In-Depth Testimonials

Short TestimonialsIn-Depth Testimonials


Rev. Leon Throness

Every sincere Christian wants to walk the land of the bible. Fifth Gospel encounters offers this opportunity in such a unique way. I am preparing to accompany a second group from my church this spring not only because I personally love the trip but because of the new passion for the Word it has brought to our church. Mark opens a whole new window on the scriptures with his onsite relevant teaching. People come to see both sides of the bible: the Western side we are used to, and the Eastern side that for the most part we have never explored. Christians approach the bible with a fresh eagerness that is delightful to see.
I also love the fact that we hike the land. This makes it more than another trip – it is a pilgrimage.
As a fellow pastor, I am reaping the results of involvement in Fifth Gospel encounters.

Leon Throness


Dr Per Lidman

Hi Mark and Cam,

It was great to see you again. I just wanted to write and thank you for what you are doing with these trips to Israel. This was my second trip and I wasn't sure if it would be as impacting as the first trip. It was. The change in my life after the first trip 18 months ago has been amazing for me and my family. I have changed my style of parenting in many ways, I'm teaching my children about the Bible more, and I have such a desire to study the Word of God. We pray Shema every day together and every week I pray a blessing over each of my girls. The impact on them, that I can see, has been incredible. I wonder how much change is going on that I am not even aware of. This change in my life has also impacted my Bible study in what and how I lead it. Through that I was able to bring two of my pastors and a couple friends on this last trip. From their comments, I know the trip was life changing to them as well. I know that this change will now spill over to the rest of our church through my pastor's teaching and leadership.

However, I also want to clarify something. What you do is unique. A trip to Israel is amazing, but without the teaching you provide, most of what I got out of these trips would not have happened. I believe that 80% of this amazing experience was because of your teaching in that setting, and not the setting itself. You have a wonderful gift that is impacting more people than you are aware of. The two of you work very well together and I felt very privileged to be with you again. I pray that you will be able to continue in this ministry for many years to come. I would like to come back and bring my wife and children too.




Durwin & Angel Gray

After more than twenty years of dreaming of a trip to Israel, that dream became reality this Spring when my wife and I joined Fifth Gospel Encounters in their pilgrimage trip to the Holy Land. In my life as a pastor and in my wife Angel’s love for digging into Scripture, we had great expectations for this trip. We hoped to be inspired by the homeland of the Bible and to have our biblical imaginations stretched in deeper ways. Our actual experience on this pilgrimage easily surpassed our expectations. In this report, we would like to briefly share some of the impact of this fantastic journey.

Each day seemed to contain a cornucopia of ways in which the world of the Bible and even the kingdom of God itself seemed to come alive to us. Simply seeing the land in which the drama of both testaments was lived out historically was more inspiring than we thought possible. Both Angel and I were particularly struck during a teaching time where we sat on the hillside ruins of Hippos, not far from the shores of Galilee. Our rabbinic guide, Pastor Mark, taught just how unusual and radical it was for Jesus to have intentionally travelled to the Eastern shores of Galilee, interacting with Gentiles. Even his interaction with the demon possessed man in a graveyard took on new meaning as we considered how bizarre it would have been for a Jewish rabbi to enter a graveyard. This was a fascinating example of Jesus stepping across all kinds of boundaries to reach “the other side.”

Angel and I were significantly moved as we recognized in a fresh way, Jesus’ heart for those who were far from Him, those who were marginalized, rejected, and least in His culture. We were struck by how easily in our own lives and in our church culture, how easily we can neglect this call in our lives to reach out and to prioritize evangelism in and through the church we lead. That evening as we debriefed this experience by Galilee, we sensed God was helping us renew our commitment to His commission to reach out to lost people with the gospel.

Another significant benefit of our time in Israel was the learning that was a result of the rabbinic style of teaching. While Mark’s teaching times were excellent and filled with excellent content, we learned much about leadership simply from the experiential nature of carefully following a leader through challenging experiences. Perhaps one of the most frustrating but rewarding aspects of this leadership style was that we did not know where we were going. We weren’t given a detailed itinerary each day of our plans and we had to learn to trust our ‘rabbi.’

For example, instead of taking the bus up to Mount Arbel, to the place where rabbis and likely Jesus used to pray by Galilee, Mark had us follow him up the mountain, much like Jesus would have walked to his quiet place of prayer. The sheer effort required reminded us of the physicality and humanity of Jesus. On another occasion we followed Mark and Cam into a sudden detour into a field where there was a herd of sheep and two shepherds. Mark led us to walk along behind the shepherds and the flock as he spoke of God’s nature as a shepherd and the leadership lessons that come from shepherding. The rabbinic style of teaching left us rethinking our approach to leadership, while also considering how we might creatively lead and disciple followers of Jesus in mission.

Perhaps the greatest value for us as students and teachers of the bible, was to discover that some of our interpretations of Scripture are substantially impacted by our Western upbringing and thinking. To not just hear a lecture about the East/West divide but to repeatedly discover firsthand some of the significant cultural differences have been invaluable to us. Someone once said “context is everything” and this exposure to the Holy Land was eye-opening to the middle-eastern context and lifestyle of the people of Israel, the NT background of Jesus and his teachings, and the cultural setting of the early church.

On a more devotional note, both Angel and I can attest to a renewed love of Scripture. Biblical locations that were once just geographic names to us before this trip now are living images seared into imagination. Stories that were very familiar have come to life as we can picture their geographical setting, like Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on the side of Mount Carmel or David’s fight with Goliath in the Valley of Elah. We will never forget the experience of walking through knee-high water, the entire length of Hezekiah’s water tunnel, built more than 2800 years ago. Scripture is coming alive in very exciting ways and we are sincerely grateful for the opportunity to join Fifth Gospel Encounters for this tour. Many thanks to all who helped make this journey possible.

Most sincerely,
Durwin & Angel Gray
Lead Pastor, Hillside Community Church

Alliance Pastor

Brian Derksen

As we gathered in the Vancouver Airport at 5 am on Saturday May 3rd, the anticipation quickly began to build as we connected with one another and, as a group; we felt an excitement about our journey together into the past. This trip was to take us to a place that for many of us, we had only “seen” through the words of Scripture. The reality of the adventure was at this point only a hope, but was soon to become a reality.

Eighteen plus hours of flights and 10 hours of time adjustment did not seem to dampen our spirits (ok, a little), but as soon as we walked into the Tel Aviv Airport and then onto the bus, we were ready for our new outlook on “life”.

How do you put into words 4 days in the desert, 4 days by the Sea of Galilee and 3 days in Jerusalem? Try and describe the newly formed life long friendships and the endless memories of laughter, singing, silence, reflections and yes, even tears (mostly of joy). How can you express the joy of meeting new friends from many parts of our world and even though you may never see them again, they will be forever in your thoughts and hearts.

Painted across our memory canvases will be…
• the desert images of a dry and parched land
• shepherds watching over their flocks by day
• green plants amid sand and rock
• Bedouin homesteads scattered on the hill sides
• Ruins from long ages that once defined life in Israel
• Wadi’s that look quiet and serene one day, and can take a life the next when filled with water from a rain storm miles away
• The desert known as the En Gedi, where biblical heroes once walked and hid to save their lives
• Qumran community where scrolls of old were hidden for centuries in caves
• To stand in the Fortress at Masada and realize the life choices that were made there
• A ride on a fishing boat across a sacred sea. This was my “holy” moment. Jesus my friend and Savior once walked on these waters and taught on these shores and “called” some key men to serve with Him.
• A “gentle” climb up Mt. Arbal to sit pray where Jesus prayed, to be still and watch over the land and sea; to commune with His Father in Heaven.
• To experience the tradition of Jewish men and women on Sabbath. To watch them enjoy life with friends and family
• To sit on a hillside and watch F-15 Fighter jets fly over head.
• To talk with Jewish young adults about safety and protection and hear them explain their trust in God Almighty.
• To stand at the gates of hell and know they will not prevail against the Kingdom of God
• To watch by the Jordan River as two fellow travelers walked into the waters to be baptized.
• To experience the blessing of Head, Hands, Heart and Feet by a fellow pastor and know that the blessing was sincere.
• Did I mention the overwhelming amount of ruins, with their own stories to tell? Death, destruction, sacrifice, heroes, life, love, family, friends, real community, doing life together.
• To walk the streets of the amazing city of Jerusalem and be reminded of all that went on within her walls.
• To walk the path of death to a hill known as Golgotha.
• To sing like angels in St. Anne’s Church and feel the music penetrate the soul
• To watch with amazement and sadness the empty rituals in the Cathedral where they claim Christ was crucified and buried
• To walk the Mediterranean Sea shore and call my wife from thousands of miles away and experience it together by phone
• To listen and learn from a teacher who had walked these pathways many times before us, so that he could teach it right
• I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, it was life enhancing, a trip of a life time.

Our fearless and insightful team of leaders led us with great ease (or at least it seemed that way) through 2 weeks of potential daily challenges and amazing opportunities. How can I fully say thank you for a life time of memories I would never have had. I simply and deeply express my heart felt appreciation. You have refreshed the heart of this saint, and I thank you.

Was it worth it? For my part, absolutely yes! As a pastor I will preach and teach differently. As a Christian I will have a deeper understanding of my faith and our roots. As a person who loves people, I will forever have new friends that experienced Israel with me, not everyone can say that.

May God bless you as you continue to serve Him with your life and resources.

Brian Derksen
Church Relations
Leadership Center, Willow Creek Association

Alliance Children's Ministry Director

Joy Sarju

What an amazing gift to be able to travel and learn about the culture that shaped the stories we read about in the Bible! This is a never-to-be-forgotten experience for me to see Israel through the eyes of a knowledgeable Israeli Tour Guide (Jacob) and an experienced rabbinic teacher from the western world, Dr. Mark Francisco. It was also reassuring to have all the plans for this trip mapped out by the very capable and patient Cam Huth!

I feel very blessed to have been apart of a small team of 27 who travelled to Israel in November this year. The weather was perfect for me and the exercise plan worked wonders for my figure! I hiked heights I never knew I could, and I wouldn’t have missed the view those hikes afforded me for all the money in the world. I ate too much, slept too little, saw and learned more than I will ever be able to describe and articulate. Most of all I am thankful for the other 26 Pilgrims God called to this trip. There was unconditional love and unity and evidence of God’s presence in our group. We represented a team of all ages yet we were inclusive of everyone, flaws and all, and we encouraged and supported each other in numerous ways. More importantly I believe we represented Christ well to onlookers and I’m proud to have been a member of that team.

After returning from Israel I now get very excited when I read the Bible because for the first time in my life I have a true picture in my mind of where the story takes place! I now have a new prospective on how “the land determined the culture and how God used the culture to teach the people”. This was the foundation on which Dr. Francisco started our study tour and one that adds new depth and meaning to my personal bible study time, and to the teaching of the Word to the children in my Ministry.

God spoke to me everyday in Israel as He does here in Canada but there were some significant
promptings in Israel that stand out in my mind, such as the first time we saw and were able to
get close to a shepherd leading a flock of sheep. I was able to watch how the shepherd
handled the sheep and how he walked among them. Our team also had an opportunity to
witness how the shepherd would warn the sheep of impending danger by throwing a rock in front of the one in the lead. The sheep would immediately respond to that rock! God used this ‘picture’ and experience to remind me of His role and mine in the 2 well known chapter of Psalm 23. I memorized Psalm 23 as a child but I never really understood the symbolisms until this experience. Its one thing to imagine a shepherd and sheep and quite another to actually see a shepherd, especially one using a cell phone! (What can I say, it’s a new day!)

Another significant turning point for me was to be at the top of Masada and to hear the story of the mass suicides and to imagine the Jewish people chanting “No God but God” as they took their own lives. This really resonated within me as I too want to boldly proclaim “No God but God” no matter what life holds for my present and future.

This trip has not only impacted my personal life but also my public life as a Children’s Pastor. I have taken pictures of places of interest to children and presently I am working at putting together what I’ve promised the kids to be my “Show & Tell” of Israel! This coming weekend I will be showing pictures and connecting them to stories in the Bible kids love to hear. Stories such as David and Goliath, The mount of Transfiguration (Easter Story) …Israel’s Mount Hermon, showing the picture of what the actual manger looks like (which will be significant as we approach the Christmas story), looking at the Jordon River where Jesus was baptized, and many more!

In terms of how this trip has impacted my leadership, I feel more confident about explaining Scripture because I’m able to call on my experience with the culture and what I’ve seen and learned in Israel. I am also better able to guide people in how they interpret and present Scripture, which will add depth and clarity, and will benefit the teachers and children in Children’s Ministry and the parents who are uncertain and have questions. I’m happy to report that my style of leadership remains the same, which reflects that of Christ, a servant leader.

Joy Sarju
Director of Children’s Ministry
Coquitlam Alliance Church

Director, Family and Youth Camp

Ric Cyr

I would like to express how much this trip has impacted me but it would take a few pages to write so I will summarize my thoughts to a few stories. Since joining ministry back in 1988 as a young pastor, I have had a desire to see and experience the Holy Land. I did not just want to go as a tourist but wanted something much more. I have had opportunity in the past to go, but it has always been with a tour group, which is what I was trying to avoid. Although a tour might have been good, it was not what I was looking for. Having now experienced the country and having observed what those tours do, I am so happy I waited to go and experience Israel with a group like Fifth Gospel.

Fifth Gospel Encounters allowed me to study in that culture. It allowed me to not just see sights, but hear stories, to see people, to drink in the place, so to speak, and experience my spiritual life at a much deeper level than a tourist might have. It challenged my beliefs and encouraged me to look at my faith directly. I returned home with a desire to be a better father, minister and person.

I loved learning about the Bedouin shepherds in the desert. I loved walking in the desert and experiencing my faith in such a harsh place. One highlight for me was visiting the Bedouin family, seeing the way they live and interacting with them. To be able to hear the Bedouin’s story and relate it to God as my Shepherd was for me very uplifting. To also experience his hospitality and generosity was a great experience for me and my son Scott.

One story, I must share, involves the topic of “Living Water”. Mark did a study in the area called En-Gedi, where David hid from King Saul. We hiked for hours in hot weather (although I am told it was not that hot), and came to a pool of water. Mark gave a study on the need for us, as believers, to see God as “Living Water”. In such an arid place it was not hard to see God as something (like water) that gives life. For me though, it went much deeper than that. Unfortunately many of God’s people, like me, have become satisfied with cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13) which is water I create for myself and does not satisfy. I had become a “worry-wart” type person who was satisfied with what I could get and not what God had for me. I had become so content with my own efforts I did not even see the invitation right in front of me. When Mark invited us to dive into the water, I hit a crisis point. You see, I was so worried about getting wet and hiking out in wet clothes that I was missing an opportunity to trust God for something far deeper. I believe God spoke to me that day and invited me into the Living Water. I admit I struggled with what to do and eventually dipped my feet into the pool. It was at that point my son Scott yelled at me and said “Get into the water, what are you worried about” It was as if God was saying the same thing to me. I dove in and experienced (not only physical refreshing) but spiritual renewal as well. I am starting to realize more and more life is not about me and my anxiety, but about my King. I walked into En-Gedi and renewed my commitment to my King. That day started the process of me being set free from my anxiety and, if it was not for people like you, I know it may not have happened.

So now what???? I am the director of a Christian Camp in the Shuswap, called Eagle Bay Camp. I lead a team of student leaders and full-time staff totaling over 80 each summer. Our camp registers over 130 kids each week in the summer and many of these kids have never experienced God in any positive way. Last summer over 45% of our campers indicated no church home or affiliation. Many do not know God and many of our Christian campers know about God but have never really experienced Him. We also camp beside a beautiful lake and what better way to teach “Living Water” than to see it every day and experience it every day. What will I do this summer? I believe God has shown me, in a greater way, who He is. We are in the process of writing teaching material with themes like Living Water and others we learned on the Israel Trip. We will be training future staff with this material. We will be teaching it to teens and children this summer. I will be speaking it to churches; I am invited to speak at. In essence I will be communicating what God has taught me wherever I go and whenever I get a chance to speak. In fact I just spoke on Living Water at my board meeting last week and this story touched a lot of hearts.

I have spoken of this trip often already and have over 15 young people interested in learning what we learned and going next fall. I pray they go and experience what God has for them.

Ric Cyr
Director, Eagle Bay Camp

Alliance Youth Pastor

Chris Throness

I was told before I left for this trip that it would impact me, but I had no idea to what extent this experience would change the way I look at the Bible. I have been home for over a month now and I still find myself daydreaming about my time in Israel and processing the teaching of Mark Francisco. I took over 30 pages of notes during my time there and I am still going through it bit my bit so I can process and comprehend what God wants to teach me.

One of the most profound and challenging experiences I had while in Israel was going to Caesarea Philippi and unpacking Peter’s confession of Christ (found in Matthew 16 and Mark 8). Mark taught us that no Rabbi’s would ever bring their disciples here because of the pagan worship of false gods was so rampant and ingrained in to the fabric of the culture, but Jesus did. Not only did Jesus bring them here, but challenged them to answer the question, “Who do you say I am?” In other words, “who are you going to serve, me, or the gods of this world?” I had read and even preached on this passage before but to be there, imagining what the disciples would have been thinking and feeling with the pagan worship going on all around them and Peter saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” made this passage come alive to me. I was challenged because Jesus brought his disciples here because he wanted them to go to the pagan places like Caesarea Philippi when he left, to bring the good news of his life to the places of darkness in the world.

A part of my job here at Vernon Alliance Church is to have a presence within the High Schools of Vernon. I have found it so difficult to get a foot in the door, especially at a high school directly across from the church. I have felt afraid and timid of going into this place because of the dark atmosphere towards the Church and towards God. This time in Caesarea Philippi directly spoke to me in regards to this school. Jesus wants me to bring the good news of his life into this school. What a powerful time of conviction and motivation for me!

Since coming back from Israel I have told many people of my time there and what I learned. Here are a few examples: the weekend after landing in Canada, I was able to preach at Vernon Alliance Church to over 1200 people. My entire talk was motivated and inspired by Israel and the Jewish culture. A few weeks ago I was at Eagle Bay Camp and a few friends started asking me about Israel, an impromptu teaching time came about where I went through my 1000 pictures of Israel and shared teaching and my learning’s from Israel. Last night, I was invited to a Young Adult small group to share. There were 15 people there who loved hearing about the Good Shepherd, Living Water and other teaching I was able to hear while being in the Holy Land. A conversation sparked after I shared about how we could take people there.

The impact of this trip will reach far into my future. My third day in Israel I was struck with the beauty of the place, the significance it has for my faith and the need to share it with others. Since being in Vernon I have been looking into planning my own trip. My dream is to take 20 students in July of 2011. I have little idea as to how this is going to happen, in fact it is a pretty daunting task, but taking these 20 students would change their life and hopefully spark interest into the Bible and its power so they can share it with others.

Chris Throness
Alliance Youth Pastor
Vernon Alliance Church

Alliance Missionary

Rhonda Kotchapaw

While I had always anticipated a holy land tour, I wasn’t prepared for the impact it would make on my life. From the moment we landed in Tel Aviv I was struck with the good gift that God gave to His children, the people of Israel. The pictures I had seen of Israel always seemed to make it look like a barren wasteland. Why would the “promised land” be such a dry, deserted place? I was amazed as we journeyed through Israel how beautiful the land was, (even a beauty in the desert!!) and how the topography of the land revealed life lessons that God wanted to teach His people. I was fascinated with my desire to reach into the minds of the Jewish people and tried to strike up conversations with them at every possible juncture. It was intriguing to see how Jews of varied religious persuasions were drawn back to this place, “the promised land.” Reflecting upon my first few days in Israel, I recall a sadness that I felt as I began to see the chosen people still rejecting their Messiah. I feel like God gave me a glimpse of His love for this nation, His grief and His desire to continue to draw them back. I felt like God was drawing me back to my Jewish roots and felt a new love for Him and for His people.

It was interesting to watch the varied responses to the sites and teaching among the team. For those that I knew well enough to hear reflections, I could see that a common sentiment was that there was nothing ‘magical’ about walking on the Judean roads or visiting the different sites. I and others actually found it difficult to transport our imaginations back to a different era with sky scrapers, tour buses and modern shops surrounding us. It was in the reflections and thought provoking questions combined with the teaching of the cultural/ spiritual background that new understanding came. I saw God using all of these components to draw fellow pilgrims into a deeper sense of awe and commitment. I saw God using relationships to challenge one another and I saw a closeness that began to develop among fellow pilgrims. Working together as a team, particularly on the hikes, seemed to develop a sense of unity and cooperation. I also began to see among several of the team members a burden for particular Jewish people that we were exposed to, for example some of our tour guides. It was exciting to hear and to be a part of some of the conversations that were born out of a burden to reach out to them.

While I continue to feel a need to reflect/ process further, I feel that this trip has had a huge impact on the way I approach God’s Word, and the way in which I will present His Word in particular. Having been in Indonesia now for approximately 6 ½ years, I feel that the adjustment to the eastern mindset in terms of a lens for looking at the Scriptures, had already begun, but needs to be developed further. In terms of leading, having greater understanding of Yeshiva and the dynamics of Rabbai and students, I feel a greater need to know and nurture those under my care and to follow Jesus’ example of investing heavily in His disciples. I was impressed at many levels with lessons from the Rabbinic way, but specifically the eagerness of the students (an example to me) and the way that Jesus led His disciples to Mein Cha-eem (Living Water). As I look ahead to the next leg of the journey in ministry, I want to lead others more often, more deeply to the Living Water as it is there that lives are changed. I also need to make sure that I am fully immersed in the Living Water myself.

Among the many points of learning/ impact throughout the tour, some of the more significant were:

*The desert being a place to meet God and to realize our vulnerability and our need of Him. The emphasis on intentionally choosing to move to the desert for a season was meaningful.
*Jesus our Azazel – carrying away both our sin and shame
*Mein Cha-eem – our need to be totally immersed in Him, the Living Water
*The covering of His ‘wings’
*God’s preservation of His Word – Qumran Caves
*Hezekiah’s destruction of everything that pulled the people’s hearts from God
*Insula – importance of community and the challenge of bringing it to our modern Hellenistic world
*Contrast between Beth Shean and Korizin – vivid illustration of wide vs. narrow roads, between independence/ self-glorification and dependence/ glorification of God
*JERUSALEM! – very moving at many levels/ points
*Memories of the Hollocaust – sobering!!

Rhonda Kotchapaw

University Professor

Ivan De Silva

Visiting the land of Israel had been a dream that I have entertained since I began studying the Scriptures academically, over twenty five years ago. The more I studied the Bible the more I realized how important the geography of the land was to the story. I felt that so much of the biblical storyline was so closely connected to the physical layout of the land that in order to fully understand what I was reading, I needed to actually see, feel and touch the land where the events took place. Thus I realized that until I actually visited the place and looked at it, my understanding of the biblical story was, to some extent, incomplete.

The trip itself was all I imagined it would be. We landed in Israel and hit the ground running. We were tired from a very long plane ride when we landed in Tel Aviv, but Mark and Cam recharged us with their own energy and enthusiasm. After a quick meeting with the rest of the forty people, we drove straight to an olive grove where Mark explained the basic geography of Israel and got us started with what to expect from the trip and how it will be conducted. He explained that we would be starting in the desert and why that was important. He explained he would be following the Rabbinic way of teaching and that we would be challenged to see old things in a new way and new things in an old way. After that it was down to the Dead Sea and getting settled in at the hotel.

All the accommodations were excellent. The food was good and provided us with the nourishment we needed for days of intense physical activity. My only complaint here would be that cow tongue is a delicacy for which I have yet to gain an appreciation. There are many parts of the cow that I love, but the part by which it scratches itself is not one them. However, there was one person in our group who partook of it with glee – but he was a bit strange anyway!

For me there were so many highlights on this trip that it is hard to mention just a few. One was the group itself. I could not have asked for a better group to travel with. We began as virtual strangers, but ended up as a community. It was wonderful to see each person pulling their weight on the hikes and giving or receiving help to each other as each needed it. No one was left behind to feel inadequate or a drain on the rest. We all worked together to encourage each other. The bus rides were filled with humor and laughter as we all joked and kidded each other. They were also times for deeper communication over what we had just seen or experienced. I found myself part of a small group that sat in the first third of the bus and we grew to know and understand each other in a very profound way. For the rest of my life I will treasure some of the friendships that were born on that bus.

For me the most profound experience was the desert. The four days we spent hiking up and down it gave me a new insight in to the Lord. As Mark said, the God of the desert is experienced very differently than the God of the city. Living in the city gives us a sense that God is a God who fawns and dotes and fusses over us as if we were the only things on his mind. In the city if we stub our toe or cut our finger, there are a hundred different ointments and places that we can go to and buy relief. If we suffered a more serious health problem, all we have to do is dial 911 and at least two different health professionals will come screaming down the road to help us. They will fuss over us, hook us up to the best machines, and transport us to the nearest hospital where a myriad of other professionals will give us their undivided attention. This leads us to project that God too is like that. He doesn’t want us to suffer the slightest pain, the smallest loss, the littlest discomfort but will move heaven and earth to rush to our side, pick us up and kiss it better.

It was this concept of the 911 God that I found challenged in the desert. There in the heat and desolation, if you fell and hurt yourself no body came to help you. There was no 911 to call. No hospital within miles to which you could be rushed. In the desert I experienced the tough side of God and I realized that God is sometimes hard. I think of how Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away because Ishmael was not the chosen seed and could not share the inheritance with Isaac. Abraham was sad, but he had to do it. That was a tough thing to do. To send a mother with her adolescent child into the desert with a little water and provisions is not easy but that is what God asked of Abraham. To those like me in the city, even the thought that God would demand such a thing is unthinkable.

The God of the desert does not run to my aid every time I fall and scrape my knee. He may just tell me to suck it up and keep going. We are not familiar with a God like this. But watching shepherds working their flocks in the heat and dust, made me better appreciate God’s role as a shepherd. Those shepherds were tough characters. I believe they cared deeply for their sheep but they were not sentimental toward them and they did not fawn over them.

I also gained a new insight into shepherding that helps explain some of the experiences I’ve gone through in life. I learned that the shepherd calls to his sheep via a series of whistles or songs. But there’s always that one sheep which has not learned the voice of the shepherd and so tends to wander off. I was told that the shepherd will strike that sheep on its leg so that it cannot walk for a while. During that time the shepherd treats the leg and carries the sheep on his shoulders until the leg is healed. By being carried along the errant sheep hears the voice of shepherd all day long. When the leg has healed and the sheep is let go, it has learned the shepherd’s voice and will not wander away. The paradox in this is that in order to save the sheep the shepherd has to hurt it. And further, in hurting the sheep, the shepherd inconveniences himself as he now has to carry that hobbled sheep on his shoulders until it is healed. But he is willing to do it. He is willing to inconvenience himself in order to save the sheep. I wonder if God has done that with me. There have been times when I felt God has called me to suffer. I now see that not only was that to prevent me from wandering away, but all that time, I was being carried on his shoulders, listening and learning his voice to better hear it the next time.

The second thing I learned was from the trek we did in the desert of En Gedi. This was the area to which David fled when he fell out of favor with Saul. Saul pursued him up and down that desert and David barely managed to stay one step ahead of his pursuer. What struck me about the area was how the rocks were dotted with caves and trails. David made use of those trails and caves in the cat and mouse game he played with Saul. One slip and he would have tasted Saul’s spear. But it never happened. The rocks and caves provided him protection and he made full use of them. In fact it was while he was hiding deep in one of those caves that the tables were turned and Saul nearly fell victim to David.

All this to say that when David says in Ps.71:3 – “For you are my rock and my fortress”, I now understand what he means. We in the west tend to describe God using abstract concepts. For us God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, sovereign, etc. And then we comb the scriptures to find texts to back up the abstraction. But to the Hebrew mind God is much more concrete. To David God is the rock because in that rock, David found protection from Saul, shade from the sun and shelter from the storm. This is not to say that David was pantheistic. But he experienced the reality of God in the literal reality of a rock that protected him from his enemy.

Once after a long, hot hike, we arrived at a beautiful oasis. There Mark gave a short lesson on just this concrete understanding of God and then invited us to jump into the pool as a tangible experience of jumping into the life of God. Those of us who did were immediately cooled and refreshed. And I understood why the Hebrews referred to God as Living Water.

My third insight occurred at the base of a mountain in Caesarea Philippi. We visited the ruins of Herod’s two temples built side by side into the rock. One temple was to the Greek god Pan, the other to his friend Caesar Augustus. The god Pan was a half man, half goat figure and stood for everything immoral. In his temple there was a gate that was called the “gates of hell” because it was believed that the dead entered through them to the underworld. It was to this place that 2000 years ago, Jesus took the disciples and asked them the question: “Who do people say I am?” The disciples answered by naming various prophets. Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon answered for them all, “You are the Christ, the son of the Blessed.” Jesus acknowledged his answer and then said to Simon that his name will no longer be Simon but Peter (Gk. petros) and that on this rock (Gk. petra) Jesus would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. For years we have debated what Jesus meant by the rock upon which he would build his church. To Roman Catholics it is Peter himself. To Protestants it is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God.

I now believe that it is neither. Most likely, when Jesus said he would build his church, “on this rock” he was pointing to the rock upon which the two temples stood. That rock that was now the location of pagan worship and immorality was to Jesus symbolic of the world upon which Satan had built his pagan empire. Jesus was pointing to the rock and saying that in that place that was now dedicated to everything wicked, he would build the temple of God. The point is unmistakable. The world which is presently the kingdom of Satan, will become, as Rev. 11:15 states, the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Jesus will turn the pagan world into the kingdom of God and the powers of Satan (symbolized by the actual gates of hell in Pan’s temple) would not be able to stop him. I gained a new understanding of that passage and it makes much more sense to me now.

The last point I will make has to do with Jesus. We visited the Mount of Olives and sat down for a brief meditation and time of praise. From where we sat, we could see the ruins of the Jerusalem temple just a few hundred meters away across the Kidron Valley. I remembered how, long ago, Jesus had gone into that temple - which at that time would have been an incredibly glorious building - and created a no small stir by overturning the tables of the money changers and driving people out with a whip. He and his disciples then left the temple via the east gate, crossed the Kidron Valley and sat on the Mount of Olives – possibly on the very spot where we had sat. [By the way, that journey mimicked the prophecy of Ezekiel (9-11) where Ezekiel in a vision saw the glory of God departing the temple via the east gate, going across the Kidron Valley, hovering for a bit on the Mount of Olives and then departing.] Well, Jesus was literally fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision of the departure of the LORD from his temple by retracing the journey the glory of God took. And of course, in Ezekiel’s vision, once the presence of God leaves, it means you are vulnerable to enemy attack, as indeed happened when the Babylonians arrived and destroyed Jerusalem. As Jesus was leaving the temple, his disciples commented on how great the building was - as indeed it would have been. But Jesus said something strange. He replied that soon not one stone of the temple would be left standing upon another.

Well, while Jesus ‘hovered’ on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him and asked for an explanation and Jesus gave it to them in a cryptic prophetic statement: “when you see the Abomination of Desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place…” (Mt. 24:15) What Jesus was referring to by the Abomination of Desolation is explained by Luke in simple language (since Luke is most likely writing to non Jews to whom the term would have been meaningless): “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies…” (21:20). Jesus was predicting the destruction of the temple by the Romans. An event which took place some forty years later in 70 A.D.

The point in all of this was that we witnessed the reality of Jesus’ words. There before us were the stones of the temple, scattered about where the Romans had thrown them. It just drove home to me the infallibility of Jesus’ word and how literally they were fulfilled. And if those words of Jesus were fulfilled then so would all of them – especially his word that he is coming back to reclaim this earth and establish his kingdom upon it forever.

I could go on to list many more experiences that gave me new insights into the Scriptures. But already, I am at four pages. The things I have noted have been life changing. They will be reflected in my life and in my teaching. My students will be the ultimate beneficiaries of this trip.

Ivan De Silva
Part-Time Instructor in Religious Studies
Trinity Western University

Alliance Worship Pastor

Brad Strelau

It is difficult for me to explain the full significance of my trip to Israel with 5th Gospel Encounters, because I am not sure that it is fully realized yet. From the first stop of the bus, I was captured by the landscape of the Bible; not the familiar, westernized interpretation, but the dry, emptiness, where God chose to make Himself known. I soon learned the importance of stripping away everything I thought I knew and re-evaluating how I had always seen scripture and the “people of the book.”

Gaining a greater understanding of the mindset of the people of the Old Testament, (and thus Jesus day) is also a great benefit of the trip. Seeing the many “mikvahs” (ceremonial washing baths) and learning of the many rituals surrounding worship reminded me of both the great privilege we now have of walking before God unashamed, but also of the importance of understanding that we come before a holy God, and we are not to take that lightly.

My most powerful moments came while leaving a site and opening my Bible to review what I had just encountered (there was much information to review). The text came to life! This was most evident in the Galilee and Jerusalem, where Jesus walked. We spent time in the synagogues where Jesus once stood reading Torah. We walked near pools where individuals had been healed of blindness at Christ’s command. We read the beatitudes where they may very well have been first stated. Following these visits, I was compelled to read through the Gospel of Luke while travelling through the area. I was able to look up from the text and see the very places mentioned within; an extremely helpful tool for study. I am in the habit of reading scripture with the bible in one hand and a commentary in the other. Now I walk with a commentary in my mind and have found myself making many study notes simply from a better understanding of area.

Another highlight of the trip was the internationality and societal makeup of the group. It was great to be a part of a group of church planters, professors, business men and women, pastors, and students, all concerned with deepening their walk with their Savior. Such a collection also made for great conversation during the day, and in the evenings when we had dinner together.

Since I’ve returned, there has not been a day that I have not shared some of the significance of the trip with someone; encouraging them to take part in the future. Sharing photos with others had become a lecture. I didn’t realize how much I had internalized, but I find myself talking about one photo for 15 minutes, giving a history or spiritual lesson to go along with it.

On the trip, I had decided that I would try to get outside, to the wilderness, with those I am leading and mentoring, rather than always meet in my office or over a coffee; taking advantage of God’s arena for teaching. I have already applied this to both my ministry as a whole, and on a one-on-one level as well. In both instances I have seen great results. It is much easier to see the glory of the stars, when we get away from the city lights.

I want to express my deepest thanks for those whose benevolence helped me financially, thus making it possible for me to take this trip; it would not have been possible otherwise.

Brad Strelau
Alliance Worship Pastor

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