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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Christian Tourists Flock to Israel

Visitors to the Holy Land reach unprecedented numbers

By John W. Kennedy
Aug. 8, 2010

Tourism in Israel is booming, with Christians flocking to Old Testament and New Testament sites as never before.

According to the Israel Ministry of Tourism, Israel experienced record tourism in 2008, with 3 million visitors, including 800,000 North Americans. Despite the global recession last year, Israel still had 2.7 million tourists, including 701,000 North Americans, the second-highest total ever. This year may again topple the high mark for sojourners. For instance, an all-time monthly high of 317,000 travelers arrived in Israel in April. In addition, 1,063,000 tourists came to Israel during the first four months this year, a 13 percent increase from 2008’s record pace.

Americans aren’t the only ones retracing Jesus’ steps. While visiting historic sites around the Holy Land, it’s not uncommon to hear tourists speaking German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish and a host of other languages. Such is the impact that the life of Jesus Christ made upon the world. Yet a great many tourists are Americans — and they’re Christians. Deborah Mantzur, Israel Ministry of Tourism director of American marketing operations in Jerusalem, says 59 percent of those touring Israel are Christians.

Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood says firsthand observance of the places biblical figures lived revolutionized his view of the Bible.

“I have stood by the brook where David picked up the stone to slay Goliath, the meandering stream where Gideon selected his band of 300, the Sea of Galilee where Jesus called the fishermen, taught and healed the sick,” says Wood, who has visited Israel more than 30 times. “They are no longer dots on a map, but places filled with the past and the present.”

Although this piece of real estate measures only 10,000 square miles, about the size of New Jersey, Israel has been the home of most of the Bible’s events and continues to shape history. Most of the biblical sites are located in the northern half of the country. So Nazareth, for instance, is only a 90-minute journey from Jerusalem.

Marc Turnage, director of the AG Center for Holy Lands Studies says, “The physical setting in Israel can provide the doorway through which people can understand the historical and cultural world of the Bible in new ways through archaeological excavation and artifacts.”

The geography of Israel provides the backdrop for providing a dynamic understanding of the dialogues and discussions that take place in Scripture, Turnage says.

“The story of the Bible is very much tied to the lands in which it unfolds,” Turnage says. “The lands are the stage on which these events are played out.”

What is there to see in Israel? Jaffa, known as Joppa in Bible times, is the Mediterranean seaport from which Jonah set sail and where Peter had a faith-changing vision in the home of Simon the tanner.

The archaeological digs at Caesarea show what Herod built as a Roman port in the first century B.C. Peter baptized Cornelius as the first Gentile convert to Christianity there. Festus also put the apostle Paul on trial in Caesarea.

Mount Carmel overlooks the Jezreel Valley, where Elijah, Deborah and Saul all traversed. The fertile valley — replete with fresh figs, dates, bananas, mangoes, grapes and the like — has been the site of numerous battles because of its strategic location.

Nazareth is the hilly town that shaped Jesus’ formative years. Galilee still features Cana, where Jesus performed His first miracle by turning water into wine, and Capernaum, where Jesus preached and healed the sick.

The Sea of Galilee now features enlarged replicas of first-century fishing boats. Some scenery has changed little since Jesus rebuked the winds and the waves, taught from Peter’s boat, multiplied loaves and fishes, and walked on water.

Archaeological discoveries in recent years have only enhanced Israel’s allure. In 1986, two brothers found a first-century boat in a drought-ravaged area of the Sea of Galilee. The vessel had been buried in the seabed’s sediments and thus protected from the elements. An elaborate 11-day excavation followed by an 11-year conservation process preserved the boat, which measures 26 feet long and is the type of boat Jesus’ disciples used. It’s now on display at the Beit Yigal Alon Museum in Ginosar.

The Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, is a rocky area surrounded by olive groves, ficus and fragrant eucalyptus.

Qumran features the caves in which ancient Essenes kept the Dead Sea scrolls, the earliest biblical texts, hidden for centuries. The texts, written between 200 B.C. and A.D. 50, were discovered in 1947.

An extended time in Jerusalem is a must for those interested in biblical history. This is the city in which Jesus spent an action-packed final week of His earthly life, including the Triumphal Entry and the Last Supper.

King David established Jerusalem as Israel’s capital 3,000 years ago. Jerusalem became the royal city because of its water source at the Gihon Spring, its strategic location for defense and its central location for Israel’s tribes.

Tourists can wind around the narrow passageways of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, hewn out of rock to protect the water supply for delivery to Shiloah Pool, built within the city’s walls.

At the base of the southern wall of the Temple Mount, visitors can climb the original steps of the Huldah Gates that have been there since Jesus walked them. Visitors can see a section of wall described in Nehemiah as well as the Damascus Gate, both in the same locations as 2,000 years ago.

The city carries special significance for the Christian. Here Jesus wept among the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane. The arrested Savior appeared before the high priest at the house of Caiaphas. The Via Dolorosa, a mile-long “street of sorrows,” is believed by many to be the path on which Jesus carried His cross to the crucifixion at Golgotha. And on the Mount of Olives Jesus ascended to heaven.

New construction is evidenced around the city as cranes dot the landscape, yet there are as many archaeology excavations under way. In February, for example, excavators discovered flagstones from a 1,500-year-old street in the Old City of Jerusalem. Around the same time, diggers uncovered stone fortifications that date back to the time of King Solomon’s reign. In another decade there will be much more to see.

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel. He made his first visit to Israel in March.

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