It has been a special privilege of mine to be able to go to the Holy Land six times. Earlier in life, I had never envisioned that I would ever be able to visit that wonderfully special place even once much less six times. On five of those trips, I was able to carry a number of people with us who also had a deep desire to visit Israel and see many Biblical sites as well as "walk where Jesus walked." There are so many special feelings about my visits to the Land of the Bible that I would have to write an entire book to catalog them all. But, several things stand out as extra special to me.
The first time I saw the city of Jerusalem was an awesome event to me. We had landed in Tel Aviv and driven the thirty something miles toward Jerusalem. As one rides along in that country, they are impressed by how modern Tel Aviv is. One would think that they were in the United States as they look at the traffic and expressways. But, not far outside the city things take on a different flavor. As the modern city of Tel Aviv disappears in the rear view mirror, one is transported back into time as the trip progresses toward Jerusalem. The guide points out Biblical sites as the bus travels inland. There is the valley in which David slew Goliath and other less notable sites one passes by. The tourist bus begins to climb the hills on the way up to Jerusalem. The word "up" is used in the biblical sense in that Jerusalem is on the top of Mount Moriah. In the Bible, people go "up" to Jerusalem and "down" to Jericho which is fifteen hundred feet below sea level. As the group nears Jerusalem, the guide will usually put the song "Jerusalem" on the sound system of the tour bus. People begin to sing that familiar song, and then as the bus crests a certain pass, there it is! Still several miles away one can see the "city set on a hill." It shines like a pearl in the sunlight because the entire city is made of white limestone. It is an awe inspiring site to see Jerusalem for the first time. The realization of all that happened there suddenly impacts your mind as you think of what a special place it is. The experience makes a grown man feel like a little kid at the county fair for the first time. The expectation of walking in and exploring Jerusalem excites a person to the core of their being. Seeing Jerusalem for the first time is always a special event for those visiting there.
Just outside the Damascus gate on the North side of the old city of Jerusalem is the site where Jesus was crucified. I hate to destroy the visual image of that place for some people but it is not a high hill top where three crosses were placed with Jesus in the middle as depicted in most artist renderings. It is a flat plaza out in front of a clay cliff that has the image of a human skull on it which has been there since before Jesus. The Bible says he was crucified at the "place of the skull" and this plaza is the place. They are using it today as a bus terminal. Immediately adjacent to that plaza is a garden just as the scripture says there was. It has been there since before the days of Jesus and this is the place where is tomb is located. This special place matches all of the descriptions of the Bible.
The Garden is beautifully kept by a religious group which operates a small gift shop there so that people can purchase mementos of their visit to this most special place. On my first tour to Israel, we entered this little gift shop and passing through it we were suddenly in the Garden. As I entered and walked along the stone pathway, there were well groomed bushes with blooming flowers on my left. Passing just beyond those few bushes, I was standing there looking deeper into the garden admiring its beauty. Suddenly, I turned and gazed to my left and there it was!! The garden tomb. It looked exactly like it does in all the pictures I had ever seen of it but this was no picture. It was the real thing!! Every hair on my body stood at attention! Chill bumps covered me. For a moment I felt that my head was spinning somewhat. I saw it but I couldn't believe that I was actually standing there viewing it. We went deeper into the garden and observed the Lord's Supper with our group, then we went to the tomb. As our people took their time entering the tomb, my anticipation of going into that special place was almost too much to bear. Finally, I entered the tomb and viewed the place where Jesus lay before he was resurrected. I thought to myself: "Right here, in this very place, the power of God came and resurrected Jesus from that place right over there. He actually lay there! He was actually brought back to life right there! It is almost too much to take in and process in the mind. It is impossible for me to communicate this wonderful experience in the few lines I have here but it is one of the greatest experiences of life to visit the Garden Tomb. When one sees a picture of the tomb of Jesus in National Geographic or some other publication, they are convinced of the reality of it. But, when one enters the tomb something quite different impacts the mind. There is a solid confirmation that this is actually the place of the resurrection of Jesus. Seeing it in a publication is one thing; entering it is another. There it stands, a lone, timeless sentinel to the fact that God has defeated death and forgiveness of sins is ours. Each time I have gone there over the years, I have found the experience to be fresh and awe inspiring. One never tires of visiting the Garden Tomb.
On one trip, my dear friend, Duke Westover (whose travel agency I always used because of his professionalism and contacts in Israel) and Dr. Jerry Falwell were on the trip with us. He knew just about everyone in Israel as did Duke and they arranged a trip to the Kenesset Office building to see Benjamin Netanyahu. If we think that security in our country is strict, then one should go through a security check in Israel. It is an overwhelming experience to say the least. There is almost no comparison in our security procedures and those in Israel. Well, after going through the clearances, we were allowed into the office building. They were so very gracious to us. Everything was prepared for our visit. We met in a conference room with bowls of fruit provided and then a lunch as well. The man who in America would be the Vice-President was in charge of our meeting and we spent about two hours listening to him describe the situation in Israel to us. There were about six of us at the meeting. Those present were Duke Westover, Jerry Falwell, this writer and three others whose names slip me. We were treated with the utmost respect that would be afforded dignitaries from a foreign country. It was a most interesting and informative time and one that I will never forget.
There are so many places of spiritual importance to visit in Israel that it is hard to see them all. In fact, it is hard to take it all in. One trip will not do it. When one has visited about three times they begin to filter out the things they have already seen and heard about and they start to focus on details that never occurred to them the first few times. Suffice it to say that the experience of visiting Israel is almost impossible to put into words that could do it justice. A Christian has a deep affinity for that wonderful land. A person feels a part of it. There is just no place on earth like Israel.
William F. Harrell