As you read this article I will have recently returned from a visit again to Israel, the land of our Lord, with a fine group of people from our area. It is hard to describe to someone who has not been there the unique and special appeal of this tiny piece of arid geography tucked in an out-of-the-way corner of the earth along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. This remarkable land has cradled the faith of three major world religions, Judaism, the Muslim religion and Christianity.
“To the Jew, this is the Holy Land of promise! Four thousand years ago Abraham responded to the call of the living God to leave Ur of the Chaldees and make his way to the land of promise. Here the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob were born. Here Joshua marched with the children of Israel to recapture the land. Here the Judges, Samson, Samuel and others ruled. Here David was anointed King, Solomon built the first Temple and the golden age of Judaism flourished. Here the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others thundered their message.” To this day Jews still claim this land as their heritage and dream of a restoration of the kingdom Jews once knew.
It is also a Holy Land to the vast Arab world of the Middle East. The great majority of these people are Muslim. They consider Jerusalem and in particular, the Temple Mount, as second only to Mecca in sacred significance. They believe the prophet Mohammed ascended from earth in the Temple area of Jerusalem into heaven and returned to live and die in Medina.
Most of all, Israel is sacred to Christians because it was the home on earth of Jesus Christ. Here He was born to the virgin Mary. In this land He was God in the flesh who walked and talked, helped and healed, died and rose again. It is the place on earth where God broke through in revelation and worked out His eternal plan and purpose for the redemption of mankind.
A visit to Israel makes the Bible come alive for believers. While you did not travel with us, let me give you a brief walk through the most important of the places we visited. Perhaps it will encourage you to study your Bible more and perhaps one day to aspire to travel to Israel. Four major points of interests, or what I might call pillars of the Christian faith, stand out to me.
The first pillar is Bethlehem, place of the Incarnation. It was a tiny village six miles south of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. We know it as the place of the virgin birth of Jesus. It is surrounded by the Judean hills where taking care of sheep goes on to this day. Bethlehem was prophesied as the birthplace of the Messiah by Micah long before the birth of Christ. History tells us the place where Jesus was born was most likely a cave in the side of a hill. This would have been a common means for people to have their homes in that day. The concept of an “innkeeper” as we think of it today was probably foreign to the time of Jesus.
When Constantine became a Christian in 325 A.D., his mother Helena came to the Holy Land and sought to preserve Christian sites including Bethlehem. She built a church over the site and called it the Church of the Nativity. The foundations stones are still there though others are built over it. The Roman Emperor built a pagan altar over the traditional place of Jesus’ birth in an effort to stamp out Christianity.
The importance of Bethlehem for Christians is the incarnation. This pillar of our faith says that God came in flesh and blood to dwell among us. This Baby was God himself come to us. He came that we might know what He is like. Men always sought to worship some kind of God but never knew who or what He was. God was not just lightning, thunder, justice, energy, but rather a person who comes to deal with people.
The highest expression of faith is not intellectual acceptance of a theological idea or even ethical conduct. The ultimate expression is a personal relationship with God. The Christian faith is not what we believe about God, but rather that we believe Him and have a personal relationship with Him.
The second pillar of our faith centers around a hill we call Calvary. It is the place of the atonement. Atonement is a word in our faith which means to set right or strait. Calvary is where Jesus died on the cross. We believe the sinless Son of God died in our place for our sin in order to provide a way for us to be set right with God. No other religion has ever had anything like this. Other religions understand the concept of atonement, but always make it our act by some sacrifice on man’s part, even human sacrifice.
Instinctively in every human heart is the consciousness of sin. We know we are not worthy to meet God. Worship is not praise for them, but hope of appeasement in every other faith but ours. They talk about offerings. Christians talk about God’s offering.
The third pillar of the Christian faith is the Garden Tomb, the place of resurrection. Excavations have shown this was the garden of a wealthy man named Joseph. A large cistern uncovered showed a great water supply for a beautiful garden of Olive trees and a magnificent olive press. Nearby is also a tomb carved out of solid rock which belonged to this man. Being just a few hundred feet from the place of execution most Christians have come to believe this is the tomb in which Jesus was buried.
From this tomb Jesus stepped forth alive. The grave could not hold him. Our destiny is not a six foot ditch in the ground. Our direction is not down but up. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life…because I live you shall live also.” That is the promise of Jesus.
The fourth pillar is found by walking out the gate of the city of Jerusalem, across the Kidron valley and ascending up a long sloping hill to the top of the Mount of Olives. It is on this hill most people get that magnificent view of the city of Jerusalem with the gleaming gold dome. On a rock on that hill Jesus stood with his disciples and others and ascended back to the Father. Two men in white appeared saying, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand you here gazing? This same Jesus shall in like manner return.” The Mount of Olives is the final pillar of the Christian faith. It represents the hope of all believers for the return of Christ. We await the return of the living Christ to draw all believers unto Himself.
The visit to the Holy Land reminds us that God is not through with this world. Moslem pilgrims go to Mecca, Medina and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But they remember a dead leader, Mohammed. We came not to venerate a dead leader, but to celebrate a living Lord who is coming again.
What Christ came to do was not finished at Calvary. He paid the price. He showed death is not the end. His return is when time will be over and we will either be with Him forever or in a place of eternal lostness forever. On these four pillars, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection and the return of Christ, our faith rests as Christians.
In these brief words, I trust you have come to understand a visit to the Holy Land is not simply a tour. It is a journey of the heart. It is a spiritual pilgrimage. It is for believers, a chance to experience faith and to feel the presence of the living Lord in a way never before known.