There is a kind of mystique related to visits to Israel, both for Christians and non-Christians. Everyone told me I would love it, even that I would be deeply affected during my visit. That was not the case for the majority of the time. Now, it may be related to the fact that we only had three days to actually visit and so all we could do was rush through it, but what was obvious to me and only got clearer through this trip, was that anyone’s experience of these places would depend heavily on their theological convictions. For practising Orthodox Jews, the land is filled with meaning (although within that group, there are varying opinions on the current state of things); Muslims, Catholics and the Orthodox also attribute a lot of importance to certains places for their worship, placing a church or a mosque anywhere they could. Dispensationalist Christian Zionists consider the establishment of the Israeli nation-state to be live fulfilment of biblical prophecy.
While I cannot identify with any of these groups, my visit to Jerusalem was certainly very interesting, edifying and even emotional at some points. The main importance I would give to this area is historical, archaeological and cultural. It is very interesting to walk around a country whose dominant language is Hebrew, to learn about the various Jewish and Arabic cultures there, to see how these different cultures and religious practices coexist more or less peacefully and to learn the history of various locations. Above all I am thankful that the Israeli government has allowed for archaeology to develop, which couldn’t happen for a long time, as it was not the case in cities like Rome and Athens.
Two of our guides asked the question “why do you think this city is so holy?” My answer is… it isn’t. And to say otherwise would be to go against the first Christians, all of them Jewish, who upon receiving salvation through Jesus sold their lands in order to preach the gospel to the nations, not holding on to what had been most precious to them up until then. It would also go against the witness of the Old Testament, which locates the holy place as the one where God resides; against Jeremiah, who warns people from believing that God cares about a place simply because at one time in the past he dwelt there, regardless of how the people behave (cf. Jeremiah 7.1-20). The word “holy” means something: set apart for God’s work, or pure. The Church is the locus of God’s activity, set apart for his work, to be his temple today, as taught to us by Peter (1 Peter 2:4-12), Paul (1 Corinthians 6:19) and the author of Hebrews, who speaks of Abraham thus:
“By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. […] For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11.9-10, 13-16
However, as I said, this country is worth visiting and it is important because of the places it contains: the land Abraham walked, Joshua conquered, where David fled from Saul and then conquered Jerusalem to build the palace whose ruins are there today, where Isaiah prophesied God’s victory over Sennacherib, king of Assyria… Where the Essenes lived and hid the oldest copies we now have of the Old Testament and of course, where Jesus walked. I did get a teary eye on the Mount of Olives, imagining Jesus’ speech overlooking Jerusalem, with his disciples, prophesying the destruction of the Temple, where today, there is a mosque. Having said that, we must keep ourselves from all forms of idolatry, including geographical idolatry, and recognise that Jesus’ last marching orders are the following, and not something else:
“Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28.19-20