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A visit to Israel (11-23 May 2015 (2)

October 2015 | by Mary Beeke

View from Sermon on the Mount locationNext (see ET, September 2015), we visited Capernaum, the strategic centre of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (Matthew 4:13), and hometown of James, John and Matthew.

Here Jesus healed a man of an unclean devil, Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, the Roman centurion’s servant, and the lame man let down through the roof.

We visited the excavations, including what may have been Peter’s house. It is an amazing experience to look around and imagine Jesus mixing with the multitudes, healing the sick, preaching, and saving sinners.

Although Jesus centred his preaching in Galilee, He later pronounced woe on it for its lack of response to him. Capernaum should sober us. Great gospel privileges bring great gospel responsibilities. Every sermon we hear heats hell’s fires hotter for those who are not true believers. How hard is the heart of mankind, that the very presence of the living Jesus was not enough to turn the Galileans back to God!

Near Tabgha, most of us ordered for our noon meal the ‘St Peter’s fish’ — head and eyeball included! Some didn’t care for it much, but Joel and I thought it was delicious.          

Mount of Beatitudes

The Mount of Beatitudes overlooks the Sea of Galilee. Here we meditated on the Sermon on the Mount, focusing on the beatitudes. In Joel’s meditation, we learned that Christ’s preaching of ‘Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 4:17) is fleshed out in the beatitudes.

People who have truly repented 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 by faith in Christ their hearts are cleansed, 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.

Mount Arbel stands high above Tiberias and offers a grand view of the area where Jesus exercised much of his ministry. We hiked to the top with Makhoul, as he added details to our day. John’s closing words in his Gospel came to mind: ‘And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written’ (21:25).

15 May

We visited Bethsaida, the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip, where Jesus and the disciples stopped to rest. From there we went to the Jordan River, which is much smaller than most people expect, though much water is diverted for irrigation today. Yet, in terms of biblical significance, the river is huge.

So much of Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing was done in this area. Here he proved he was not just the son of Joseph, but the Son of God. With words he preached repentance and wisdom; and with miracles he brought the message home to their hearts and ours that we might believe, and that believing we might have life.

The Jordan River in Scripture often represents a new beginning in the life of a nation or individual. The people of Israel crossed the river on dry ground, for the Lord cut off its waters, even at flood stage (Joshua 3).

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, which was like being born again.

After eight more centuries passed, John baptised in the Jordan River large number of Jews who confessed their sins and professed repentance towards God (Mark 1). John preached a new beginning to them too: the forgiveness of sins and hope in the coming Messiah.

Yet when Jesus Christ appeared on the shores of the river, He shocked John by asking to be baptised. That was because our new beginning depends upon Christ taking the place of sinners in order to fulfil all righteousness.

As Jesus came up out of the water, God publicly declared him to be his beloved Son, and visibly anointed him with the Holy Spirit, so that Christ would baptise 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?

Dan excavations

The rain and snow from Mt Hermon is purified as it flows through the limestone into springs, creating the Hermon, Senir and Dan Streams, which feed into the Jordan, then into the Sea of Galilee. One stream has been diverted around the Sea of Galilee, to preserve its fresh water for recreation and irrigation.

Excavations in Dan

The lower part of the Jordan exits the southern end of the Sea of Galilee and ends in the Dead Sea, and eventually evaporates. Hal compared certain people to the Sea of Galilee, which flows in its outlet and lives, and others to the Dead Sea which has no outlet and is dead.

We hiked on trails and stepping stones at the shallow edges of the Dan Stream, as the water rushed by a few feet away. Lush greenery grew all around. Archaeologists have uncovered ruins from the time of Abraham, from the Canaanites in the eighteenth century BC, from the First Temple period and from the time of King Jeroboam.

The excavations at Dan were amazing. Large pieces of the city remained, replete with the elders’ seats in the city gates, as well as the sacrificial area that Jeroboam established against God’s will — so that the Israelites did not have to travel all the way to Jerusalem to worship.

Nearby we visited Hermon Stream, Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asked,

‘Whom do men say that I am?’ and ‘Whom say ye that I am?’

When Peter answered, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’, Jesus replied, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:13–20).

We had lunch in view of Mt Hermon. Then we drove through the Golan Heights, with Syria visible only a mile or two away. The border has many lookout stations and army camps. We heard gunshots in the distance. Soldiers with machine guns are a common sight.

16 May

Our first stop was Bet Shean where much archaeological work is currently being done. We visited an ancient coliseum on the outskirts of Bet Shean, which was discovered only a few decades ago. Here was where Jews and Christians were fed to the lions.

At one end of this huge coliseum, you can still see the lions’ cages and where they came out to devour their prey. The stands for the fans were about 15ft off the ground, so that the lions could not jump into them.

We prayed here for the persecuted church today, then sang ‘Amazing grace’. Many of us shed tears for our brothers and sisters who have died for their faith.

The excavated remains of Bet Shean are stunning. Toppled pillars show the poignant results of an old earthquake. We walked up a hill to visit the supposed place where some retrieved Saul’s head and gave him a decent burial.

Outside Jericho is the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, which is nearly the lowest place on earth. That is an apt symbol of our Saviour, descending so low to save lowly sinners. Hal said Christ came this low to assure us that no sinner can ever say, ‘He didn’t come low enough for me’.

To be continued

                                                                Mary is the wife of Dr Joel Beeke who is minister of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, where he is also professor of systematic theology and homiletics.