I have spent the better part of my adult life studying the Bible—for papers in college and seminary, in preparation for church lessons, and while working on projects here at Insight for Living Ministries. In the faded blue, bare-bones NIV Bible I’ve worked with most often over the years, I know where to find just about anything. Even if I don’t know chapter and verse, I have a pretty good idea of where a passage is located on the page. Finding descriptions of places like the Sea of Galilee, Mount Carmel, and Golgotha in the black-and-white world of my Bible is about as easy as finding my way home from work.
Imagine, then, the feeling upon my recent—and first—trip to Israel. I stepped off the plane, not into a world of words or even photographs but one dotted with biblical sights, saturated with the sounds of spoken Hebrew, and filled with the aromatic spices and delicious foods of the Middle East. Even in those first hours in Israel, the land of the Bible came alive in full and vibrant color.
While I visited many historic and beautiful locations, two rather lonely places were especially significant, adding depth to the biblical narratives: Caesarea Philippi and the garden of Gethsemane.
Caesarea Philippi, in the first century a pagan city with a large temple dedicated to the Greek god Pan, sits in the far northeastern corner of the country at the base of Israel’s tallest peak, Mount Hermon. The extensive ruins are surrounded by a lush forest and a bubbling spring from which the Jordan River emerges. In this remote location, far from orthodox Jewish society and surrounded by Greek and pagan influences, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Reading Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God (16:16), we get a tantalizing glimpse into their future. The apostles later went to the ends of the earth proclaiming the Messiah to all in their hearing, no matter the surroundings.
The events at Caesarea Philippi teach us something of Jesus’s person and point us forward to His most significant work (16:21). In Gethsemane, we see that work set into motion. Jesus took His disciples to the garden of Gethsemane on the night of His betrayal. Outside the walls of Jerusalem and surrounded by gnarled olive trees, Jesus agonized over the task before Him. Bent and twisted trees stood as silently then as they do today, a potent reminder of the anguish our Lord endured on that fateful night (26:36–46).
Seeing the land of Israel in person has forever changed the way I read, teach, and write about the Bible—a change as stark as going from black and white to color.