I was indifferent to the idea of traveling to the Holy Land. I thought, “I’ll see the New Jerusalem, so why worry about visiting the old one?” When my supervisor at our Bible College told me we were opening a teaching site inside the Old City of Jerusalem, I was still skeptical. When he asked me to help outline the Life of Christ curriculum for the site, I participated dutifully. When he bought me a plane ticket and informed me I would be going to Israel for a 17-day teaching trip at the new site, I panicked. While being away from my wife and four young children was—as I feared—difficult for our family, my perspective on the value of visiting Israel was completely transformed. I now see it is as the highlight of my biblical learning. Because of its unique power as a learning experience for understanding and appreciating Jesus, visiting Israel is a valuable pursuit for followers of Jesus.
While the historical accuracy of many sites in Israel is disputed and other sites are now one or two stories below ground level, Israel is not a large country, and all of the biblically important sites are at least near their authentic locations. This gives visitors a strong, repeated realization that they are walking in the footsteps of Jesus. In some areas, such as Galilee, one can look on the virtually unchanged landscapes and realize that Jesus saw the same scene.
Learning in Israel engages the five senses in ways that are not possible anywhere else. Seeing the sun rise over the mountains by the Sea of Galilee, taking in the aroma of a home-cooked traditional meal in Nazareth Village, or walking on the large original stones from the Roman roads in Jerusalem—likely the very same stones Jesus walked on—are deeply memorable experiences that cannot be duplicated in any other location.
The sense of space and distance also becomes clearer when on the ground in Israel. This is true of the steep cliffs in Nazareth where Jesus’ life was threatened, the stone’s throw distance between Peter’s house and the synagogue in Capernaum, and the natural lakeside amphitheater with its launching point for fishing boats.
The rigor of Jesus’ travels also comes into focus when journeying through the desert between Galilee and Jerusalem, picturing his temptation in the desolate Judean wilderness, filled with sharp rocks and lack of shelter. The steep descent from Jerusalem’s East Gate down into the Kidron Valley, following by the grueling climb past the Garden of Gethsemane to the top of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus looked at the view over all Jerusalem and lamented that they did not recognize and receive their true King.
A clearer understanding of Jesus’ parables is another benefit of visiting Israel. Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan was set in the craggy, winding descent between Jerusalem and Jericho. The radical change in elevation, resulting in slow progress and greater exposure to danger, as well as the many easy hiding places for robbers gives one a sense of the risks of the journey. This makes “hurrying on” past the injured man somewhat more understandable.
Finally, visiting Israel can help strengthen one’s faith. Meditating on the physical reality of Jesus’s life, his miracles, and his resurrection by seeing the actual locations where the events took place adds to the impact of what the Bible teaches, turning enigmatic stories and prophecies into believable space-time events. The Mount of Olives, with its vista of Jerusalem, is one such place. While taking in this view, which now features the Dome of the Rock mosque where Israel’s temple once stood, it is natural for a Christian to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth, as it is in heaven, and look forward to the day when Jesus Christ will return, setting foot on the Mount of Olives, and all the kingdoms of the earth will have become the kingdom of Christ.
Any Christian would benefit from visiting Israel, and therefore it is a valuable aim for those who want a better understanding of Jesus. Since learning more about Jesus is vital for all his followers, a visit to Israel should be on every Christian’s “bucket list”.