Tour of Israel #13: Bethlehem

Singing God's Praises in a Cave near Bethlehem, Perhaps One Like Where Jesus Was Born

Singing God’s Praises in a Cave near Bethlehem, Perhaps One Like Where Jesus Was Born

In Bethlehem we see how God’s plan of salvation was composed of many links in an unbreakable chain of grace. We see one link in the chain when, more than three thousand years ago, two women came to Bethlehem. One was old, the other young. One was a native of this Jewish town, the other, her daughter-in-law, was a foreigner from Moab. Though an outsider from a pagan land, Ruth not only was accepted by the Jewish community, but she married a Hebrew man named Boaz, for she too had come to trust in the Lord (Ruth 2:12).

Another link in the chain appeared some years later, when the Lord directed the prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem and speak to the grandson of Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 4:21–22; 1 Sam. 16:1). This man had several sons, and God led His prophet to anoint the youngest of them, David. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Ruth’s great-grandson David, and he became the champion of Israel and the father of a dynasty of kings by divine covenant.

It seemed that God’s chain of promise was shattered when, after centuries of disobedience, the royal line of David fell under God’s judgment. However, long before the son of David went into exile in Babylon, the prophet Micah foretold that from Bethlehem would come a “ruler in Israel,” not a mere man, but an eternal Lord whose activities were “from everlasting,” and who would shepherd His people “in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the Lord his God,” and whose kingdom would extend “unto the ends of the earth” (Mic. 5:2, 4).

Stooping to Enter the Church of Nativity

Stooping to Enter the Church of Nativity

Seven centuries after Micah penned those words, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and an angel announced to shepherds nearby, “unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). It is amazing that this village even existed after so many years of war and hardship. It is even more amazing to consider that the reason Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem is because of a decree from a pagan emperor, Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1).

When today we are tempted to doubt that God works all things for good, let us remember how precisely He fulfilled His purpose to bring His Son into the world in the little town of Bethlehem. We can wait for the coming of His kingdom with absolute confidence, for God’s plan did not fail in the past, and cannot fail in the future. The child of Bethlehem will reign. And we can be sure that even the seemingly random events of our day are exactly what God has planned to bring Christ’s kingdom to all the nations, and one day with visible glory.

Tour of Israel #12: Herodium

Israel, Herodium

Seven or eight miles south of Jerusalem (ten miles by car), atop a rounded hill stands Herodium (or Herodion), the fortress of King Herod the Great. (Herod the Great is not to be confused with other Herods that appear in the Bible during the ministry of Christ and His apostles.) Herodium was a splendid place, with gardens and a huge pool on the grounds below, and a stately palace enclosed by the fortress above.

Though Herod the Great constructed beautiful buildings, such as the temple and Herodium, he was not a beautiful person. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia says, “He was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.” This included murdering one of his wives, three of his sons, and two rabbis. In his final days, he ordered that when he died a number of prominent Jewish leaders should also be murdered so that there would be national mourning at Herod’s death—but this order was not carried out.

In the Bible, Herod the Great is particularly known for his response to the visit of the wise men from the east (Matt. 2:1–18). The account is a striking contrast between two kings. On the one side is King Herod, an old man living in pomp and power, yet paranoid about his kingdom. He is not of the house of Israel, but a foreigner with no rights to the throne. When the wise men appeared asking about the birth of the promised King of Israel, Herod first responded with trickery to try to locate the boy, and when that failed he murdered all the male children age two and under of the region of Bethlehem—given the size of the town, perhaps twenty or thirty precious children. He was a liar and a murderer, like the devil (John 8:44).

On the other hand is the true King of the Jews. He is the Son of Abraham, the greater Isaac, born miraculously not of an old woman but of a virgin (Matt. 1:1, 18, 20). He is the Son of David, the rightful and promised King (Matt. 1:1). His birth fulfills God’s promises (Matt. 2:6). He is no mere man, but Immanuel, God with us in the flesh (Matt. 1:23). Wise men worship Him and bring Him costly offerings with great joy (Matt. 2:10–11). He is no murderer, but He saves His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). He did not come in pomp and power, but in humility, forced to flee for His life at an early age, and one day was nailed to the cross for our sins. What a King! What a Savior! Yet today He reigns in a palace a million times more beautiful than Herodium ever was, and if we serve Him we shall reign with Him there forever.

Tour of Israel #11: The Pool of Siloam

When King Hezekiah prepared to defend Jerusalem against the invasion of the Assyrians, he set his workers to direct the waters of the Gihon spring into the city, so that Jerusalem and not its enemies might have access to its waters during the siege (2 Kings 18:17; 20:20; 2 Chron. 32:2–4, 30). To accomplish this, Hezekiah’s men cut a tunnel through the rock to carry water to the Pool of Siloam or Shiloach (Neh. 3:15). Its name means “sent” (John 9:7). It was be a major source of what the Hebrews called “living water,” that is, fresh running water as opposed to stagnant water—a picture of God’s life-giving grace (Jer. 2:13).

In the prophecy of Isaiah, the waters of Siloam became a symbol of trusting in God’s covenant with the son of David as the Lord’s appointed king (Isa. 8:6). Because the people of Samaria rejected the God’s chosen king, like the gentle waters of Siloam, and trusted in man and man’s alliances, God would sweep the northern kingdom away with the king of Assyria like a raging, flooded river, but would preserve King Hezekiah and Jerusalem (Isa. 8:4–8).

Dr. Ronning Reading John 9

Dr. Ronning Reading John 9

Seven centuries later, the Lord Jesus Christ was in Jerusalem and saw a man who was blind from birth (John 9). Christ said, “I am the light of the world.” Then Jesus did something very strange. He spat on the ground, made mud, put it on the eyes of the blind man, and told him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” When the blind man did so, he came back able to see! The healing of the blind fulfilled ancient prophecy, confirming that Jesus is the Christ (Isa. 35:5; 42:7; Luke 7:19–23). Ironically, when the news of the healing of the blind man reached the Pharisees, they were the ones who proved to be blind, for they absolutely refused to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ despite this miracle, for to do so would expose their sin (John 9:39–41). Once again, people chose to trust in man rather than in God’s appointed King.

The pool of Siloam reminds us that despite all the spiritual enemies that may besiege us, there is “a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God,” for “God is in the midst of her” (Ps. 46:4–5). His living waters heal our spiritual blindness, so that we see and trust the Lord Jesus Christ, though seeing Him also exposes our sins. By faith in God’s appointed King, we find victory and life. Like the blind man whom Jesus healed, let us fall down to worship Christ, and say, “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38).

Tour of Israel #10: The Temple in Jerusalem

Hundreds of Orthodox Jews Gathered under Wilson's Arch at the Western Wall

Hundreds of Orthodox Jews Gathered under Wilson’s Arch at the Western Wall

Among all the features of ancient Jerusalem, the temple especially draws our attention for its beauty and spiritual significance. The temple has a complex history. In the covenant with David, the Lord authorized the replacement of the tabernacle-tent with the temple constructed by David’s son Solomon (2 Sam. 7), who began construction in 966 BC (1 Kings 6:1). After Solomon dedicated the temple, the glory of the Lord filled the Holy Place, and it functioned as a center for the people’s prayers and seeking God’s grace in repentance over their sins (1 Kings 8).

Praying at the Western or Wailing Wall

Praying at the Western or Wailing Wall

Solomon’s temple stood until the Lord judged His people for their sins and the Babylonians burned it in 586 BC (2 Kings 25:9). Following the return from exile, Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, led the people to rebuild the temple, completing it in 516 BC. After centuries of use, the new temple was defiled by the idolatrous pagan King Antiochus Epiphanes (167 BC), but was restored after the Maccabean revolt. King Herod the Great began construction of a new, more impressive temple in 20 BC, and construction continued for many decades. Herod’s temple was the location where Christ and His apostles ministered, until it too was destroyed by the Roman legions in AD 70.

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews have gathered in pilgrimage and in prayer at the Western Wall, which became known as the Wailing Wall. Its cracks are filled with hastily written prayers for the speedy recovery of the sick, for the peace of Jerusalem, and for the coming of the Messiah. Pray that the scales would fall from their eyes and that they would embrace the Messiah who has come.

We find a fascinating reference to Herod’s temple in John 2. After Christ had driven out the moneychangers and those selling sacrificial animals, His fellow Jews demanded a miracle to prove He had the authority to do this. We read,

Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said. (John 2:19–22)

Here is the good news: we no longer need a physical temple, because we have the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He is our temple, in whom the glory of God dwells (John 1:14). By faith in Christ we can draw near to God, for His sacrificial death on the cross makes believers holy in God’s eyes once and for all (Heb. 10:10, 19–22). The New Jerusalem contains no temple, for “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Rev. 21:22). Jesus Christ is our new temple. As much as we may admire architecture, we need no building to enter God’s holy presence, just Christ and the people in whom His Spirit dwells (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19).

Tour of Israel #9: Caesarea Philippi

With My Son at Caesarea Philippi

With My Son at Caesarea Philippi

The place called Banias in the far northern region of Palestine was originally named Paneas by the Greeks, for here, in a magnificent cave, they built a shrine to the pagan nature god Pan. The nearby city of Caesarea Philippi was also the site of a beautiful temple of white stone built by Herod the Great to the honor and glory of the Roman Emperor. The location has significant connections to the false gods and idols of this world.

Jesus Christ chose this pagan region as the place where He would speak to His disciples about the most important question anyone can ever ask regarding Christ: “Whom say ye that I am?” Peter, illuminated by God, was enabled to confess, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Lord Jesus declared, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:15–18). Perhaps as He spoke of the “gates of hell,” the disciples involuntarily shuddered at the thought of the nearby idols devoted to the wicked pleasures and powers. Christ faced them unafraid, confident that He would build a solid church that Satan could not overthrow. Yet Christ also knew, as He proceeded to explain to His disciples, that this victory would require Jesus to “go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matt. 16:21).

If we are going to be Christians, then we must confront the idols of this evil world, and set our faces against them. There can be no faithfulness to God without conflict with the gods of this world. The only way that we can win this spiritual war is by faith in Jesus Christ (1 John 5:5). Everything hinges upon Jesus’ question, “Whom say ye that I am?” If your heart rests upon Jesus as the Son of God, sent by His Father to be the Christ, the anointed prophet, priest, and king of His people, then you have a rock on which to stand that the whole world cannot shake.

Faith in Christ is not easy, but He is worthy. It is not a matter of merely confessing Christ with our lips, but of believing in Him with our hearts. In the shadow of pagan idols and human empires, it would have been easy for the disciples to look at the son of a carpenter and think, “Him? The Son of God?” Similarly today, false religion and secular powers may hang like mountains over the little flock of God’s faithful, ready to crush God’s church. And indeed, we must take up our crosses to follow Christ. But if we are convinced that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then all earthly powers are as grasshoppers before Him.

Tour of Israel #8: The Jordan River

With My Wife at the Jordan River (human water usage has greatly reduced its flow in modern times)

With My Wife at the Jordan River (human water usage has greatly reduced its flow in modern times)

Drawing from the melting snow atop Mt. Hermon, the Jordan River rushes from the Huleh (or Hula) Lake into the Sea of Galilee, and then meanders southward to the Dead Sea. Though not a large river, the Jordan figures prominently in many parts of Holy Scripture, especially in its lower regions. Often it is the location of a new beginning in the life of a nation or individual.

The people of Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground, for the Lord cut off the waters of the river, even at flood stage (Josh. 3). In this way, the Lord showed them that the God who had split the Red Sea was still with them as they entered the Promised Land—a major support for their faith as they went from wandering in the wilderness to the battle to take the land of their inheritance.

Six centuries later, the prophet Elisha told a Syrian leper that he must wash in the Jordan seven times, and the Lord would heal him (2 Kings 5:10). This offended Naaman at first, for though a leper he was a rich and powerful military commander. Didn’t Syria have better rivers? Yet by God’s grace, he humbled himself, and in the waters of the Jordan his flesh became like that of a little child again—a physical picture of being born again.

Over eight more centuries passed, and at the Jordan River we find John baptizing large number of Jews as they confess their sins and profess repentance towards God (Mark 1). John preached a new beginning to them too: the forgiveness of sins for who repent of sin and hope in the coming Messiah. Yet when Jesus Christ appeared on the shores of the river, He shocked John by seeking baptism Himself. Our new beginning depends upon Christ taking the place of sinners in order to fulfill all righteousness. As Jesus came up out of the water, God publically declared Him to be His beloved Son, and visibly anointed Him with the Holy Spirit, so that Christ would baptize His people in the same Spirit (Mark. 1:8–11).

Have you experienced the new beginning Christ can give by His Spirit? Have you been washed of your spiritual leprosy, and been born again as a child of God? If not, then let the waters of the Jordan remind you that Christ can wash your heart clean by the gift of saving faith. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and be saved. If you have been washed by the Spirit, then give glory to God, for your new beginning would never have happened apart from Jesus Christ.

Tour of Israel #7, Mount of Beatitudes

View from Possible Location of the Sermon on the Mount

View from Possible Location of the Sermon on the Mount

While we cannot be sure where the Lord Jesus delivered His famous Sermon on the Mount, we do know that His teaching astonished people for its authority (Matt. 7:28). Christ called people to a way of life radically different than the religion popularized by the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20).

Matthew had summarized Christ’s preaching with the words, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). In the Beatitudes, Christ gave us eight pithy sayings that capture what repentance looks like. They are the Beatitudes, or declarations of the kind of person God has blessed with membership in His kingdom, both now and forever (Matt. 5:3–10). Rather than looking at each Beatitude distinctly, let’s use them like eight colors to paint a picture of what our Lord calls us to in discipleship, and what He promises.

Who are the people who have truly repented? They are a broken and humbled people in their relationships with God and man. They are not rich in their own estimation, but poor; not boasters, but mourners over their sins; not graspers and controllers, but meek and gentle. They long to be holy and to do the Father’s will. They do not simply clean up their external morality, but their hearts are cleansed by faith in Christ so that they sincerely love God and people. This love shows itself in mercy when they encounter people in misery and trouble. They have been reconciled to God, and so they seek to make peace among men. Yet their lives are so different from the world, especially the world of religious hypocrites, that they suffer hostility, slander, and all kinds of persecution. They are heavenly pilgrims in this world.

What blessing does the Lord promise them? It is the kingdom of heaven, where Christ will reign in His glory and His people will shine like the sun. No longer will they sorrow over sin, for all their sins will be gone, and they will be filled like golden cups with the wine of holiness. God will not give them what they deserve, but will show them mercy and openly declare them to be His beloved children in Christ. Though they were the most humble and gentle of men and women, they will rule as conquering kings and queens over the new creation. Best of all, they will directly see the glory of God shining in Jesus Christ, in each other, and in the new heavens and earth. Therefore, Christ says to them, “Blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed, blessed!” If you are a Beatitude person, then you are blessed indeed.

Israel, Family near Road from Jericho to Jerusalem

Tour of Israel #6: The City of Dan

Elders Sitting on the Elders' Seats in the Gates of the City of Dan

Elders Sitting on the Elders’ Seats in the Gates of the City of Dan

The city of Dan was the northern extreme of the kingdom of Israel, and so the entire land could be described as “from Dan even to Beersheba” (Judg. 20:1; 1 Kings 4:25). Originally known by its Canaanite name “Laish,” the tribe of Dan conquered and renamed the city. Tragically, idol-worship and false religion characterized the city of Dan throughout its history.

When the children of Dan marched on the city of Laish to take it, along the way they obtained the idols and priest of a man named Micah. Though God’s law strictly prohibits divine images and requires us to worship only in the way God commands, these Israelites did not hesitate to set up their own form of worship, man-made idols served by a man-made priesthood (Judg. 18:29–31). Apostasy like this moved the author of Judges to write, “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). Let us learn never to base our worship of God upon the ideas and preferences of man, but always upon the Word of God.

Many years later, when King Jeroboam set up his own religion of the gold calves for the breakaway kingdom of the ten northern tribes of Israel, he placed one idol in Bethel, and another in Dan (1 Kings 12:29–31). This man-made religion clung so closely to the people that even when King Jehu brought religious reform and removed Baal worship from the land, he still did not get rid of the horrible idols of Bethel and Dan (2 Kings 10:29). They led Israel into sin, and provoked the Lord to send the nation into exile and captivity (1 Kings 14:16).

Let us never forget that we worship a holy God. Many churches have a careless attitude toward worship. They replace the pure worship revealed in the Bible with human traditions, human innovations, and human images. Like the sons of Aaron, they bring God worship He has not authorized, and dishonor His holiness (Lev. 10).

However, let us remember as well that the Lord is a God who saves sinners from their idols. The genealogies of Chronicles and the list of tribes in Revelation 7 omit the tribe of Dan, perhaps as a testimony against its wicked departure from true worship. Yet Ezekiel’s symbolic vision of the future of God’s people includes Dan in the land and the holy city (Ezek. 48:1–2, 32). Perhaps Ezekiel is reminding us here that Christ has redeemed worshipers from false religion just as surely as He redeemed sinners from moral corruption. If Christ can save Dan, then He can save anyone from false worship. Let us therefore repent and have hope.

Tour of Israel #5: Capernaum

Dr. Halvor Ronning at Ancient Synagogue in Capernaum

Dr. Halvor Ronning at Ancient Synagogue in Capernaum

Capernaum, which means “village of Nahum” (with no apparent connection to the prophet by that name) was chosen by the Lord Jesus as the strategic center of His ministry in Galilee (Matt. 4:13). This made Capernaum a privileged place indeed. Christ may have had some family connections there (John 2:12). Simon Peter’s home was in Capernaum, and there Christ healed Peter’s mother-in-law of a severe fever, and many others (Luke 4:31–41).

It was in Capernaum that Christ was teaching in a house when four men brought a paralyzed man to Him by cutting a whole in the roof and lowering the man down. Christ used this is an opportunity to declare His authority to forgive sins, which shows that Christ is God (Mark 2:1–12).

Christ taught in Capernaum’s synagogue and cast an evil spirit out of a demonized man (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:31–37; John 6:59). The synagogue building had been constructed through the generosity of a Gentile centurion who proved to be a man of great humility and faith in Christ (Luke 7:1–10). However, Christ refused to settle His ministry in Capernaum, but traveled as an itinerant preacher throughout Galilee (Luke 4:42–44).

God blessed Capernaum with great gospel privileges, and from its people the Lord drew men like Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be Christ’s disciples (Mark 1:16–21). Yet sadly, most of its people did not repent of their sins, though they heard Jesus Christ’s preaching and saw His miracles (Matt. 11:20). Later in Christ’s ministry, He pronounced this curse upon them: “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell… it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matt. 11:23–24).

Capernaum should sober us. Great gospel privileges bring great gospel responsibilities. Every sermon we hear, if we are not believers, heats hell’s fires hotter for us. How hard is the heart of mankind, that the very presence of the living Jesus was not enough to turn us back to God! Whenever the Lord gives someone us a new heart that is humble and contrite at His Word, then we should profusely thank Him. We should join Jesus in saying, “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight” (Matt. 11:25–26). Thank God for saving grace!

Tour of Israel #4, Christ’s Ministry at Tabgha

Fish Dinner in Israel

Fish Dinner in Israel

Tabgha is an Arabic name derived from the Greek word for “seven springs” (heptapegon). Christians have traditionally associated this location with two events in the life of Jesus Christ: the feeding of the five thousand and the threefold re-commissioning of Peter to feed Christ’s sheep after the Lord rose from the dead. Both of these events remind us of the insufficiency of man and the sufficiency of Christ.

One wonders what kind of expression was on the apostles’ faces after Jesus told them, “Give ye them [something] to eat” (Mark 6:37). Five thousand men plus women and children—a veritable army—surrounded them. In their hands were five loaves and two fish, a mere snack for the twelve apostles, much less for the crowds milling around them. They blurted out, “Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread?” (Mark 6:37). Translated into modern terms, “Should we spend over eight months of wages to give this crowd a single meal?” Surely Jesus was asking them to do the impossible. They were inadequate for the job.

Fast-forward past Christ’s resurrection, when He appeared to seven of his disciples as they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21). The disciples fished all night, and caught nothing. Once again, they were confronted by their inadequacy, here even to provide for their own needs. Later they met Christ on the shore, and three times He asked Peter, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?” (John 21:15–17). Like a doctor debriding a wound, his three questions painfully cleansed Simon Peter of his three denials of Christ. How utterly humbled he must have felt, totally unworthy to serve the Lord as one of His apostles.

However, at each point, just as Christ uncovers our insufficiency He reveals His all-sufficiency. In the hands of Jesus, the five loaves and two fish multiply to feed the thousands, with baskets left to spare. At the command of Jesus, the fisherman cast the net on the right side of the boat, and hauled in 153 large fish. And each time Peter answered Christ’s probing questions with a humble, “Thou knowest that I love thee,” Jesus answered not with a rebuke or accusation, but with a fresh calling to ministry: “Feed my sheep.” Our insufficiency opens the door for the entrance of Christ’s sufficiency so that we can serve Him with confident faith.

This is a lesson that must be experienced: I am weak, but Thou art everything. Only when we have learned the lesson of the fish are we prepared to serve Christ by His grace alone.

Israel, Fish Dinner on Plate