Unlike Abraham, my first glimpse of the Promised Land was from 10,000 feet as I sat alert in my airplane window seat. In 11 hours, I had crossed an ocean and a continent, dwarfing Abraham’s journey from Ur to the same destination 4,000 years before.
Also unlike Abraham, God hadn’t told me to go. I hadn’t had any visions, heard any audible voices, or even been compelled by any sacred writ. Nevertheless, as I sat gazing down through the thin clouds, I couldn’t help but think of that ancient patriarch. “So, this is the land that God promised him,” I prayerfully whispered.
Traveling to Israel ought to be a spiritual pilgrimage. Although we aren’t required by biblical command to visit the sites or general regions where God accomplished so much on our behalf, to do so is a rich and ever-flowing blessing.
Here are four spiritual lessons that I learned by going to the land of Israel.
1. Location Doesn’t Matter, Except It Does
If I’m God’s holy temple (1 Cor. 3:17), and if I can worship him from anywhere (John 4:21–24), why would I need to go to the Holy Land? Should we even call it the “Holy Land” anymore?
The Bible is clear that God created the whole world and is the supreme King over every nation on earth. Moreover, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross secured the salvation of people from every tribe and language and people and nation so that, through him, we can worship God from anywhere at anytime in spirit and in truth. In some ways, therefore, Israel is just one of many nations under God’s sovereign rule and is, in that sense, no different than any other.
While this may be true, there is, nevertheless, something that makes Israel stand out as historically unique from every other nation under heaven. Israel is the grand theater of God’s redemptive play.
Israel is the grand theater of God’s redemptive play.
It was in Israel that I knelt in the shadow of the hill where the men of Jabesh-Gilead retrieved King Saul’s slain body (1 Sam. 11:1–11; 31:8–13). I touched Jeroboam’s apostasy with my own two hands and quivered at the thought of it (1 Kings 12:25–33). I gazed over the Jezreel valley atop the mountain where Elijah summoned fire from heaven to defeat the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). I tasted the saltwater where Jonah fled from God (Jonah 1:1–3). I sailed on the waters that Jesus Christ tread by foot, and on which Peter stepped out in faith (Matt. 14:22–33). I stood on the exact spot where Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:1–12). I smelled the plains of Armageddon and envisioned God’s kingdom come (Rev. 16).
I walked in the footsteps of Christ on that glorious awe-full night, from Upper Room to Gethsemane to Caiaphas to Pilate to Golgotha.
There is so much more I saw and did, smelled and tasted, touched and heard. Although not every site is absolutely certain, a good many are. The Sea of Galilee is the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is Capernaum. The Temple Mount is the Temple Mount. And I was there. I’ve been to the places where God achieved the salvation of the world. I worshiped him there in a way that I had never worshiped him before.
Location doesn’t matter, except that it does. Like a time-tested hymn, this tiny country compels worship, drawing praise from the hearts of saints. Israel will always be the Holy Land because it will always be the stage, set apart from all other places, where God rescued a ruined world. We ought not theologize this place away.
2. Israel Isn’t Narnia
I know the Bible is real and Narnia isn’t. I know this. And yet, until I was there, both Israel and Narnia existed in the same part of my brain, recreated in my mind’s eye through the printed word on the page.
Something literally and spiritually snapped inside of me on day four. I’d already experienced some inspiring moments. I’d publicly read Luke 4:16–30 in a Nazarene synagogue, likely less than half a mile from where Jesus spoke the same words. I’d sat under the preaching of Matthew 5:1–16 on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I’d stood in front of the “gates of hell” in Caesarea Philippi where Peter confessed Jesus was the Christ (Matt.16:13–20). Yet it was on the afternoon of day four that it happened.
I was in Capernaum. We’d just spent considerable time in a late-third-century synagogue built atop the first-century synagogue where Jesus regularly preached. A four-minute walk took us to an insulae (extended family home) two ancient blocks away. Built on top of this house was a fifth-century octagonal church and, in the middle of the bullseye of this church, was a rectangular room that had been used as a domus ecclesia (home church) since the first half of the first-century. In this room, pottery shards of the Lord’s Prayer and ancient graffiti inscribing the words Jesus, Lord, and Messiah were found. We were told that this was―most likely―Peter’s house, and that this room, venerated since the first half of the first-century, may well have been the room where Jesus lived and slept for much of the three years of his Galilean ministry (Matt. 4:13).
Israel will always be the Holy Land because it will always be the stage, set apart from all other places, where God saved the world.
Was it or wasn’t it? We’ll never know for sure. Either way, I was in Capernaum. Jesus walked these streets (Matt. 13:54), preached in this synagogue (Mark 1:21–22; 3:1–5), taught beside that shore (Mark 2:13). This might have been his house, where he healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever (Mark 1:29–31), forgave the paralytic’s sins (Mark 2:1–12), and gathered to himself the lame, sick, and demon-possessed (Mark 1:32–34).
Standing there, the Bible shuffled inside me from one locale to another. It moved from imagination to experience and from figment to memory. Israel and Narnia were forever ripped apart, never again to cohabit the same recesses of my mind.
3. God’s Kingdom Truly Is a Mustard Seed
Israel is small. The region of Galilee is even smaller. The northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus focused his ministry and which is less than eight miles across, can be traversed by foot in less than half a day. If I were God and become a man to reveal myself to the world, I don’t think I would’ve chosen Nazareth as the place I’d grow up. Nor would I center my ministry in Capernaum, spending most of my time in towns and villages like Magdala, Chorazin, and Bethsaida.
For the average North American, the smallness of the stage God set for the gospel drama can’t be adequately captured by maps and comparisons.
Add to the smallness of the world he inhabited the fact that Jesus never wrote a book, never commanded a flesh-and-blood army, never held court over a citizenry, and never―in his adult life―traveled outside the borders of present-day Israel, a country no bigger than New Jersey. Yet within a generation, his influence was competing with Caesar and his name was known as far as Spain. This seemingly insignificant life of less than 40 years, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, proved to be the most significant life ever lived. This is, in itself, a profound wonder.
For the average North American, the smallness of the stage God set for the gospel drama can’t be adequately captured by maps and comparisons. You have to put your boots on the ground, look across the tiny lake we call the “Sea” of Galilee, and make your own personal pilgrimage from Capernaum to Jerusalem. Then, once in Jerusalem, the smallness of the stage may continue to ricochet across your soul. All of the events from Gethsemane to Golgotha occurred in a space smaller than Disneyland. The world changed on the head of a needle, in the planting of a seed, in the smallest of gardens.
4. There May Be Two Testaments, but There’s Only One Redemptive Story
Stories―histories―have settings. A shared setting necessarily unifies the story. You can’t have two wholly unconnected histories in the same setting. When traveling through Israel, you can’t help but be struck by all that happened there. Most importantly, in any given day, the Christian pilgrim will visit both Old and New Testament sites, many of which are one and the same.
We can worship God from anywhere, but you will never worship him in the same way after going to the Land of Promise.
For example, Joshua crossed the Jordan where Jesus was baptized. Jonah set sail from the port city where Peter received his vision to kill and eat, before embarking on his first Gentile mission up the coast to Caesarea with Cornelius. King David was born where Jesus was later born, and he established his capital where Jesus was later crucified. Hezekiah built a water system in Isaiah’s day to the pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed the blind man. Judas passed through the valley of Jehoshaphat, where Joel foretold of judgment, to kiss Jesus in Gethsemane.
The artificial divide between Old and New Testaments, that stands so tall in the minds of many Bible readers, comes tumbling down like the walls of Jericho when you visit the actual places. Old and New Testament events are jumbled together, stacked one on top of another, in a small corner of the world, with no discernible geographical distinction between what happened before Christ and what happened after. Indeed, the geography of the Land brings a natural unity to the Bible that no book of biblical theology ever could.
We don’t need to go to Israel to live full and satisfied Christian lives. There are no extra credits in heaven for those who make it there. Nevertheless, I urge you to make it a life goal to put your own two feet on the Land God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It will forever change you and your walk with God.
We can worship God from anywhere, but you will never worship him the same way after going to the Land of Promise.