Since my first trip to Egypt in 1974 I think I have been to the Middle East more than two-dozen times. It is a long journey from California, but for me always well-worth it. Last fall we postponed a scheduled tour of Israel and Jordan to March of this year when a new Arab Intifada against Israel began. After a great deal of hard work, our faithful travel agent, Dawn McDaniel, finally put together a magnificent trip (see firstname.lastname@example.org/tour). Now that I have been home a couple of weeks I can honesty say that this was the best ever of all the tours I have taken to Israel. The group Dawn, Glenn Miller (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/) and I took to Israel this month has been an unforgettable life-changing time.
Our tour guide, Gameel, like most licensed guides in Israel, is fluent in at least four languages and wonderfully knowledgeable. Both Gameel and our congenial driver, Abu Yousef, are Muslims. Gameel went out of his way to be fair and balanced with respect to our beliefs. He warmed up to us in a wonderful way during our time together. In fact, he took the trouble of meeting us at the Tel Aviv airport to give us hugs and fond farewells when we left for home--well beyond his obligations to take good care of us. Those of us who went to Jordan for three days were hosted there by Firas, a fine young Jordanian Christian guide.
From the time a tourist finds his seat on the tour bus in Israel, the guide begins a long and always informative presentation of the history and significance of every mile of the journey. Israel is a small country and in any given day one jumps constantly back and forth through Old and New Testament Biblical events, one learns about the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders. Four thousand years of history are made to seem so real one would think it all happened yesterday.
I made a list of the stops along the way where Glenn and I took turns to read whole chapters of the Bible. I was amazed that there were 50 such separate "Bible stops" where we read to the group at the very locations where events in the Bible had taken place. In spite of very full days, Glenn found two evenings to give special presentations on the "Four-hundred Silent Years"(the history of Israel between Malachi and Matthew); and a seminar on the ancient history, culture and customs of Israel's Old Testament neighbors.
One of the great, lasting effects of visiting Israel is that any ideas one has that the Bible is myth or legend--and not history--are quickly dispelled. Secondly, every time one reads the Bible, he can immediately remember, based on his Israel tour, the setting of events recorded in Scripture.
Anyone who is at all aware of the bias and grievous distortions in US media reporting of events in Israel knows that the only way to know what is really going on in the Middle East is to read news originating in the region, and to go over there and see for oneself. Our group was wonderfully surprised during our two week trip to Israel and Jordan. The weather was perfect, we had no safety problems or travel delays, and probably the best possible trip one could imagine. A year ago Israel expected to receive a record number of visitors, but the reality since last fall's renewal of intensified violence has been an 80% drop in tourism. This meant we had the entire country virtually to ourselves. Seldom was there even one other bus at many of the popular sites, whereas in a "normal" year the volume of traffic most everywhere greatly detracts from the quality of a visit. Nevertheless we were constantly reminded of the serious loss of needed tourism revenue for Jew and Arab alike.
Many of the "Palestinian" peoples who live in Gaza or Samaria or Hebron or Bethlehem can not travel into Israel proper during times of civil violence--and these thousands of people depend on regular income from their jobs in Israel proper. Thus the current Intifada has cost billions in lost income for many Arabs. Promised foreign aid from the major Arab states usually does not reach the people who need it most, or never shows up at all.
The political situation in the Middle East defies any simplistic analysis. Many of the social and cultural conflicts date back 4000 years to the time of Abraham. Israel is mostly a secular state, with an Orthodox Jewish minority of perhaps 10-20%. But the Jews who constitute what the Bible would call the "believing remnant" surely number under 1% of the Jewish population. There are a number of Arabs in Israel who call themselves "Christians" by virtue of family background and tradition, but most of these know nothing of spiritual regeneration and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ the Lord. Muslim Arabs are vocal and evident everywhere, but for these people also their faith is often a matter of tradition and is not necessarily a studied and settled religious world view by any means.
What this means is that the Middle East is populated by three monotheistic religious groups, only a tiny few of whom have a real relationship with the living God. As far as God is concerned the region is populated not by "righteous" persons, but by the "unrighteous." If one were to ask the question "Whose Side is God on in the Middle East" one answer could be that God is always on the side of the righteous. However, Paul in Romans dispels any false ideas we might have that people can somehow be righteous in God's sight apart from the imputed righteous God credits to the accounts of the true children of Abraham--those who place their faith and trust in Jesus. In the Middle East only a handful publicly acknowledge such personal faith in Jesus. But there are many "God fearing" Jews and Muslims who may well be secret believers. Or when push comes to shove, there are no doubt many dear people in the Middle East who will call out to Jesus and find His salvation. Therefore God is greatly restraining evil and violence in the Middle East day by day, and His grace and mercy are still extended to all peoples, "Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead us to repentance."
Evangelicals, feeling a special kinship for the Jews, often show biased sympathy for the physical descendants of Abraham, forgetting, perhaps, that Jesus has died for the sins of all mankind. God is not willing that any should perish and so His love should be extended to everyone regardless of their outward cultural group identity. This direct approach--caring for the individual--was the approach Jesus used in the gospels and it is certainly appropriate now when Christians meet the residents of the Land.
For the Jews, their God-given historic responsibility and assignment places them in an especially serious position of grave accountability to the true and living God of Abraham. When Moses brought the people of Israel out of the wilderness and into the promised land, he reminded them that the land had been given to their forefather Abraham unconditionally, but their right to live in the land was conditional on their godly, righteous behavior. (See Deuteronomy 28-30). Twice before the Jews have been expelled for their bad behavior--once at the time of the Babylonian Captivity, and again in the First Century AD for their rejection of Yeshua as rightful king in the line of David. Beginning in the late 1800's God began to allow Jews back into the land, and as Ezekiel foretold, they would come back in a state of unbelief. Their regathering is clearly described in Ezekiel Chapters 36-37, Romans 9-11, and Zechariah 12-14--just to pick three out of many Bible passages that are especially relevant to the days in which we now live.
There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that the Jews will be placed on probation a third time, and removed from the land again. This time God will save them in spite of themselves--by grace and mercy alone, apart from works, exactly the same way He saves us gentile believers. That is, we do know from the Bible that God will again choose the Jews--they will win the wars, their capital will be united Jerusalem, their nation will be the chief of the nations when Messiah returns. But they have yet to be judged for their many centuries of unbelief and the terrible blood-guilt Jesus charged them with when they turned Him over to the Romans for execution:
"Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward and said, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'" And the high priest arose and said to Him, "Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You? But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, "I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!" Jesus said to him, "It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven." Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, "He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! "What do you think?" They answered and said, "He is deserving of death." Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, "Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?"
When morning came, all the chief priests and elders of the people plotted against Jesus to put Him to death. And when they had bound Him, they led Him away and delivered Him to Pontius Pilate the governor...Now Jesus stood before the governor. And the governor asked Him, saying, "Are You the King of the Jews?" So Jesus said to him, "It is as you say." And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing. Then Pilate said to Him, "Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?" But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly. Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ? "For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, "Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him." But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor answered and said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" They said, "Barabbas!" Pilate said to them, "What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said to him, "Let Him be crucified!" Then the governor said, "Why, what evil has He done? "But they cried out all the more, saying, "Let Him be crucified!" When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it." And all the people answered and said, "His blood be on us and on our children." Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around Him. And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" Then they spat on Him, and took the reed and struck Him on the head. And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified. (Matthew 26-27)
Jesus had predicted this very series of events earlier in that Passover Week. At His last public appearance He said:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.' "Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers' guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? "Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'"(Matthew Chapters 23:27-39)
Several of us while on our recent Middle Eastern pilgrimage commented to one another that a terrible war in the Middle East is not only inevitable, it may well happen very soon. In one sense Israel has been "at war" since her declaration of statehood in 1948, though there has been no large scale fighting for a couple of decades now. The deep-seated family feuds between Jews and Arabs are only one causal factor in the regional conflict. Extreme elements in Islam insist on the total eradication of all the Jews once for all. Indeed Islam insists upon the final subjection of the entire world to the rule of the false God, Allah.
At this time in world history the entire Bible speaks with new light and clarity, with greater-than-ever relevance, for Israel, for her neighbors, and for the rest of the world. Now more than ever Christians need a sound Biblical world view and a thorough informed understanding of all of Scripture. Instead the church in America is weak, compromised, lukewarm and worldly. If one looks for help on the Internet one finds in general a sea of confusion and deception. But so we were warned by our Lord in His great teaching the week He was betrayed when He spoke to His disciples from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24ff).
What can Christians do about the Middle East? I often mention to my Bible classes and to my friends about my concerns for the prevailing Biblical illiteracy and spiritual superficiality of our time. Many Christians have little understanding of God's program for world peace which actually does center on Jerusalem and Israel. Ordinary evangelism does not work well in the Middle East. But there are wide open doors for Christians to share Jesus Christ one-on-one with taxi drivers, hotel staff members, shop owners and people on the street. The topic of Jesus is a perfectly acceptable subject to bring up in many casual conversations in the Middle East. English is widely spoken and most all Jews and Arabs who live in the land are open and friendly and glad to get acquainted with Americans. Instead, tour agencies do their best to insulate American Christians from having any real influence on the people of the Land! Surely any Christian who makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land should make it a high priority to be used by God in the lives of the dear people who live there, especially since only the message of Jesus Christ can make any real difference. I do not understand how thousands of Christians who visit Israel annually can continue to be so utterly indifferent to the lostness of the people of the Land, most of whom welcome genuine Christian friendships and sensitive dialog.
A Prayer Request: In my opinion two weeks in Israel on a well-planned Bible study tour has more life-changing value than four years at most any college or university. As I see it, every serious Christian high school or college student should take at least one trip to Israel as an important facet of his or her "normal Christian discipleship." Yet most students can not afford the $2000-3000 cost of such a trip. Millions of older Christians, settled in their ways and their life styles, can afford to go, and sometimes do so more than once, but it is younger Christian men and women who could benefit the most from a Study Trip to the Middle East. In reality only a few of tomorrow's Christian leaders ever get an opportunity to visit the Holy Land. It is, I believe, a sad commentary on the budget priorities of most American churches that a million dollar church youth facility for "recreational use" a few hours a week is easy to fund but probably will make only a minimal contribution to the long-term spiritual maturation of the users. By all means build buildings, but a million dollars in scholarship funds would easily send 400 students to Israel for the spiritual experience of a life time. I don't know how to change the status quo except through prayer. Please join me in prayer if you agree with me on this issue--to the end that our Lord might make a way for our finest younger generation men and women to experience Israel in their formative years.
Of Israel's future the Apostle Paul writes:
"I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness! For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them. For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? For if the first fruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, "Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in." Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: "The Deliverer will come out of Zion, And He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins."(Romans 11:11-27)
"Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done"by Ron Graff and Lambert Dolphin. On line book on Bible prophecy (http://ldolphin.org/kingdom).
"Who Own Jerusalem?"(http://www.ldolphin.org/psalm2.html)
"Israel's Birth Pangs"(http://www.ldolphin.org/odino.html)
"Israel the Church and the United States Compared and Contrasted"(http://www.ldolphin.org/IsChUS.html)
"There's A War On, Folks--The Coming Tribulation,"(http://www.ldolphin.org/war-on.html)
"Bible Prophecy Messages" by Ray C. Stedman (http://www.ldolphin.org/rayprophecy.html)
Lambert Dolphin, March 29, 2001.
My Newsletters are on my web site at http://ldolphin.org/news/