As the sun went down on Friday evening, most Israelis were settling down for Shabbat dinner or gathering for a night on the town. Down by the shores of the Dead Sea, however, thousands of Christians from around the world were converging on Ein Gedi to sing praises, wave banners, and dance before the God of Israel.
This was the inaugural night of the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration, where every Sukkot for more than three decades (since Menachem Begin was prime minister, if that gives any perspective), the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem has been summoning Christians the world over to come up to the capital and demonstrate their love for Israel and the Jewish people. These pilgrims believe that they are fulfilling a small part of Zechariah’s biblical prophecy, which foresees a time when Gentiles from every nation will “go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.”
But that doesn’t mean everyone is falling over themselves to herald the event. Observing the Friday night spectacle from the perimeter were dozens of Israeli paramedics, security officers, and technical assistants who studied the jubilant assembly and listened as Christian worship music – some of it in Hebrew – boomed from the stage and bounced off the stark Judean cliffs behind them. They sensed the energy in the atmosphere and saw the wide grins on participants’ faces. But I could tell that most of them were feeling a mix of amusement, suspicion, and outright perplexity.
Who were these Christians? What did they want? Why did they come here?
For anyone not familiar with the world of Christian Zionism, this kind of event may indeed seem bizarre. For some, it may even seem sinister. But as someone who attended the event and interacted with its attendees, I can vouch for the genuinely altruistic spirit that drives them all.
It is much less complicated than many Israelis think. These Christians have come from around the world to bless Israel – ve-zehu. They believe that God loves the Jewish people and has a plan for their nation, and feel a deep spiritual obligation to show their unconditional love to the Jews.
To put it another way, any friend of God is a friend of theirs.
I met Joseph, an African pastor from Sierra Leone who recently assumed leadership of the International Christian Embassy chapter in his country. Joseph told me how he once believed in replacement theology (the doctrine that God revoked his covenant with the Jews once Jesus arrived) and even taught it in his church. However, after watching an ICEJ video on the subject and studying the scriptures on his own, Joseph came to the startling realization that he was on the wrong side of the issue. Now he travels across Sierra Leone speaking to other pastors, showing the video, and persuading Christians that their biblical duty is to support the Jewish state. Despite opposition from mainline denominations and the country’s nominally Islamist government, Joseph continues to spread the pro-Israel message.
Later I met an elderly Australian couple who had never before left the land down under. Pushing almost seventy, they had finally decided to spend their hard-earned money to travel to Israel. “It’s an amazing country,” the man told me in his Aussie brogue. “Just seeing it in person and how alive it is completely opened my eyes.” They were in the midst of a 21-day trek that included standard Bible tours as well as several unique side trips. “We have to squeeze in everything we can,” they said, “since we’ll probably never leave Australia again.” Why did they choose Israel as their sole international destination? “Well, because we love the Lord,” they replied simply
I talked with many other attendees, all of whom displayed the same deep affinity with Israel and the Jewish people. They waved Israeli flags, greeted each other in badly-pronounced Hebrew, and wore creative t-shirts imprinted with all kinds of pro-Israel messages.
As a Christian, I found it refreshing to see so many fellow believers from around the world acting on the same principle of faith. Whether eating dinner with Zambians, traveling with a bus full of Finns, or mingling with the hordes of Brazilians, I noticed the common spirit animating everyone.
Though it may seem a bit weird and uncomfortable for Israelis, these Christians really are here to demonstrate their friendship. And like them or hate them, they aren’t likely to change their minds anytime soon.