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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. ...




The Land of the Bible

By Marc Turnage
Feb. 17, 2013

Paul states, “In the fullness of time God sent His Son” (Galatians 4:4*). ?The Bible is God’s revelation in time and place. At the Center for Holy Lands Studies, we seek to use the physical space of the Bible as a portal to enter into the historical, cultural and spiritual world of the Bible.

Going to Israel to see the land of the Bible is only one aspect of understanding God’s revelation. There are, in fact, four aspects of a trip to Israel:

Spatial — The geography is the stage of the biblical story.

Temporal — The Bible reflects the history of the Jewish people and the land of Israel spanning hundreds of years.

Cultural — The Bible must be read within the context of its contemporary culture.

Spiritual — The Bible reflects the religious beliefs and outlooks of the ancient writers.

Traveling to the land of Israel provides a three-dimensional doorway for you to enter into the time and culture of God’s revelation, allowing you to hear and see the Bible as its ancient readers would have and enabling God to speak to you in new and fresh ways.


Space

Among the sacred writings of the world’s religions, the Bible alone presents a message tied to geography. The history of any land and people relies upon geographical setting; the land shapes and affects the story.

Not only did the land serve as the stage for the historical drama that unfolded, its natural features (e.g., climate, soil and topography) and geopolitical setting served as “God’s testing ground of faith,” and provided the images and challenges used by the biblical authors to communicate their message.

The Bible is replete with geographical information, not as a guidebook for travelers or a geography textbook, but as part of the physical reality of the events, psalms, prophecies and experiences of the descendants of Abraham. To a certain degree, the geography of the land is incidental to the message of the Bible; yet, without the geography, that message is often obscured for the uninformed reader. The biblical message is embedded into the everyday lives of people who lived in the land of Israel.


The Land Between: The Space of Scripture

The land of Israel functioned as the strategic land bridge connecting the continents of Asia and Africa. Its location at the crossroads of the ancient world between the imperial powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia meant that security and peace were not characteristics of the land of the Bible.

Situated between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the barren desert to the east, Israel provides an important land corridor with trade routes connecting Egypt with Mesopotamia. These strategic routes meant that the land was always under threat of invasion as nations sought to control Israel’s highways for economic gain. Periods of peace and security were few, short and far between.

Personal and national existence could never be taken for granted, and here God called Abraham and his descendents to live by faith. The insecurity of the region, due to its geopolitical position, served as “God’s testing ground of faith” and the stage upon which the redemptive drama played out, where sinner and saint struggled against internal upheaval and external threat.

The imperial nations that marched through the land brought their cultural, religious, political and military systems with them. In this setting, the children of Israel faced the challenge of obedience to God and His exclusive claim upon them. They were confronted with the question of God’s power versus the nations around them. The incursion of these elements into the land led some to fight against them, others isolated themselves seeking to remain pure, others insulated themselves, and some even assimilated.

In the midst of these geographical, cultural and religious crossroads, God called Israel to live in obedience to Him. In fact, their ability to remain at the crossroads always depended upon their obedience to His commandments. Disobedience carried harsh consequences including being removed from the land of promise. Yet, the land served as the platform and the classroom through which God’s redemptive message spread to the ends of the earth.


The Climate of Faith

Unlike the lands of Egypt and Mesopotamia, which were watered and sustained by major rivers (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates), the land of Israel depended upon rain from heaven for its sustenance: “For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come … the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys soaks up its water from the rains of heaven” (Deuteronomy 11:10-11).

God promised the children of Israel that if they would obey His commandments to “love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13), He would send rain in its season. But if they disobeyed His commands and served other gods, then He would “shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce” (Deuteronomy 11:17).

In the large river cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the people irrigated the land and relied upon the rivers to provide water for crops and life; but in the land of Israel, the climate and terrain of “hills and valleys” required the children of Israel to depend upon the rain sent by God. They had to be loyal to God.

But as the children of Israel, who were nomadic shepherds when they crossed into the land, became more sedentary and turned to farming, the temptation grew to turn to other gods connected with the agricultural cycle as “insurance” against drought, famine and starvation. In the Bible, the climate of the land becomes part of the witness to the children of Israel’s obedience at the crossroads of the ancient world.


Time

Everyone comes from somewhere. We are all the products of where we grew up, when we grew up. Our families and environment shaped who each of us is. Jesus was no different. Jesus lived in the land of Israel during the first century. His world was not that of David, Moses or Abraham. He was part of the warp and woof of first-century Judaism, which was greatly different from the world of the Old Testament. In fact, without the long preparatory work of contemporaneous Judaism, in other words the history that took place between the Old and New Testaments, the teaching of Jesus would be unthinkable.


The Kingdom of Heaven

The phrase “kingdom of Heaven” appears upon the lips of Jesus in the Gospels more than any other. Jesus lived in a land under the occupation of Rome, one of the cruelest empires the world has seen.

Some among the people of Israel, fueled by Jewish military victories against foreigners approximately 160 years before Jesus, assumed it was a sin for Israel, the chosen people of the one and only God, to submit to foreign rule. Therefore, they sought to throw-off the yoke of Roman oppression by fighting against Rome and spilling blood.

A counter movement developed that saw Israel’s submission to Rome as a result of Israel’s sin; therefore, the path to removing the yoke of Rome’s foreign oppression was to repent and submit to the yoke of God’s commandments. This counter movement idealized its philosophy in the phrase “the kingdom of Heaven,” which more accurately translates as “the rule (reign) of God.”

Jesus’ use of this phrase places Him among the peacekeeping sages of His day. We find Him teaching His disciples to pray: “May Your kingdom (rule) be established; may Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). In other words, God’s rule is established wherever His people submit to His will. Like His Jewish contemporaries, Jesus saw that true societal change begins when the people of God repent of their sin and come under submission to His reign, by obeying His commands.


“Love your neighbor, who is like yourself”

Between the Old and New Testaments, Judaism underwent a transformation in how it viewed humanity. Two key Old Testament verses served as the scriptural foundation for this change: Genesis 1:27, “… in the image of God He created him …” and Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (passages on this page NRSV).

The latter verse came to be interpreted as, “Love your neighbor, who is like yourself.” A writer at the beginning of the second century B.C. stated, “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?”

In other words, since every person bears the image of God, I am to love the one who is like me. I am more like my neighbor than either of us is like God; therefore, in the manner in which I show mercy and forgiveness to another like myself, God will be merciful toward me.

This worldview permeates the teachings of Jesus, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7). “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14,15; cf. 18:21-35).

Jesus drew the logical and radical conclusion from this worldview: “But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’” (Luke 6:27). Only on the lips of Jesus do we find the command to love our enemies, but such a conclusion grew from the soil of first-century Judaism, of which Jesus was a dynamic and original part.

The trips of the Center for Holy Lands Studies uniquely incorporate these four aspects into your journey — spatial, temporal, cultural and spiritual. Many tours solely emphasize the spatial aspect, “standing where Jesus stood.” It is our desire and belief that, by viewing the Bible through these four dimensions, participants can hear the biblical message, especially the message of Jesus, anew and afresh.

Our prayer is that our programs be educational and spiritual encounters with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, participants will say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32, NRSV).

Throughout our programs, we incorporate aspects of the land, the history, the culture, and the religious world of the Bible to help gain new insight into God’s revelation. Our hope is that such an experience will transform how people study and understand the Bible, and that they will return home with a renewed commitment “to study the Law of the Lord and to do it” (Ezra 7:10).

*Biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or the author’s personal translation.


MARC TURNAGE is director of the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies. For more information, visit holylandsstudies.ag.org.

Email your comments to pe@ag.org.