February 21: Our last day in Israel mirrored Christ’s last days before he was sentenced to death by crucifixion.
We started at the top of the Mount of Olives, and followed the path our Messiah took as he walked his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem in the days before the Last Supper. The Mount of Olives is a fascinating place for a number of reasons. First of all, it provides a beautiful view of the city of Jerusalem, and we all got a chance to survey the various places we visited in the week prior as we stood atop the mount. It’s also full of biblical references, both in the Old and New Testaments. We were focused on Luke 19:28-44 and read that passage from the top of the mount before we began our walk down towards the very steep slope towards the Kidron Valley and the Garden of Gethsemane. But the Mount isn’t just the place that Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time.
In fact, the mount isn’t filled with olive trees, the entire slope is practically concrete as thousands of tombs fill the entire ridge. It’s where Jesus announced himself to Israel as the Messiah (on the very day prophecy predicted) when He rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (Ps. 118:22, 25-26; Dan. 9:25; Zech. 9:9, 16; Matt. 21). And then four days later, where Judas betrayed him in the Garden and his disciples abandoned him. (Ps. 41:9; Zech. 13:7; Matt. 26:31; John 17:12). The list goes on and on, and we haven’t even begun to discuss what is prophesied to occur here when Jesus returns in glory. For the sake of brevity, suffice to say that our minds and hearts were filled with the importance of this place as we navigated the steep slope and entered the Garden of Gethsemane.
Finally some olive trees! The Garden is a peaceful place and provided another example of how the landscape completes the picture of our gospel stories. The olive tree is symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus, as the tree never really dies. The root stays alive underground, and shoots of the tree continually grow up out of the earth even when the trunk is chopped down. The roots of the olive trees in the Garden have remained intact since the time of Jesus. Death and new life were physically viewable in front of us in the form of these olive trees, as we prayed and worshiped the one who died and was buried for three days before rising again. This theme of the landscape of Israel which mirrors Jesus’s teaching and life cannot be understated as something we experienced every day on our trip to this holy land. Whether it be living water flowing from the seemingly barren desert, or the way the olive trees are beaten and shaken to harvest their anointing oils – the parallels to our lord and savior are everywhere. It was almost too much to take in as we all did our best to figure out how to memorialize our memories of our journey here. During our adventure, some of us took constant notes, some had video players running, others took pictures of everything, and one of us was lucky enough to get to blog about what we did and saw. But mostly, we all hope that the lessons we learned on this trip will be etched into our hearts as we take the experience home with us.
After the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, we journeyed to two sites that are thought to be the possible sites of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. First we went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is the site that was originally determined to be Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb in the 4th century. In more recent times, the Garden Tomb has been thought to be the possible site of Golgotha as it appears to be more reminiscent of the description of the site in the Bible. The truth is no one knows for sure where Jesus was crucified and buried.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a heavily trafficked location, and is always jam packed with pilgrims hoping to see the last four stations of the Via Dolorosa or Christ’s Passion. It was similar to the Orthodox Church of the Nativity which houses the birthplace of Jesus, in that it is filled with candles and Catholic-style ornamentation. Because of our group’s generally Protestant background, many of us preferred our time at the Garden Tomb. The Garden Tomb, while not as likely the spot of the death and resurrection, was much less crowded and provided more space for personal reflection. It also resembles more what it would have looked like 2000 years ago, and you can actually see the cliff that looks like a skull, giving it the name Golgotha. For our group, it wasn’t always the exact location of a supposed event, as much as it was the presence of the Holy Spirit that made for a powerful experience.
And then, finally – our busy trip suddenly came to an end. It was somewhat jarring, after having been so occupied with our Lord for 12 days, to know that later on in the evening, we’d all be leaving for home. It also felt sad because we had all grown so used to being together, and we had just begun to really bond as Christian brothers and sisters. It was starting to feel like one big unique, quirky family in Christ. Pretty awesome. But we packed up our bags at Christ Church, exchanged many hugs and some tears, and saw each other off on various shuttles to the airport.
If you have an opportunity to take a trip to Israel, please go. It’s a life changer and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a strong believer in God or whether you’re still questioning. At the very least, you’ll get perspective as to why this region is such a catalyst for world events. More than likely, you’ll be profoundly impacted by the strong spiritual history of this land. And very possibly, you’ll have an encounter with the Holy Spirit in a way that bolsters your belief in our risen Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Because he’s alive here. His teachings and his presence can be felt and seen in every rock formation, bubbling spring, city cornerstone and garden grove. Praise God that we all had a chance to experience this place. Much love and thanks to the Church of the Resurrection for hosting the trip, for Shoresh Study Tours, and for Christ Church in Jerusalem for making it possible. Until next year in Jerusalem!