The Jordan River—Your Place of Transition

Other rivers have more beauty. Many are longer. Most are cleaner.

But none has garnered as much affection as the Jordan River.

The Jordan River—A Place of Transition

(Photo: The Jordan River, courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)

It wasn’t the beauty of the Jordan River that inspired centuries of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to include it in their verses.

Its significance began as a simple geographic barrier, which—practically speaking—represented a border (Joshua 22:18-25). In fact, the serpentine river still represents a border between Israel and the nation of Jordan.

In Scripture, however, the river’s presence on Israel’s eastern edge stood as an enduring metaphor of transitions.

Significant transitions, in fact.

Joppa and the Long Highway

Insight for Living Tour of Israel — Day 1

It’s hard to believe just yesterday I was in America.

Today’s transportation system requires little more than a basic understanding of road signs and airline gates (which I somehow still seem to miss). That’s why most of us failed geography. Who needs it?

But in ancient Israel geography was critical. Today I saw one reason why.

Our hotel in Tel Aviv sits right next to ancient Joppa (think Jonah and Peter). In fact, a short walk down the beach took us there.

The Egyptians’ ancient rubble in Joppa reminded me of why foreign powers all wanted to control Israel. The land of Israel sat in an amazingly strategic position as the only intercontinental land bridge between the superpowers of the ancient world. The strategic International Highway—sometimes called the Great Trunk Road or the Via Maris (“Way of the Sea”)—ran the full length of the land of Israel.

This vast artery of transport stretched from the Fertile Crescent all the way to Egypt. Israel stood at the crossroads of three continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe—and the surrounding seas and desert forced all who traveled to Egypt by land to traverse Israel. In addition to Egypt, the armies of Assyria, Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome all invaded Israel in order to control its International Highway. Israel remained for millennia the crossroads for international imperialism, war, and trade.

The ancient port of Joppa

Even today, Israel serves as the overland passageway for large, high-flying birds that prefer not to migrate over the seas. Literally hundreds of thousands of black and white storks, steppe and spotted eagles, black kites, steppe and honey buzzards, and Levant sparrow hawks soar over the Holy Land in their biannual migrations to and from east Africa. No wonder bird watching remains a popular activity in Israel.

When foreigners traveled through Israel during biblical days, God’s people would either influence them or be swayed by them. Because of this influence, Israel’s central position among the nations proved to be a double-edged sword.

God lamented that Jerusalem’s general placement as “the center of the nations,” had borne no fruit of obedience (Ezekiel 5:5). Ironically, God’s people had been swayed by the very nations He intended them to influence.

What a great reminder that we have to guard the critical points of entry into our lives.

Starting with our hearts.

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DVDs – Experience the Land and the Book

Three trips to Israel to film it.

Four years in production. 

I’m thrilled that these DVDs are finally available!

I had the privilege of serving as the “Tour Guide” on this set of DVDs—released just today and also available as video downloads for your mobile device or computer.

You’ll hear six practical messages Chuck Swindoll gave onsite in places like Jerusalem, Caesarea, the Mount of Beatitudes, and the Sea of Galilee.

You’ll also “meet” six characters from Scripture through gifted actor and professor, Reg Grant.

Watch this video for a taste of what you’ll get . . .

We produced these DVDs especially for small group Bible studies, for which an accompanying workbook is also available.

I really hope you’ll go for it.

Jesus’ Real Tomb . . . and the Garden Tomb

I had a marvelous experience today.

All credible scholarship points to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as the true site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The problem is, every time I’m in Israel, the queue to view the Tomb of Jesus has a line two hours long. I have waited for years to see the actual location of Jesus’ resurrection.

The sunlit dome over where Christ rose from the dead in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The sunlit dome over where Christ rose from the dead in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

So this trip, I determined to get there early.

Like, really early.

I left my hotel at 4:45 AM and caught a taxi to the Jaffa Gate. The dark Jerusalem morning scattered a light rain across the Old City as I made my way through the shadowy streets.

I arrived at the church . . . and to my surprise, there were already many people there—at 5:15 AM! I got in the short line for the tomb and I was the next person to enter. Suddenly, a priest stepped in front of me with a chalice and communion wafers. Oh no, I thought.

Another priest dressed like Friar Tuck shoved me out of the way (literally), allowing a group of Americans to enter in front of me. The doors to the tomb were shut in front of me.

For the next half hour I listed to the private Mass occurring behind the old, wooden doors. A bystander who spoke English told me that there would be consecutive Masses every half hour for the next three hours! The reservations are made two years in advance, he added.

My heart sank. I had waited for years . . . I had traveled thousands of miles . . . I had arisen early . . . and now I was going to have to wait again for what stood right in front of me!

Holy Sepulcher

Holy Sepulcher, just before I entered

When the door cracked and the people started to exit, I looked this way and that, and I wiggled in between the worshippers. After the three people remaining in the tomb finished their prayers, I ducked in the low-hanging entrance and knelt before the cold, stone slab where Jesus laid those three days . . . and from where He rose from the dead. After a brief prayer of gratitude for His resurrection, I left the tomb.

I searched for a place in the church where I could be alone. I finally worked my way to the lowest part of the building. As I entered the room, I heard the Mass above me begin with beautiful music.

(Want to hear the music I heard this morning at the church? Here’s a brief sample. iPhones are great.)

Play

I knelt and read the resurrection account from Matthew 28:1-20 while the music filled the nooks of the church. It was a beautiful and spiritual moment I will always remember.

As I exited the church around 7 AM, the rain had surrendered its gloom to the bright morning sun.

Later this morning, Chuck led a communion service at the so-called “Garden Tomb.” To be honest, I wish the Garden Tomb was the real spot. It’s a beautiful place to meditate on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But what a privilege to visit the real place alone this morning, then to celebrate Communion with other believers immediately afterwards.

What a beautiful day it has been. Tomorrow . . . we head home!

Thank you for taking this journey with me—and for praying for us.

 

Israel Tour Day 5—The Southern Steps and Western Wall of the Temple Mount

We arrived in the holy city last evening to the strains of “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing!” blasting through our bus’ loudspeakers.

Coming through the tunnel and seeing the Temple Mount for the first time causes various reactions from those on the bus.

Tears. Cameras clicking. Eyes fixed. Jaws agape. Sniffles. Shouts. And smiles.

I enjoy watching people’s responses. They are always moved at the first sight of Jerusalem . . . yet in so many different ways.

Chuck gave a stirring message this morning on the Southern Steps of the Temple. What could be better than a Sunday morning worship service on the steps of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? (Except for the Rapture, not much!)

The steps were a place where Jesus would have taught the crowds. Here Gamaliel trained a young Saul, later to become the apostle Paul (see Acts 22:3). Here Peter preached to the crowds on the Day of Pentecost, baptizing thousands in the ritual baths, or mikvot, which still sat next to the steps (see Acts 2:41).

On these steps, we sat in one of the few places where we can say with absolute certainty, “Jesus walked here.”

We also saw the Western Wall—the remaining stones of the retaining wall that surrounded the temple of Christ’s day. The wall—called Kotel in Hebrew—towers 50 feet above the people below and shaded the busy goings-on from the morning sun.

Branches of wild caper and hyssop grow out of the cracks in the wall, bespeaking the fill dirt behind it that Herod the Great brought in to expand the Temple Mount above. The stones pinch in their gaps countless scraps of paper on which people have scrawled their prayers. (Prayers are removed once a year.)

It’s easy in the familiarity of our own traditions to shake our fingers at the oddities of others. Jews pray while rocking, Muslims kneel with their bottoms in the air, and we Christians bow our heads and close our eyes.

But without the heart engaged, our worship becomes as phony as those who don’t know the true God. Blend any tradition—bowing, standing, prostrating, rocking, kneeling or jumping—with no personal relationship with God through Christ, and it’s totally pointless.

God cares far less about our traditions than He cares about His Word in our hearts and lived out in authenticity.

Tomorrow . . . walking the Passion Week of Jesus!

(A neat extra for today: check out the 360-degree views of the Western Wall.) 
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Israel Tour Day 2—The Mount of Beatitudes

Israel is so beautiful in the springtime!

This morning Chuck spoke to us from Jesus’ marvelous “Sermon on the Mount.” And here’s the best part: we were sitting on the “mount” where Jesus preached it!

There’s something surreal about the real . . . about looking at the “lillies of the field” and the “birds of the air” in the very field and airspace where Christ spoke.

Atop this “Mount of Beatitudes,” the Franciscan Sisters constructed a church of gray cinderblocks and white mortar. The simple chapel has an octagonal shape commemorating the eight beatitudes (see Matt. 5:3-10) and supports a stained dome topped with a cross.

Palm trees, colorful flowerbeds, Saint Augustine grass and plenty of shade make this a tranquil place to overlook the slope and the sea.

In the spring of AD 31, after Passover, Jesus came up this mountain, sat down and began to teach those on the grass before Him. Jesus drew on this setting to illustrate simple truths to His listeners: “Do not be worried about your life . . . Look at the birds of the air . . . Observe how the lilies of the field grow” (Matt. 6:25-26, 28).

Jesus called the people, “You of little faith” (Matt. 6:30), because they sought tomorrow’s needs instead of trusting God to provide today as He saw fit.

The lessons Jesus gave on that gentle slope in Galilee are illustrations we can see in any part of the world—birds, flowers and grass. God’s continual care of these things gives testimony that He will provide for us too.

Israel Tour Day 1—Caesarea and the Jezreel Valley

The first day of a tour is always fun because you get to meet the folks on your bus. What a great crew! We boarded the our buses today to head north from the area of Joppa/Tel Aviv to our first stop—Caesarea by the Sea.

The Apostle Peter made this same journey to share Christ with a Roman Centurion in Caesarea (see Acts 10:23-48). What took Peter two days of walking took us about thirty minutes.

At Caesarea, I felt the cool Mediterranean breezes that would have refreshed Paul as he emerged from his prison to make his defense before Agrippa (see Acts 25:1-27).

In the theater, Dr. Reg Grant gave a stirring monologue as King Agrippa, the arrogant ruler who was struck by God in the very theater where we sat (see Acts 12:21-23)!

Back in the bus and headed further north, the scenery reminded me how God designed the land of Israel to be strategic during biblical times. The mountains, valleys, oceans, and deserts forced travelers to journey only on certain routes. The most-used road was the International Highway that stretched from Syria in the north to Egypt in the south—the full length of Israel.

As the highway made its way across the broad Jezreel Valley, it entered a chokepoint at Mount Carmel alongside the city of Megiddo. During the times of the judges in Israel, the Hebrews failed to drive out the Canaanites who lived in Megiddo.

So what? Why not let the inhabitants live in this region since they wanted it so badly? The Lord knew why. Not taking control of Megiddo amounted to not locking one’s doors at night. It played a vital role in national security.

The failure of the Hebrews to drive out the inhabitants defied God’s command to resist the culture. Instead, God’s people tolerated the culture . . . and then eventually embraced it. Their compromise produced disastrous results, as the Lord had said, “Their gods will be a constant temptation to you” (Joshua 2:3, NLT).

It always seems easier to mingle with the culture than to oppose its influence—to find the middle ground rather than stand on our own. But God knows better, and so He commands us, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world”; “Flee sexual immorality”; “Do not covet.” God gives specific commands to protect us from experiencing a danger we cannot detect on the outside.

We must guard the critical points of entry into our hearts: church doctrine, music, television, the Internet, movies and marketing. No doubt, obedience comes at a hard price, but not as hard as the results of compromise.

As we consider our culture’s embrace today, we must also consider God’s words again: “They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a constant temptation to you.”

Compromise is never worth its price.

Tomorrow, we enter the world of Jesus . . . around the Sea of Galilee!
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Arrival in Israel!

We arrived yesterday in Israel for IFL’s 2010 tour of the Holy Land.

We spent most of the day trying to recover from the dizzying fog of jet-lag. Home is eight time zones away! And yet, something about coming to Israel provides a rush of adrenaline that makes sleep secondary to all we get to see.

Something that helped clear our jetlag was wading in the cool Mediterranean Sea along the coast of Tel Aviv. Cathy and I took a walk on the beach and meandered down to ancient Joppa.

Joppa was Israel’s primary Old Testament port, and it always makes me think of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. Remember him?

Jonah had no desire for God to forgive the wicked Assyria. So when the Lord told him to preach in Assyria, he took a ship from Joppa bound for Spain—the opposite direction of God’s will! In the furious storm that followed, Jonah found himself in the belly of a great fish, finally confessing, “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). (Of course, Jonah meant his salvation, not the Assyrians’.)

The fish hurled Jonah onto dry land. Again the Lord told Jonah to go to Nineveh in Assyria, and this time Jonah obeyed. He preached, Nineveh repented, and what Jonah feared, happened . . . God forgave them.

As Jonah later pouted in the sun, watching what would happen to the city, the Lord provided a plant for shade. And for the first time in the book, Jonah smiled. But then God sent a worm to eat the plant! When the heat hit Jonah’s head, he became faint and begged God to take his life.

How often do we feel life isn’t fair or, worse, that God has let us down because He runs the universe differently than we would? We become more concerned with trifles such as shade trees than with people made in God’s image. Our grumblings only betray that we’re running in a direction opposite from God.

In His grace, God appointed the fish, the plant, the worm and the wind . . . all to get Jonah to change. I can’t help but wonder: what creature comforts will God remove from our lives to reveal an inordinate preoccupation with self?

Tomorrow, we head north and follow the path Peter took . . . from Joppa to Caesarea.

Want to see video of our trip each day, starting tomorrow? Subscribe to IFL’s Video blog.

I’m Headed to Israel!

In just a few days, I’ll take my seventh trip to Israel.

After going again and again so many times, I have to be honest . . . it never gets old.

Why? Because seeing the places where biblical events occurred helps me understand the words of Scripture like little else can. Frankly, I have spent hundreds of hours studying the original languages of the Bible, but nothing has broadened my understanding of the Word of God more than studying and experiencing the places where Scripture occurred.

For many who will join us on our tour with Insight for Living, this tour will be their first to Israel. What a treasure awaits them!

My request of you? Please pray for us. Specifically, for:

  • Good health and adequate rest
  • Safe travel . . . alert bus drivers . . . agreeable Israeli guides
  • Excellent weather
  • Opportunities to share Christ with those who may not know Him
  • God’s grace for Chuck Swindoll as well as for those of us who will be teaching at various sites. (I’ll be serving as the Bible teacher on Bus 4—the “Green Bus.” Our busses all have color names in addition to numbers.)

In addition to following the daily posts on my blog, you can also subscribe to Insight for Living’s Video Blog. There you will see video from each day’s touring . . . as well as candid interviews and photos of folks taking the journey with us.

Shalom . . . and thank you for praying! 

Come to Israel with Me

Let me invite you to join Cathy and me in Israel, March 8-19, on the Insight for Living 2010 Tour with Chuck Swindoll.

I will serve as a Bible teacher on one of the buses as we travel the Holy Land, learning the Word of God right where it happened.

You will also enjoy Chuck Swindoll’s practical teaching at various sites throughout the tour.

After seeing where biblical events occurred, you will never read your Bible the same way again!

I have done extensive research on how a tour to Israel affects the spiritual life of a believer, and I discovered:

  1. 96% have increased in their love for God and the Bible through the study of biblical geography.
  2. 98% noted that biblical geography helps their memory of biblical events.
  3. 99% agree that experiencing the land of Israel has strengthened their spiritual life.

Visit www.insight.org/israel for more information on the tour, to watch video clips of what we’ll see, to read about the guest artists, and to reserve your place on the tour. Or you can download a tour brochure now with all the details.

When you register, be sure to request my bus! Hope to see you there.

Enjoy this video . . . as you hear and see for yourself the benefits of experiencing God’s Land of Promise.

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