There does not exist any more a holy mountain or a holy city or holy land which can be marked on a map. The reason is not that God’s holiness in space has suddenly become unworthy of him or has changed into a heathen ubiquity. The reason is that all prophecy is now fulfilled in Jesus, and God’s holiness in space, like all God’s holiness, is now called and is Jesus of Nazareth.
– Karl Barth
For as long as I can remember I have dreamed of the day I would stand upon the same ground as Jesus. That vision finally became reality as I’ve just returned last weekend from a 10-day trip to Israel. Frankly, it was overwhelming. Our first morning we stayed at the Sea of Galilee and I was already weeping in the shower, trying to leave my hotel room as fast as I as could in order to spend some time on the shoreline to experience it all before the sun rose. It was surreal. This was the very area where Jesus ministered. All the stories in the gospel accounts – the feeding of the 5,000, the healing of paralytic, the walking on the water – took place right where I was! I tearfully told one of my fellow travelers that this was the place where Jesus called his first disciple 2,000 years ago and now we (whatever number of disciple we may be) are here at ground zero for the movement that changed the world. Surreal indeed! Over the next ten days my wife and I would periodically look at each other with gobsmacked faces and remind ourselves that this was really happening. Now that I’ve had a couple of days to reflect on the trip, a few thoughts come to mind.
Faith is embedded in history
It’s easy to think of the events in the Bible as mere stories like Aesop’s Fables. However, while the authors of Scripture certainly wrote a theological history, it is nonetheless a history about real events with real people in real places. I dipped my hand into the spring of Harod where Gideon camped with his soldiers before battling the Midianites in Judges 7, walked on the foundations of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirit in Mark 1:21–28, and strolled through the ruins of Caesarea where Paul was imprisoned in Acts 25. Everywhere I went continually reminded me that Christianity isn’t a faith of wishful thinking or an elaborate imagination, but one firmly embedded in history.
Jesus is the better covenant
When you’re in a Jewish nation, it doesn’t take long to see the Old Covenant in operation: food laws (e.g., no dairy and meat together), sabbath regulations (e.g., elevators that automatically hit every floor so you don’t ‘work’ by pushing the buttons), and clothing restrictions. We went to the Western wall in Jerusalem which is the only remaining vestige of the Temple complex Herod Agrippa erected two centuries ago. It is the holiest site in Judaism. So holy that Jews will travel across the world just to spend time in prayer before those very stones. All I could think while I was there was how this most celebrated building of stone was ultimately meant to point God’s people to a better temple in Jesus (cf., John 2:19, 22). As Heb. 8:6 says, “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.” Seeing all the signposts of the Old Covenant made me grateful that the New has come in the Messiah Jesus!
The Holy Land isn’t the only Holy Land
Don’t get me wrong, Israel is amazing. It’s the land Jesus where lived. I know it has the moniker Holy Land, and people certainly treat it as such. I was almost refused entry into Capernaum by a Franciscan monk because I was wearing shorts (for the record, they were pretty long shorts and about a third of the men he’d already admitted were wearing them). His rationale: “This is holy ground!” As much as I was blown away by the thought that I was tracing the very steps of Jesus, I didn’t think this hill, or that water, or that city in Israel was any holier than the hills of the Balcones Escarpment, or the waters of Galveston Bay, or the city of Houston in Texas. If Revelation taught me anything, it’s that Jesus isn’t returning for a mere strip of land 50 miles wide and 300 miles long. He’s returning to renew the entire cosmos. As Hab. 2:14 says, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” In that sense, it’s all holy unto the Lord.
Maybe that’s why one of the prevailing feelings I had over the last 10 days was that, while truly overjoyed to be in Israel, I didn’t have to be there for my walk with Jesus. The truth is I didn’t feel any closer to Jesus in Israel than I do when I spend time in prayer by my bedside, or in fellowship over the Scripture with my small group, or in corporate worship with the people of Clear Creek Community Church on any given Sunday morning. In Israel I felt closer to the history of Jesus (and the Bible) but not Jesus himself. For his kingdom extends beyond Palestine to the very ends of the earth.