Lessons from the Holy Land
When Moses led the children of Israel from Egypt to Canaan, the King of Arad picked a fight with the Hebrews—and lost (Numbers 21:1-3). This triumph also represented God’s grace to the Hebrews in light of an earlier defeat they suffered there as a result of their lack of faith (Numbers 14:45). God then led the nation on a long detour around the Holy Land to the east of Edom. Not surprisingly, the people “became impatient because of the journey” (Numbers 21:4). Why in the world would God lead them that way? The long way seemed senseless. Impatience replaced faith. And yet by travelling up and down the land east of the Jordan River God had a much more strategic plan to conquer the land from the middle! Many times in our lives it seems like we are wandering to nowhere or that God is leading us the long way. In our impatience, Arad seems like the best point of entry. But only God sees the map from above, so He alone knows the best way to move forward. A corollary thought is that grumbling only makes the journey longer. It may seem easier to complain about difficult circumstances than to keep following the path God has for us. We must maintain our commitment to obey God and hold fast to Him, unlike the descendants of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, would later leave Jericho and resettled and yielded to the culture around them. The temple includes two stones that supposedly represent Yahweh and his Asherah, or wife! This is an excellent example of the corruption of true Yahweh worship and why the Scripture insists that God was only to be worshipped at the place which He chose (Deut. 12:1-8).
Beth Shemesh: Cisterns were very important in the land of Israel because of the long dry season and the relatively few natural springs. But a broken cistern was practically worthless. Cracked rock or crumbling masonry could hold only a small quantity of dirty water, or no water at all. Collecting and storing water in a broken cistern was about as smart as carrying a sieve for a canteen! We went into a broken cistern that could hold no refreshing water–not even a little bit! In fact they became places to put dead bodies. Cisterns did not become broken after some time of holding water. No, they were broken from the day they were built. They never held any water. This is always true of cisterns of our own making. Self-made attempts and schemes designed to find spiritual fulfillment apart from the Lord will inevitably result in failure–they are doomed from the start. Only God Himself can quench our spiritual thirst.
My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. Jer. 2:13
Beth Guvrin: I was startled by this area, with the hundreds of caves found there. From the caves in Mt. Arbel, to those that provide sheepfolds in Bethlehem, to the Qumran caves that preserved the Hebrew text, the land is honeycombed with caves. I know that caves are mentioned all throughout the Bible and were used as stables, burial sites, hiding places, cisterns, oil presses, baths, columbaria, places of religious worship, were quarried for other places and more. The one thing caves cannot do is avoid the judgment of God (Is. 2:19). The Prophet Micah hailed from this area in Maresha, where building under the ground was easier than building above ground, and his most famous verse revealed God’s basic standard for those who would walk with Him: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? —Micah 6:8. I was compelled to compare the caves to the hard hearts of the Hebrew people. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. — Proverbs 4:23
On topsoil one gets a panoramic view of the Hebron mountains and would never suspect a cave city underneath. Similarly, our hearts are hidden from view but protect everything else. By example, whenever there is something wrong with a computer, we pray that the problem is something minor. What we don’t want to hear is that the problem is with the “motherboard.” If the motherboard is broken, the rest of the device can’t be fixed. The Bible mentions several spiritual “heart conditions:” a hard heart (Exodus 4:21); a heart of stone (Ezekiel 36:26); a deceitful heart (Jeremiah 17:9); a perverse heart (Proverbs 11:20), and others. Like the motherboard of a computer, the heart is the control center; how am I safeguarding it?
Shephelah: In order to protect and control the land, the buffer of the foothills (Shephelah) was critical. Most of the battles happened in this zone. Throughout Old Testament history, Israel’s strength was determined by its control of the Shephelah.
If Israel had a presence in these valleys, they were strong. If they yielded and allowed the enemy to gain a foothold, they were weak. It makes me think of the spiritual implications. By way of example, as you take the high ground in your spiritual walk with God, realize that you always have an enemy attempting to get at you by gaining a foothold in your life. Stand firm and defend the land!
Dead Sea: Life is never better before God calls us; don’t look back to the former life.
Ein Gedi: After a few days in the desert, we visited this oasis that was David’s hiding place. I wondered as we hiked along at which of the many caves David hid from his adversary as a fugitive. Even when the enemy was vulnerable, David chose the right way. God’s way isn’t just the best way; it is the only way! The water is both powerful and peaceful and I can’t help but think about the 400 men who found refreshment in the same streams. I feel connected to this man who sought after the heart of God. I can see how he could compose such beautiful psalms in this setting. Ps. 42 says, “As a deer thirsts for streams of water, so my soul longs after you.”
Qumran: The people of this community were committed to God and his Word.
Galilee: The Sea of Galilee is a unique and harsh landscape that tells the story of life’s preciousness, fragility and determination to exist against all odds. The lake alone contains a variety of over 27 species of fish (some of which do not exist anywhere else in the world).
Capernaum: Most of Jesus’ miracles were done in this area, the headquarters of His earthly ministry. It was very moving to see the synagogue where he taught and Peter’s house, that Jesus visited often! As I reflected and read, I heard the Spirit speak through the word of Jesus. Woe to you, if after everything you have seen and been given, you still complain and expect more?! “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day” Matt. 11:25
Via Maris: Where God places us is no accident. Throughout biblical history, the land of Israel sat in an amazingly strategic position as the only intercontinental land bridge between the superpowers of the ancient world. The most important international highway of the Fertile Crescent ran the length of the land of Israel.
Any nation coming to or from Egypt, or traveling from the Mediterranean to the Gulf had to go through Israel. It’s all about influence. Unfortunately the nations influenced Israel toward idolatry rather than God’s people influencing the nations for the Lord as the world powers traveled through the land on the Via Maris. Ezekiel records how God lamented that Jerusalem’s placement as “the center of the nations” had borne no obedient fruit (Ezekiel 5:5). Similarly, God has placed us where we live, work, and worship in order for us to influence others for His glory (Esther 4:14). We have our own Via Maris. How often I pursue the wrong priority. My priority is Me. God’s priority, however, is God. As God appointed Ezekiel a “watchman to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:17), so the Lord Jesus calls us to share God’s Word with those He brings to us and those to whom He takes us. God calls us to make disciples of the nations rather than to become disciples of the nations.
Caesarea Philippi: Everyone has a moment of acknowledgement. Peter answered truthfully that Jesus is the Christ. It is critical that happens on this side of the Mercy Seat; one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord! This declaration, followed by a hike up to Mt Hermon, where Jesus was transformed became confirmation.
Tel Dan: In natural beauty, Tel Dan is amazing. For the Danites, it had everything necessary for abundant living. It was picturesque. It was convenient. It was invigorating. And it was a complete compromise of God’s will for the people to build their own temple. When Joshua parceled out the Promised Land, the tribe of Dan received a good portion in the south and west. But the location proved to be more than Danites could endure; so they left the land the Lord had allotted them, they migrated north, conquered Laish, and renamed it Dan. In addition to abandoning their territory, they also abandoned the God of Israel and erected a graven image to worship. By providing alternative places of worship, Jeroboam appealed to the laziness of the Danites. Worshipping at Tel Dan was far more luxurious than Jerusalem, and worshipping at Bethel was more convenient. Substituting the priests, the feast, the places—all were outside of God’s will. The world, the flesh, and the devil will always tempt us with Jeroboam’s words: “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem!” Sin has a way of offering more convenient and more attractive to our flesh. Our relationship with God must remain a matter of obedience before convenience.
Caesarea Maritima: Not everyone who promises you bread and circus is your friend. It may still cost you your freedom to yield to the enemy. Caesarea is frequently mentioned in the Book of Acts. Peter was sent by the Lord to share the gospel with a centurion named Cornelius who lived in Caesarea (Acts 10). This event opened the door for the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:18). How interesting that a city known for ethnic struggles between Jews and Gentiles would be the place that God chose to send the Jewish apostle Peter to proclaim the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius! According to the story, Peter had many reservations and had to be convinced by the Lord to go to the house of Cornelius. Could it be that some of the ethnic tension that Caesarea was known for contributed to his hesitation? It is possible that Philip, known as “The Evangelist” planted the first church in Caesarea. After teaching and baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip is said to have preached in many of the cities along the coast, ending up in Caesarea (Acts 8:40). When Paul visited Caesarea later, on his way to Jerusalem, he stayed in Philip’s house where we are also told that Philip had “four virgin daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:8-9). Some of my heroes: Philip and his four daughters who are involved in ministry. The hospitality, purity and faithfulness of this godly family is stunning. Caesarea is the city of Paul’s imprisonment, where he was sent with a Roman escort to Caesarea to appear before the Roman governor, Felix (Acts 23:20-35). Paul ended up staying in prison for 2 years in Caesarea. Paul’s stay in Caesarea ended when he appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome.
Jerusalem: The city is a city of walls. Stone is everywhere. This is one of the oldest cities in the world, perched atop a small mountain plateau that is an intersection of heaven and earth. This walled city creates a metaphor for the walls of division which various groups of inhabitants have built over the centuries. Yes, walls are built to protect and defend and yet those walls we build can never ensure our safety and survival. Real safety recognizes that vulnerability and runs to the strong tower : “The name of the LORD is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” Prov. 18:10
I was in His mind before the worlds were made,
I was in his mind before earth’s frame was laid,
because he knew me, because he loved me!
I was in His thoughts the night He prayed for me,
I was in His thoughts before Gethsemane,
because he saw me,
because He loved me!
I was in His heart when Calvary’s hill He climbed,
I was in His heart when he died for all mankind,
because he sought me, because he loved me!
I am in His mind, and soon he’ll come for me,
I am in His mind with Him in heaven to be,
because He wants me, because he loves me,
because he loves me!
Jesus was praying at Gethsemane before his arrest (for me), and I was struck with how very emotionally intense it was and then how odd it seemed that he had taken his disciples with him only to separate himself from them. Then it came to me that the very location of the event typified separation. Indeed, even though such a thing is never stated directly, the entire Mount of Olives is a symbol of division and separation. As I checked every mention of this location in the Bible, this signification became very clear. Knowing that the Mount of Olives is always associated with division affords us greater insight, because all that the Bible records as being said and done on the Mount can be considered from that perspective. Jesus made many visits to the Mount of Olives. In fact, it was “usual” for Him to go there when in the vicinity of Jerusalem . Every time Jesus visited Lazarus and Mary and Martha, He was on the Mount of Olives, for their village of Bethany was situated on the eastern slope. The road from Bethany to Jerusalem the Mount was a “sabbath day’s journey” from the city, that is, the maximum distance permitted by Jewish law for traveling on a Sabbath. On the back of his donkey, in the vicinity of Bethphage and Bethany, Jesus began his messianic entry into the Holy City, acclaimed by the festive crowds Luke, in particular, stressed Jesus’ frequent visits to the Mount of Olives, where he went to pass the night and to instruct his disciples and it was here that he ascended to Heaven.
According to the prophet Zechariah, Jesus will return not only in the same way, but to the same place. In a prophecy related to the end times, Zechariah declares, “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south” (Zechariah 14:4). The very location where David wept in defeat and where Jesus was betrayed and rejected will be the place where Jesus returns in triumph over all His enemies.
It was here that I had an interesting insight into the Cursing of the Fig Tree as part of a “sandwich” truth in Mark’s gospel. After the Triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Bethany for the evening. Mark tends to “sandwich” one account between two piece of another story. In this case, he’s put the story of Jesus’ actions in the Temple between the cursing of the fig tree and the disciples noticing that the tree is dying. One of the reasons that this passage gives people fits is because it looks like Jesus is having a huge tantrum. I started talking to Ronen and ended up having a great conversation with David McCabe. First of all Jesus goes to a tree looking for food and when there is none, he cursed the tree (this is made even stranger by the fact that the description of the tree lets us know that this wasn’t the season for figs anyway)……next he starts throwing over tables in the Temple and screaming about “my house shall be a house of prayer and you’ve made it a den of thieves”…..the the disciples notice that the tree is dead. If we take a look at the context, and the understanding that those who observed these behaviors would have had of what Jesus did, then things make much better sense. Let’s start with the fig tree. Jesus believed (as do Christians now) that he was ushering in the Messianic Age, the New Creation, the Kingdom of God. He said over and over that “the Kingdom of God has come among you.” One of the signs of the Kingdom was that the trees would always bear fruit……so hold that thought.
Now to the Temple. The money changers were fullfilling a necessary role at the Temple. Because Roman coins had Ceasar’s picture on them (a graven image forbidden by Jewish law) they couldn’t be used to purchase the offerings needed for making sacrifice in the Temple. No mention is made that the money changers are overcharging (though this is often the story we heard growing up). No, by overturning the tables and blocking folks from carrying things into the Temple area, Jesus is, in effect, shutting the Temple down!
Now He doesn’t do this for long. It is a symbolic act; and that is important. Jesus saw Himself as standing within the long line of prophets who spoke God’s word to Israel. Many of these prophets engaged in symbolic behaviors, acted out parables if you will, to drive their point home. With His actions temporarily shutting down the Temple, He is saying, “the Temple has come to an end.” As He does this, He quotes from both Jeremiah and Isaiah passages that were leveled at the religious leaders of their day. The quote from Jeremiah accused them of going after other gods, engaging in injustice, and then running back to hide behind the Temple as though their religion would protect them….like a den where thieves go to hide after robbing folks.
Now back to the fig tree. The reason why the trees would always be in bloom in the New Creation is that the things they stood for: healing, justice, equity among all people; these thing are never out of season. So if the fig tree is a symbol for the way that the religous leaders (those who ran the Temple) are supposed to be ushering in the Kingdom-but aren’t…..then cursing it makes sense…..as does the symbolic shutting down of the Temple. Jesus’ actions (both in cursing the fig tree and in shutting down the Temple) were meant to warn and to invite people to change. They were ‘lived parables’ about what God was saying to Israel-especially it’s religious/political leaders about what God wanted. They still carry weight for us if we’ll let them. They invite us to examine ourselves and the ways in which we live out our faith over against the vision of the Kingdom, the New Creation, that Jesus came to demonstrate. The religious establishment is a barren fig tree that is about to be cut off. Where did Jesus have every right to find a fruitful religious heart in Israel – the temple. Mark inserted the Temple demonstration into the narrative of the fig-tree to bring out the theological point of the Fig Tree sign. On the third day after the curse is pronounced (and after the events in the temple), the disciples see the tree and note that it is dead – withered from the roots up. The nation has gone past the point of no-return, they have rejected the Messiah. Jesus is saying something about his ministry at that moment in history; the meaning of this parabolic action is to see the religious establishment as “under the curse” and that they are being replaced by Jesus’ disciples. This is why Mark inserts the Temple demonstration into his “Markan Sandwich,” he is point to the meaning of the curse of the fig tree. Jesus came to his own people and they have rejected him. He created a new Israel with twelve disciples (twelve tribes) who will receive the promised New Covenant.