A few weeks ago, after enduring two years of COVID’s impact on worldwide travel, a group of Christ-followers from Texas enjoyed the wonderful blessing of renewing our connection to the Holy Land.
As someone who enjoys the privilege of leading Bible study tours of Israel for Christians, the coronavirus pause was exceedingly difficult. As a pastor who loves teaching Bible stories in Bible places, the lockdowns and restrictions were a struggle. I am glad to report that my wife and I got to experience touring Israel and walking in the footsteps of Jesus again earlier this month.
It felt like old times ... mostly.
I traveled alone after navigating the challenging waters of special exemptions and travel allowances. Once I arrived in Israel after 21 months away (having left in March of 2020 when the world seemed to be falling apart), it at once felt both wonderful and weird. Thanks to the efforts of the Israel Football League (IFL) and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), I secured an entrance visa and experienced the excitement of international sports as Jerusalem hosted the World Championships of Flag Football.As an American, it was rewarding to see Team USA win the gold medals in the men’s and women’s divisions. As a fan of Team Israel, it was disappointing to see the Israeli men’s team fall just short of their much-anticipated goal of earning a spot in the Flag Football World Games later this year.As a broadcaster, I enjoyed seeing talented athletes and dedicated coaches from dozens of nations representing their home countries while playing a sport I love. I readily admit that announcing football games in Melissa, Texas is cool but announcing football games in Jerusalem, Israel is really cool.
Despite the cold temperatures at the Kraft Family Sport Campus and Teddy Stadium, hearing players yell “down, set, hut” in Italian, Japanese, German, Portuguese, Russian, English and several other languages never got old.
Wonderful to be back in God’s Land among so many friends.
Weird to see the city streets lifeless and the airport empty.
Wonderful to be back in Israel, a place I used to get to visit frequently.
Weird to exist inside the COVID “bubble” of an international sports event held during a pandemic.Of course, the COVID travel restrictions did not just affect a football tournament or my family’s ability to visit Israel. The entire tourism industry suffered greatly. Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum was recently quoted by JNS as saying, “For Israel, it has been completely devastating.”
She said that it will take “a few years” before Israel returns to the 2019 total of 4.5 million tourists. It was predicted by some that the 2020 travel numbers might reach 5 million tourists. In reality, Israel’s Tourism Ministry announced that only 850,000 tourists visited the Holy Land in 2020, an astounding drop of more than 81%.The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Israelis, namely tour guides, bus drivers, hotel staff and the like, were damaged by closing the skies. In addition, millions of lovers of Israel from around the world missed the chance to learn and experience the unique character and charm of the Jewish state. Everyone agrees that the Israeli government had to find ways to keep its citizens safe from an infectious disease, but attention should also be paid to those whose careers were devastated in an instant.
Once Israel opened the door to tourists again in early 2022, our motivated Texan Bible students were ready to travel.
For most of our group members, this trip a few weeks ago was their first time in Israel. They were understandably excited to see some of the places they had only read about in the scriptures. For my wife and me, it was great to walk the streets of Jerusalem again, showing newcomers the beauty of the Holy City and introducing our Texas friends to some of our wonderful Israeli friends.
Our recent Bible study journey in Israel tremendously blessed this group of American Christian tourists because COVID-era restrictions had repeatedly closed the doors to travel and thus prevented meaningful spiritual pilgrimages. Sadly, many American tour groups, like those who travel with my wife and me, had their travel plans canceled in 2020 and 2021.
As a pastor and Bible teacher, leading Christians as they visit Israel is a distinct privilege.
We call our tours “Israel By The Book” because our desire is to help followers of Jesus experience the truth and power of God’s Word. You have probably heard some of the travel cliches about visiting Israel: "It makes the Bible go from black and white to color" or "it turns the Scriptures from 2-D to 3-D.”
All of those things are true for the Christian pilgrims who travel with us, and they are especially powerful for those visiting the Holy Land for the first time.
Reading God’s word in the places where the ancient stories happened can deepen a person’s faith and motivate them to learn more. These spiritual growth opportunities for Christian believers encourage them to echo the declaration of the psalmist who wrote, “Blessed be the Lord from Zion, who dwells in Jerusalem. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 135:21)Non-Christians may wonder why followers of Jesus would be so interested in traveling to the Jewish state of Israel.
That may seem like a complicated question, but it has a simple answer.
For disciples of Jesus who long to understand Him and follow Him, there is no better way to learn about His culture and language and Bible and people and geography than to visit the land of His ministry. For Christians like me, traveling to Israel strengthens our faith and increases our biblical understanding.When we traveled to Israel earlier this month and visited places like the Garden Tomb and the Kotel (Western Wall) and the Dead Sea and Capernaum and Bethlehem and the Temple Mount, we were able to envision Bible stories coming alive. Students of God’s Word walking in the places of scripture come away with new knowledge, stronger faith and a love for both past and present Israel.
In that way, Christian travel to Israel helps the foreign traveler and the host country simultaneously.For Christians around the world who want to visit Israel, it was heartening to see the announcement from the Israeli government that the borders will be fully open, even to unvaccinated tourists, on March 1. We can all pray that the world will be healthier and the travel process simpler when our next Bible study tour of Israel occurs this September. Maybe more American Christians will want to and get to experience the majesty of walking in the footsteps of Jesus and learning “Israel by the Book.” With God's help, the doors are now open to spiritual pilgrims and will not be closed again. Whatever our faith background is, let’s all ask the Lord to give us a world healthier and an Israel more crowded. Trey Graham is a pastor and radio host in Texas who leads tours of Christian pilgrims to study the Bible in Israel.