Israel, October 22-28 Jan and I are here in Israel as part of Doug Jacoby’s Biblical Study Tour. We arrive at Tel Aviv on Monday at 3:25 AM. The first day we visit Jaffa, the port city from which Tel Aviv grew. It is also where Peter was living when he got the call to go to Caesarea and offer the gospel to Gentiles for the first time. Tel Aviv is the second city of Israel. It is quite cosmopolitan and it wears its Jewishness relatively lightly. On Tuesday, we head up the coast to Caesarea Maratima, the city and port built by Herod the Great in the last century BC. This is where Paul spent more than two years in prison and the place where Cornelius was the first non-Jewish convert to Christianity. It is also where the Pilate Inscription was found. This discovery proved the skeptics who claimed Pontius Pilate was a biblical fiction to be wrong. Caesarea has an amazing port as well as a Roman theatre. From there, we drove up the coast and headed inland to Mt. Carmel to visit a Druze village and to contemplate the scene when Elijah stared down 450 prophets of Baal, winning a great victory for Jehovah. From there we traveled to Magdala where we got to view a synagogue from the first century. This is the hometown of Mary Magdalene. It is only about four miles from Capernaum. It is almost certain that Jesus taught in this synagogue. We completed our first day of travel with a cruise on the Sea of Galilee to Tiberias. Day two included a drive north to Caesarea Philippi which is in the Golan Heights. This is the scene where Peter replied to Jesus that He is the Messiah—the Son of the living God. We saw the “Gate of Hades” that Jesus said will not prevail, which is the gate of the idol, Pan. From there, we traveled to the ancient city of Dan or Laish. The city has massive fortifications. It also includes the infamous altar set up by Jeroboam where the bull idols were set up. These are the idolatrous images which Jereboam told his people were their gods. That is a sad story. We were awestruck to see the gate to the Canaanite city of Laish from the nineteenth century BC. This is almost certainly the gate that Abraham came up to as he pursued Kerdolaomer to get back the belongings taken from Lot. A tithe of the spoils of this campaign were given to Melchizedek. But we were not done with the day yet. From there, we traveled south to visit the city of Kepher Nahum, which to us is Capernaum. This was the center of activity of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Here Peter had his house. There is a remnant of a church which goes back to the third or fourth century, built on the likely site of Peter’s house. The restored ruins of the city, including a fourth century synagogue are quite impressive. On Thursday, we traveled south. First, we visited Nazareth, the place where Jesus was raised. It was prophesied that the Messiah would come as a branch, and Nazareth means branch. We visited a reconstruction of the city of Nazareth and saw a winepress and watchtower from the first century. From there, we traveled to Tell Megiddo, which is the scene of so many great conflicts in biblical history. It is where Sisera was killed and where Deborah helped to defeat his army. This is where Solomon built one of his great fortified cities and where Josiah was killed in a battle. The tell (hill) is made of 25 identifiable layers of building from well before 2000 BC to the Persian period. We came out of the tell through the water tunnel, built through solid rock to the spring at the bottom of the hill. This was very impressive. From there we traveled east toward the Jordan River to the city of Beth She’an. This city was the capitol of the Decapolis and is at the end of the Jezreel valley. There is a massive Graeco-Roman city here. There is a beautifully preserved theater which can hold around 10,000 spectators. Saul and Jonathan died in battle at Beth She’an. Jesus passed through this city as he passed down to Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. From there, we drove down the Jordan valley, through Jericho and up to Jerusalem. During the tour, we are able to spend time with some of our best friends such as the Cox’s from London, the Bittencourts from Sao Paulo and many more. This is a great fellowship opportunity. Jerusalem is the chief city of Israel. It is divided into Palestinian and Israeli territory. This is the holy city of Judaism as well as one of three holy cities of Islam and the cradle of the Christian Church. There are many mosques, churches and synagogues here. The population is nearly 30% conservative Jews, which has a dramatic effect on the culture and the politics. This is a beautiful and inspiring city. Here is the Temple Mount with the Muslim Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa Mosque, as well as the Wailing Wall—so important to the Jews, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at the supposed site of the tomb where Jesus body was laid. There are so many holy sites here it is hard to keep track of them. On Friday, we take a walking tour of the city. We enter through the Damascus Gate, passing to the Western Wall. We tour the underground excavations at the base of the Temple Mount. The stones in the supporting wall are massive. It is here that Jewish men and women pray at separate parts of the wall. From there, we visit the site of the Praetorium where Jesus was put on trial before Pilate and was scourged. We follow the traditional Via Dolorosa (Latin forway of suffering) to the West of the city where Jesus is supposed to have been killed. On the way we stop at the beautiful Church of St. Anne, built by Crusaders in the 12th century as well as the Pool of Bethsaida—a two level set of pools with five colonnades where Jesus healed the paralytic on the Sabbath. The excavations here are quite recent and are truly spectacular. From there, we pass through the Jewish Quarter, out of the city walls to Gallicantu. This is now a church, but it is a likely site of the High Priest Caiaphus’ house where Jesus was put on trial before the Sanhedrin. We visit a dungeon which is a possible site where Jesus was held pending his trial. This has been a very full day, but we also spend some time at the beautiful Jaffa Gate. Before sundown the city grinds to a haltas this is Shabbat (Sabbath).

On Saturday, the city feels almost deserted. We travel down the Jerusalem/Jericho road which Jesus used as the setting for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We spend some time in Jericho, the site of what may well be the oldest city in the world, with settlement for over eleven thousand years. Of course, this is near where the Jews crossed the Jordan and began the conquest of the Promised Land. From Jericho, we travel south to Qumran. This is a fascinating archaeological site as it is the famous center of the Essene sect of Judaism in the first century AD. There are many mikvahs here as the sect made at last twice-daily washings. This is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were copied. The Qumran monastery was abandoned in AD 68, at which times thousands of scrolls were hidden in caves, only to be discovered after 1947. The scrolls tell us much about Judaism at that time, and also provide strong support for the reliability of the Old Testament. On the way back to Jerusalem, we stop for a swim in the Dead Sea. The water is so salty that perhaps 30% of one’s body is above the water. This is a bizarre feeling, but it is fun to experience. Sunday was a special day. We began with a visit to the City of David, which is on a prominence on the South of the Temple Mount. We descended to the bottom of the wall to the Spring of Gihon. This was the water source of the city from the time of the Canaanites and the Jebusites, all the way back to 1500 BC. In 2 Chronicles 32:1-5, 30 records how Hezekiah closed off the source of the water and had a tunnel built through solid rock from within the city to the Spring of Gihon. We walked through this tunnel, which is more that 1700 feet long. It is an amazing feat of engineering, as crews working from both sides were able to meet at the middle. The tunnel still carries water from the spring into the city. At the end of the spring, we visited the Pool of Siloam, which is where the healing of the man born blind, in John 9, was performed. We really get a sense of Jesus’ ministry as we stride the side of this very large pool. From there, we explored the southern end of the Temple Mount, going up to the Huldah Gate, which was the main entrance to the Temple Mount. This gate was named after the prophetess Huldah (2 Chronicles 34:22-28). From there, we went to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane for a worship service and prayer. Our final visit to the Old City included spending time in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is the traditional site of the crucifixion and the burial site of Jesus. The church was built in the fourth century and may very well occupy the site of the burial of Jesus. Unfortunately, it is now the site of much bickering among Catholics, Orthodox, Syrians and Copts over territory in the sanctuary, which has become a kind of idolatrous place of worship for many. This ended our wonderful tour of Israel. Many thanks to Doug Jacoby and Steve Kinnard and others for putting on this visit to the Holy Land.

Amman, Jordan October 30-Nov 2 The trip to Amman is not an easy one. Due to recent restrictions, the normal crossing point to Jordan, the Allenby Gate, is closed to us, so Jan and I had to travel two hours north, almost all the way back up to Galilee, to cross near Beth She’an. On the way, we paid a brief visit to the ancient city of Jericho, which was the first city conquered by God’s people after they crossed the Jordan. This is one of the most ancient cities in the world. When wecrossed into Jordan, we were met by Simon Hinn and his wife, Rima. Theyreturned recently from leading our sister church in Cairo for several years.Simon was converted in San Diego in 1982. When he returned to Jordan in 1984,he found himself alone in a Muslim country. Rather than renounce his faith orcompromise his convictions, he started his own Bible group and converted mostof his family and a number of friends. When a team came to plant a church inAmman in 1990 they found a group of 10 already meeting and worshippingtogether. What an amazing example of faithfulness! The leader of the group here is Sami Sakakini. He was one of the first converts here inJordan. Amman is a beautiful city of nearly three million in thecountry Jordan which has about ten million. This is a solidly Muslim country,governed by the Arab Hashemite kings. Although there is little politicalfreedom here, King Hussein and his son Abdullah have created a stable andrelatively prosperous state in the volatile Middle East. Arabs from throughoutthe Arab world come here to shop and vacation because it is a great melting potand is stable and safe. Jordan has received more than one and a half millionrefugees from Iraq and Syria. To give this context, if the US were to receivethe same proportion of refugees, it would mean more than 50 million newresidents entering our country. This is a generous and welcoming people. Theirhospitality is legendary. This is exemplified by the church here. We meet Simon as wellas Sami and his wife, Fadia who take us to a very fancy restaurant, serving thewonderful local food. The lamb and chicken here are amazing, and the local pitabread and, of course, hummus are delicious. In the evening, we meet at Sami andFadia’s house with the leaders of the singles group and the campus and teengroup.

On Tuesday, we visit the ancient citadel of Amman. This was the capital of the Ammonites, who were the first people defeated by Israel before they crossed the Jordan. It has been occupied since at least 5000 BC. We also spend time in the Roman-era amphitheater, which is one of the best preserved in the world. We had an interesting interaction there. As we drank coffee with Simon and Rema, a woman came up to us and said “haram” to Jan, which means shame, as she pointed to Jan’s uncovered shins and feet. In the evening, I teach a class on “Answering the Hard Question” such as the trinity, which is a particularly difficult point in sharing with Muslims. I also addressed the question of pain and suffering, as well as, warfare in the Old Testament. The Christians here is particularly interested in being prepared to answer criticism of Christianity coming from Muslims. The church has 80 members. There are 60 at the meeting, including several guests. This meeting was principally for the singles and campus group. A pastor of two Baptist churches in Amman is in attendance. We find that his doctrine is more like what the church here teaches than mainstream Baptists. We are really encouraged by this.

Sami tells us he went to Iraq several years ago to help lead the church there. After a short time, he was arrested and spent three and a half months in prison under terrible conditions. He thought he might be killed at any time. The entire time his wife and very young children did not even know if he was alive. Two other Iraqi brothers spent three years in prison. None of them were ever charged. This willingness to suffer for Christ is a great challenge to Jan and me. Leading a church in the Muslim Middle East is risky business. Wednesday is a more restful day. The class in the evening is on Freedom in Christ and the use of our gifts as ministers in the church. On Thursday, we travel to Jerash. This is the ancient city Gerasa of the Ammonites. It was the largest city of the Decapolis in Roman times. This is the largest and most well-preserved Roman city we have seen. Driving there, we pass through Palestinian refugee camps. We learn that the border with Syria was opened just a couple of weeks ago after being closed for seven years due to the civil war. Hope is dawning for peace in Syria. The refugees may soon be able to begin returning to their homes. The evening is a third lesson for the church here on the Existence of God. It is surprising to us that in this very religious country atheism is beginning to find a place to the point that the members of the church need to be prepared to answer questions from non-believers.

Read more about John’s trips to Beirut, Luxor and Cairo…