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The Arena of the Incarnation

I think you ought to visit Israel. I was given the opportunity last year, and I must admit that I had little expectations. I have been in many different countries, known a number of different cultures, and speak several different languages. Israel, I thought, was just one more country. The experience was over-rated. People who went there weren’t used to traveling so the whole Israel euphoria was due more to the newness of international travel, I reasoned, than to the actual merits of the country. Or, perhaps there was an element of superstition — even in saved believers — that subconsciously revered the whole nation of Israel as a giant reliquary. I didn’t need to do a “pilgrimage” to enhance my faith. Nonetheless, a gift is a gift and I happily received it in order to add to my repertoire of experiences. I was struck by three things:

First, there still remains a glory about the land that is palpable. R.C. Sproul calls the land the “arena of the incarnation.” You can sense the thrill of being where Jonah, Peter, Samson, Samuel, Solomon, and Jesus once were.

Secondly, I was moved by the brilliance of the Jew. Our guide was a Ph.D. from Harvard. He, like many others, had committed his mind and body (literally) to their cause, Zionism. I was reading LaQueur’s A History of Zionism at the time and was convicted by my slovenly dedication to the Kingdom of God compared to the Jews dedication to Zion.

Thirdly, I was heartbroken by the lost condition of the Jew and the Arab. Beautiful people. But sheep without a shepherd. Following, are excerpts from my journal that I scrawled out while on the bus. They were thoughts of a pilgrim — not a pilgrim to Israel, but a pilgrim to the Heavenly City who believes that “salvation is of the Jews” and who yearns to be committed to their Messiah. Here follow some scattered thoughts:

My Journal

In the ancient city of Joppa. “And Jonah fled from the Presence of the Lord.” The expression occurs two times in Jonah 1:3. I recall that Hugh Martin has an interesting comment on this expression in his commentary on Jonah that will be worth reviewing when I get back, but the essence of it is this: God, who is omnipresent, did have a geographical location that not only represented, but was the place of His dwelling. Thus, was this land of Israel.

I have not been here twelve hours and I realize a thrill like the pleasure a young lover enjoys when he has walked into a room where his beloved once was. The fragrance, the faintest scent, of her presence that still lingers in the atmosphere instantly becomes the central attraction of the whole room. The room does not have to be anything special. Its “glory” is that it once contained the presence of that dear person.

Our guide is a brilliant man who has given his mind and body (he has war scars) for the cause of Zionism. . . When God gave me the dumb, witless, and mentally-challenged composite that I am, He left just a sliver of knowledge lodged in my psyche like an irritating hang-nail to consistently deny me the bliss of ignorance. My perpetual battle is to accept my low-level knowledge, inadequate education, and marginally functional brain. It’s a spiritual battle because contentment is a spiritual fruit. The greatest challenge for someone of my ineptitude who sinks under the responsibility to learn is where to begin. Like these people, I do not need to know why. They learn for the glory of Zion. I learn for the glory of God. But where to begin: That is the question. I read.

Friends often flatter me on my reading, wondering how I do so much of it. Little do they know that my basic strategy is to stubbornly read the next word until I’ve completed a book or exhausted my cerebral energy. A kindergartner could adopt the same strategy.

Reading about the intelligentsia behind the Zionist movement in A History of Zionism by Walter LaQueur is utterly depressing. Not merely because of their brain power, but because of their seemingly unlimited powers of concentration, focus, and perception. All this for what? Their lives were useful for many, but ultimately useless for themselves when they died a Christ-less death. My life, by the unmerited grace of God, is useful to myself in that I have learned and still learn to trust the Messiah. But is it really useful for anything else?

I suppose their usefulness is tragic because they died damned even though they helped man. My uselessness is tragic because I’ll die saved, but with little more than parasitical value to humanity. The only redeeming quality of my uselessness is that I prove the magnificent condescension of God who has loved me, called me, saved me, and will one day glorify me. That, perhaps, is my use. O, Lord, be glorified in my life.

My heart aches for the people I see. The Jew is proud and condescending. The Arab seems much more hospitable. I can immediately sense why the poor Arab dislikes America so much. We befriend a proud people. To what extent we are to love the Jew in a practical way is up for question, because to love them, in their minds, is to hate their enemies. Yet, the wall of partition has been broken down, and we should love all men. Or should we?

Does the Bible command us to love all men? It is probably clearer who we should hate – when a person is violently evil and blasphemous. But to love all men means that we will find a way to break down the obstacles that seem to make love for one and love for the other mutually exclusive. The obstacle between the Jew and the Arab Gentile is an utterly impregnable wall — not merely a centuries-long animosity and exchange of brutality (as if that were not difficult enough). But it is the entrenched conviction backed by Divine decree that not only can they not mix, but the mere existence of the other is a threat that justifies their immediate execution or elimination. Thus, God is glorified when His Son becomes the only, the only, hope of lasting reconciliation. However, the Jew and the Arab are joined in a bloody, suicidal unity in their agreement that Jesus of Nazareth is NOT Lord. Much like the young men of Joab and Abner who, in macabre unity, “each one grasped his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side; so they fell down together” (2 Samuel 2:16).


10 Responses

  1. I also had the priviledge of visiting Israel this past January. I understand exactly what you are writing about. As I was there, I began to realize that I would never read my Bible the same. The ten or so days that I walked on different soil- the soil that God has chosen, literally changed my devotional life forever. I now read with realistic pictures in my mind and my understanding of the culture is far greater.

    I was just thinking today before I read your post, “I really need to take a second trip, I just didn’t learn enough on the first trip.”

    As far as the differences between the Jew and the Arab – incredible. Being from the “melting pot” of the world, I am often ignorant of the vast differences between cultures.

    The trip was truely a life-changing one. Why don’t you and I go back sometime soon?

  2. That’s why I posted this, Jeremy. I’m putting out feelers! I’ve got ideas.

  3. Personally, I would love to go, but I am skeptical of the suggestions that my understanding of the Scriptures will be enlightened. It seems more likely to me that knowledgeable guides will lead me into more attentive study of the Scriptures than I would otherwise have engaged in. My instinct is that 7-10 days of full attention devoted to spiritual things is a much more plausible explanation for the euphoric feelings than the near-mystical experience that some describe. In other words, it sounds kind of like a week of camp for adults.

    Perhaps neither of you are suggesting what I’m skeptical of. Or maybe I would feel differently after a trip. I’m just wondering what exactly is the “glory about the land” that is qualitatively (as opposed to quantitatively) different from, say, Normandy or Gettysburg as sites of great historical interest? How do you read your Bible differently now, Jeremy?

    Is there information in the land that is necessary for biblical interpretation? Is the text of Scripture not enough? How does this affect the arguments for the sufficiency of Scripture? The arguments people make for why we should go see Israel just strike me as very similar to those that have been made for why we should see “The Passion of the Christ.”

    Hope I’m not sounding like a wet blanket here. Just curious. Again, maybe a personal experience would change my thinking.


    P.S. Bob, suppose you have to choose between a trip to Shepherd’s Conference and a trip to Israel. What’s your call?

  4. Ben,
    I thought exactly as you did – before I went. If I had to choose between Shepherd’s Conference and a trip to Israel? Easy. Israel.

    Granted, it is sort of like a camp for adults, but that is not all. Every day of our lives we pick up our Bibles to read a history that occurred in a real place. Actually seeing the real place makes an impact.

  5. Ben,

    When I said that I would never read my Bible the same, all I menat was that now I can read with real pictures in my mind. I understand the geography much better.

    I guess a good analogy would be if I were to describe my home to you while talking on the phone. We could interact about the location of the kitchen, bathroom, etc. But you would not have a clear picture of how exactly these these looked and where they were at until you came to see the house yourself.

    All I can say is, go, see it for yourself.

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more Bob.

    I just returned this past Friday from my second trip to Israel and already I’m hoping to go again.

    The argument Ben raises is very logical and I have heard it from several people the past month. We had a small group this time (12 people) and 9 of them had never been before. Without exception, each of them said this trip was abundantly helpful to them and has increased their understanding.

    Several years back I went to Normandy with you Bob. Prior to that trip I “knew” the facts of what happened there. However, I received a new “understanding” after visiting. To stand at the base of the cliffs that were scaled by our men and to see the Nazi strongholds and bunkers on top, it became much clearer to me what those soldiers acomplished. Do I have more knowledge as a result of actually being there? Some. Do I have more understanding? Definitely!

    Because we have the ability to jump on a plane and fly to Israel in eleven hours puts us at a great advantage over the generations before us.

    Although I’m sure they exist, I have not personally heard anyone who has actually gone to Israel say what Ben has said.

  7. Bob and Shannon said:

    “I thought exactly as you did – before I went.”

    “Although I’m sure they exist, I have not personally heard anyone who has actually gone to Israel say what Ben has said.”

    “Do I have more knowledge as a result of actually being there? Some. Do I have more understanding? Definitely!”

    Sounds like warmed-over Gnosticism to me, guys: “If you knew what we knew, you would understand the truth and agree with us.” 😉

    I’m still highly suspicious because the idea that visiting Israel helps you understand the text better sounds to me like an assault on the sufficiency of Scripture. If all you’re saying is that it helps you picture the events, that is totally different. Essentially, it is a sightseeing trip where you are seeing the places where the most important events in human history took place outside the garden in Eden.

    I still suspect that the spiritual value is based solely on the fact that you are spending a week thinking almost exclusively about spiritual things, and has little to do with where you are located.

  8. There are numerous “tools” on your shelf that help you understand Scripture better. I would hardly accuse you of gnosticism if you said you had a better understanding of Scripture because you were a greek scholar and the only greek I knew was a few letters associated with a fraternity. What about the volumes of commentaries that assist you in lesson preperation? Do they give you a better understanding of the text?

    I believe that Scripture is sufficient.

    Are the words contained on the pages of your Bible sufficient for your life if you don’t understand what they say? or if you don’t understand them with the rules of exegesis applied to them? Why do we read commentaries, look at maps, get counsel, listen to tapes, etc.?

  9. Shannon,

    I believe there is a difference between Greek study tools and maps. Greek tools help me understand the text. Maps, cultural backgrounds books, and archeological research provides information that is outside the text (usually). Use of such tools for interpretation assumes that the text itself is not sufficient.

    But the text provides lots of geographical and cultural comments that would have been common knowledge to the first readers of the book. I’m inclined to believe this points us to the pre-critical approach that focuses on what is actually in the text, not the information that exists as history outside the text. In other words, the author (Author) gave us what we need for interpretation in the text. It’s this pre-critical approach that some guy named John Calvin (and pretty much everyone else before Schleiermacher) is alleged to have used in his commentaries.

    I don’t mean to deny any value for the information that we gain from archeology and historical research. This information is relevant to apologetics and can also be used to provide “color” in preaching that helps maintain audience interest.

    P.S. I find it very amusing that we’re arguing in cyberspace when our desks are in medium-range spitting distance of one another. 😉

  10. Stick to typing. Don’t spit.

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