Our last day in Israel was today! It was a wonderful day and we saw some really amazing sites.
The first site that we went to was the Temple Mount. Located on the top of Mt. Moriah, the Dome of the Rock is a beautiful octagonal building capped with a large golden dome. This building is the oldest Muslim building that still stands and, according to post-Quranic tradition, it was the site where Muhammed ascended to Heaven – Led Zeppelin style. But this site has a much older event associated with its particular location, as well. If you remember, Mt. Moriah is where Abraham brought Isaac to offer him as a sacrifice to God. This particular rock also became the Holy of Holies for the 1st and 2nd Temples. It has been an extremely significant site for Jewish worship dating back to when King Solomon built the first temple around 950 BC. The second
Next, we made our way to the site of the last supper. This is the place where Jesus washed his disciples feet, took the passover meal, and the New Covenant! We sat in the church and read from Matthew what took place in this very spot. It is such a crazy experience to be where these amazing events took place!
From the Upper Room to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher we went. This is a very simple church on the outside, but beyond amazing and complicated on the inside. This church was built around the site Saint Helena (Constantine’s mom) thought to be Golgatha and the tomb of Jesus. We first went up the stairs and saw part of Mt. Moriah thought to be the crucification spot. We also saw the stone slabbed believed to be where they they laid Jesus’ body after taking him down from the cross. Last, we saw the tomb of Jesus. Helena’s passion drove her to have the tomb carved out from the mountain so that it stands alone one flat ground. It is truly a spectacular site.
We ended our Israel trip with a visit to the Garden tomb. This is another location believed to be the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried. We listened as they laid out thirteen details from scripture supporting this location. Some include: being at “Golgatha” meaning the skull and here the hill is referred to as that, near a major road, outside the city, having a garden (they found a wine press and cistern here), and the fact that this tomb was owned by a wealthy man. We saw inside the tomb and then ended our time here in a separate area. We sang worship songs and took communion together. There was no better way to end the trip than by worshipping and remembering what Jesus has done in our lives and specifically on this trip.
Today, we were up as early as we have been since our time in Israel. We loaded the bus and departed our hotel at 7:30am. This is proof that they (the kids) can wake up early in the summer. Our first stop was the iconic and amazing Western Wall. As we approached, having already gone through security, many of us initially just took in the site of all those already there that were praying. Easily, there were 3-4 generations at the Wall reciting their prayers. Many of the kids went up to the Wall and started praying. It is an extremely powerful thing to see when we get a chance to witness the kids taking it upon themselves to grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. What was unique about the Western Wall was that we actually only saw a small portion of what used to be there. And though it may “only” be a retaining wall of what once stood, the power of so many there in pursuit of God helped us to dive into prayer with them.
As we left the Western Wall and went right to the Western Wall tunnel. We had a chance to see how the Wall was built and how the Temple Mount may have looked during the Second Temple Period. While in the tunnel, we were walking just below the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. We had the unique opportunity to see another portion of the Western Wall as it was excavated underground. It was completely insane to see all of the tunnels and arches and how they supported a vibrant community above us. As we navigated the tunnels, we had the opportunity to go through an underground Synagogue and to see many Jewish women praying at the Wall. This is just a small piece of the history that we have seen and know about.
As we came to the end of the tunnel we found ourselves at the heart of the Muslim Quarter. We made our way down a narrow street, dodging street vendors and many scooters, to arrive at Ecce Homo (Behold the Man). It was at this site, within what we believe was the Antonia Fortress, that Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus Christ before giving Him over to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Olivia Armitage shared about Christ’s suffering and how he chose that because of the love that He has for us. What is exciting about our time in Israel is to see how various parts of the country share so much history.
Here is one of the best things about this year’s trip: the kids do such an amazing job of being on time and enthusiastic that it allows for us to fit in other venues that were not originally scheduled. For instance, today after our visit to Ecce Homo, we were able to quickly walk to a nearby Swiss Hotel/Hostel with a killer view. We could see the entirety of the Muslim Quarter, as well as see much of the old city. Afterwards, we even had some time to spend sipping on some iced coffee and sitting in their garden area.
Next up, St. Anne’s Cathedral and the Bethesda Pools. Now, St. Anne’s doesn’t hold a ton of Biblical significance for us but the acoustics make it a fantastic place to sing some worship songs. Olivia belted out some beautiful melodies for us to catch onto and we lifted up a sweet aroma of music to God. Just outside the cathedral is the site of the Pools of Bethesda. This is where Jesus healed the immobile man, ailed for 38 years. It is interesting to note that this miracle is a little different from others in two ways. Firstly, Jesus heals the man before he even knows who Jesus is. This doesn’t seem to be a miraculous healing because of the man’s faith, but because of his desperation to be healed. Secondly, Jesus tells him to “take [his] mat and go,” and then goes and pursues him afterward. This is our God, is it not? Taking whatever we have to give – faith or desperation – and chasing us down with grace and compassion.
To finish the first half of our day, we headed to a very special site for sifting materials that were excavated from Jerusalem. We help archeologists sort through pounds of raw material in search of artifacts from up to 2000 years ago! We found ancient pottery, glass, and bone that match other findings dating all the back to the time of Jesus.
Then lunch, phew.
After a quick shawarma, we made the trek down to the City of David. It’s located just to the south of Jerusalem. The ruins are reliably dated to the actual years of King David! That is over 3000 years old! At the very top of the hill, there’s a palace, cleansing pools, and unique pillar that points only to one thing – this was David’s residence. Incredible! The recently excavated site also gives us a great insight into the passages especially that talk about David and Bathsheba. Joe Ruiz led us through the familiar narrative and beautifully laid out the unraveling of David’s decision-making. The message culminated with one simple point, forgiveness is always the best way back.
The bottom of the City of David connected to a dramatic story from King Hezekiah’s plight against the Assyrians. You’ll have to google the story but the short of it is that the source of water for the city was outside the town and not easily defensible. So, Hezekiah decides that they need to take the water and bring it into the city walls. This would mean that his men would need to dig a tunnel through a limestone hillside and channel the water. So they did. One team started at one side, the other team started at the other. By the sheer grace of God and the Assyrians bearing down on them, they met each other in the middle. Scientists and historians, to this day, still have no idea how they did it.
The tunnel ends at the Pools of Siloam and I (Drew) took the opportunity to read through the healing of the blind man in John 9. It was in this narrative that we find Jesus inviting the blind man into the process of his own healing. He doesn’t just heal the man, he tells him to, “go and wash.” It’s really amazing that God invites us into the process of healing even though it can be messy. Also, because of the long walk that the blind man must go on to be healed, he has a long walk back. On his way back, he looks so different to the people who’d known him as the blind man, that they question if that was even really him. So, not only does he get the chance to participate in his own healing, but he immediately gets the chance to talk about it. To me, there is some level of our trip that is so similar. Coming to Israel was no small journey, and after having seen and heard the things that we have, we really do have new eyes for the Bible and God. So, I am excited to hear about the memories that will be our stories to tell and the impact that those stories will have on the people who hear them.
We took today as a quasi-recovery day in preparation for our last two days in Israel. We slept in until almost 8:00, some of you are probably laughing because you know how late many of these kids normally sleep in till. For us, 8:00 was almost an hour more than we’d gotten since landing in country. It’s true, we’ve been pushing the students hard to fit in as much as possible, and they’ve responded beautifully. They really seem to be loving how much they’ve been able to see and experience. But now, as we look at the next two days, we decided a bit of a drive off the beaten path would do our team well.
So, we drove out of Jerusalem to the Valley of Elah! It may be the site of the most iconic narrative in all of Scripture. This is the site of the famous battle between David and Goliath. I (Drew) took the opportunity to push the students deeper into the interpretation of 1 Samuel 17. The story isn’t most fundamentally about us fighting battles with the help of God, but rather, God WINNING our battles for us. We are not the “David” of the story, we are the scared Israelites. David is a type of Christ. He is the one that charges out and slays our enemies. He is the one that stands victorious over Goliath. I think that if we read the passage through that lens, our interpretation will be more accurate and our worship will be more passionate. Hallelujah!
After some time wandering around the valley, we went to The New Market for lunch, back in Jerusalem. It’s an open air market with lots of adventurous things to try. Some of us had Yemenite Cuisine, while others ate chicken livers, one lucky person even got to try an Israeli Banana Split. Yum!
We ended our day with a gut-wrenching site, Yad Vashem. This is the Holocaust Museum. It details the madness that fell upon the Jews only 80 years ago. The darkness and insanity that was described in those walls is difficult to process and hard even to hear about. It is a time in humanity that we will never forget and never should.
Pastorally, it was important to me that we took our students to Yad Vashem. It was also important to me that we didn’t end the day like that. So, we went for a quick jaunt to the Old City of Jerusalem after dinner. Some of the night life, mint lemonades, and laughter put smiles back on our faces and ready to rest for the evening. I’ve never seen a Rabbi play a Fender Stratocaster before tonight…
We started our day at the Mt. of Olives and what a sight to behold! The view of Jerusalem was insane and listening to our guide talk, we could picture Old Jerusalem in our minds. We left from there and headed down the Palm Sunday way to the Garden of Gethsemane. Once there, we visited a garden of olive trees and saw The Church of All Nations. It is a beautiful church and we saw (and then heard) a mass taking place in Latin! The olive trees are amazing on this side of the street because they are so twisted. They do not have growth rings and so, they cannot be dated. Tradition tells us that these particular trees have been around for many hundreds of years – maybe even witnessed the garden scene on the night Jesus was betrayed. Their mangled form seems to testify of the agony Jesus went through.
From there we went across the street to the Garden of Gethsemane. We spent some time as a group with Britnie reminding us of what Jesus did for us knowing what was coming and still chose to go through it. We then spread throughout the breathtaking garden to reflect independently on Matthew 26 and Jesus’ time in Gethsemane, the “pressing” He experienced, and the love He has for us.
From there, we headed to Bethlehem for lunchtime and to see the shepherd fields and cave. We had another wonderful lunch here at the Grotto restaurant (which is owned by Christians). We got more than our fill of pita, hummus, salads, and meats. After lunch we walked down the street to the Bethlehem Shepherd Fields. The families in the area are still shepherds and these fields are still used for shepherding. From an overlook, we were also able to go down into a cave. Contrary to popular belief, this is most likely what Jesus was born in and placed in a stone – not wooden – manger. This was an amazing experience and opportunity to see the town Jesus was born in and a more accurate idea of the scene he was really born in, as opposed to European art that we typically picture.
We started our trip back towards Jerusalem to end our day at the Israeli museum. We saw an incredible model representation of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. In comparison to the Temple Mount, the Second Temple was 2.5x taller! What an impressive feat it was to build!
We also saw some pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We had stopped at Qum’ran earlier in our trip, where these scrolls were found, and it was cool to see some of the scrolls that came from those caves. This was the most important find to show how the Bible hasn’t changed over the thousands of years that it has been copied. The most impressive was the Isaiah scroll, which we saw a copy of. We also saw the Aleppo Codex, a hand sewn, leather bound, medieval bible that was written in Tiberius.
Jerusalem is amazing and so incredibly rich with the history of our faith!
The first half of our day today was spent with the students at the Nazareth Baptist School. The school’s director, Butros Mansour, taught us about the background of the school and the long standing relationship between the school and Maranatha Chapel. The Nazareth Baptist School is the ONLY Arab-speaking, Christian school under the Israeli Board of Education. In addition, they consistently rank in the top 10 performing schools in Israel, academically.
After learning about the school, they released us to be with the children in classrooms and play yard. We played different sports with them and had amazing conversations. They are incredibly smart for 4-6 graders. Many of them know 5 languages, and can carry on a fluent English conversation! The school has students from many different religious backgrounds and is a sort of mini-mission field. Butros does make the Christian chapel services mandatory for students, ensuring that they all learn about Jesus. It was a great opportunity for our team to bring so much joy onto their campus because of our mutual connection to Jesus.
Our time at the school ended and we headed to Nazareth Village. This site is a reconstruction of the farm land that actually did exist during Jesus’ lifetime. When they purchased the land and started building, they ran into a problem. The organization couldn’t proceed with grading the land because there were actual artifacts found beneath the surface! It turned out, they had accidentally purchased the land of an ancient farm. There were terraces etched into the stone of the hillside and even a wine press chiseled out of the rock. So cool! They served us lunch and then gave us a tour of the property. The tour ended in their reconstructed synagogue which was meticulously checked to ensure historical accuracy. In the synagogue, the tour guide took us back in time to the moment when Jesus makes His emphatic claim to deity after reading the scroll from Isaiah 61.
It was a great day and we ended it by finally driving into Jerusalem on Sabbath. The city is shut down and totally alive. Can’t wait for tomorrow!
Our morning started with a bang! We raced out to Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene, or as earlier tradition knows her – Maria Magdalena. Such a nice ring to it, right? We saw empirical proof of the existence of a small synagogue from the time of Jesus in Magdala! Also, a stone that the scriptures were set on to be read for those gathered. On this important stone were images that had been seen and copied from those said to have existed only in the second temple. Amazing!
Next off, we saw a small fishing boat that was dated to the time of Jesus. It was much smaller than what we had imagined when reading through narrative of Jesus sleeping in the hull while the storm raged around the disciples.
Since we were there at the shores of the Sea of Galilee, we caught a boat ride out on the water. We read from the amazing passage where Jesus calms the storm and the disciples, amazed, ask their famous question, “Who is this that the wind and the seas obey Him?” What better response than to reflect on God’s glory and power through worship? So, that’s what we did. Can you believe that we sang worship songs to God on the Sea of Galilee today!
From the shores of Galilee up to the hills of Tel Dan. This nature reserve offers some breathtaking greenery and cold, refreshing pools to cool off. The walk led up to the ancient city established by the Tribe of Dan. At the anti-altar built by the tribe, Joe taught about God’s faithfulness. The type of steadfastness that stares jealousy and pride in the face and chooses to love again.
From the hills Tel Den to the site of Caesarea Philippi we went. This location had a dark history of demonic worship hundreds of years long by the time Jesus and his disciples show up on the scene. Britnie taught a great lesson here on the life of Peter and the power that only Jesus has to transform our lives. Isn’t it so true that Jesus has the life-giving power to change the identity of a person and even the entire narrative of a place like Caesarea Philippi – from demonic worship to go-to site for us to take Christians for the sake of talking about God!
From there, we ate lunch with the Druze who may be the best cooks in Northern Israel.
A quick drive up the Damascus road from the Druze village, Mt. Bental. This overlook peers deeply across the border into Syria – a border that has declared a cease-fire – but is working toward peace. Our church has relationships with missionaries in Syria and has done work with the refugees back in San Diego. It was a hard but worthy task to learn about the conflict between Israel and Syria from our guide. He pushed us to try to see the conflict from both sides and helped us develop hope for future understanding.
After this complex look into modern day political tension, we switched gears and headed to our final site for the day, the Mount of Beatitudes. Wow. We had done so much today, it would have easy to blow through here. Instead, we decided to slow down and spent some personal time with God. From floating on the Sea of Galilee to overlooking it from the Mount of Beatitudes, it’s been one of those days that you just hold on to.
Today began with a beautiful hike down Mt. Arbel. This gave us an incredible view of the Sea of Galilee. We climbed down the cliffside with the assistance of some cables and metal footsteps at a few especially steep spots. We stopped along the way down to visit some caves that had been carved out of the hillside during the time of Herod the Great.
Our next stop was Capernaum, which is also known as “The Town of Jesus.” Jesus spent the better part of 3 years in this town, and performed many of His recorded miracles in this small area. We walked around this place and took in the places where he walked, slept, and taught. Drew taught a great message in the synagogue about some of the healings that took place in this town. He encouraged us to see the ways that God can bring restoration and resurrect even the most broken places in our lives.
Before leaving Capernaum, we found a quiet spot by the shore where Joe encouraged the students that God is always in the midst of a powerful work in our lives. We gave the students an opportunity to share about why they wanted to get baptized later that day, and many of them shared about the ways that God is working in and through them.
After a quick lunch, we drove over to the ruins of an ancient city called Beit She’an. Walking through this well-preserved site is an incredible experience! We climbed up to a beautiful overlook where our wonderful tour guide read one of David’s laments that referenced the death of his friend Jonathan at the top of Mount Gilboa.
Finally, we headed to our final stop for the day – the Jordan River. So many of our students took this powerful step of faith. Most of them spoke about the work God was doing to establish their identity in Him alone. We were overjoyed and honored to a part of their journey with Him and cannot wait to see what He’s going to do with them next!
We spent today with our friends in Ariel (Ah-rē-el). We started off by meeting the staff at the leadership center and learning a little about their community. Then they took us out to get the full experience on the ropes course. We talked about fear, leaned on each other, conquered many challenges, and laughed a lot. It was a fantastic time to grow together as a team.
After lunch, we headed over to the teen center to meet some of the local youth. They introduced to some of the CRAZY games that they love to play. The games themselves were physically challenging and presented some really hilarious moments. And it was in these moments that a sense of familiarity grew. After a few short minutes, we had already forgotten who was American and who was Israeli. There was just a group of young people building relationships and laughing with each other. We stopped at different intervals to talk about life and the things we like to do. It was a great reminder to see and hear that we are not so different from each other. We will continue to pray for the teens in Ariel and the friends we’ve made.
We had a long drive from Ariel to tonight’s location, so we hopped on the bus and we were off. We’re now turned in for the night and trying to catch up on some well earned and much needed rest.
What a day!
We began at the impressive fortress of Masada. One of Herod’s brilliant and paranoia-driven building projects in the Dead Sea region. The site bares historic significance because of the dark end of the Jewish zealot rebellion against Rome. The jaw-dropping engineering feats of redirecting flash floods into huge cisterns, sheer size of the food cellars, roman style bathhouse, and multiple palaces were a sight to see.
Next off we headed to one of the most iconic scenes in the Davidic narrative: the caves at En Gedi. The Dead Sea region is the hottest in Israel and today was no exception. Easily in the triple digits, our group made the long and rewarding hike up to the waterfalls. We saw Ibex’ and hyrax’ on the way, so cute. The kids loved splashing around and laying in the shallow pool at the base of a waterfall. We wasted no time walking to the bus after getting out of the water. Is then on the air conditioned bus and away from the noise that we focused in on reading through this dramatic narrative. It was a great look back into the incredible trust that David had in God faithfulness to His promise. David could rest in knowing that it was God who had given His word and it would be God to keep it. With that in mind, David could go against the opinions of his men and even what the circumstance seemed to ask for. May we too experience this same hope, faith, and trust.
Just up the road, Qum’ran. This is the site of the famous and incredibly important Dead Sea Scrolls. It really isn’t much to look at but the scrolls found here mean so much to the credibility of the Bible that we hold in our hands today. In short, these scrolls legitimize 1000 years of transcription and corroborate the historicity of the Biblical account. Our Bible simply hasn’t changed. This means that the prophecies and details in it were not written afterward and go so far in proving the divine inspiration of the writings. What an inspiration!
We stopped quickly at the Monestary of St. George of Choziba because it is an incredible site to look out over the Judean hills, where Jesus was tempted.
Finally, we ended our day with a meal at Genesis Land. The staff are actors who play the roles of Abraham and his servants. They feed us a phenomenal meal and treat us to a camel ride. It was a really fun way to end our day.
Can’t wait till tomorrow!