As I write these words, I am still jet-lagged from an over 2-week pilgrimage to Israel and Jordan. I have done these tours in the past, and each one leaves me with something new to consider. When I first went to the Holy Land, it was the thrill of being where Jesus had once been. On the first occasion, I wept at the garden of Gethsemane, stood at the southern steps and imagined Jesus going into the temple, and walked the streets of Capernaum, wondering about Jesus’ daily activity as He conducted His ministry. Perhaps my most profound encounter on that first trip was walking by the Sea of Galilee outside of Capernaum and hearing the words directed to Peter. “Do you love me?”
As I have continued to travel to the Holy Land, I have considered various themes. On one occasion, I became angry that the sight of the crucifixion has been completely obscured by the church of the Holy Sepulchre, a large crusader building that makes it impossible to picture the actual sight of Golgotha. I thought, on that occasion, that the church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as the church of the Nativity are illustrative of layers of tradition that the medieval church placed on the life and message of Jesus, so as to obscure the message of the gospel.
On this occasion, I felt overwhelmed with the state of the church in both Israel and Jordan. As we know from Acts 2, the first Christian church began in Jerusalem. Were it not for the persecution that followed, there can be no doubt that faith in Jesus would have become the dominant expression of Judaism. But the religious leaders imprisoned Peter and John, stoned Stephen to death and drove believers from Jerusalem. A program of persecution followed.
Jerusalem fell to the Romans in A.D. 70, and the city lay in ruins. Jews were driven from their homeland. By A.D. 100, the center of global Christianity was in the city of Ephesus. Increasingly, the church became a Gentile phenomenon. Today in Israel, although there are believing Jews, most Jews have rejected the Christian faith. Indeed, most guides have an appreciation for Jesus but reject Him both as the Messiah and as the Son of God. It fills my heart with weeping that Israel today is without the Messiah who came for them.
Things are not much better in Jordan. In the early days of the gospel, many converts were made among the people who lived in that region. But with the advent of Islam, much of what was once a part of the gospel is now gone. On my last day in Aman, I was thinking about this very theme. Christianity is legal in Jordan. But proselytizing is not. No one is permitted to leave Islam. If even a Christian woman converts to Islam, her husband and family are expected to follow suit. If a husband converts to Islam, the pressure is even more pronounced.
The presence of Christians in the Middle East is constantly declining. Many, if they can, choose to leave. Others, although they stay, feel themselves under constant pressure. It is hard not to think that the place that gave birth to the Christian faith now sees the Christian faith hard pressed. In many places, it is barely surviving.
Having said that, it must also be said that we don’t see things accurately. There may well be an underground church in the middle east, whose numbers are known only to the Lord. This has certainly been the case in Iran. One needs also remember that an American delegation returning from China in the 1960’s proclaimed that Christianity had died in that country. They were unaware of the millions of believers meeting privately in homes and in other places.
I come back from Israel and Jordan with several thoughts. I am always amazed at the abundance of archeological finds that testify to the truth of the Bible. I am always glad to walk where Jesus walked. But I also return praying for faithful believers in that part of the world. I ask God to strengthen them, keep them faithful and allow the good news to advance.
For information, or to sign up for the next Israel Experience, visit https://www.backtothebible.ca/israel/