In Old Jerusalem there’s a church, and in this church there’s a rock, and in this rock there’s a hole. For 1,700 years, this hole has been identified as the place where Christ’s cross was driven into “the place of the skull.” The oral tradition is much older, making it somewhat likely that this is in fact the spot where Jesus died in the place of sinners. And yet most of Golgotha is covered over by marble and glass and glitzy icons far removed from my evangelical Protestant tradition, making it all but impossible to access the rock by sight or by touch in any meaningful way.
Thus, it can be underwhelming to approach the alleged place where Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many. Although I can worship the Lord anywhere in the world, I have a deep desire to worship Christ here, in the place where he secured my salvation. Unfortunately, as I stand here early on this chilly morning, centuries of ecclesiastical clutter are distracting me from worshiping the God of my salvation as I so earnestly desire.
I recount this episode from my recent trip to Israel because it highlights an important issue for would-be pilgrims. Once in Israel, how do we translate our tourism into worship? Visiting biblical sites is one thing; worshiping at them is something altogether different.
While each of us will worship God in personal ways, let me share four insights that have helped me to worship God during my two visits to the Holy Land.
1. Worship Is Aided by Reading the Bible
You’re on the top of Mount Carmel, and you want to worship God. Gazing across the Jezreel Valley, you look down and see the Kishon River far below. You recall the history of Elijah’s fiery contest with the prophets of Baal, but you don’t feel anything.
You’re in the fourth-century synagogue of Capernaum. Sitting on cold stone benches around the perimeter, you’re told Jesus regularly taught in a first-century synagogue that stood in this exact location, but all you can see are the few pillars and the half-fallen wall of a synagogue built more than 300 years after Christ.
Once in Israel, how do we translate our tourism into worship? Going to biblical sites is one thing; worshiping at them is something altogether different.
You’re in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—and although this location has been identified, since at least AD 330, as the place of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection—all you see is spiritually foreign religious paraphernalia. Nothing in this ancient cathedral is helping a Protestant evangelical like you to worship.
You’ve traveled a long way, but you’re struggling to connect with God in worship. You want to, but nothing is happening. What do you do?
Pull out your Bible and read it aloud. Read all of 1 Kings 18 on the top of Mount Carmel. Read John 6 in the Capernaum synagogue. Read through the passion and resurrection of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Prayerfully reading Scripture exactly where it happened elicits an impulse to worship. This takes planning, of course, so identify Scripture that corresponds with biblical sites on your itinerary before you travel. Most importantly, never leave the hotel without your Bible.
2. Worship Is Aided by Singing
Your tour takes you to the top of Har Megiddo (Armageddon). After seeing a pre-Joshua Canaanite gate, passing through a Solomonic gate, and ascending through an Ahab-era gate, you’re convinced that this ancient mound has a significant history to tell. A lot of things happened here. You’re told King Josiah was killed here, cut down in his prime by Pharaoh Neco in spite of his pious religious reforms (2 Kings 23:28–30). You’re reminded of some kind of battle called “Armageddon,” but you’ve never been quite sure what to make of the book of Revelation.
Your guide convinces you that Megiddo is archaeologically and biblically significant. But being here isn’t causing you to worship. What do you do?
Singing hymns and songs that connect real places—while standing in those very places—to Christian theology, will help tourists to become pilgrims.
Pull out your song sheet and start singing. Choose “Sing to the King,” or any song that captures the glory of the return and reign of Christ. Although there are many acceptable eschatological positions, all agree that Jesus will return one day to reign as King of the universe. All also agree that Megiddo is, at minimum, a geographical reminder of this fact; and at most, a stage on which history’s end will play out (Rev. 16:12–16). Sing about that.
Singing hymns and songs that connect real places—while standing in those very places—to Christian theology will help tourists become pilgrims. This too requires advanced planning and song-sheet printing.
3. Worship Is Aided by Engaging All Five Senses
You’re standing on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus shared a fish breakfast with his disciples after his resurrection (John 21). The natural beauty around you is stunning, but it’s not easy to connect this beach with an impulse to worship the resurrected Christ.
You’ve made your way through the dusty desert along the western coast of the Dead Sea, and you’re standing before a waterfall at the end of a long hike in the Ein Gedi oasis. Someone from the group is reading 1 Samuel 24 in remembrance of David’s cave encounter with King Saul. It’s interesting to make the connection, but it doesn’t cause you to worship God.
You’re standing by the Mediterranean Sea outside the walls of Old Joppa. You remember Jonah had set sail from here (Jonah 1:1–3) and Peter had received a vision here (Acts 9:36–10:23), but worship isn’t flowing.
It’s your third day in busy Jerusalem. Although you’ve seen amazing things, your brain is on archaeological overload, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to appreciate each new site or to worship God in this holy city.
You’re crouching underneath a table altar, a mere foot from the place of Christ’s crucifixion. Although you’re so close, the icon in front of you, the pillars around you, and the table above you are in the way and distracting you from worship.
What can you do to turn these encounters into times of worship?
The difference between reading about Israel in the Bible or elsewhere and actually traveling to Israel is your ability to engage all five senses when you’re physically there.
Taste Jesus’s encounter with his disciples by ordering fresh, whole-fish tilapia from the Sea of Galilee for lunch at St. Peter’s restaurant, just a short ride from the beach.
Feel David’s soul-charging refreshment by taking off your shoes, rolling up your pants, and splashing in the waters of his Ein Gedi oasis.
Smell the same salt air that Joshua and Peter inhaled so many years ago by pausing to inhale a deep, lung-full of air on the pier.
Hear the various expressions of worship in Old Jerusalem that bring the richly contested past into the equally complicated present by stopping in an ancient nook anywhere along the narrow streets, closing your eyes, and exploring the holy city with your ears.
See the posthole of crucifixion by peering through the small gaps between the icon and the pillars and, if you’re like me, contort yourself into position to take a picture of it with your Samsung Galaxy S9 smartphone.
The difference between reading about Israel in the Bible or elsewhere and actually traveling to Israel is your ability to engage all five senses when you’re physically there. Make a point of exploring every site every day with every one of your senses, and notice yourself beginning to worship more deeply. Intentionally engaging all five senses will also help you to retain your experience after returning home.
4. Worship Is Aided by Imagination
You’re sailing on the Sea of Galilee, and you realize that, beautiful as it is, this small lake isn’t that different from a dozen other lakes you’ve been on before.
You’re standing on an ancient floor mosaic in the courthouse of the Roman prefect in Caesarea where Paul was on trial before Felix, Festus, and Agrippa (Acts 23:23–27:2). The walls have long since been destroyed. All that remains is an old floor with holes in it.
You’re in Nazareth, and the little mountain camp has long since been replaced by a bustling city. You visit Nazareth Village, a biblical version of North America’s pioneer villages, but the agricultural landscape and people in costume are overpowered by the sounds of the city all around.
Nothing is as it was.
We’re familiar with the reality that we’re separated by the events portrayed in the Bible by both space and time. When we travel to Israel, we may be able to break down the separation of space, but the barrier of time remains a strong reality. Even when our bodies cross through the same latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of our favorite biblical stories, we discover that the sands of time continue to alienate us from true contact with the people and events of yesteryear.
At this point, you only have two options. One, allow the separation of time to reign over your experience, leaving you as distant as ever before. Or, two, recognize that one great barrier―the barrier of space―has been removed so that only time remains to be bridged. But, how do you bridge this barrier? How do you travel back in time?
The only means available to us is God’s gift of imagination. In your mind’s eye, picture Jesus walking on the water to the left of your boat. Watch Peter getting out of your boat to meet the Lord on the water. See him sink beneath the surface to be caught in the hands of Christ (Matt. 14:22–33).
God has granted us the capacity to imagine. Use this faculty to step back in time, knowing that you’re standing in real places where real people really lived the biblical story.
Picture Paul appealing to Caesar before Festus in this small Mediterranean tribunal (Acts 25:6–12). Reconstruct the walls in your mind with a window looking over the sea. Peer out over the water through the self-imagined window and consider how Paul must’ve felt, bearing witness to Christ in this place all the while anticipating that the Lord would take him across these waters to Caesar so that he might share the gospel to the most powerful man in the most powerful court in the world (Acts 23:11).
Imagine Jesus as a young boy running up and down the exposed bedrock in Nazareth Village. See him as a young man dancing on grapes in the first-century winepress with unsandaled feet and unhindered zeal at harvest time, as other Nazarenes celebrate God’s bountiful provision all around him.
God has granted us the capacity to imagine. Use this faculty to step back in time, knowing you’re standing in real places where real people really lived the biblical story. And, when you do, embrace the flutter and excitement that rises up to overflow your heart in worship.
Turn Tourism into Worship
Traveling to Israel is a remarkable blessing. To set your feet on the ground where the Bible literally happened is a thrill beyond compare. And yet many obstacles threaten to undermine our worship, even there.
By reading the Bible, singing hymns and spiritual songs, engaging all five senses, and employing imagination, travelers to Israel can turn their tourism into worship.