Pastor Mike Wenig went to the tomb where it’s believed Christ’s body was laid after his crucifixion.
He spent time in quiet reflection in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed so fervently before his death and Wenig got a different mental picture after visiting the place where Christ hung on the cross.
From Mount Carmel where Elijah asked God to send down fire to Mars Hill where the Apostle Paul preached to ancient-day Athenians, the local minister took a once-in-a-lifetime tour of the Holy Land.
Wenig serves the Fremont campus of Westside Church at 605 N. Broad St.
In the past, the Rev. Curt Dodd, senior pastor of the multi-campus congregation, has led groups from the church on trips to Israel. He did this time, too.
A group of about 40 people, most of whom are from the church, traveled to a country rich in Biblical history recently. Wenig enjoyed getting to know people better on the tour and deepening relationships by experiencing new things together.
“One of the things that struck me was that it would be a trip that a young pastor would do really well to make early in his ministry rather than late in his ministry from the standpoint of having that picture in his mind to draw on as he opens up the Scripture,” Wenig said. “I think it would help his preaching to be all that much more compelling.”
Group members visited several locations including Mount Carmel, where Elijah had his famous contest with the prophets of Baal. A church and a statue commemorate that event at the site.
The group went to Megiddo, an ancient city, and the Valley of Armageddon where many battles have taken place from 2,000 years before Christ to modern history. In the New Testament book of Revelation in the Bible, Armageddon is also prophesied to be the place of a great battle during the end times.
At each of the places where there was a miracle or significant event in the life of Christ, a tour guide shared the historical background and Dodd read Bible verses relating to it.
Group members took a boat onto the Sea of Galilee. The sea was calm that day and the skies were blue and clear.
Christ did much of his ministry on the shore or on the Sea of Galilee.
And Wenig gained a new perspective.
“The sea is a lake and you can actually see across it; I’m guessing it’s not as big as Lake McConaughy,” he said. “When you read Scripture without having that picture in your mind, you see it one way and when you have that picture — you don’t read Scripture in a completely different way — but it adds some depth and layers to your experience in reading Scripture.”
Wenig pointed out that Israel is about the 10th of the size of Nebraska.
“There were so many significant events that happened in such close proximity,” he said.
So when someone reads that Jesus went from one city to another, they might picture a distance of 100 miles, but almost nothing is that far away in Israel.
From the Sea of Galilee, the group went to the place where archaeologists have determined that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Wenig took a picture of a church built at that site but also tried to capture the view of the mountain and where people would have been sitting as they listened to Christ.
Church members visited Gideon’s Spring at the foot of Mount Gilboa, best known as the spot where God whittled the warrior’s army from 32,000 soldiers down to 300 before they went into a miraculous battle.
“It was a beautiful place and helps fix in your mind that vision rather than imagining some nondescript body of water,” he said.
They visited various places in Jerusalem, including the Garden of Gethsemane.
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“We were fortunate in going to the Garden of Gethsemane really early in the morning before the crowds were there and it was a very quiet place,” he said. “Pastor Curt encouraged each of us to go off by ourselves in the garden and spend time in prayer and meditation and I think many people found that a very significant experience. It was a very significant time for me.”
The group went to the Southern Wall of the temple court, which formerly contained the temple built by Herod the Great, and later was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Wenig said the group also saw the Western Wall, known as the Wailing Wall, a place of prayer sacred to the Jewish people. People place papers with prayers into cracks in the wall. There were many notes stuck in the cracks.
“I hadn’t realized previously that men were separated from the women at the Wailing Wall. There’s a barrier and there’s a women’s entrance on one side of the barrier and a men’s entrance on the other,” he added.
Group members traveled to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves previously hidden by a sect of the Jewish religion called the Essenes. Shepherds looking for sheep found the scrolls in 1948.
The group went to the Masada, where a group of about 1,000 Jewish men, women and children took refuge on top of this mountain fortress surrounded by a Roman general and his army for about a year. The Romans built a ramp up the mountain to the gate so they could use their battering ram to break it down. They broke through and the general planned to take all of the Jewish people captive. Rather than be captured and subject to slavery, all of the people — except for two women and three children — took their own lives.
There were other sites like the pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed a lame man who’d been there for 38 years.
And there was Golgotha.
Wenig said a wonderful song has lyrics about an old rugged cross on a hill far away in reference to the one on which Christ was crucified.
“But the historical piece is that when the Romans crucified people, they crucified them where there was a crossroads so that everybody going by would take note and it would serve as a warning to everyone,” he said. “So he was actually crucified — not on Golgotha, but at the foot of the hill according to the historical scholars.”
Wenig hadn’t known that before but noted that the Bible doesn’t say Christ was crucified on a hill.
“It doesn’t shake my faith. It kind of changed the picture that I had in my mind,” he said.
Nearby, the group visited a place said to be the garden tomb, where Christ’s body was laid after his death.
“That was my most emotional moment — stepping inside the garden tomb. That tomb is empty,” he said. “It’s that picture that’s now fixed in your mind rather than some imaginary picture of what it might have been.”
A trip to Athens Greece brought the group to Mars Hill where the Apostle Paul gave a speech recorded in Scripture. There, he told the citizens that he could see they were very religious and even had a temple dedicated to an unknown god.
“That’s the God I want to proclaim to you,” Paul said.
Mars Hill isn’t huge.
“But as you stand on top of Mars Hill and look out in every direction of the city and see modern buildings and ruins of ancient temples, it’s easy to see how Paul could have used that as an illustration in his message about their need to know the ‘unknown God,’” Wenig said.
Wenig thinks other pastors and Bible teachers would benefit from a Holy Land tour as he did.
“It would be like, for me, reading and talking about the Grand Canyon without having actually stood on the edge and seeing the expanse and majesty of it,” he said. “I think it’s the same for me, being able to anchor Bible teaching and preaching with actual images in your mind.”