Easter Hope

The garden tomb

The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem

The centerpiece of our Christian faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We call it our Easter hope! The wonderful words of the angel at the tomb says it all – “He is not here!  He is risen! (Matthew 28:6).”  If an ossuary (a small stone box containing the bones of the deceased person) would ever been found complete with the name of Yeshua on the outside and the bones of Jesus inside as Paul said, “our faith would then be futile (1 Corinthians 15:17).”  But that wasn’t the case!  The tomb was empty, not because of the body of the Savior being stolen nor because His followers hallucinated or made up the story. The tomb was empty because Jesus was literally raised to life.

In Israel, 100s of Second Temple Tomb (tombs dating to the 1st century) have been found. About 2 dozen tombs have actually been found in and around the Holy Sepulcher Church.  In my humble opinion, this is the most likely area of Christ’s tomb, in contrast to the Garden Tomb, which although is a much nicer atmosphere to consider the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, is not a 1st century tomb but rather a classic 1st Temple (Iron Age) tomb.  But we worship the Person, not the place.  And we honor not merely tradition, but historical truth, and reality of Christ’s resurrection.

3 Tomb Reconstruction copyThe most likely type of Second Temple Tomb Jesus was laid in on Friday afternoon was an arcasolium tomb.  The most common type of tomb during the period of the New Testament was the koch (kochim, plural) or niche tomb.  However, it seems as if they angels in the resurrection story couldn’t sit at the feet and head of Christ (John 20:12) within a narrow and elongated niche tomb. Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was a newly-hewn tomb (Matthew 27:60), and must have been a tomb of prominence. What a dramatic event it must have been for the women at the tomb who were told by the angels of Christ’s resurrection! What an amazing experience also for Peter and John who ran to the tomb shortly after!

Flowers at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

Flowers at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

So today, all the Christian world rejoices in the resurrection of Jesus! Easter lilies stand tall in celebration! Easter flowers bloom brilliantly as a sign of life!  May our lives also radiate the hope and joy of Christ’s resurrection!

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Our Redeemer Lives!

 

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The God of Abraham Praise

The God of Abraham PraiseI love the role music plays in our spiritual walk with God. God uses the power of the words and the beauty of the melody to speak to our hearts. Music is a blessing!

One hymn I have always enjoyed is The God of Abraham Praise. Both the words and the tune match well in my humble opinion. The words actually have a Jewish root. They originate from around 1400 AD from something called The Yig­dal of Dan­i­el ben Ju­dah, a Jew­ish judge in Rome. The lyr­ics are based on the 13 creeds of Mos­es Mai­mon­i­des (1130-1204). These words would later be par­a­phrased by Thom­as Ol­iv­ers around 1765 AD. The song and accompanying melody (also a Jewish tune) first ap­peared in The Gos­pel Mag­a­zine in Ap­ril 1775.

The God of Abraham PraiseMost hymnals which include this song only list 3 or 4 of the verses. However, there was originally 12 verses. Here are the words of this hymn ancient song written with Jewish lyrics that praise the God of Abraham:

The God of Abraham praise, who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days, and God of Love;
Jehovah, great I AM! by earth and Heav’n confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred Name forever blessed.

The God of Abraham praise, at Whose supreme command
From earth I rise—and seek the joys at His right hand;
I all on earth forsake, its wisdom, fame, and power;
And Him my only Portion make, my Shield and Tower.

The God of Abraham praise, whose all sufficient grace
Shall guide me all my happy days, in all my ways.
He calls a worm His friend, He calls Himself my God!
And He shall save me to the end, thro’ Jesus’ blood.

He by Himself has sworn; I on His oath depend,
I shall, on eagle wings upborne, to Heav’n ascend.
I shall behold His face; I shall His power adore,
And sing the wonders of His grace forevermore.

Tho’ nature’s strength decay, and earth and hell withstand,
To Canaan’s bounds I urge my way, at His command.
The wat’ry deep I pass, with Jesus in my view;
And thro’ the howling wilderness my way pursue.

The goodly land I see, with peace and plenty bless’d;
A land of sacred liberty, and endless rest.
There milk and honey flow, and oil and wine abound,
And trees of life forever grow with mercy crowned.

There dwells the Lord our King, the Lord our righteousness,
Triumphant o’er the world and sin, the Prince of peace;
On Sion’s sacred height His kingdom still maintains,
And glorious with His saints in light forever reigns.

He keeps His own secure, He guards them by His side,
Arrays in garments, white and pure, His spotless bride:
With streams of sacred bliss, with groves of living joys—
With all the fruits of Paradise, He still supplies.

Before the great Three-One they all exulting stand;
And tell the wonders He hath done, through all their land:
The list’ning spheres attend, and swell the growing fame;
And sing, in songs which never end, the wondrous Name.

The God Who reigns on high the great archangels sing,
And “Holy, holy, holy!” cry, “Almighty King!
Who was, and is, the same, and evermore shall be:
Jehovah—Father—great I AM, we worship Thee!”

Before the Savior’s face the ransomed nations bow;
O’erwhelmed at His almighty grace, forever new:
He shows His prints of love—they kindle to a flame!
And sound thro’ all the worlds above the slaughtered Lamb.

The whole triumphant host give thanks to God on high;
“Hail, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” they ever cry.
Hail, Abraham’s God, and mine! (I join the heav’nly lays,)
All might and majesty are Thine, and endless praise.

The words are a powerful testimony of God and His Being. He deserves our praise!

Here is a beautify piano rendition of the song performed by Fernando Ortega.

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Israel… Whose Land Is It?

Israeli settlements

A Jewish community in the so-called “West Bank.”

In referring to the physical land of Israel, the question “Whose land is it?” has been a popular one among world leaders, politicians, and even theologians and pastors. Some would argue that the whole peace process is based on being able to answer this one question. In some ways, it is complicated in terms of defining modern borders in a very ancient region of the world. In other ways, it is quite simple: We have one group of people (the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, or PA) who don’t want peace and who wishes for the total destruction of another group of people, Jewish Israelis. Very simply (and sadly), the PA doesn’t want peace with Jews (it’s in their Charter), while the Israelis want peace for everyone!

About this issue of land and so-called “settlements,” I came across a very interesting article written by Rachel Avraham. Rachel, a Jew, lives in one of these Jewish communities (a much better term than “settlements”) in the biblical region called Samaria (called the “West Bank” today). Her own experiences and perspectives are very interesting and insightful.

Jewish settlements, West Bank map

A map of Judea & Samaria (called the “West Bank” today).

Here is what Rachel Avraham (in a Jerusalem Online article) said –

Nevertheless, despite Israeli lobbying on the issue, US Secretary of State John Kerry also appears to think that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and make the two-state solution very difficult to implement: “The facts speak for themselves. The number of settlers in the roughly 130 Israeli settlements east of the 1967 lines has steadily grown. The settler population in the West Bank alone not including East Jerusalem has increased by nearly 270,000 since Oslo including 100,000 just since 2009 when President Obama’s term began. This is not to say that the settlements are the whole or even primary cause of the conflict. Of course, they are not. Nor can you say that if they were removed, you would have peace without a broader agreement. You would not. And we understand that in a final status agreement, certain settlements would become part of Israel to account for the changes that have occurred over the last 49 years including the new demographic realities on the ground. But if more and more settlers are moving into the middle of Palestinian areas, it is going to be that much harder to separate, that much harder to imagine transferring sovereignty and that is exactly the outcome that some are accelerating.”

“However, supporters of Israel often point out that the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically refers to belligerent occupations and the forceful transfer of people, not the voluntary transfer of civilians to areas that previously belonged to the Jewish people throughout the history that were recaptured during a war of self-defense.   They emphasize that Israel only regained the areas after the 1967 War, which was initiated only after Egyptian and Syrian troops amassed along the Israeli border, former Egyptian President Abdul Gamal Nasser ordered the withdrawal of UN forces, closed off the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and engaged in incitement on a daily basis and Jordanian forces attacked Israel. Furthermore, they note that the Mandate for Palestine that includes Judea and Samaria as well as East Jerusalem, which was incorporated into international law by the League of Nations at the Sam Remo Conference in 1922, recognized ‘the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine’ and sought to ‘encourage close settlement by Jews on the land.” According to UN official documents, all League of Nations resolutions are also valid for the UN.

In addition, when Jordan conquered the West Bank and Egypt took over Gaza, no one recognized their rights to these lands and at that time, there was no movement to establish a Palestinian state.  Furthermore, when Israel made peace with both Jordan and Egypt, both countries gave up their claims to these territories. Given this, the Israeli side argues that the pre-existing Palestine Mandate resolution that permits Jews to settle in the area is still valid for these areas and therefore the international community has no legal basis to tell Jews not to settle in areas over the green line.  As Professor Eugene Rostow, a former US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, has written: “The Jewish right of settlement in the area is equivalent in every way to the right of the local population to live there.”

“In legal terms, the West Bank is best regarded as territory over which there are competing claims which should be resolved in peace process negotiations – and indeed both the Israeli and Palestinian sides have committed to this principle,” the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs proclaimed. “Israel has valid claims to title in this territory based not only on the historic Jewish connection to, and long-time residence in this land, its designation as part of the Jewish state under the League of Nations Mandate, and Israel’s legally acknowledged right to secure boundaries but also due to the fact that the territory was not previously under the legitimate sovereignty of any state and came under Israeli control in a war of self-defense. At the same time, Israel recognizes that the Palestinians also entertain claims to this area. It is for this reason that the two sides have expressly agreed to resolve all outstanding issues, including the future of the settlements, in direct bilateral negotiations to which Israel remains committed.”

Jewish settlement or community in Judea

A Jewish community in the region of Judea

I think Rachel’s perspectives are grounded not only upon her own experiences, but with a good grasp of history as well. In answering the question, “Whose land is it?,” facts really do matter!  Sadly, one side (the PA) don’t care about facts. And until this changes (along with the hate for Jews), there will be no peace.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem & Israel. Pray for peace for Arabs and Jews alike!

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New Hallelujah (Christmas Version)

kaylee new hallelujahMerry Christmas everyone!

The day has arrived and we celebrate God’s redemptive history fulfilled in the coming of Christ!

The New Hallelujah song is no doubt familiar to almost everyone. If you have heard it before, you’ll recognize a bit of a twist on the words. I think you will enjoy this “Christmas version” of the song.

I also think you will enjoy who sings the song. The song is sung by a young girl named Kaylee and an accompanying children’s choir from the Killard House, Donaghadee, UK. According to their mission statement, Killard House is a “co-educational controlled school providing for children and young people with additional special educational needs. These include moderate learning difficulties, speech and language difficulties and autistic spectrum disorder.”  Kaylee has an incredible voice and sings with such poise!

To listen to Kaylee and this choir sing this song is quite inspiring!  It is truly remarkable!

Merry Christmas!

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O Little Town of Bethlehem

Church of nativity

The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

MERRY CHRISTMAS! Bethlehem during the Christmas season is a festive place to be! Today, the city has a population o 20,000 or so (with adjoining neighboring cites – Beit Sahour and Beit Jaja adding a few more thousand), of which about 80-85% are Arab Muslims, and 15-20% or Arab Christians. There is a small but very strong evangelical presence in Bethlehem. The Bethlehem Bible College has held its own despite the deceasing Christian population. Be sure to continually pray for our Christian Arab brothers and sisters living in this ancient birth-place of Christ!

In this brief blog today, enjoy a video peek of Bethlehem and the Church of Nativity (one of the oldest churches in the world!). Manger Square will be quite active tonight (Christmas Eve) with choirs all over the world performing and services taking place.

Merry Christmas!

VIDEO:

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Silent Night, O Holy Night

Silent night ChristmasSilent Night is a carol that is used to conclude virtually every Christmas Eve service. The carol was written in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Just  few years earlier (1816), Mohr had already written the lyrics of the song “Stille Nacht.”  The last verse contains the wonderful message of redemption –

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Today, the carol has been translated into 140 languages. In fact, one of the special moments on each and every tour is to sing Silent Night in the Chapel of the Shepherds in Beit Sahour outside Bethlehem. Inevitably, there is another group somewhere from Europe or Asia who join us in singing this amazing carol in their own language. It always provides, as we say, “a little taste of heaven” when we sing the same tune together but in our own language. Quite simply, it is a goose-bump moment!

chapel of the shepherds

Inside the “Chapel of the Shepherds” in Beit Sahour

O Holy Night is also a carol used on Christmas Eve. It was composed by Frenchmen Adolphe Adam in 1847. The last three lines of the son are most powerful –

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Enjoy this harmonious and unique version of Silent Night sung by Sam Robson. This gentleman is unique in how he blends his voice into an amazing sound of Christmas!

Enjoy also this harmonious version of O Holy Night:

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Once In David’s Royal City

Bethlehem manger

Bethlehem, David’s royal city (Micah 5:2-4)

One of my favorite carols is an old English hymn called Once In David’s Royal City. The carol was first published in 1848 in Miss Cecil Humphreys’ hymnbook Hymns for little Children. In 1919, the song was used as the processional hymn for the Christmas Eve Service held at the King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.

I love this carol not only because of the beautiful harmony of the tune, but because of the simple but powerful lyrics. The words speak of the birth, the life, and the ministry of Jesus:

Once in royal Davids city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall:
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.

For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us, He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles, like us He knew;
And He cares when we are sad,
And he shares when we are glad.

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above:
And He leads His children on,
To the place where He is gone.

bethlehemchristmasstarrightlandscapeThe carol takes me back to the town of Bethlehem. Today, Bethlehem is more of a city than a town, with about 20,000 residents. But 2000 years ago, this City of David was only a small town. The prophet Micah describes it this way –

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:2-4).”

The video is produced and performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

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Christmas in Israel

Santa in Jerusalem

Santa walking on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem

People ask me, “Do they celebrate Christmas in Israel?”  To be honest, that’s almost like asking “Does it snow in the winter in Minnesota?” Well, I admit that perhaps this is a bit of an exaggerated way of answering the question, but for sure both Jews and Arabs in Israel celebrate Christmas!

Of all my trips to Israel, I was only in Israel over Christmas once!  This was back in 1981-82 when I was a student in Jerusalem. But from the Facebook posts I see from Israel, and updates from my guide and driver who I use on all my trips, Christmas is in full swing in the land of the Bible.

Santa in Jerusalem

Santa on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem

Now this would not be of surprise to you at all when I say that all over the world Christmas has been commercialized. The deeper meaning of Christmas has taken a back-burner to the way Christmas is celebrated around the world. Yet in Israel you see Christmas trees, people dressed as Santa, lights, and decorations. It’s a fun and festive time.

The YouTube video (below) gives you a god picture of how Christmas is celebrated in Jerusalem. Who would ever think that Santa would even make his way up on the Turkish walls of the Old City, walls that date to 1537-44 AD!  Imagine that… Santa hanging out on ancient walls built 480 years ago!

Of course in our Jewish communities of Israel, Hanukkah is celebrated. This year, Christmas and Hanukkah coincide virtually on the same date. The first day of Hanukkah this year actually begins at sunset of December 24th (remember that holidays and Shabbat always begin at sunset of the previous day). Counting 8 days of celebration, Hanukkah ends on January 1.

So enjoy the sights and sounds of Christmas in Israel!

 

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Christmas in Israel

Santa on the Mt. of Olives

Santa on the Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem

Christmas is celebrated around the world. Of the world’s 195 countries or so (depending on how you count a few of them), citizens in the most of these countries celebrate Christmas. This includes Israel.

Christmas is celebrated in Israel, a country where the presence of three faiths are practiced – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Within the Christian church, there are many denominations represented – Protestant (mainly evangelicals), Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian, and Coptic, to name the majority of them. Within each of these denominations are various customs and traditions.

Christmas Tree in Nazareth

Christmas tree in Nazareth

In Bethlehem, a minority of Arab Christians live. Regrettably, over the last 10 years or so, more and more Christian Arabs have moved out of Bethlehem as well as other adjacent towns like Beit Sahor and Beit Jala). Whereas about 50% of Bethlehem was Christian back in 1995, only about 10% are Christian today. This is due primarily because of the intolerance of the Arab Muslim community, including the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Thankfully, the Palestinian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem have stayed strong during this time of persecution. Remember them in your prayers!

Even in Gaza where 2,000 Christians live, their lives are constantly threatened because of Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist organization who rule there. Yet despite the persecution and intolerance, the joy of Christmas in Christian communities is still alive and well!

In Israel, Christmas is openly celebrated without persecution. Among the Israeli Arab communities (e.g Nazareth), seeing Christmas trees and lights is common. Also, with the Jewish Messianic community continuing to grow, celebrating Christ as Messiah is attracting more and more Israeli Jews. This is exciting to see!

Of course Santa appears once in a while all around Israel. The tradition of Santa is a world-wide phenomena regardless of country or religion.

The following 2015 video highlights the Christmas celebration in Israel.

May Jesus, the Savior of the world, be celebrated by more and more in Israel this season!

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The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

Bethlehem and church of nativity

Bethlehem the the Church of Nativity at night

The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the two oldest churches in Israel. The church goes back to the 4th century AD, specifically around 325 AD. Along with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of Nativity was commissioned and built by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. While this church that preserves the traditional place of Christ’s birth is currently undergoing major renovations these last few years, the building still symbolizes the hope and joy of Jesus’ birth. As told in Luke 2, the birth narrative of Jesus is read all over the world. Today the church is controlled by both Greek Orthodox and Armenians, with the Catholic Church having their own sanctuary. For the last few years the church has been going through major renovations.

Church of Nativity

The Church of Nativity inside. The lower mosaic floors date to the 4th century AD

Christmas in Bethlehem is actually a special time. I remember when I was a student in Jerusalem (in 1981-82), a few of us walked from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Our destination was the Church of Nativity and later the traditional Shepherds’ Fields. Following the midnight festivities at Manger Square, our plan was to sleep in the nearby fields. While the first heavy rains of the year prevented us from doing this, it as still a special time (we ended up sleeping with friends in Bethlehem).

On every tour we visit the Shepherds’ Fields. Here in a small cave we sing Christmas carols and read from Luke 2. It is a special time to celebrate that “just at the right time, God sent His Son (Galatians 4:4).” In God’s perfect timing, Jesus stepped into our history to become our salvation!

Church of nativity birth place of Jesus

The “traditional” place (below the front of the church) where Jesus was born

Today, our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Bethlehem (as well Christians who live in the adjacent Arab towns of Beit Sahor and Beit Jala) celebrate Jesus’ birth here. Others from all over the world and from many denominations come for this special night. What brings unity at Christmas is our common faith in Jesus, God’s Son born here 2,000 years

Does the Church of Nativity preserve the very place where Jesus was born? We can’t be for certain, but it also doesn’t need to be.  Why? Because we worship the Person and not the place. We worship Jesus who was born humbly in a small town call Bethlehem. He was born to bring God’s salvation for us!

It is our hope and prayer that God provides you the opportunity to travel with us to Israel, the land of the Bible! You will visit and experience Bethlehem firsthand! You will blend your voice with others as we sing and proclaim Jesus as God’s Son and as our Redeemer! Your life will never be the same!

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