God is my shade

The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand … (Psalm 121:5)

The heat can be unbearable, the kind of thing that can really get your attention if you’re hiking in Israel.

For all the preparations we make when we invite people to travel with us in Israel, the sun seems to take us all by surprise. It rises early and never relents. All day it bakes the earth, helping turn the Negev Desert and Judean Wilderness into some of the most rugged terrain on the planet.

When you hike in this environment, take as much water as you can carry. I once went through six liters before lunch, trying to stay hydrated when temperatures were nearing 120 degrees. 

On that day, like other days with our groups, we instinctively found the shade. Go with me one day, and you’ll hug the canyon walls in a wadi, hiding from the sun. Once in a while, there will be a tree big enough to offer relief. No matter how big the group, we all manage to find its branches. And on a few occasions, relief comes from above. A cloud arrives, shields us from the sun, and spirits rise.

It’s amazing. Same travelers. Same hikers. Same path. But what was nearly unbearable suddenly becomes pleasant. With shade, there is joy in the journey. 

The shade is life. The shade is comfort. The shade is just enough relief to get you to the next stop along the way. 

Do you remember God’s presence with his people in the desert? Moses had led the great exodus, and the people were trying to understand who this God of theirs really was. He terrified them. He stunned them with his power. He overwhelmed them with expectations of righteousness. 

He appeared to them at night as a fire. Do you remember how he appeared during the day?

He was a cloud over them.

He was their shade. 

Don’t fear our God. Come to him. This is comfort. This is life. This is strength. He’ll never be further away than you can reach with your right hand, the Psalmist said. 

Relief? None better. It’s not the luxury of modern-day air conditioning, but that’s one of the lessons you can only find if you actually travel in Israel. Like life, travel in the desert is exceptionally hard. When the shade appears, you’ll find it. And you’ll thank God for it.

Is life difficult today? Find the shade. Rest there. Find your shade-providing God, and you’ll find joy for your journey, wherever you are.

Want to travel in Israel with Pastor Andy Cook? Visit experienceisraelnow.com, where you’ll also find resources you can use right now so uncover more secrets from the ancient paths.

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The Far Country: Closer than you think!


Bet She’an’s amazing beauty is just a short distance from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee.

Every time I travel to Israel, I do my best to spend a little time in Bet She’an.

Amazing place. Even after all these centuries, it’s obvious that Bet She’an was one of the best little cities Alexander the Great planted in the Middle East roughly 2,200 years ago.

Thanks to some incredible archeological work, you can still walk the ancient paving stones. You can see evidence of a city water and sewer system. There was a state-of-the-art, picturesque theater cut into a hillside. Strong columns, exquisite in their beauty, were everywhere. As one of the Greek cities of the Decapolis, Bet She’an would have also been home to a gymnasium, temples to pagan gods, and a way of life that was shockingly different from religious Judaism.

When I take travelers there, I like to explain it as an ancient version of Las Vegas. It was, indeed, a place where all that was forbidden in the Bible was suddenly available. Bet She’an may not have been the wildest little city in the Decapolis, but to the ultra conservative Jews scattered all around the Galilee, it was shockingly wicked. To those who visited the place? Let’s just say, “What happens in Bet She’an, stays in Bet She’an.”

The rabbis had a name for cities in the Decapolis. The lifestyle was so different there, so contrary and foreign to the way of life called for in Scripture, they called it “the Far Country.” We might say, “It’s a different world.” And that’s the idea.

When Jesus told a story one day of the younger of two sons rebelling against his father and going to “a far country,” every listener knew exactly what he was saying.

The boy didn’t need a passport, didn’t need a long train ride, and didn’t even need a lot of time. If forbidden sex was what he wanted, he could have been holding a prostitute by nightfall.

It was just that close to the “Far Country.”

The first time I heard that tidbit, it blew me away. Two thoughts soon followed.

First, if you thought it was a short distance to the wrong places 2,000 years ago, check out how fast you can get there today! Instead of a day’s walk, we can be in “the Far Country” in a matter of seconds. Even micro-seconds.

And second, when that young man decided to come back home … he wasn’t that far away. Indeed, he came home. Have you?

Want to find more secrets from the ancient paths or travel to Israel with Pastor Andy Cook? Check out experienceisraelnow.com.

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The Difficult Paths

hikers in wilderness

Click on the photo for a 60-second look at the Judean Wilderness.

Take a moment and think of some people in the Bible who spent time in the wilderness. Moses, Elijah, and David are three that quickly come to mind. John the Baptist came out of the harsh Judean Wilderness and did a lot of his preaching there. Of course, Jesus spent forty very difficult days there as he began his ministry.

Want to really connect with these wilderness dwellers? Search the Internet for photographs of the Judean Wilderness, or the NegevDesert. In a few seconds you’ll be confronted with some of the most barren and forbidding landscape you’ve ever seen. Even with millions of people living in tiny Israel today, hardly anyone lives in the Negev, which covers more than half of Israel’s land area! And no one lives in the Judean Wilderness.

The best way to connect, of course, is to travel to Israel and to walk these ancient paths yourself.

Every time I’m there, I’m taken by the harsh difficulty of the place. Loose rocks cover the ground as far as the eye can see. Shrub-like trees provide the only shade against the sun’s unrelenting heat. Great canyons cut the landscape and offer a constant reminder of dangerous wadi floods. When the floods come, they will come without warning, and without mercy. Every year, it seems, people lose their lives in the flash floods of the wilderness.

No wonder the population of Israel is jammed in the northern half of the country. The southern half is simply too harsh of a place for most people to live.

It has been said that God gave the Promised Land to his people, but that he kept the wilderness for himself. And anytime God wanted to do something great with a person, he took that person to the hard places. If you can learn how to live in the wilderness, depending completely upon God for your survival, then God can use you for his purposes anywhere.

Ever been to a really hard place? One of those wilderness places?

You might even be there now.

If not, the unexpected, unpleasant journey into hard places might come tomorrow.

Whenever it happens, if you find yourself in the wilderness, in some kind of horrible, confusing maze of life—don’t forget the lesson of Jeremiah 6:16.

Stop. Look around. Ask for help. Ask for the ancient path, the good way. When you find the way, walk there. Don’t worry if most of the crowd is going in another direction.

Follow Jesus alone. Even if he takes you into the hard places, it is there and there alone that you’ll find the rest you’re longing for today.

Want to find more secrets from the ancient paths or even travel to Israel with Pastor Andy Cook? Check out experienceisraelnow.com. Want to spend 60 seconds in the Judean Wilderness right now? Watch this video.

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Snake protection: Take your light!

Your word is a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path. – Psalm 119:105

A few years back, we lived in the heart of rattlesnake country.

I don’t like rattlesnakes.

I only ran into a few snakes while we lived with them, but not a day went by when I wasn’t keeping an eye out for one. You know the old saying? The snake might not hurt you, but if you see a snake, you might very well hurt yourself!

One night, I needed to walk across the street to see a neighbor. It was a short walk. It was a nice night.

Sure wish I’d taken a flashlight.

The moon was offering some light, but not enough. The shadows on the ground, on the sidewalk … they all seemed to be potential threats. And one of the sidewalk cracks seemed to be especially large. Just to be sure, I stepped out into the street and made the rest of the journey to my neighbor’s home from there. With every step the fear-factor increased.

On my way back, I was kicking myself for not bringing a flashlight. I had one. It had fresh batteries. I simply hadn’t taken it with me. Now I was looking left, looking right, seeing only shadows, sidewalk cracks and …

… And the big “crack” on the sidewalk, the one in front of my house? It was gone.

By the time I got inside, my heart was pounding and I was scrambling for the flashlight. And a hoe. But whatever had been on the sidewalk was completely out of sight by the time I arrived for the hunt, and the two of us never crossed paths again.

I also never went outside again without a flashlight!

A flashlight in the country might save your life. At the very least, it will give you a sense of security. To use a Bible word, I was very foolish for not having a little light with me. It would have made all the difference on my walk in the dark!

In the heart of the Bible comes this word:

“Your word is a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path.” – Psalm 119:105

There are times when the smallest of lights will provide the greatest help. God’s Word can help us through the “dark” times. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing I have. Right when you need it most, a single Bible verse brings clarity, hope, direction, guidance … it’s amazing.

But there’s more to this verse than a flashlight shining on the truth. There’s also daylight.

In all my days of poking around the woods, I’ve never used a flashlight during daylight hours. What good would a flashlight be when the sun is shining?

God’s word is, indeed a “lamp” for my feet. We’ve got that image. We know about flashlights in the darkness. But the other side? The “light for my path?” That’s sunlight. Yes, the Bible can give you a single thought that can give you peace in a very dark time. But the Bible also gives great rules for living that need no small lights to help us see them.

“Thou shalt not murder, steal or covet?” That’s not “flashlight” truth. My mom used to say it like this … “Some things are as plain as day.”

In your Bible is the kind of help you’ll need during the dark hours. And in that same Bible is instruction for life that needs no other explanation. Either way, don’t try life without the Light.

Want to find more secrets from the ancient paths or travel to Israel with Pastor Andy Cook? Check out experienceisraelnow.com.

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My Top Ten Tips for touring Israel

After several years of traveling to Israel, I’ve learned a few things along the way about maxing out on the best trip you’ll ever take. Got a trip planned to the land of the Bible? Here’s my Top Ten list for how to get the most out of your next trip to Israel!

1. Relax. The one question I have to answer, over and over again, is perhaps the most important one. “Is it safe to go to Israel?” And the answer? Absolutely. Nine million people live, work and play in Israel, and security is a paramount concern. It is not a war zone. Let’s put it this way. There are probably places in your hometown that are a lot more dangerous than the places tourists frequent in Israel. And if something happens that causes a security concern? This is a country that knows how to deal with challenges quickly and efficiently. Tourists who return to the USA with me usually speak of how foolish they feel at thinking they were stepping into a dangerous land. There are no guarantees with anything in life, but I’ve taken my wife, my daughters, and even my son-in-law while his wife – our oldest daughter – was expecting their first child. If it weren’t a safe trip, I wouldn’t go myself, and I wouldn’t invite you to go with me.

It’s never too far off the beaten path to adventure in Israel. This EIN group is descending beautiful Mt. Arbel, overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

2. Pack lightly. Add up the luggage fees the airlines are going to charge you. That second big bag? It will cost you $50 to $100. That’s $50 to $100 you could use for laundry services at any of your hotels. Better yet, it’s an opportunity to buy and wear that souvenir shirt you wanted!

3. Forget the extra suitcase of food. You’re going to be well fed in Israel. Some of the food is different, but you’re bound to find plenty you’ll like. When it’s in season, the fruit you’ll find in Israel is the best in the world. Worst case scenario? For two weeks, man can live on bread alone!

4. Look down. When you’re touring an ancient site like Caesarea or Megiddo, you’re often walking on broken pottery. You’ll assume you’re walking on tiny rocks. But take a closer look and you’ll see the ridges and the other confirmations that you’re walking on history!

5. Get off the bus. The traveler who maximizes his or her trip to Israel will use every minute to explore the land. Most tour groups break for a long lunch. If you’re up to the adventure, munch on an apple and some crackers, and spend that lunch hour walking around the area. This is the land of the Bible! Don’t waste all day in a cafeteria … and by all means, be back at the bus when it’s time to get back on the road! Never hold up your group! Our EIN groups are often in remote areas around lunchtime, which is why we plan on picnics. It saves time, it’s good food, and it reminds us the times when Jesus turned a boy’s lunchbox into a feast for thousands.


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The perfect wedding

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. – John 2:6

A wedding is one of the most wonderful celebrations a family will ever know. We’ve been there. With three daughters, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I’d walk a beautiful bride down the aisle.

The preparations for that day were pretty intense. By the time the big day arrived, I wondered if all the stress over all the details was worth the trouble. But by the end of the day, I realized it had been one of the most important days of our family’s story. There was joy, hope, and a wonderful spirit surrounding the entire event.

And one more thing. Everyone who came to our wedding … was clean.

I know, that’s not even necessary. You knew that, instinctively. There are some events that seem to require that everyone involved be scrubbed and shined, pressed and ruffled, combed, brushed and wrinkle-free.

Weddings are a big deal. When Jesus attended a wedding in Cana, the same principles held true. People did not simply rush in from the fields, from the cattle barn, or from the auto repair shop and take a seat. They prepared.

And even as they arrived for the big event, they washed again.

The famous part of the wedding in John 2 deals with a shortage of wine for the big wedding party. As you certainly know, Jesus turned water into wine and saved the day for a nameless couple.

But did you notice which water he used?

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. – John 2:6

Jesus had the servants fill those jars with water – to the very brim – and it was this water he had turned into wine.

And I’m thinking, all of it? That’s a lot of wine! If you multiply six times 20, or 30, and go somewhere in between the two numbers, that’s more wine than a Baptist preacher will see in his entire life!

John calls the entire event a “sign,” so look at the symbolism.

When people arrived for this wedding, they had washed their hands in these jars. They did so to show God that they were coming to this event with “clean hands and a pure heart,” just as Psalm 24 had instructed them. The water in these jars wasn’t bath water. It was holy water.

In time, Jesus would use wine as a symbol for his blood. Communion is a constant reminder of this for Christians.

Water intended for religious cleansing is turned into wine, which will represent the blood of Jesus, which provides ultimate cleansing.

And the pots? They were stone. Had the family chosen clay pots, the vessels could have been used only once for spiritual cleansing. That was the rule of the day. When it comes to spiritual purposes, stone can be used over and over. Clay vessels can be use for religious purposes only once.

The Bible speaks of our bodies has being “jars of clay,” by the way. You get just one shot at spiritual cleansing, too.

Six huge jars that can be used over and over again for spiritual cleansing? There was enough water in this scene … to cleanse the world!

And one more thing. There were six of the stone jars. Seven has a tradition of being the “perfect” number. So six is one short of “perfection.”

John’s message? Perfection had just walked through the door! Without Jesus, the wedding was in trouble. With Jesus, the day was saved. The wedding was … perfected.

Jesus’ first miracle was an extravagant gift for a nameless couple in the middle of nowhere. The next one could be just as extravagant.

But the next one … might be for you.

Want to travel to Israel with Pastor Andy Cook or connect with his resources for those who can’t make the trip? Check out experienceisraelnow.com.

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Baptism isn’t new!

Baptism isn’t new!

Who may stand in His Holy Place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart. – Psalm 24:3-4

As a Baptist pastor, I’ve done a lot of baptisms. Some have come with groups I’ve taken to Israel. Most have been thousands of miles away from the Jordan River.

Our baptisms? We don’t sprinkle. We get the full-deal, soaking wet, splash-the-choir kind of baptisms. Baptisms are incredible experiences, and fabulous symbolism. And it’s something Jesus asked us to do.

So Jesus invented baptism … didn’t he?

Not by a long shot.

It wasn’t until I traveled to Israel that I put this piece of the puzzle into its proper place. Baptism was already going on long before Jesus lived.

Remember John, the baptizer? When he was preaching, all the people who came to him seemed to know exactly what to do. They needed no instruction. There was no introduction about the symbolism because no introduction was needed. They already knew about the symbolic purposes of going under the water.

It’s a very “Jewish” thing to use water as a symbol. Remember when Pilate tried to communicate his own innocence with his Jewish crowd by washing his hands? He knew they’d understand.

Travel to Jerusalem today, and you’ll find hard evidence of this. When I take groups to Israel, we always plan a stop near the southwestern corner or the Temple Mount. Within sight of the famous “Western Wall” are several excavated “micvahs.” They date to the First Century, which is exactly when Jesus lived.

A micvah is a place of water baptism. Not for Christians. For Jews!

A micvah has steps leading down into a small pit, a place to sit at the bottom, and a dividing wall. The idea is to go down one side of the steps into the micvah, getting chest-deep in the water, to wait for a while, and then to come up on the other side.


Go in dirty.

Come out clean.

Clean on the outside, clean on the inside. When a man or woman went through this ritual cleansing, there would be a time of prayer and commitment. Sin would be confessed. If he did it right, he’d stay until he felt right with God. If she took it seriously, she’d remain until she felt she had come completely clean.

Why? The Bible had recorded the answer centuries before.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place? (Psalm 24:3)

That’s a good question. Who, knowing all that is wrong with us, can possibly approach a God so creative, so powerful, and so holy? The same scripture has the answer:

The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.  (Psalm 24:4)

And so, people washed. They washed their hands as a form of spiritual cleansing. Remember the wedding in Cana, recorded for us in John 2? The six big jars of water were there for the “ceremonial cleansing of the Jews!” It was a ritual of worship! The synagogues had micvahs. Some wealthy homes had them. The wedding John tells us about – when Jesus turned water into wine – had six large stone jars for ritual cleansing. In fact, it was this water that Jesus turned into wine!

Ceremonial washing is very important. It still happens. If you’ve been baptized, you know the thrill. If not, there’s water waiting!

Want to find more secrets from the ancient paths or travel to Israel with Pastor Andy Cook? Check out experienceisraelnow.com. Want to see a video about this subject? Click here!

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The Third-Day Wedding

“On the third day, there was a wedding in Cana …” John 2:1

It might be the most famous miracle in world history.

That’s so ironic. It really wasn’t even all that important. This miracle dealt with nothing more than providing refreshments at a party! Still, it would be hard to find a person who hasn’t heard that Jesus once turned water into wine. Travel to Israel, and you might even be invited to buy some wine near the place where this story took place.

But there is more to this miracle than first meets the wine glass. John, the young disciple who recorded the story for us, calls it a “sign.” This miracle, apparently, is supposed to tell us something. Like a sign on the road, it’ll give us key information. Direction. Help. As it was for the guests at that wedding, it might even refresh us!

You know the story, I’m sure. Jesus and his disciples, plus his mother and a host of friends from the community, were invited to a wedding in Cana. The unnamed couple enjoying the wedding party had no idea that they’d run out of wine, but the mother of Jesus knew, and she knew Jesus could do something about it.

Indeed, he could. And he did. The wedding was saved, the wine flowed, and the servants who knew they’d drawn nothing but water from a place of hand-washing were stunned.
Flabbergasted. Speechless. Nothing short of a miracle!

There’s so much going on in this story, it’s hard to know where to start. So perhaps a good thought for today is to notice the most unnoticed detail in the entire story.

This wedding, says John, came “on the third day.”

Third day? Third day after the previous story? Third day of the ministry?

Or was it the third day of the week?

As a non-Jewish American, this one slips right past me. When we have weddings, more often than not, I’m reserving a Saturday for the big day. As we count days of the week, that would be the “seventh day.” There’s no law that says it has to happen then, but more often than not, that’s the day of weddings.

But in Jewish life, the third day is the day. Not by law. By tradition.

Sunday. Monday. Tuesday.

So this wedding took place on … Monday night?

Almost certainly, that’s the detail in the first sentence of the story. In Jewish life, a day begins at sundown. And more than likely, this wedding took place at the beginning of the third day. That would be Monday night.

But why? Why does a day begin at sundown? And why so many weddings on Tuesday … which begins on Monday?

If you have a question for the text, says a favorite teacher of mine, just ask the text. This answer comes in Genesis 1.

For every day of creation, the record goes like this: “It was evening and it was morning, the first day.” “It was evening and it was morning, the second day.” To Jews reading the text, it seemed to be a pattern. If God was going to start a day at sundown, so would they.
And so it is to this day, evening first, and then morning. One trip to Israel and you’ll get the hang of it. Sundown is the key event. Not sunrise.

Back to the wedding. Why so many weddings on the third day, then and now?

That’s another question for the text. And again, the answer comes from Genesis 1. It turns out that when God created the third day, something special happened. While every other day ends with the famous commentary that God looked around and “saw that it was good,” the third day is a little different. The third day gets two declarations that “it was good.”

And thus the third day of creation goes down as the day of double blessing.

Who wouldn’t want to be married on the day of double blessing?

My wife and I were in Israel a few years back, and our anniversary fell on a Tuesday, the third day of the week. We also happened to visit Cana that day. Our Jewish guide acted like it was the most wonderful thing she’d ever seen. Here we were, she said, “on Tuesday!” She knew what we did not know. Weddings often still take place on Monday nights – the beginning of the third day – in Israel today. I even stumbled in on one a few years later in a Jerusalem hotel. It seemed so strange … a big, expensive wedding on Monday night. Didn’t they know about the football game?

Maybe the better question: Why didn’t we know about the day of double blessing?

Want to find more secrets from the ancient paths or even travel to Israel yourself? Check out experienceisraelnow.com.

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