with water, so He could demonstrate Himself as the Creator in the flesh, and turn the water to wine, which He did at a wedding, per His mother’s request. You can imagine all the wine vendors waiting for tourists outside this church.
We tried some sweet red wine that tasted a lot like grape juice. And then, we bought some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a mother and son, which was quite good. In fact, there were multiple vendors offering this healthful, native-grown treat.
Then, we went on to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It is reported to be where the virgin Mary first learned she was expecting our Savior. It was the most ornate church we’ve seen so far. Next to it, was St. Joseph’s. In each church, there were some sort of special services being performed… one had to do with nuns and priests, the other appeared to be more of a worship service. Obviously, I am not Catholic, but it is impressive to me to see how the Catholic Church takes care of historic places of worship. These particular sites were built where great things were believed to have happened. The only thing is, the Church has had a habit of erecting ornate buildings and shrines over every holy place, so that it no longer appears as it once did; and leads one to wonder if it is indeed a place where Jesus performed the act proclaimed by the Church.
Our last stop for the day was the ancient city of Tel Megiddo, near modern day Megiddo. Tel Megiddo is situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the Valley of Armageddon. Our tour guide, Salah, explained the history and significance of the geography. Every king or conqueror who wanted to get to wealthy civilizations on either side, had to go through this key-situated valley. Scripture in the Book of Revelation says the last great battle will be fought here, although some believe that to be figurative, not literal, as modern day armies can simply fly the desired path, rather than march through the valley.
5:00 p.m. – Back to the hotel for a hearty buffet, which has managed to satisfy everyone’s tastes each evening. And, in the morning, the buffet will tempt us again with eggs, pastries, breads, vegetables, and fruit. We’ve been taken care of very well.
A Lake, an Ancient City, and Baptism
November 16, 2017
The Sea of Galilee boat ride was a pleasure, and fairly short-lived, as the “Sea” is more of a lake. When the Israelites saw it, after wandering around for so long in the wilderness, they must have thought of it as a Sea. Right now, the water level is quite low, and the people are praying for rain, for one of their most valued reservoirs.
The other attractions visited on this day were Capernaum, Tabgha, Chapel of the Primacy, Magdala, and the Yardenit Baptismal Site, where two in our group were baptized in the very muddy Jordan River.
Magdala had to be my favorite site, where archaeologists have unearthed a first century synagogue in the ancient City of Magdala where Jesus very likely engaged in religious worship as He traveled that direction, and where it is believed Mary Magdalene came from.
Enough of the rubble exists after the Roman invasion, that one can see various rooms, and discern a pink color on the columns of the main room, or central gathering hall of the Migdal Synagogue, and view portions of frescos and small mosaic floor tiles in the customary pattern of the day.
There was also an impressive table in the center of the main room, on which a menorah is clearly carved, along with other symbols, the Jewish significance of which, the tour guide explained to our group.
It is believed the Torah scrolls would have been placed on this table and read from this spot, to the congregation. It was in 70 AD that Romans invaded and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. It is believed they passed through Magdala in 66 AD.
Up to Jerusalem
Looking back upon our return, to November 17 – 21, 2017
We really did go “up” to Jerusalem. The constant up-down altitude changes did a number on my inner ear. The next four nights were spent at the Olive Tree Hotel, in this disputed City with Jews, Christians, and Muslims claiming this as one of their most holy places. I understand why we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem, although there were no skirmishes while I was at the Western Wall, nor any other place in that City where Jesus lamented in Matthew 23:37, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (NIV)
I was also reminded of Psalm 133:1.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (NKJV)
Our tour guide, an Arab Christian, gave us scriptural insights to each place we toured, and gained us access to Bethlehem and Jericho, inside Palestinian territory.
We visited a wonderful, Christian-owned business where nativities and Christmas ornaments are hand and machine crafted from olive wood, at the Bethlehem New Store. We toured the workshop below the store, and witnessed craftsmen carving one-of-a-kind treasures, not easily rivaled anywhere else in the world. Honestly, the owner, who gave us the tour, reminded me in appearance of an “Arabic” Vince Gill…a very kind man, with a heart for promoting the Gospel, as well as his unique way of life in business.
In Jericho, we visited Hebron Handicrafts, where the salesmen were very accommodating, and I purchased some pottery and Phoenician glass to have shipped back to the States. The pottery, I actually packed carefully in my suitcase, and only one small bowl broke (which, was glued back together), and the other bowls made it without a hitch! A word to the wise, leave room in your luggage for souvenirs, otherwise you may be buying an extra suitcase before you return.
Back in Jerusalem…we visited the ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, which looks directly across at the Eastern “Golden” Gate [see top photo in slider] on the Temple Mount (Mt. Moriah), where Jesus will one day return and set His foot. We saw the House of Caiaphas and the Upper Room, where Jesus and His disciples took the Passover meal, or Last Supper.
We walked the Via Delarosa and viewed with some melancholy, the first century-dated stone steps that Jesus must have climbed, outside the House of Caiaphas, to face his accusers the night before His crucifixion. In the same complex, we saw chambers that are believed to have held prisoners.
Jesus purposefully partook of the Passover Meal, for which He was truly the Passover Lamb, in the same area, where He would later face governing authorities, including Pontius Pilate, who would turn Him over to be crucified. He came to die. He came to offer Himself as the final sacrifice for our sins, the sins of the world.
We had an optional visit to Masada and the Dead Sea the day before we left. The ruins of King Herod’s fortress that are situated on a plateau overlooking the vast Dead Sea in the Judean Desert, are magnificent, indeed. Though looting has destroyed much of the colorful frescos and tiles that originally graced this massive edifice, it is truly remarkable to witness the intelligent design of such a complex structure that offered plumbing, fresh cold and hot water chambers, and comforts that we typically ascribe to modern day construction alone.
While the Dead Sea does receive waters from the Jordan River, and other smaller tributaries, it has no outflow, hence its name. Although, it is also true that its 34 percent saline concentration is the reason nothing can live in it. The Dead Sea is nine times saltier than the ocean. In fact, when we stepped into it, we felt pieces of rock salt beneath our feet.
Many claim healing qualities exist in the waters, however, our group found no such evidence. It did have a softening effect on the skin, and left a residue that had to be rinsed off in the showers uphill. Speaking of uphill, the Dead Sea is at earth’s lowest elevation on land; and driving back to Jerusalem that night provided quite the change in altitude.
On the last day of our trip we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, which has the most impressive displays of memorabilia of Holocaust victims and history of the era, that I have ever seen. No photos are allowed to be taken inside this sacred place, though I did buy some postcards for remembrance sake. We must NEVER allow to happen again, what happened to the six million Jews Hitler sought to exterminate from the face of the earth, and the five million Christians, disabled, homosexuals, Communists, political dissidents, and others Hitler viewed as “undesirables.”
Last, but not least, we visited Golgotha and the Garden Tomb, where many scholars and archaeologists believe Jesus was crucified, then buried. The tomb was empty. He is risen! Our group of 12 took communion together, administered by Reverend Cartwright, in a garden area beside the tomb, and we remembered our Lord’s sacrifice and His resurrection. We were encouraged by the fact that He will return again; and that because we have acknowledged our need for His forgiveness, and accepted His free gift of salvation from sin and death by His grace and our faith (trust) in Him and His promises, we rest with peaceful assurance of eternal life.
Our purpose here and now: to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that others too, can own that peaceful assurance in their own hearts.
[*Educational Opportunities Tours put together our trip. There are multiple tour groups that organize these trips, including some local travel agents, so investigate before making a decision on how you will visit the Holy Land. I chose this tour because I could travel with friends.]