James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.
Our Tour Group to the Holy Land
I was recently blessed beyond belief to experience an amazing adventure in Israel. I was invited by my good friend Skip (the rock) Moen, who has been a major influence on my life. Dr. Moen publishes the outstanding daily devotional Today's Word. There were 18 souls in our group. Our leader on the trip was Messianic Rabbi Bob (famous counsel) Gorelik(accompanied by his wife, Lindy).
I owe a special thanks to the woman who helped me get added to the group at the last minute, Lisa (God's oath) Michalski. Lisa is a very serious person who is the event planner for an organization that has changed my life, the New Canaan Society. She brought along her best friend Whitney (white island) Miller, a prayer warrior and like Lisa a refined Connecticut lady.
The videographer for our trip was Roderick (famous ruler) Logan, a man from Phoenix who loves God. A DVD of the trip will become available in the future. Another member of our troop was Matthew (gift of God) Woodward, a man who abandoned a life of comfort in Phoenix to live in St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans—with his wife and two children—to help the people there rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina.
We were very fortunate to have as our tour guide the inimitable Ariel Inbar. And we were blessed with a great driver named Moshe.
JFK to Tel Aviv
After a ten-hour flight from JFK to Tel Aviv, we drove north to spend our first night in Netanya, a city of nearly 200,000 that was settled in 1929 on the Mediterranean Sea. It was there I first met my roommates, David (beloved) Lawrence and John (God is gracious) Schnabl. David, a teacher and cross country coach from Indianapolis, was the secondary photographer for our trip and a very quiet man. He spent quite a bit of time each evening on Skype with his wife. John, a compassionate Christian church counselor from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, became very homesick and missed his wife immensely the last few days of our trip.
There was a fascinating episode on the flight. As the sun rose, dozens of Orthodox Jews stood in the aisles to pray wearing prayer shawls, or Tallits. I was offered one by a kindly gentleman but declined, at which point he said, "You are Jewish?" I replied, "I'm with Jesus," with one eye closed.
Caesarea Maritima, Mount Carmel, Tel Megiddo, Valley of Armageddon, Nazareth, Cana, Tiberias, Sea of Galilee
The first morning in Israel we visited Caesarea Maritima, the magnificent ruins of a city and harbor built by Herod the Great in 19 B.C. (Before Christ). Herod built the city to facilitate trade and it was the largest seaport on the eastern Mediterranean during the time of Yeshua (Jesus) with 125,000 inhabitants. It was here that Herod Agrippa was eaten by worms after blaspheming God.
The Apostle Peter established the first Christian church in Caesarea Maritima and it was there that the Apostle Paul was imprisoned for two years under the Roman governors Felix and Festus before going to Rome. Origen and Eusebius lived in this city. It boasted a tremendous library and therefore Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and St Jerome came to study there. Muslims massacred the populace and destroyed the great library in 638.
Caesarea Maritima was taken by the Crusaders in 1101, conquered by Saladin in 1187, retaken by the Crusaders in 1191, before they lost it to the Egyptian Mamluks in 1265, who razed the city. Since the 1950s, archaeologists have been uncovering what we were privileged to see.
Our next stop was Mount Carmel (God's Vineyard), where the prophet Elijah (My God is YHWH) held the contest with 450 prophets of Baal around 900 B.C. and fire rained from the sky. Elijah never died, being taken up to heaven in a Chariot of Fire. Archaeologists discovered the altar of Elijah in 1958.
We had a commanding view of the Jezreel Valley from atop the mountain ridge. From here we traveled to Daliat El-Carmel, a Druze city of 15,000; for a traditional lunch of Falafel, fried balls of spiced chickpeas in a pita bread pocket.
We proceeded to Tel Megiddo. A "Tel" is a mound where one city has been built on top of another. Megiddo is an incredible example of this as 21 layers of cities from 7000 years of settlements have been uncovered. Megiddo was the royal city of the Canaanites, whose king was slain by Joshua; and sat on a strategic location, guarding the ancient trade route known as the Via Maris (Way of the Sea). Many major battles in history have been fought there and the valley it overlooks, Armageddon. We stood in King Solomon's stables, excavated around 1930.
We drove through the Valley of Armageddon to Nazareth, where Yeshua spent most of his life, now a city of nearly 200,000; of which 31% are Christians. We visited the Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation—the largest church in the Middle East. It was built on the site of the Shrine of the Home of Mary, Mother of Jesus.
The original Shrine was built about 350; destroyed by the Muslims in 650; rebuilt around 1200; destroyed again by the Mamluks in 1260; and rebuilt in the 18th Century. The current Franciscan Church dates from 1969. We drove out to Mount Precipice, where the people of Nazareth tried unsuccessfully to push Jesus off a cliff; and where we had a view of the Valley of Armageddon from its opposite side.
At sunset, we drove through the village of Cana, where Jesus performed His first miracle, turning water into wine, on our way to Tiberias, where we would lodge for three nights. Tiberias is on the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Kinneret, and considered one of Judaism's four holy cities. It reminded me of Mexico.
Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes
The next day we ventured out to spend the day where Yeshua spent most of his public ministry. We sailed on the Sea of Galilee in a replica of the wooden fishing boats that were in use in His time. The Sea of Galilee was not how I pictured it. I did not know it was surrounded by steep mountains. Here Yeshua walked on the water and calmed the stormy seas.
We went on to Capernaum, where Jesus taught in the synagogue; recruited his disciples; and a city He said would fade away and never be rebuilt—and it wasn't. The ruins have been excavated since 1838. We visited what is left of one of the oldest synagogues discovered in the world—the very one where Jesus preached. We walked on pavement where Yeshua walked.
We visited the house of St Peter. In the 5th Century an octagonal church was built over this site by the Byzantines. In 1986, an ancient fishing vessel was discovered, which some believe is the boat Yeshua and His disciples sailed on. We got to see it in a museum dedicated to it in Capernaum.
We next went to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. This site has been revered for at least 1600 years by Christians. We learned from our guide that Jesus did not preach on top of the mount—down at his audience—but from the bottom of the mount where his voice would have been naturally carried and amplified by wind from the Sea of Galilee, to where all those assembled could hear Him.
Our final stop for this day was , also on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the place where Yeshua feed the 5000. There is a German church there commemorating this miracle. A chapel has existed on this spot since at least the 4th Century. Then we turned in for the night, though most of us took a long walk into Tiberias to see what it was all about. It was stinky.
Baptized in the River Jordan
The following day featured one of the highlights of our trip: Baptism in the River Jordan. I had been baptized when I was 18 but it was wonderful to repeat the experience in the same river where Yeshua was baptized.
Rabbi Bob explained to us something that astonished me: Before Christ, Jews also performed ritual baptism, called Mikveh. It is a cleansing or purification rite—a starting over. The immersion in water represents the death of your old self—your sins—and rising up out of immersion represents a new birth, clean from previous transgressions.
I felt a rush of forgiveness when I rose up out of that water. The topper was that there were little fish continually nibbling at my feet. The way I look at it, I got a free pedicure!
The River Jordan is puny by American standards, 60 feet across at its widest spot with a maximum depth of 17 feet. But I learned from our guide why it is so important: It is the one and only river in Israel! This is a land starved for precious fresh water. The River Jordan forms the boundary with the country of Jordan. It flows through the Sea of Galilee and farther south terminates at the Dead Sea.
We then traveled to the northernmost parts of Israel, to the foot of Mount Hermon, where Jesus was transfigured. From there we visited Banias, or Caesarea Philippi, another place Jesus said would become uninhabited—and it is. Banias was dedicated to the Greek god Pan during the times of Alexander the Great. It was known in Yeshua's time as the Mouth of Hell because to this day the bottom has not been found to the cave there.
Our last stop was the incredibly beautiful Dan Nature Reserve, near the Golan Heights. One can see Syria from here. We learned from our guide, Ariel, that "Jordan" means from the Dan. The Dan is one of three streams that form the River Jordan.
From here we gazed upon Lebanese villages and saw foxholes and trenches used by Israeli soldiers during recent conflicts.
We then came upon the excavation of the Altar of Jeroboam, constructed to worship idols nearly 3000 years ago. But the highlight of this adventure for me was the recently found ruins of a Canaanite City Gate where we are reasonably certain Abraham once walked. A city gate is not what we westerners imagine as a gate. It is instead a mini-fortress with watchtowers that served as an entrance to a city.