The Holy Land has often been called the 5th Gospel. Like the four New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which each witness of Jesus in their own unique way, the land of Israel similarly teaches us of Jesus and His truths.
Whenever I am in Israel and sharing the beauties of the land with others, I always make sure to include these locations on my must-see places to visit.
Boyhood Town of Jesus: Nazareth
The scriptures do not long dwell on the years of Jesus’ growing to maturity in the insignificantly small town of Nazareth. We gain precious morsels of insight from passages like these, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (Matthew 13:55).
The English word “carpenter” hides a wealth of significant insights and meaning from the original Greek. “Carpenter” is how the translators commonly render the Greek word tekton. This meaningful word is used to describe a builder, master craftsman, an architect, a worker, a planner, a maker, an author, a finisher.
I love the revelatory meaning of tekton. Jesus is the crafter and finisher of worlds without number. He is the author and finisher of our faith.
Jesus is the builder of our lives. He is the one who has a plan. He makes all that is good and lovely in this world.
Jesus is the architect of our salvation.
We also hear, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
Yes! Jesus came out of Nazareth. His life is a model for us that no matter our apparently insignificant origin story, our conclusion will be never-ending through Jesus!
As you ponder these truths in Nazareth, you will see a larger picture painted for you and about you by the Master Creator, Jesus.
Who Do Men Say That I Am?: Caesarea Philippi
Why did Jesus hike his disciples for two days north of the Sea of Galilee to simply ask them “Who am I?” Couldn’t He have asked that question anywhere?
Was there some significant reason that he chose Caesarea Philippi to have this specific conservation?
Yes. The on-the-ground reality reveals why this scriptural episode needed to happen at this location.
Caesarea Philippi sits at the base of the most massive mountain in the region of Israel, Mount Hermon. If one were only reading the words of Matthew 16 and had no access to visual and geographical contextual clues, it would be impossible to appreciate, let alone be aware of, the meaning-making significance of the geography for why Jesus chose this location for this teaching moment.
It is standard procedure for Biblical interpreters to focus on the word play in Jesus’ statement to Peter, because words are all they can see if they are not reading Matthew 16 on site. “That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
The Greek name Peter is related to the Greek word for rock. So Peter is the great rock upon which his church will be built. Literary interpreters can see those words and thus see the significance of that statement.
What interpreters miss, if they do not see the visual and geographical context of the dialogue setting, is the use of real rocks for Jesus to make his point. At 9,232 feet in elevation, Mount Hermon is the largest and most immovable rock anywhere for hundreds of miles in any direction.
When Jesus said to Peter “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18), Jesus could not have found a better teaching backdrop to reinforce the reality that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s work, just as it is incomprehensible to imagine Mount Hermon being moved.
That is why Jesus had his disciples hike for some 25+ miles to have a teaching moment that on paper could have occurred anywhere. Teaching that message from the foot of Mount Hermon was a necessary ingredient for the full-force of Jesus’ teachings to sink in.” (quote from Taylor Halverson, “Reading the Scriptures Geographically: Some Tools and Insights”, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, v. 10, pp. 257-277, 2014.)
Baptism Site of Jesus: Qasr al Yahud
Near where the ever-flowing Jordan River empties into the decaying death of the Dead Sea, Christians have been celebrating the baptism of Jesus for nearly two thousand years. Though we do not have final certainty of the exact spot where Jesus entered the Jordan River for this essential ritual of salvation, tradition and archaeology suggest that Jesus was baptized near Qasr al Yahud (Israeli side) or St. John the Baptism Church (Jordanian side).
We often talk about the why of Jesus’ baptism. I’m also intrigued by the symbolism of where He was baptized.
Jordan is a Hebrew word that means “to go down.” A related word/name is Jared.
Sure, all rivers “go down”, that is, they flow from a higher elevation to a lower elevation. So the name Jordan doesn’t seem like a particularly creative name for a river. Couldn’t all rivers be called Jordan since they flow down? Yes, if we were to simply to describe them based on their functional flow.
But there are important reasons why this river was called Jordan and why Jesus chose to be baptized there.
Keeping in mind the meaning of the word Jordan, we can see so much beauty, significance, and symbolism all pointing to why Jesus chose to be baptized at the Jordan.
- Jesus showed humility by going down (Jordan) to John the Baptist.
- Jesus showed humility by going down (Jordan) into the waters of baptism and coming forth again.
- Jesus showed humility by going down (Jordan) to the lowest spot on earth to be baptized (where the Jordan river flows into the Dead Sea is the lowest spot on earth).
- The Holy Ghost came down (Jordan) in the form of a dove on Jesus.
- Jesus showed humility by condescending (Jordan) from on high. In other words, Jesus left His heavenly abode and came down (Jordan) to earth to dwell among other mortals.
- If we seek to be like Jesus, we too must be humble by going down (Jordan) into the waters of baptism and rising again.
- Jesus went down (Jordan) into the tomb and rose again the third day.
- Because of Jesus’s death and resurrection all of us will go down (Jordan) into the grave and then rise again.
The truths and symbols of scriptures and the gospel are so beautiful.
As we ponder these precious words preserved for us, may we, like Jesus, go down (Jordan) into the depths of humility to experience whatever lessons the Lord has in store for us for our salvation.
There are hundreds more meaningful places throughout the Holy Land. How to summarize the immensity of beautify, truth, and soul-expanding symbols stretched across the Holy Land? The most compelling phrase I can muster is from Jesus who, when asked by His disciples where he dwelt, He lovingly and simply said, “Come and see!” (John 1:38-39)
Come and See! Tour Israel With Taylor Halverson
Tour Israel with Taylor Halverson (more info here)
Bonus Must-See Location: Masada
A bonus must-see location in Israel, even though not directly tied to the life of Jesus, is Masada. This indomitable palace-fort is perched in solitude atop a butte jutting out from the Judean Wilderness into the Dead Sea valley. Originally envisioned, built, and occupied by Herod the Great, this location later provided the last final defense for the Jewish zealot rebels who refused to remain under the domination of Roman rule.
With the modern miracle of aerial tramways, in a matter of moments we can ascend to great heights while avoiding the aptly named Snake Path, a 3.8-mile sinuous, tortuous uphill climb of more than 1140 feet and nearly thirty switchbacks. On top, we’re greeted with immense views of the Dead Sea and its valley.
We’ll explore the ruins of millennia past and marvel at the desert splendor built in such an inhospitable location. And we’ll wonder at the tenacious determination that would cause a handful of ancient Jews to retreat to this mountain fastness to ultimately take their own lives instead of living under Roman rule.