Over the mid-semester break Carey took its first study tour to Israel and Jordan accompanied by Sarah Harris (NT studies) and Jonny Weir (Director of Ministry Training). The aim of the trip (which was also a Carey course) was to engage the students and participants head and heart as we read and explored scripture on their actual sites. Forty-five left Auckland and undertook a programme which primarily traced the Jesus story and aimed to visit as many historic sites as possible.

We saw the might of Rome evidenced in its cities, and at times we ended up in spontaneous prayer and song as we worshiped Jesus who is stronger than any city, army, or temporal empire. We read not only the Bible but the Jewish historian Josephus to help us understand what we were seeing.

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Here is Beit She’an (Scythopolis), the leading Roman Decapolis city, and the only Decapolis city west of the Jordan River. 1 Kings 4:12 refers to Beit She’an as a part of the district of Solomon. The hill we are standing on is known as a ‘tel’ and there is evidence of twenty-six civilisations including early Egyptian, Canaanite, Philistine, and Davidic settlements. It is on the Philistine city walls that they hung Saul’s head when he was finally killed at Mount Gilboa (1 Sam 31.10).

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We took a boat across the lake. Across the lake is Hippos, the only city for miles on top of a hill, whose light shined across the lake at night time. Can you hear the echo?

It is always helpful to view a place from the water; you see the countryside in new ways. It also helped us engage with Jesus in new ways and many sensed his closeness as they remembered his travels on the lake. We spent time chatting, looking, in stillness and prayer. For Jonny and me as leaders we delighted in watching Jesus ministering to people and our job became more about simply creating space for him as we opened scripture in various places. We were reminded again that all salvific activity is his and we just participate in what he is doing. We learned lots about leadership on that trip, and we found it so spiritually refreshing. It was easy to be carried along by what God was doing.

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We learned lots of practical things too. Who would have guessed that even going to the loo in Roman times was a communal activity?! One person wrote:

Standout revelations for me were when we drunk the water at Jacobs well, and this was where Jesus had offered life giving water to the Samaritan woman 2000 years ago. Jesus went out of the usual route to go here, not avoiding it like was normal practice. Jesus goes out of his way to offer us (sinners, unrighteous, Gentiles), the life-giving eternal water.

To also realise this land was not just about where Jesus walked, but also where King David, and shepherd David, Elijah, Elisha, Ruth, Boaz, King Solomon, King Saul, Goliath, …. And, and, and, ….. had lived and died. We walked and drove over these same places. Wow.

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And we just had lots of fun! Jonny was the first to succumb to temptation and ride a camel.

For many journeying the passion story was a highlight. At Nazareth we visited a reconstruction of a first century village and this helped us understand many images and ideas behind the biblical story.

One student writes:

Visiting Nazareth and having a visual demonstration of how olives are pressed was very impacting. There are three presses, each takes an hour, and each time the weight is increased. In Gethsemane (translated “The Olive Press”) Jesus prayed three times. After an hour he went to his disciples and they were sleeping. It wrenched my heart that Jesus, the Son of God, underwent such pressure and how much meaning is in all that is written…we don’t always see the full story until we really read it.

We talked about Jesus’ journey to the cross. We considered the historicity of the locations and visited them, and we also walked the spiritual journey of the Via Dolorosa (some of which is not historic), and we visited the Garden Tomb (which is inspiring but is not 1st C). Here is one student’s memory:

For me one of the (many) key moments was at The Garden Tomb when I turned to leave the ‘room’ and the sign on the door was ‘He is Risen!’ It was a reminder that we can get caught up in the intellectual discussions about the ‘actual’ locations, but wherever it was, Jesus did not stay in the tomb – he is the risen God! That is who we worship!

Another says:

The entire Israel study tour was amazing; but one significant personal encounter with Christ was at the Calvary where he spoke to me through John 14. It has been a life changing experience knowing that he is so real in our lives.

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This is a 1st C tomb inside the Holy Sephulcher which historians note is like the tomb where Jesus was laid. Archaeological excavations have demonstrated that this site was outside the old city but close to one of its gates and thus would have been a good location for a crucifixion and the nearby tomb (John 19:42). In John 20:5 we read of Peter having to bend down to look in. Can you imagine this?

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The students all took mules up the hill to the monastery in Petra and walked beyond to see the Jordan Rift Valley. For some this was a frightening journey on the back of a mule who went into auto-pilot up 800 mismatched steps while others felt more comfortable on the ride to the top.  It was a special joy to watch people encourage each other so that everyone got to the end; such experiences helped build a huge sense of team; we can do this if we go together. When we finally made it, we were staggered at the beauty of God’s world, and blessed by the Bedouin hospitality we experienced.

The trip brought us all greater knowledge (and we need that as we mature as disciples of Jesus) but it was meeting with Jesus in the midst of the text and land that changed us. Listen to what some students are saying:

This journey was life changing. We experienced some spectacular places but my most significant place was at the Pool of Bethesda, in Jerusalem. I’d researched this place and the biblical periscope in John 5 (for my paper), so to stand there and realise how important archaeological evidence can be for biblical text interpretation was impacting. My head & heart ‘collided’ powerfully there, in this place where Jesus ignored prevalent superstitious beliefs and healed a paralysed man with simply a word, incredible!

I was worried that I would just get straight back into life and that all the work God had been doing, and the time away would fall by the way and that grieved my heart. But it is God’s work and I am God’s child, and he continues to work in amazing ways. I continue to be undone and turned inside out as I find my way and discover who I am becoming.

This opportunity has been life bringing!!!!