Mark Twain traveled to the Holy Land in 1867 with a group of American evangelicals. His dispatches from the front were first serialized in newspaper columns and then compiled as one of his earlier books, The Innocents Abroad: A New Pilgrims Progress. Twain was a cynic, critic of organized religion, and probably an atheist. For him the Holy Land was a target-rich environment for composing snarky humor.
Having just returned from there with a latter-day delegation of Christian pilgrims assembled from among friends of Bethlehem College & Seminary and the local church, I can understand why Twain saw it as something of a theater of the absurd with so much specious historicity and archeology, superstitious behavior, vulgar souvenir peddling, and geopolitical posturing. Had I been so inclined, I could have brought you back a commemorative Crown of Thorns, or some soil from the landscaping on the church site at Bethlehem. I grieved to see desperate people seeking to imbue keychains and snow globes with spiritual power by placing them on the catafalque on which our Lord’s body was said to have rested after crucifixion. We saw two different tombs in which Christ was said to have been buried. We can only testify with confidence that both were empty.
Still the hopes we had in making such a journey were not unrequited. While our approach to biblical exegesis may not change as a consequence, our sense of Old Testament and New Testament space and time will. Even Twain discovered that most of the kingdoms described in the Old Testament could fit inside an average American county, and that the kings ruled over populations no bigger than some contemporary small towns. In following in the steps of Jesus, our internal GPS systems were calibrated to better understand what it means when we read of going down to Capernaum or up to Jerusalem.
I for one will never read in my Bible of water, springs, dryness, desert, and thirst without calling to mind just how parched and often desolate this land seemed to me. The Sea of Galilee is also newly positioned in my mind, not just my imagination, as a wheelhouse of sorts from and around which Jesus conducted his earthly ministry. I know better what it means when the Scripture says things like, “He went up on the hill, and there he sat down with his disciples.” This enhanced perspective of spatial relationships was a real blessing from our journey.
We saw many ruins, the remains of once great cities of antiquity, some in excellent condition, if anything ruined may be thusly described. As I stood above one of these massive sites, it occurred to me, “The whole world is ruined. It is all a ruins.” Once there was something here of sublime beauty and grandeur, but now it is fallen, a shambles in comparison to what it was. How glad I am to know that, in Christ, not only am I not destined to take a place amidst rubble, but I am promised to be transformed and renewed to be a resident in a paradise regained.
While in truth there were many beautiful things to behold, most beautiful to me were Andy, “J”, and “D”, and their wives and children. (Their full names are withheld for their personal security.) These three young men, all products of Bethlehem College & Seminary, are with their families laying down their lives in difficult circumstances to witness amidst some of the world’s most Gospel-resistant people groups in Israel and Jordan. They are seeking to teach sound doctrine among Russian Jews and Arab Palestinians, pastoring among Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and providing employment for ISIS-displaced adults as well as education and recreation for their children. The golden domes on so many churches, temples, and mosques may have glimmered brightly in the Middle Eastern sun, but nowhere was the radiance of Christ more brilliant than in the lives and ministries of these exemplary alumni. I’m newly inspired in the purposeful work of advocating for The Serious Joy Scholarship that permits our students to graduate without debt and go immediately wherever God is calling them.
The other most beautiful venue on the tour was on the bus itself in the company of the saints, the excellent ones. One traveler from outside our local church and school community told me, “These are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.” He spoke truth. I saw Jesus clearly in the faith and fellowship of those with whom we traveled more gloriously than any obelisk or monument along the way. We may not have been “The Innocents Abroad,” but we traveled together as forgiven sinners, lifting prayers, singing praises, being satisfied in Him. I think he was glorified in us.
Vice President of Advancement