Reason To Celebrate: Reflections on Israel’s 70th Anniversary

Illustration depicting celebrating Israel's 70th anniversary

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Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children. (Isaiah 66:8)

I just returned from a very fruitful time teaching to a wide variety of groups on Vancouver Island. I was primarily in the Victoria area, but also presented my “God’s Epic Story” seminar in Ladysmith about an hour north of there.

Being in one of the most beautiful regions on this planet during a very gorgeous time of year wasn’t lost on me. The Lord provided all sorts of wonderful surprises along the way, both in terms of delightful scenic spots and in spending time with old and new friends.

But a week ago Monday was especially difficult for me as it marked 70 years since the birth of the modern state of Israel (according to the Gregorian calendar) and the U.S. became the first country to move its embassy to the capital, Jerusalem. That wasn’t the difficult part,however. What was difficult was the time I spent scanning major Canadian news sources only to discover that they buried the story and/or portrayed it as a Palestinian tragedy. That was a day of Palestinian tragedy is clear, but none of these news outlets provided the kind of complex coverage needed to paint an accurate picture of the whole situation.

The entire world would do well to applaud the achievements of the State of Israel in spite of – even because of -all its challenges. That we have lived to see this day is a great privilege. For 2000 years the Jewish people were relegated to the fringes of both history and the world community. Only a few, first among Christians and only later Jews, aligned themselves with God’s promises in the Bible, and began to envision the return to Zion. Against all odds, from the early Jewish settlers until now, Israel has not only survived, but thrived, and has become a blessing to the world through its advancements in all kinds of technology, all the while facing an existential threat each and every day.

To miss this great accomplishment is to be blind to a miracle of God.

Those who can’t accept Israel’s existence, but rather believe they have a claim on the Jewish people’s divine inheritance understandably cannot join in the celebration. I do believe that the bulk of responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians falls on the shoulders of their own leadership. The refusal to negotiate in good faith and to work toward a compromise agreeable to both parties has been the cause of ongoing strife and unnecessary suffering.

That the media in Canada and elsewhere allows the arrogance and nearsightedness of the Palestinian leadership to define the narrative is absolutely irresponsible and fuels the deception and destruction. Israel cannot compete for media attention when groups like Hamas allow civilians, including children, to purposely be in harm’s way. Such tactics must be condemned. We should insist that all terrorist activity stop, and not be given a public platform in the meantime.

The establishment, survival, and thriving of Israel is a key component of the grand epic story of God as it demonstrates in such practical terms his enduring faithfulness to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That all is not well shouldn’t distract us from celebrating this great milestone. At the same time, let us pray for the region that peace may come, and that King Messiah will reign over all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Jerusalem the Beautiful

Jerusalem

With all the commotion in response to the U.S. President’s announcement last week regarding recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it is easy to forget that real people’s lives are at stake. Personalizing political decisions should in no way diminish or distract from their national and international importance. If I read the Bible correctly, we are called to keep the Big Picture and the details in mind at all times, no matter how much they might appear to be in tension.

The Big Picture aspects of the President’s announcement are vast. So much has been said since Wednesday, but I am convinced that he did the right thing. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It is unjust that until less than a week ago, the Middle East’s only true democracy was the only country in this troubled world whose capital was denied by all other nations.

I commend to you two items that are most helpful. The first is from Honest Reporting, an agency that seeks to correct anti-Israel bias in the media. This piece provides general historical and political context to last Wednesday’s announcement:

http://honestreporting.com/trumps-embassy-move-behind-the-hysteria/

The second is the speech by Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, given at Friday’s emergency session of the UN Security Council, where she clearly lays out the what the President said and what he did not say in his announcement two days’ prior.

https://youtu.be/wFumFNy7EgY

Whatever our viewpoint might be on this and related issues, let us take the time to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray for the people living there, Jews, Arabs, and others. I will never forget when I was there a couple of years ago. I was heading back to where I was staying from my first solo walk around the Old City. I happened upon an Armenian woman, who had been born there many years before. I can’t remember how or why we started talking, but she exclaimed, “This is the most beautiful city in the world!” She was right. There is a beauty that is intrinsic to Jerusalem that is incomparable. But it’s a beauty beyond its geographical landscape and architecture, ancient and modern. It’s the beauty of God that permeates its very existence.

It’s no wonder that the President’s announcement caused so much reaction. Jerusalem is no run-of-the-mill city. The Maccabees (it’s Hanukkah this week!) knew that over 2000 years ago, and we have celebrated their victory ever since. The Armenian woman knew that. The President knows it. And in some way, millions of others know it too. But could you imagine what would happen if we used even a small portion of our reactions to Jerusalem news to offer up a prayer for help and blessing to Almighty God?

Please pray for the men, women, boys, and girls for whom this is far more than a news story. Pray that world leaders would make wise decisions, putting the welfare of their people ahead of national interests. At the same time may justice prevail for all. May God’s will be done!

A Clay Pot Nation

Western Wall and The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel

The Temple Mount captured by Israel on July 7, 1967 illustrates the complexity of the work of God in our in our lives.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Earlier this month, June 10, was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of one of the most world-changing events in human history – the Six Day War. I remember it, sort of. I was nine years old, living in Montreal, where we were consumed, not by the affairs of the Middle East, but by Canada’s biggest party ever! – Expo 67. It was the centennial year, commemorating one hundred years since “Confederation,” when we became a “self-governing dominion of the British Empire with a federal structure” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederation#Canada). We like to think that’s when we became an “independent country,” but that’s another, pretty complicated, story.

Aerial view of Expos 67, Montreal

Expo 67, Montreal – mtlblog.com

All sorts of special events took place throughout the country in 1967, but nothing was like Expo. From April through October, Expo welcomed over 50 million visitors, including many heads of state such as Queen Elizabeth and French president Charles de Gaulle. During his visit on May 25, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation commemorating the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 of one hundred and fifty years earlier, which was a disarmament agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom, the governing power over what later became Canada. This treaty “created the world’s longest east-west boundary – 5527 miles, and the longest demilitarized border in the world” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rush%E2%80%93Bagot_Treaty). What the public didn’t know at the time is that the U.S. President and the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, had other border issues on their minds as they discussed the possibility of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. While Canada was partying it up, the fledgling State of Israel was on the brink of destruction. While the one-hundred-year-old vast country was enjoying unprecedented peace with its neighbors, the nineteen-year-old one was about to engage in a fight for their survival.

Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. -GPO 06/07/1967 – http://www.sixdaywar.org/content/photos.asp

Fifty years later, it is almost impossible to imagine the situation Israel found itself in. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq were intent on wiping Israel off the map. Ironically, Israel, instead, changed the map. Planning only to undermine their enemies’ ability to destroy them, Israel more than tripled its territory in only six days, capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. There was no greater turn of events, however, than the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem. Taken by the Jordanians nineteen years earlier in the War of Independence, the Jewish inhabitants of the Old City were either killed or expelled. Access to the Wailing Wall (now the Western Wall) was forbidden to Jews. The reunification of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, more than any aspect of the Six Day War, strengthened Israeli nationhood and reconnected the Jewish world to its ancient homeland. In Israeli hands the holy places of the world’s major religions are protected, something that was not the case before that day.

To Israel at the time, with a few exceptions, such as Jerusalem, the captured territories were regarded as bargaining chips for peace. But tragically the Arab world would not come to the table. Still, Israel’s victory of those days along with its commitment to get along with its neighbors eventually did lead to peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. But despite whatever positives resulted from this astounding military event, they are obscured by a great ambivalence as the tension between Israel and its neighbors continues.

For many, the continuing difficulties faced by Israelis and Palestinians obscures one of the greatest military victories of all time. But what was the alternative? The armistice lines of 1949 were no long-term solution. Israel could not reasonably live within such indefensible borders. The new state wasn’t even recognized by the Arab world – a reality that continues in much of the world today. But since 1967, Israel has been in a much stronger position, allowing it to thrive in spite of ongoing tensions. Few nations could achieve what the Jewish nation has in such a short time under such circumstances. And to think that just prior to the establishment of the state, six million Jews were systematically murdered by an almost-successful genocidal plot.

Far from a sense of ambivalence, we should be awestruck by the Six Day War and its aftermath. Instead of the harsh judgement incessantly targeting Israel, we would do better to celebrate its fortitude and resilience in the midst of an intolerable pressure cooker. Most countries would either crumble or disappear in the face of much less. Not Israel. The pressure instead has created a jewel that should be the envy of the world.

Why should we insist that an endeavor be regarded in a positive light only if the results are 100% positive? Life doesn’t work like that. A life-saving surgery, for example, might result in a scar or a disability, but wouldn’t we still celebrate the surgery as long as it met its main objective, that of saving a life?

The fact is the whole world, not just the Middle East, is not what it should be. Injustice, disease, death, and every kind of evil is part of the human story everywhere. What Israel endures on a national scale is no different from the trials and tribulations we all face due to what the Bible calls sin. But that doesn’t stop millions of people from pretending otherwise.

On a personal level, I have been slow to accept the realities of living in a world so affected by sin. Even with the reality of God in my life and the lives of my loved ones, I am still learning to navigate the brokenness we all share. The Bible tells us that we are fragile, breakable vessels containing great treasure. Because of what the Messiah has done for us, even though the presence and power of God fills our lives to overflowing, the troubled aspects of our humanness are not eradicated. To expect perfection from ourselves and others is a dead-end. We will learn to thrive only as we accept the great number of ambiguities that continue in this age.

The challenges we face as individuals are so wonderfully demonstrated by Israel. God’s covenantal faithfulness to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is vividly displayed through a long and troubled history; no less so in the events of June 1967 and following. The ongoing tensions certainly need to be addressed, just like the issues in our own lives. Let’s not be put off by the presence of problems. Rather, let’s look to God for his help in the midst of them.

A Hanukkah Message for Christmas

For the first time since 1978, the first evening of Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve. And while the two holidays share little between them besides historical and geographical context as well as approximate time of observance, Hanukkah has something to teach us this Christmas season.

The following image, contrasting the scene at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1939 with 2014 caught my attention today (it was posted on Facebook by the Israel Project):

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. In 1939 huge Nazi flags were flown from it. In 2014 a large Hanukah menorah was on display.

The survival of the people of Israel through the centuries is more than an interesting feature of history, it is an expression of God’s creation design through which we best understand the world. And what happened at the first Hanukkah preserved the integrity of God’s design.

Few people are aware that without Hanukkah there would be no Christmas, because the survival of the people of Israel was an essential part of God’s plan to make himself known to the nations of the world. Contrary to popular sentiment, the world was not waiting for a Savior to come. The Bible tells us that prior to Yeshua’s coming, the Gentiles (non-Jews) were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12; NIV). The only ones waiting for salvation (which is what the name Yeshua/Jesus means) were the Jews, having been prepared by God through the Hebrew Prophets for centuries. Among the Messiah’s detailed predicted qualifications was that he was to come from a distinctly Jewish family heritage. Therefore, it was absolutely essential that the people of Israel retained a distinct religious and cultural existence at the time of his coming.

The particular threat that had fallen upon Israel in the second century before Yeshua’s coming was intended to destroy Israel’s national identity. The Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes had sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon the various people groups within his domain. Many Jewish people of that day went along with his insidious plan. The God-ordained distinctive nature of Israel would been erased through forced assimilation if it had not been for the Maccabean uprising, when a relatively small Jewish army successfully fought off their great oppressors and restored the purity of biblical religion to their land. It was the faith of the few that ensured that a distinct Jewish nation was in place in the Land of Israel at the coming of the Messiah about 160 years later.

Nationhood in general, not just with regard to the Jewish people, is not an accident of history, but the outcome of God’s providence. As Paul made clear in Athens, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). National distinctions are not the result of humanly defined social constructs, but of God. While racial pride, prejudice, and oppression are the results of sin, national boundaries and differences in culture in and of themselves are not.

Christmas indeed marks the dawning of the extension of the Abrahamic blessing to the nations: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14; KJV). The reality of the one true God, which for the most part was the sole possession of a unique people, would now be shared with all nations, but not unto the dismantling of national distinctions. Rather it was to culminate in a gathering “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). It is a misnomer that one of the key purposes of the Gospel is to do away with national distinctives. So-called racial blindness and the breaking down of nationality may sound appealing, but it is contrary to God’s purposeful design.

I believe that one of the reasons why the State of Israel is the object of continued distain is that it is considered a nationalistic relic in the face of ever-increasing globalization. While one-world advocates call for the removal of national boundaries, Israel stands apart. It’s not as if Jews have not been open to being absorbed by the rest of the world. On the contrary, whether it was the assimilated Jews of the Maccabean era or of Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis, we have tried to fit in, but God has had other plans.

God indeed desires unity, but his version of it ingeniously takes into account the beautiful international mosaic of diverse peoples. This was brilliantly established by the early Jewish believers when they decided to not require Gentile followers of the Messiah to embrace Jewish culture in order to be full members of the new messianic community. This opened the door for each nation to work out for itself their unique contribution to the vast family of God. Yet tragically, as the church quickly became predominately Gentile, it failed to effectively provide this freedom, beginning with snuffing out its Jewish component by seeing itself as the New (or True) Israel. Much has changed in this area in the last century or so, but there is still a ways to go. This is largely due to the continuation of replacement theology (defined as “the Church is Israel”) among believers as well as false and destructive notions of unity in the world around us.

God-given distinctives are under constant assault today, not only with regard to nationality, but also having to do with sexuality and gender roles. In the name of equality, social engineers, politicians, and not a few religious leaders are seeking to impose sameness. But God didn’t intend a world of sameness, but one of intentional variety. He began his creation by separating light from darkness and brought it to a climax in the distinction of male and female. Peoplehood distinctions followed immediately afterwards.

That which makes you a unique individual rests upon the foundation of true diversity. This is not a diversity of our own making, one that casts off God’s design. We cannot be anything or whatever we want, but we can be all that God wants us to be. The only way for that to happen is to accept and insist upon our God-given distinctives. Because of the Maccabees, this is something we can celebrate this Christmas.

Sweet Surprises: My First Israel Tour

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Our Israel experience began as we boarded our El Al jet in Toronto.

It was the beginning of the second week of the first tour of Israel I have ever led (October 18 – November 1, 2015). Our tour guide and teacher, Dr. David Miller, told me that he had a surprise for us that morning. Even though we had only recently met, I had full trust in him. Co-founder of Shoresh Study Tours, I knew that not only did he know the country, he already demonstrated a knack for knowing those special, out-of-the-way places where tourists don’t normally go. The first time he told me he had a surprise was when he took us on a short side trip to the Israeli border town of S’derot from where we could see Gaza City. That time he asked my opinion first; this time he wanted me to be surprised too. And since I had never led an Israel tour before, I let the veteran have his way.

I've never had a bus with my name on it before!

I’ve never had a bus with my name on it before!

We had just finished the northern portion of our trip, having stayed three nights enjoying the delightful accommodation at the Ma’agan Holiday Village on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee/Lake Kinneret. Seeing Lebanon from one vantage point and Syria from another, like seeing Gaza a few days earlier, emphasized the fragility of Israel’s borders; an everyday reality for Israelis that we North Americans have difficulty grasping. But it wasn’t just the fragile nature of being in such a place that struck us; it was that throughout our time in Israel life felt normal. But what did we expect? A war zone? It may seem like that if our only window on Israel is the nightly news, when in fact throughout this most beautiful land, life goes on.

Overlooking Gaza

Near the south coast. Overlooking Gaza.

On the Golan Heights, trying to grasp Israel's location (Damascus is only 60 km [40 mi.] away)

On the Golan Heights, trying to grasp Israel’s location (Damascus is only 60 km [40 mi.] away)

When I say life in Israel felt normal, I don’t consider singing O Canada on a boat on the Sea of Galilee normal. Neither is seeing an ancient Canaanite temple from Abraham’s day (circa 1700 B.C.). That kind of archaeological find isn’t normal even for Israel. According to David, until a few years ago it was still buried. There’s nothing normal about swimming in the Dead Sea either. As I struggled to float, bob, and/or sit in/on the water, I started up a conversation with an Israeli mother and her adult son. They graciously and patiently helped me to enjoy the experience. “Relax!” the mom urged me. “Counterintuitive,” I thought. But eventually I lay back, stretching out my limbs as I (tried to) rest upon the Sea. “You look like Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed. I grinned. What better place than in Israel to hear such a thing.

Sunrise at the Dead Sea

Sunrise at the Dead Sea.

I should get back to our guide’s surprise. We were beginning our second week, the bulk of which was to be spent in Jerusalem. But first we would be spending the night in the town of Ariel in the heart of the West Bank. I thought the sirens we heard shortly after arriving at our hotel were due to a traffic incident. It turned out it was one of those stabbings you may have heard about in the news, the fairly new terrorist tactic being utilized by Israel’s enemies. We weren’t directly affected by it, nor were the other tourists at our hotel, including a large Christian group from the French world (France, Belgium, and New Caledonia, a group of islands near Australia!). They were there to pray for Israel, and I happened to be standing next to one of the only Jewish believers in the group. The amount of French I spoke on this trip was another surprise – as was seeing the full scale replica of the ancient Mishkan (Tabernacle) on the grounds of the hotel. The next day we visited Shiloh, where they are seeking to excavate the actual Mishkan.

Looking serious in the Mishkan.

Looking serious in the Mishkan.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1947 was a huge surprise which years later played a major role in my coming to know the Messiah. Being here was a “bucket list” moment for me.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1947 was a huge surprise which years later played a major role in my coming to know the Messiah. Being here was a “bucket list” moment for me.

But I got ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the morning of the day we left Ma’agan. We had a wonderful, very experienced bus driver who has worked regularly with Shoresh, and particularly with David for a long time – an Arab Christian who lives near Nazareth. Fluent in Hebrew, he is glad to be an Israeli like many Christian Arabs who live there. Does that surprise you? The situation between Jews and Arabs in Israel is a lot more complex than the impression produced by the media. And as for complex, so was the surprise in store at the hand of our bus driver: he invited us home to meet his extended family and extend hospitality to us. He had been wanting to do this for David for some time, and it was our group that became the special object of his warmth and generosity. They sat us down for drinks and treats around a large table in their courtyard. It was such a precious time as we met his wife, his two sons and their wives, two granddaughters, with another grandchild who was born shortly afterwards. But this is still not the surprise. Behind their house they have a small orchard of a wide variety of fruit trees, including oranges, grapefruit, figs, and olives. But then (here it is!) he offered me what might be the most extraordinary fruit I have ever eaten, a fruit that for me became the symbol of our entire trip: sweet lemon! Somewhat common in the Middle East, this hybrid tastes just like a lemon, but it is deliciously sweet.

Sweet lemon!

Sweet lemon!

Sweet lemons is a dramatic symbol of what we were experiencing from the moment we got on the El Al jet in Toronto. Israel, both biblical and modern, is a story of incredible color and contrast, texture and variety, bitter and sweet. Contradictions? Not really. Unless you think a sweet lemon is a contradiction. This incredible complexity as expressed in a people and their land is the result of a people and their God, whether or not he is acknowledged by them. The Jewish people are a people who continually find themselves within God’s plans and purposes even though most may be unaware of it.

We encountered this on our second morning. We were at Independence Hall in in Tel Aviv, listening to the remarkable story of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. On November 29, 1947, not only did David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, express a unified vision of an extremely diverse people, it was the cry of one of the most victimized peoples in history, struggling to emerge from the ashes of the Holocaust, preparing to face five Arab armies whose expressed goal was to wipe out the fledgling state. Against all odds, the nation of Israel survived and the people of Israel controlled their own country for the first time since the second century B.C. If the nation had simply survived, our group would have been impressed, but not as impacted as we were. We were encountering a people and a land that not only survived, but thrives. To many believers, the hand of God is obvious. But to the atheist, the secularist, and the traditionalist, not to mention Israel’s enemies, the sources of success lie elsewhere. Fully grasping what God is actually doing is a necessary challenge for the small minority of believers in the Land, some of whom we were privileged to meet with. We heard their history, their struggles, their concerns, their dreams. But in every case, they sang. They sang melodies of “sweet lemons.”

Friends Allen & Nechama Wiseman and their son Nathaniel shared with us by the Sea of Galilee.

Friends Allen & Nechama Wiseman and their son Nathaniel shared with us by the Sea of Galilee. Nechama and Nathaniel also sang for us.

Learning about the Declaration of Independence.

Learning about the Declaration of Independence.

While some back home wondered why we would go to Israel at this time, everywhere we went we encountered other visitors from all over the world: Nigerians, Kenyans, Koreans, Germans, Norwegians, Americans, Canadians, to name a few. All doing similar things to what we were doing, enjoying one of the safest and secure countries in the world in one of the most troubled regions of the world. Sweet lemons.

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Tel Dan Nature Reserve (living water!)

I trusted Shoresh Tours throughout the trip, knowing that as part of the Israeli tour industry the utmost care is taken to ensure the safety of tourists. My trust unreasonably wavered, however, at the thought of visiting the Temple Mount. I had stayed away from the news the couple of weeks leading up to the tour, because while I am skeptical of the media’s perspective, I knew it would affect me. Yet, I couldn’t keep myself from hearing that so much of the current strife had to do with the Temple Mount. So why were we going there? David’s only concern was over getting to the security line early enough before the crowds. Was he thinking we were going to a concert? I was so worked up that I sent special prayer requests to family and friends the night before.

When we got there first thing the following morning my initial impression was that it seemed calm enough, but you never know. Soon there were other people in line – touristy-looking people like the gentleman behind me. I asked him, “Where are you from?” “Poland,” he said. “What brings you to Jerusalem?” I asked. “A mathematics conference,” he replied. He had some time before the day’s proceedings and wanted to check out the Temple Mount. Again I was thinking that this felt really normal. I thought, “Isn’t this the Temple Mount – a place of fear, violence, and destruction?” But no. It is the Temple Mount, of course, but it’s safe. We walk around the Temple Mount plaza as David teaches on the Second Temple at the time of Yeshua and the Polish mathematician takes pictures.

The Western Wall from the ramp leading to the Temple Mount.

The Western Wall from the ramp leading to the Temple Mount.

A quiet morning on the Temple Mount

A quiet morning on the Temple Mount.

Before I mention the other time I was concerned, I need to tell you about our tour group. Besides myself and David, there were fifteen people – not a large group, but eclectic for sure. Ages ranged from 11–82 and covered four Canadian provinces and two American states, representing a wide assortment of Christian backgrounds. I had only known or met about half of them before the trip. It was fascinating to see how each person related to the different aspects of the trip in different ways. On our last morning, each person shared two highlights, which for the most part were unique to each person. The last person to share was the eleven year old. And to my surprise she said that one of her highlights was the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem, my other site of great concern. In fact, we had originally planned that she would skip it due to its subject matter. But after careful consideration and encouragement from David, her mother agreed, not knowing, of course that this would be a highlight for her.

Our tour group.

Our tour group.

But how could a Holocaust museum be a highlight? Having not been myself, I thought the experience would devastate me, let alone a child, but it surprisingly didn’t. It was very sad and distressing, but so well done; in good taste in fact (sweet lemons again). How could a museum about the methodical extermination of six million Jews be in good taste? Let me briefly share three possible reasons: first, it is a place of honor, not shame. While there is much to be shameful of regarding the Holocaust and the indictment of its perpetrators and their collaborators is very clear, great care is taken to restore the dignity of the victims. Second, this museum is an extraordinary work of art in its own right. Designed by renowned Canadian, American, Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, one is struck by the masterful creativity while being exposed to one of the darkest periods of human history. Third, this tragic story is being told in Israel, where we were continually reminded that the Nazi evil didn’t win.

Still on the subject of the Holocaust, yet another surprise was to await me later that same afternoon – a vivid reminder of how within such great darkness are to be found glimpses of brilliant light. Before dinner, I went on my own to do some exploring in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. On my way back, I happened upon a tour group from a church in San Diego who was walking in my direction. While exchanging a few words with their pastor, I learned that he is the husband of Rosemary Schindler Garlow, the second cousin of Oskar Schindler, of “Schindler’s List” fame. Rosemary was on her 54th trip to Israel! Upon talking with her, I learned that she is the one in the family who carries the legacy of her cousin’s story, a story that reminds us that the stars shine most brightly in the darkest of nights. More sweet lemons.

Sweet lemons everywhere. Israel thrives in the midst of the world’s most difficult political conflicts. From agricultural and technological advances to its extreme scenic beauty, there is no place like it anywhere. And where else does the Bible come alive more than in its original geographic setting?

For centuries that geographical setting had been for the most part neglected. Then in the early 19th century, Christians, particularly from Germany and England, began to realize that God still had a plan for the Jewish people in their homeland. Shoresh Study Tours is part of the legacy of these early “Restorationists,” as they were called. Our last five days were spent at the Christ Church Guesthouse in the Old City of Jerusalem near Jaffa Gate. It is part of a beautiful oasis-like compound that includes Christ Church, the first Protestant church in the Middle East, founded in 1849. Few realize that it was these Bible-believing Christians who laid the foundation for the modern State of Israel even before Jewish people did. I guess they believed in sweet lemons.

Staying at the Christ Church Guesthouse (on left) inside the Old City was a very special part of our tour.

Staying at the Christ Church Guesthouse (on left) inside the Old City was a very special part of our tour.

When the Bible is alive to us, we discover that it is a story of sweet lemons – conflicting contrasts of hope in the midst of despair, strength through weakness, life emerging from death. David’s teaching brightly illumined Scriptural truth as he so vividly outlined the political climate into which Yeshua came, especially in his relationship to the power of Rome through Herod the Great, and the role of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Gospels. He carefully and accurately explained the historical background in key archeological locations as we avoided the overly religious sites that tend to obscure biblical truth. Examples included an ancient home near Bethlehem that is similar to the kind of accommodation Yeshua had at his birth and the remains of a rich man’s tomb in Jerusalem.

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Our tour guide, David Miller, brought the Bible to life.

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Getting an accurate picture of life in Bethlehem at Yeshua’s birth.

At a rich man's tomb

At a rich man’s tomb.

And speaking of tombs, there is, of course, no sweeter lemon than what God has done through Yeshua’s resurrection. While controversy abounds regarding the actual site, it doesn’t really matter, since wherever it is, he is no longer there. Yet he is there throughout the Land of Israel, transforming the sour into sweet in all sorts of ways, sometimes obvious, other times you need to dig for it. He is there in the beauty of the land, in the thriving of the country, and in the believers. He is there because of God’s eternal faithfulness to the people of Israel. This really came home to me the second evening, when we stayed in the southern coastal town of Ashkelon, not far from Gaza. My friend Avner Boskey from Beersheba spoke to and sang to us. He closed with his rendition of Psalm 117:

O praise the Lord, all you nations
Praise him, all you peoples
For his lovingkindness is great toward us
His truth is everlasting. Hallelujah!

With Avner Boskey

With Avner Boskey.

I have sung this so many times, but never actually caught what it is actually saying. Avner clearly explained that the psalmist is calling the nations to praise God because of his faithfulness to Israel. Our tour gave us reason to do just that over and over again.

On our way to the airport. L’hitraot (‘Till we meet again)!

Israel Day 2-4

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Sunrise at the Dead Sea

When I announced that I planned to blog my Israel trip I wondered if anyone was thinking  that it wouldn’t happen. Well, it has indeed been a challenge due to time limitations and technical difficulties.

I have found that the easiest thing is posting photos and comments on Facebook. This is my new plan, but we’ll see.

But since I am already here I will comment on one of the most striking ongoing things. So far wherever we’ve gone life feels normal and there’s lots of tourists. Whatever impression you might be getting from the media is nothing like the wonderful experience our group is having.

That doesn’t mean there are no incidents of violence (though how they are reported may not be altogether accurate). It’s that these incidents are a small piece of a much bigger picture. I have trying to share some of that through my Facebook posts, but the way things are going, a fuller report will have to wait until I get back.

Israel Day Two

No post for Day One. Very long day for most, some even longer as they journeyed from the West Coast to Toronto to catch our 11 hour flight to Tel Aviv on El Al, Israel’s national airline.

There’s nothing like El Al’s unusual effective security. Very pleasant flight.

20151018_095705~2It was about 8:30 am local time when we left the terminal and our tour officially began.
FB_IMG_1445276451559Thanks to Tony Hendrick for this photo.

We had a full day of touring, beginning with the beautiful biblical nature reserve, Neot Medumim, where we learned how understanding various plant life illumines Scripture. I didn’t know how much you can do with hyssop. Or how deep cisterns really are. After lunch we visited the ancient port of Ceasarea, where we learned of the power and prowess of Herod the Great and the relevance of Roman oppression at the time of Yeshua.

Great dinner at our hotel in Tel Aviv. As was breakfast this morning, including all you can eat halva! Yum!!

I had various technical difficulties with this blog. I wanted to post some other photos, but instead of delaying further, I will post this now. I will post today’s events hopefully tomorrow.

 

 

We are about to start our morning with a tour of Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where Ben Gurion declared to the world the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland.

Why Go to Israel?

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As you may already be aware, this October, my wife, Robin, and I are leading a tour to Israel. But why? Visiting Israel at least once is a desire of many Bible believers. Who would not want to go and see the places where so many events of the Bible transpired? After hearing and reading about Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and so on, and then to stand in these places, touch them, listen to the sounds, and smell the smells, how couldn’t the ancient past come alive, impacting the Bible with fresh meaning? Sounds like enough reason to go to me. But there’s even more to it than that, especially in how we have designed this particular tour experience.

 

Seeing the sites does indeed make the Bible come alive, but it seems to me that something more needs to happen. Maybe I am wrong, but even though most of us accept that the Bible is true – that its stories really happened – in our minds Israel and the Bible tend to live in the realm of myth. Touring Israel can easily become an overly romanticized, sentimental journey to a spiritual Disneyland, instead of an immersion into God’s practical and enduring reality.

 

The reestablishment of Israel after 2000 years of exile testifies to God’s ongoing faithfulness to his word and to his people. That is why a key component of this tour is connecting with some of what God is doing in the Land of Israel today as we get to know believers and various ministries there. Our hope is that we will come home not only knowing God and the Bible better, but also with a sense of connection to God’s work in Israel that will be with us for the rest of our lives.

 

Biblical truth is not a collection of abstract concepts, but a living, practical, on-the-ground reality. This tour, “God’s Faithfulness Then & Now,” will thrust us into the fullness of the Big Picture of God’s Epic Story.

We have just completed a promotional video, which you can see here. Please share it with friends by email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Special thanks to Dan Woods of Blue Mansion Media for producing this.

 

For more information about the tour, including a printable brochure and reservation forms, click here.

To make a reservation, contact Glenda by phone (toll-Free): 1-800-667-5559 (outside North America: 1-604-853-0751), ext: 365; or by email: glenda@mennotvl.com.

Why I Am Not Neutral

Not Neutral image“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Author, Nobel Peace Laureate

Recent events, including the Israel/Gaza conflict, have helped to me to rethink what is the proper biblical response to social issues. Up until recently I have wrongly associated the need to demonstrate authentic love toward everyone, including our enemies (see Matthew 5:43-48), with neutrality.

A correct understanding of godly impartiality is illustrated through the heavenly messenger who appeared to Moses’ successor Joshua in preparation for entering the Promised Land. When Joshua first encountered this person, Joshua confronted him with the question, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” (Joshua 5:13; ESV). The response is instructive, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come” (Joshua 5:14; ESV). God is supremely impartial and objective. His is always the side of right. The question we need to ask ourselves not whose side he is on, but are we on his side. Right has a side.

When we face the messiness of life, it may sound spiritual to be neutral. It may indeed be spiritual, but not a spirituality rooted in the Bible. In Buddhism, for example, to disengage from life’s concerns in pursuit of bliss is a value. Spirituality based on the God of the Bible is anything but that. Biblical spirituality is a call to engage, to get involved, to make a difference. Joshua wasn’t instructed to chill out, to “let go and let God,” as if faith is an alternate state of being, disconnected from life’s harsh realities. Faith is hearing God and obeying him. In Joshua’s case it was to lead the people of Israel in the acquisition of the Promised Land. Joshua’s faithful obedience to God resulted in dramatic consequences. Some benefited, others suffered. Decisive actions lead to definite results.

Neutrality will never produce the justice God requires. As we read in Proverbs.

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
   hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
   does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
   and will he not repay man according to his work?
(Proverbs 24:11-12; ESV)

Effectively helping victims of injustice requires taking sides. If we are not willing or able to differentiate between abusers and victims, we will not be able to alleviate unjust suffering.

Following Yeshua (Jesus) calls us away from neutrality. He said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39; ESV)

Yeshua’s coming forces people to be decisive with regard to what it means to truly follow God. Because of Yeshua, no one can afford the luxury of sitting on the sidelines.

One passage that is often used to fuel disengagement is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 6:1-8. Paul here confronts the believers regarding how they are handling their grievances with one another. This passage is often wrongly used to prevent believers from effectively resolving conflict. Paul’s words in verse seven, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” are taken to mean that victims should always absorb wrongdoing. But that is not what is going on here. I discuss this more fully in a recent TorahBytes message (Expressing Concern – http://www.torahbytes.org/74-41.htm), but for our purposes here, let it suffice to say that Paul’s admonition to learn how to personally get along with each other should not be confused with the need to confront injustice. In fact, these words earlier in the passage should call us to be anything but neutral in the face of social issues:

Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1 Corinthians 6:2-3; ESV)

“How much more!” Paul says. Not less. While there is a time to tell people in conflict to stop acting like children and stop fighting, that is not the appropriate response in all situations. Not all problems can be solved by simply holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” or “Give Peace a Chance.” But whatever the problem, we will never find lasting solutions unless we stop being neutral and get on the right side of issues.

What does this mean for you and me?

That neutrality is not godly is clear, but how to determine which issues are worthy of our attention and how to deal with those issues is no easy task. Determining what God requires of each of us has to do with our calling and gifting along with the level of responsibility we bear and our sphere of influence. No one can effectively carry every legitimate care and concern in the world. We cannot even be expected to pray for every important issue there is. Each of us therefore, needs to be sensitive to the leading of God’s spirit in our hearts and lives that we would give ourselves to the things God is calling us to. Ultimately we all must answer to God. So as I share my concerns with you, I am content to encourage you to consider what I am saying, hoping that your response will be based, not on my will for your life, but God’s will.

What this has meant for me is that I have realized that I can no longer remain neutral over issues relating to the Land of Israel and the Jewish people. Until recently, my claim to neutrality has been based on my call as a Bible Teacher. Even though I have regarded that an aspect of my God-given task is to help people see the central role of Israel in the plan of God, I have continually emphasized (and rightly so!) that the term “Israel” in the Bible is the people, not the Land. The Land is the land of the people of Israel. Moreover, Israel in the Bible should not be immediately and necessarily associated with the modern State of Israel. Be that as it may, the Bible is clear that God’s commitment to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob includes the Land. Therefore if I am called and equipped to teach the Bible, I must also teach what the Bible teaches regarding the Land.

As I do so, I am keenly aware that this, like any other issue, needs to be approached with love, compassion, and mercy for all. But as I have tried to explain, these virtues don’t lead to neutrality, but definitive godly justice.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not the only topic I will address. As I am given opportunities to teach and write, my prayer is that I will provide what is most helpful to God’s people at the time.

I have no plans to become obsessed with this issue. I still believe “all Scripture for all of life” (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17). In fact, it has been this pursuit that has kicked me off neutrality’s fence. My heart is to engage life as God intends. I hope I am calling you to do the same. This has to include every important personal and societal issue covering every aspect of life, Israel included.

Toward A Biblical Understanding of Israel & the Middle East

Map of IsraelWhile deserving of a much fuller discussion, I offer here an overview of what I understand to be the Bible’s perspective on the people and Land of Israel.

Brief biblical overview of Israel and the Land

The nation of Israel (as a people) was specially and purposely formed by God (Isaiah 43:1; 44:2).

The granting of the Land of Israel, as defined in Scripture, is an essential aspect of God’s unconditional eternal promise to the people of Israel.

  • God’s promise of the Land to Abraham is unconditional (Genesis 12:1-2; 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:5; 15:17-21; 17:8; 22:17).
  • Moses prophesied the restoration of Israel to both God and the Land (Deuteronomy 29-30).
  • Restoration of Israel to the Land is affirmed by the Prophets (Isaiah 11:11-12:6; 27:12-13; 43:5-7; Jeremiah 16:14-15; 23:3-4; 23:7-8; 31:7-10; Ezekiel 11:14-18; 28:24-26; 36:24; Amos 9:14-15; Zephaniah 3:18-20; Zechariah 10:8-12).

Israel’s covenant relationship with God as established through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not dependent on their descendants’ obedience to God (Jeremiah 31:35-37; Romans 11:28- 29).

The Abrahamic and Sinai covenants are related but distinct (Galatians 3:15-18). The Jewish people’s lack of faithfulness to the Sinai (Old) Covenant resulted in the promise of a New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), which was established the Messiah (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). Both the Old and New Covenants are rooted in the Abrahamic one. Neither abrogates it (Romans 11:28- 29; Galatians 3:17-18).

Under the Sinai Covenant, restoration to God and to the Land was based on the unconditional Abrahamic covenant, not the conditional Sinai one (Leviticus 26:40-42).

“Israel” in the New Testament is never made synonymous with “The Church.” [1]

The “mystery of the Gospel,” which is the incorporation of the Gentiles into the spiritual blessings anticipated by Israel through faith in the Messiah is no reflection on the continued relevance of the covenant promise of Land to the people of Israel (Ephesians 3:6).

Individual salvation for Jewish people (as is true for all people) is only through faith in the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 4:12).

The church has a special responsibility to pray and work towards the spiritual restoration of the people of Israel (Romans 9:1-5; 11:30-32)

Israel’s covenant relationship to the Land is not undermined by the New Testament.

Gentile domination of Jerusalem is regarded as temporary (Luke 21:24).

  • When the apostles expressed their expectation of a literal kingdom, Jesus cautioned them regarding the timing, not the essence of their inquiry (Acts 1:6-8).
  • The New Jerusalem is intimately associated with physical Israel (Revelation 21:12-14).
  • While exile from the Land and/or non-Israelite rule over the Land is a sign of God’s disfavor over the people of Israel, God has never given the Promised Land to any other nation as a “possession” (Luke 21:24).

While God chooses from time to time to judge the people of Israel via foreign domination of and exile from the Land of Israel, unfaithfulness to God on the part of the majority of the people of Israel does not disqualify them from resettling the Land.[2]

Reflections

God’s covenant relationship with physical Israel is primarily about the people of Israel. The Land constitutes only one aspect of God’s promises to the people of Israel.

We can expect that through the Gospel and in the name of the Messiah, the people of Israel will be restored to both God and the Land.

There are no prophetic events that must necessarily precede the restoration of Israel to God and the Land.

The essential nature of faith in the Messiah for individual salvation does not undermine or lessen the reality of God’s purposes among the people of Israel, the Land of Israel, or the nations.

The concept of a modern Jewish national home within the boundaries of the Promised Land is biblical.

God’s covenant relationship with physical Israel doesn’t automatically justify the current return to the Land, Zionism, or necessarily endorse the policies of a particular Israeli government or Israeli political party.

Insofar as it is proper for believers in Messiah to speak into the policies and social issues of any nation (Matthew 28:18-20), so it is proper for godly people of good will and wisdom to speak into the policies and social issues of all the nations, organizations, and individuals involved in the current Middle East conflict.


[1] “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) need not mean “The Church”; “But a Jew is one inwardly” (Romans 2:29) is a reference to authentic spirituality, not a redefinition of “Jewish” that includes Gentile Christians.

[2] The return from Babylon occurred, not because of increased faithfulness on Israel’s part, but because the predetermined 70 years were completed. The whole second temple period was marked by foreign rule and oppression except for the Hasmonean period (140 – 37 BC).