We have safely made it back to the USA! Thank you for your prayers.
Now that the TMS Israel study trip has come to an end, I’ve not only started sorting through all the pictures we took but also started thinking through all that we experienced. Though I know it will take time to process everything, here are ten initial reflections considering the Israel trip as a whole.
1. This trip was intense. Our study trip lived up to its name: Dr. G packed our time with sights to see and lessons to learn. Though we are grateful for this gift of a trip, we found ourselves thoroughly exhausted at the end of each day. It’s nice to be back and experiencing life at a slightly less rigorous clip.
2. Cats are everywhere in Israel. I mentioned before that we saw many stray cats on the Temple Mount, but they weren’t only there; we saw stray cats in almost every town in Israel. They didn’t look mangy, though, rather they looked decently healthy and were quite friendly. I asked our assistant guide (an Arab Christian woman) about all the cats, and she said that Israelis just like cats and appreciate how they keep down the rodent population.
3. Trip sickness is a tough reality. In a group as large as ours, it was almost inevitable that someone would get sick with a cold, and, because we were with each other every day, that cold would end up getting passed around. Probably half of our group ended up getting sick (testing negative for Covid), but, thankfully, almost all were recovered by the time the trip ended.
4. Traveling with believers was a joy. Despite sharing sickness, one of the best parts about our trip was getting to know the other group members and what God has been doing for them in their lives and in their churches. We found ourselves so encouraged and really formed a bond with our trip-mates. We will miss our new friends but hopefully will see some of them again at the Shepherds Conference or elsewhere.
5. Sites are closer together in Israel than you expect. Israel is not a large country (only about the size of New Jersey), and I was constantly surprised by how close different biblical sites are to one another. For example: you can walk from one end of Old Jerusalem to the other in less than thirty minutes, you can see straight across from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other, and ancient Israelite cities were often in sight of one another. However, the topography and rainfall can vary greatly depending on where you are in Israel.
6. Israeli-Palestinian tension is noticeable. Preachers sometimes say that, though Israel is back in the land, it is not yet experiencing the peace foretold by the prophets (e.g. Isa 54:1-17; Jer 23:3-8). We ourselves saw this to be the case, in seeing different battle sites from Israel’s modern wars, in observing road signs warning Israeli citizens of death if they enter Palestinian areas, and in even having our own tour bus turned away by Israeli soldiers patrolling a Palestinian city. In these days before the return of Christ, the situation in Israel remains complicated and without an easy solution.
7. Churches often obscure biblical sites. One fact I quickly came to realize in Israel is that, if a certain biblical site is particularly significant to Christians today, there is probably a church built on top of it. In one sense, these often ancient/medieval churches are helpful in verifying the authenticity and importance of a biblical site (though tradition is not always correct). In another sense, however, the churches unfortunately obscure the site and make true worship there much more difficult. For example, I expected that visiting the places of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection would be particularly soul-enriching. However, the churches on these sites are filled with so much unnecessary adornment, false worship, and protective barriers (not to mention long lines) that I could hardly appreciate these sites at all. Ironically, the open hills, fields, and seas proved to be better sites for meditation than the churches.
8. The Sabbath is a big deal in Israel. Though I should have known that Jews take the Sabbath seriously, I wasn’t quite prepared for the reality in Israel: not only are Jewish businesses closed, but observant Jews will not even drive their cars or do anything else that constitutes “work.” Some of the Sabbath rules seemed a bit silly to me (like not being able to push a button to activate labor-saving electronics!), but not everything about the Sabbath was negative. Many Israeli Jews, when Sabbath begins after sundown on Friday evening, have an extra special meal—which we also got to enjoy. We could see many Jews making merry while they ate, drank, and talked and while their children played. Though the Sabbath did represent a certain inconvenience for us as tourists, it was strange to realize that American society used to take a similar approach to Sundays in decades gone by.
9. Jews need the gospel. Something Dr. G stressed to us on this trip is that modern Judaism is not an OT religion but a Talmudic religion. The Talmud, composed over the 3rd-6th centuries AD, is both a rabbinic record of the “Oral Torah” (that Jews say was handed down to Moses alongside the written Torah) and a commentary on both the Oral Torah and the Hebrew Bible. For most Jews, their ultimate understanding of the Bible and how to live before God is determined by the Talmud, i.e. the traditions of the rabbis. Yet it was for holding to the traditions of men instead of to God’s word that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees in his own day (e.g. Mark 7:1-13). Holding to a form of godliness, the Jews have denied its power (2 Tim 3:5), and while having a clear zeal for God and for his law—even praying fervently to God at the Western Wall and forcing themselves to wear special clothes and keep stringent rules—their zeal is not according to knowledge (Rom 10:2-3). In Israel, we saw first hand how modern Judaism is just another man-made, externally-focused, works-righteousness religion that cannot save and only obscures God’s way of salvation already declared in OT Scripture (Mt 23:13).
10. The Bible is true. There is no historical discovery or personal experience that by itself can prove God and the Bible; even witnessing a miraculous resurrection is not enough to make someone believe (Lk 16:31). Consequently, we Christians must rely on the more-sure prophetic word over everything else (2 Pt 1:19). Nevertheless, it is amazing how often archaeology testifies to what the Bible says, as we’ve seen ourselves afresh in Israel; Dr. G. like to call these different discoveries “archaeological high-fives” to the Bible. The Bible describes geography accurately and gives details about places, people, and events later affirmed at different archaeological sites. Both minor details, like the name of an unimportant bureaucrat in Israel, and broad truths, like the propensity of the human-heart toward self-righteous religion, prove true again and again (Ps 18:30). We Christians, therefore, have even more reason to hold fast to the inspired word once and for all given to the saints (2 Tim 3:16; Jude 1:3).