What visiting the Holy Land taught us about reading the Bible
By James Bergen (right) and Tim Geddert (left)
Click here for resources list.
Many serious Bible readers and teachers will never take a trip to the Holy Land. In fact, I (Tim) taught New Testament for 30 years before I finally decided the time had come. In May, James Bergen and I teamed up to lead a two-week tour of the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine and Jordan.) Twenty-four others joined to share the adventure and learning experiences. It was an amazing experience. But now I have a dilemma.
I want to share how impactful the trip was and how it shapes my Bible reading and teaching, and I want to motivate others to visit the Holy Land as well. In fact, James and I are thinking about organizing another tour in 2018. But I also want to encourage the vast majority—those who will never go to the Holy Land—that they too can find their Bible study enriched and increasingly profitable for themselves and others if they keep in mind certain things that a trip to Israel can teach.
I (James) share Tim’s quandary. I toured Israel in 2014 and had a very significant experience. I came back wanting to create a similar experience for people from my own congregation and beyond. There is something about being in the Holy Land that is life-changing. I was surprised to learn that Tim had never been there, and our plans to organize the tour began a year ago.
I fully realize that no one needs to go to the Holy Land to encounter the Spirit and to have a meaningful experience with God. It is because of Jesus and the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we can have that transformational encounter wherever we find ourselves. One of the ongoing reminders from being in Israel is that our relationship with Jesus and our Bible reading does not and should not depend on having been to the Holy Land.
So why go? Without a doubt, each visitor will have their own set of answers. Experiencing the Holy Land reminded and inspired us to always keep in mind at least five things. These five reminders shape our reading of the Bible far more than knowing how deep the Sea of Galilee is, how impregnable Masada really was and exactly where Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Besides the relational and spiritual highlights of the trip itself, here are our five top takeaways.
1. Jesus really did get his feet dusty. Many of us grew up convinced that Jesus was God but not really convinced that Jesus was fully human. The early church called this viewpoint the heresy of Docetism. When one has the opportunity to walk the same roads Jesus walked, stand on the same temple steps he ascended and cross the same sea he so often crossed, Jesus becomes real—really real!
Jesus did not hover a few feet above the ground as “God in disguise,” fooling most people into thinking he was human. He was human! He was one of us: eating, sleeping, walking and spitting. Yes, the Bible refers to this more than once! Jesus was one of us. He was more, but not less. Visiting the places where Jesus did so many things helps chase away the last vestiges of our inherited Docetism.
2. Crowds of people regularly mobbed Jesus. “If only the tour group in front of us would hurry, we could get on with our planned activities.” “I wonder how long it will take to get through this line.” Yes, sometimes we were impatient tourists. But what an important reminder of what Jesus faced every day.
It took great effort for Jesus to find lonely places for prayer and reflection. Most times the crowds pressed around. He lived a very public life; that is what he came to do. And that meant he had to prioritize. The crowds are clamoring, so what exactly is God’s plan for me today, to maximize the ministry God has called me to do? We suspect that was the burden of many of Jesus’s prayers. What a great reminder that it should be at the center of ours as well.
3. Jesus never went to church. OK, that needs explanation. Of course Jesus attended synagogue services, regularly. And seeing ruins of ancient synagogues in Israel helps us appreciate what that meant. But there is now a cathedral built over every probable (and sometimes improbable) location for events in Jesus’ life: where Mary was first visited by Gabriel, where Jesus was likely born, a plausible location for the crucifixion and the burial and even the place where Jesus cooked fish for a men’s breakfast. Cathedrals everywhere! And they facilitate worship and wonder.
But Jesus never entered a cathedral. There were none for centuries after his life on earth. And that must remind us constantly that Jesus was a Jew, living a Jewish life in a Jewish context. Often our cathedrals, as well intentioned as we may be in constructing them, hide the real Jesus as much as highlight him. When the Jesus we experience in our worship sanctuaries looks too much like our religious priorities and us, we would do well to get out those Bible encyclopedias again and balance the picture.
4. Jesus never meditated at the stations of the cross. The Via Dolorosa (the route along which Jesus wound his way from Pilate’s Hall to the place of crucifixion) is often symbolized in our churches and celebrated during Lent as a quiet meditative “journey” toward the cross. If any tourist expects to find that kind of “Via Dolorosa” in the Old City of Jerusalem, they will be sorely disappointed.
One must push their way through narrow alleys along with hundreds of tourists, past security forces and shop keepers hawking religious symbols and paraphernalia for “worship.” This is exactly what it was like when Jesus was pushed and shoved through the crowded city streets on the way to the cross.
Jesus’ crucifixion was, by design, a very public event. Yes, let’s meditate on it, but let’s not let our meditations cause us to think anyone else was meditating along that road. Whatever else Jesus’ death represents, it represents his willingness to be abused, pushed, shoved and mocked very publically right through the heart of the city. We will never experience “the stations of the cross” the same again.
5. Jesus lived in a context of conflict and racial tension. In Jesus’s day the Romans were in control. Their garrisons were very visible. Soldiers stood ready to intervene at the slightest provocation. Jesus lived in the middle of all that and provocatively he healed and served both his fellow Jews and their enemies—Samaritans and Romans. Today Israeli troops patrol Jerusalem. One step out of line and those considered a threat are restrained or worse.
There are no easy solutions to the current racial tensions. But being there reminded us that Jesus lived through very similar experiences and responded with love to both “terrorist” and “peacekeeper,” to both “foreigner” and “citizen.” In fact, he avoided labeling people in these ways, unless it was to affirm or restore the outsider. There is so much we can learn from Jesus’ way of making peace.
No, you do not need to go to Israel to be convinced of these five points. But for us, being there was a great reminder of them all.
James Bergen is pastor of North Fresno MB Church and Tim Geddert is professor of New Testament at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.
The wonders of a visit to the Holy Land
The main concern in this article is to share ways in which a visit to the Holy Land can revolutionize Bible reading and teaching, for those who go and for those who do not! Of course a Holy Land tour can be wonderful in lots of ways that have little to do with accurate and effective Bible reading and teaching. Our tour group experienced those wonderful things every day.
There was the amazing comradery of 26 eager tourists piling up adventure upon adventure. There were times of moving worship as we boated across the Sea of Galilee, huddled in a small cavern that just might be the very place Jesus was born and created our own Sunday morning worship service on a bus while crossing the Jordanian desert on our way to Petra.
There were all the fun times: swimming in the Dead Sea, seeing three of Israel’s neighboring countries (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) while wading in the Red Sea, eating fabulous meals in fancy hotel restaurants and in tiny cafes and enjoying (and sometimes enduring) the unending jokes coming from Boaz, our eminently qualified Israeli tour guide. And of course just the sheer wonder of experiencing the lush agriculture and the barren deserts, the horrors of the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian tensions, the crowded markets, the 1500-year-old cathedrals and many ruins twice as old as that. —James Bergen and Tim Geddert
Tools to use when traveling from home
While many in our tour group were standing wide-eyed and saying, “I never imagined it would look like this!” I (Tim) sometimes found myself saying, “This looks really familiar.” Why? I had never been there before.
Well, for the last 45 years as a Bible student and 30 years as a Bible teacher, I have used Bible dictionaries and atlases, watched videos that reconstruct first century life in ancient Israel, and read commentaries without end. There are a host of tools available in bookstores and online so that one can become pretty familiar with the history, geography, customs and even the worldviews of the peoples and lands encountered in Scripture . . . without ever going there.
Here is a list of some general resources you may want to add to your own library or that of your church.
Zondervan NIV Study Bible, general editor D.A. Carson. Built from the ground up to reflect the most current 21st century scholarship, Carson, along with a team of over 60 contributors, crafted all-new study notes, book and section introductions, a library of articles and other study tools that specifically focus on biblical theology.
The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible by Gordon D. Fee and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Marked by a broad evangelical perspective, up-to-date research and contributions from respected biblical scholars, The Eerdmans Companion to the Bible offers a reliable and illuminating guide to the entire Bible. Whether readers find the Bible familiar or foreign, they will appreciate the Companion’s informative articles and its commentary by Connie Gundry Tappy on all of the Old and New Testament books. This comprehensive reference work promises to make the Word of God come alive as never before.
Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary by J.D. Douglas and Merrill C. Tenney, edited by Moises Silva. This resource provides a visually stimulating journey for anyone interested in learning more about the world of the Bible. Through the articles, sidebars, charts, maps and full-color images included in this volume, the text of the Old and New Testaments will come alive for you as never before. The information contained within this reference work is solid and biblically sound.
These next resources are from the reading list for trip to the Holy Land we led.
The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor. This popular handbook offers tourists an indispensable, illustrated guide to over 200 of the most important archeological and religious sites in the City of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Bergen considers it the most exhaustive and extensive resource of its kind.
I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor's Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. A gut-wrenching look into the horror of Gaza from the personal and tragic story of the author’s own life and experience.
The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan. Based on his 1998 NPR documentary, Tolan personalizes the Arab-Israeli conflict by tracing the intertwined lives of a Palestinian refugee named Bashir Al-Khairi and a Jewish settler named Dalia Eshkenazi Landau. A great book that really demonstrates the Arab-Israeli dilemma.
The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land, by Charles Dyer and Gregory Hatteberg. Detailed maps and descriptions of most of the holy land sites. Includes all the biblical references of each site.
Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, by Martin Fletcher. As longtime chief of NBC's Tel Aviv news bureau, Martin Fletcher walks the entire coast of Israel and tells of his encounters (and encompassing history) along the way. Sophisticated overview of the issues if you want to do the work of walking with Martin.
What is Palestine-Israel? Answers to Common Questions, by Sonia K. Weaver. Some of the questions Mennonite workers in Palestine regularly receive from supporters in Canada, the United States, and beyond, along with straightforward answers. —James Bergen and Tim Geddert
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