Emma and I returned a couple days ago from a remarkable week in Israel. It was all grace – a trip sponsored by the World Outreach Fund for pastors and spouses, so we went as guests and loved interacting with the other ministry couples who were on the trip with us. It was a spiritually refreshing time. There’s so very much to think about and reflect on, but for now I’ll boil it down to four things I’ve been considering.
(1) The Capernaum synagogue. This synagogue sits amidst the humble homes of Capernaum (note in the photo how small and close together the homes were). The current synagogue is from the 4th-5th century AD, but the foundation of black stones (see in the photo) is likely from the first century, so we know that Jesus was right here in this spot. Mark 1.21 say: ‘And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.’ John 6.59 says: ‘Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum’. That’s the synagogue foundation we saw. Seeing places where we know Jesus spent time was powerful for me; it reinforced in my own mind the smallness of Jesus’ humble origins and his limitations as a human being, which makes it all the more amazing that he is the most influential person in the history of the world.
(2) The Temple Mount in Jerusalem was unbelievably impressive (see my photo, taken from the Mount of Olives, and notice the massive retaining walls). We walked down into tunnels way under the current ground level and saw what would have been the ground-level stones of the western wall (in the photo we’re standing in front of those stones). It was one of the larger construction projects of the first century BC. Construction began in 20 BC and (according to John 2.20) lasted for 46 years, until 26 AD. And then in 70 AD (just 44 years after completion!) it was demolished by the Romans, under Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. We saw some of the giant stones that had been thrown down by the Romans (see the photo). Our PCF Fighter Verse while we were in Israel was Psalm 103.15-16: ‘As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.’ Realizing the short-lived nature of Herod’s massive building project brought this truth home to me in a fresh way.
(3) As we walked around the Temple Mount and marveled at the scale of the building project, as we realized that Herod’s temple would have been far taller than the current Dome of the Rock (which dominates Jerusalem), I thought about what the Apostle Paul says to a bunch of formerly-pagan Christians in 1 Corinthians 3.16-17: ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’ 1 Corinthians was likely written in the early 50s AD, when the Jerusalem temple was still standing. The book of Hebrews was written likely between 50-70 AD, so it too was written while the temple was still standing, while the high priests were still serving. And the author of Hebrews says in 5.14: ‘Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.’ He says in 7.26-28: ‘For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.’
(4) It was an amazing privilege to spend eight days in Israel. I have no doubt it will help my preaching and teaching since I can now envision places I read about in the Bible. But I was also drawn to think about John 20.29 while we were in Israel. In that passage, Thomas has just pronounced one of the great confessions of Jesus in the whole gospel. He says, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20.28). Jesus responds in verse 29: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ I think it’s highly unlikely that Jesus is reprimanding Thomas, who has just spoken one of the climactic confessions of who he is. Jesus doesn’t begrudge Thomas’ sight. But Jesus does pronounce a blessing upon all who have not seen and yet have believed. And then John immediately writes this in verses 30-31: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ In other words, John is saying: this gospel is enough. In the future, you will not be able to see the risen Christ as Thomas did, but that’s okay. You’re not at a disadvantage, because this gospel is enough to tell you about Jesus so that you may believe, so that you may have life in Jesus’ name. Traveling to Israel is a massive blessing. But it’s not necessary. The Word of God is necessary. And it’s enough to lead each one of us to life-giving belief in Jesus.