Dr. Thomas McCall, the Senior Theologian of our ministry, has written many articles for the Levitt Letter. He holds a Th.M. in Old Testament studies and a Th.D. in Semitic languages and Old Testament. He has served as Zola’s co-author, mentor, pastor, and friend for nearly 30 years.
Part 1 — this article first appeared in the June 1996 Levitt Letter.
Last year  Zola was given an award by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for bringing 50 tour groups to Israel over a number of decades. This means that several thousands of viewers of the TV program have accompanied him to see the wonders of Israel and the other lands of the Bible. As many as this is, we realize it is only a small fraction of the millions of people who see the program weekly and receive the Levitt Letter.
There must be many readers, then, who wonder what a tour with Zola is like. What do you see? What do you learn? It has been my privilege to serve as a Tour Leader and Bible teacher on several of Zola’s tours, including the most recent Spring Grand Tour, in which we travelled through Greece as well as Israel. I would like to tell you something about what it is like to be on such a tour.
The pilgrims themselves are special. The people who take this tour are from all sections of the country, and many are faithful watchers of the Zola Levitt Presents TV program. They love the Lord Jesus Christ, they love the Word of God, they love the fellowship of the redeemed Church, and they love the nation Israel. Although most are strangers to one another when the tour begins, many life-long friendships have been formed as a result of these like-minded people being in the Holy Land together on this one-of-a-kind trip.
There is a strong emphasis on Bible teaching. Strange as it may seem, it is possible to visit the Bible lands, including Israel, without getting much information about or insight into the Bible. On Zola’s tours, there are frequent lectures in the hotels and at the sites on location to keep the pilgrims fully informed of the biblical history and prophecy related to the places they will visit on a given day. Emphasis is given to both the places “where Jesus walked” (along with the prophets and apostles of old), and where Jesus will walk again when He returns to rule the world from Jerusalem with His saints. Few pilgrims ever forget the stirring moments of the visit to the Garden Tomb, where we observe the Lord’s Supper and celebrate His resurrection from the grave.
Zola uses Messianic Israeli guides. Guides make all the difference in the world in how a place is understood and perceived. The featured guides on Zola’s tours are two Sabras (native Israelis) who are believers in Christ and are in the forefront of the remarkable Messianic Jewish movement in Israel today. Yossi is a retired Colonel of the Israeli Army, spent some time in the U.S. training on military bases here, speaks five languages, and is a veteran of the numerous wars Israel has gone through for survival. Zvi is also a veteran tank commander of the 1967 and 1973 wars, who saw action in the Sinai Desert and the Golan Heights. These men know the Land of Israel like the backs of their hands, and are able to share great insights as representatives of the revived “mother church” of Israel.
Special features usually included in Zola’s tours are lectures from outstanding military and political figures, such as representatives from the Israeli Army and writers from the renowned Jerusalem Post. Our pilgrims come away with in-depth exposure to what is actually going on in the crucible of human history and future prophecy.
The Grand Tour in April included about a week in Greece before we joined the Basic Tour in Israel. Some 39 of us met at the International Building at JFK Airport in New York, and departed for the 10-hour flight to Athens, Greece, where we arrived in mid-afternoon. After having a lecture about the biblical sites we would visit on the upcoming cruise, we rested that night in the hotel. The next morning we took the bus to the dock at the port, Piraeus, and boarded the large luxury ship, the Olympic. Making a brief stop at the picturesque fishing island, Mykonos, we sped overnight toward the southeastern Aegean.
We awoke the next morning at the port of Rhodes where stood the great Colossus, one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the world. Our guide, Yossi, took us to the synagogue, where a Jewish woman (a Holocaust survivor) carefully maintains the building, which had been destroyed by the Nazis when they deported the Jews of Rhodes to the death camps of Europe. The synagogue was rebuilt by the British Army and the Jews of British Palestine (as it was then known) shortly after World War II.
The next stop on the cruise was Ephesus, the great ancient city on the mainland of Asia Minor, which is now known as Turkey. The Apostle Paul ministered for at least two years at Ephesus in the synagogue and the School of Tyrannus. Marble streets and buildings, a magnificent library, and the Temple of Diana have been uncovered. The large amphitheater where Demetrius worked up the crowd to shout for hours, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians,” can be seen (Acts 19:28). We sat in this very amphitheater, read the pertinent Scripture, and sang together, “How Great Thou Art.” This seemed to be a good response to the pagan devotees of Diana.
From Ephesus we sailed for Patmos, where John was exiled and received the Book of the Revelation. Patmos is a small and rocky island that now has several thousand inhabitants and boasts a monastery founded in 1088 A.D. atop an 800-foot hill overlooking the Aegean Sea. It is called the “Jerusalem of Greece,” because of its association with the revelation of the Apocalypse. Seeing this island is an unforgettable experience for believers.
The next morning found us back in Athens, where we debarked from the ship and spent the rest of the day touring the ancient city of Pericles, Solon, Socrates and Plato. We visited the stunning Acropolis with the beautiful Parthenon, which contained the statue of the patron goddess Athena. It was in this pagan setting of all the statues and temples that the Apostle Paul came and gave his powerful message of the Creator God who will judge the world to the philosophers on Mars Hill facing the Acropolis (Acts 17). Our people actually climbed to the top of Mars Hill, and viewed the very topography of the Agora (market place), the Acropolis, and the rest of Athens Paul must have seen as he delivered the Gospel there.
On our final day in Greece, we took the bus trip to Corinth, where American archaeologists have uncovered much of the ancient port city, including the Agora with its evidence of a synagogue, the fountains, the Bema (judgment seat), an early church building and the Acrocorinth. It was here that the Apostle Paul labored for over eighteen months along with his business partners, Aquila and Priscilla. We stood before the Bema, or judgment seat, on which the Roman Deputy Gallio heard and dismissed the case brought against Paul for preaching the Gospel in the synagogue and teaching in the house of Titus Justus (Acts 18:12-17). Who can forget these scenes of the spreading of the Gospel of Christ in its infancy, once one has stood in the streets of Corinth?
And then we boarded the plane at Athens to continue our pilgrimage to the heartland of the Gospel and of prophecy, the promised Land of Israel. In our next article, we will review the marvelous places we saw in Galilee, Judea and Jerusalem.
Part 2 — this article first appeared in the July 1996 Levitt Letter.
Imagine waking up one morning and seeing from your hotel balcony the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee! To some tourists this might not seem any more significant than a view of one of the Great Lakes of America or one of the glacial lakes of Switzerland, but to us who believe the Scriptures, this is a wondrous lake indeed. This is that lake where the King of the Jews and the Savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ, spent over three years in the great work of His first coming.
Around this beautiful lake is where He preached the Gospel to the poor, healed the sick of all kinds of diseases, fed huge crowds on the hillsides, raised the dead, walked on the waves, calmed the storm with a quiet sentence, proved His Messiahship in every way, and prepared a fish breakfast for His disciples after His resurrection. No wonder the Sea of Galilee holds such enjoyment for our pilgrims who visit Israel.
For the first part of our tour, home base was the bustling resort city of Tiberias, which rises from the western shore of the Sea of Galilee up the high hills overlooking the panorama below. That first morning we walked from our hotel down to the dock, where we boarded a large boat that took us much of the length of the lake from Tiberias to a kibbutz named Ginnosar on the northwest shore.
One unforgettable experience of the tour was the service held on the boat while we were traversing the lake. Hymns of praise were sung, and Bible teaching was given on the amazing history of the most important lake in the Bible. When I am there, I like to think of the reasons why the Lord Jesus chose the Sea of Galilee as the place where He did most of His work of teaching and preaching during His life on earth:
Zola has often taught on the boat about the appearance of the Galilean disciples. The artwork we are presented with in the West often portrays the disciples as emaciated Europeans. But most of them were fishermen of Galilee. What did they look like? Although the Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the world during the past nineteen centuries, there has always been a Jewish population around the Sea of Galilee. Tiberias, for instance, is where the volumes of the Talmud were compiled in the centuries following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Thus, many of the modern Israelis who man the tourist boats and work the fishing vessels of the lake today are actual descendants of the first-century Galilean fishermen. They are anything but emaciated weaklings. They are bronzed, rugged men who handle their boats with skill, and have a ready, hardy sense of humor. One could well imagine Peter, James and John fitting into their company as their peers before becoming the powerful apostles of the Lord.
Somewhat enthralled by the experience of crossing the Sea of Galilee on the boat, we disembarked at Kibbutz Ginnosar and boarded the buses for our short drive to the ancient town of Capernaum on the north shore. This was actually the headquarters of Jesus’ three-year ministry in Galilee. He taught and healed in the synagogue there on the Sabbath, and He often visited the home of Peter’s mother-in-law. Archaeologists have found the site of the ancient synagogue. Its beautiful columns are from a later period of the second or third century, but it is believed to be standing on the earlier site of the first-century synagogue in which our Lord ministered.
They have also uncovered the remains of a Byzantine church building about a block away, between the synagogue and the lake shore. The church building was enlarged at various stages in history, but it appears to be built on the original foundation of a first-century house. It is thought by many to be the house of Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus taught and healed the sick in that home frequently, sometimes to large crowds that could scarcely be contained in and around the small building.
The Roman Catholics have built an unusual church building over this site. It is suspended on curved concrete stilts, and has a glass floor through which one may look at the ancient remains below. I think it is the only “glass-bottom church” I have ever seen.
Two other events our pilgrims appreciated at the lake were the visit to the Mount of Beatitudes and the baptismal service in the Jordan River. For the first one, we sat down on the hill overlooking the vista of the lake on the north shore, perhaps a couple of miles from Capernaum, and read the first part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Yeshua pronounced His blessing on those who followed Him and sought the righteousness which comes by faith in Him (Matt. 5:3-11). The shape of the hill provides a natural amphitheater, and one can imagine the great crowd that heard the Lord as He delivered that impressive message there.
At the other end of the lake, where the Jordan River empties out toward the south, an Israeli kibbutz has built a remarkable facility so that Christian pilgrims can perform their baptismal services in the Jordan River. The facilities are complete with dressing rooms and seating areas. Believers can witness the baptism of those who go down the concrete ramps into the river for baptism. Who can ever forget such an experience?
It was with some sadness that we boarded the buses to leave the Sea of Galilee after our memorable time there, but as we set our faces toward Jerusalem, we knew that even more meaningful experiences awaited us as we went up, like the ancient pilgrims, to the Holy City, the City of the Great King, to Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the empty Garden Tomb. Our next article will conclude our tour of the Land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Part 3 — this article first appeared in the August 1996 Levitt Letter.
What do you do when you go to Jerusalem? From our youth we have all heard so much about the fabled Holy City that we have a general idea about its most important features. But when you spend four or five days in Jerusalem, what do you see? Those who have been on Zola’s tours say that their stay in Jerusalem was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of their lives. The days are packed full as the bus goes from one site to another. The order in which the sites are seen may vary from one tour to another, but here are some of the significant things you will see if you have the opportunity to go to Jerusalem before the Lord returns.
Jerusalem Holy Land Hotel Model. There is a hotel on the outskirts of western Jerusalem that is devoted to presenting what the city looked like in the first century. They have set aside more than an acre of land to display a scale model of the entire city, including the walls, buildings, homes, pools, palaces, and the Temple Mount. Once pilgrims see this, they have a much better idea of how the sights they see in modern Jerusalem relate to those in existence at the time of Christ and His disciples.
The directors of the model have taken great care to make sure it is as accurate as possible. When a new archaeological discovery is made that clarifies something about the ancient city, teams of workers will go about correcting the model so that it reflects the new information.
Empty Tomb of Christ. A trip to Jerusalem would not be complete without visiting the empty tomb of Christ, along with the nearby site of His crucifixion, Golgotha. The problem is, though, where exactly is the sepulchre? Absolute certainty about the location cannot be given because of the disruptions of the site from the time of the first coming of Christ until the Byzantine period that began some 300 years later. Queen Helena about 325 AD selected the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built as the authentic location of the empty tomb. This ancient church in the Christian Quarter of the Old City is still standing, and is full of the various religious equipment of Roman Catholicism and other Christian sects. With all of this religious decoration, it is difficult to conceive of where the tomb is, or how Golgotha is related to it.
Over 100 years ago, a British army officer, General Gordon, who had a great interest in the Scriptures, felt he had discovered an alternative possibility for the site of the empty tomb. He called it the Garden Tomb. Most of us have seen pictures of this tomb, with the deep channel designed for a large stone to be rolled in front of the door. Also, the nearby hill has what appears to be the shape of a human skull. Some believe that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has more archaeological authenticity, but the Garden Tomb certainly looks more like what the Gospel accounts describe. An unforgettable experience is to visit the Lord’s empty tomb and observe the Lord’s Supper with other believers.
Mount of Olives. Overlooking Jerusalem from the east is the hill called the Mount of Olives. This was the famous vantage point where the Lord brought His disciples to look down upon the Temple and teach them about the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, the still-future Tribulation, and His glorious Second Coming.
On our tour this past April, we took the bus to the top of the Mount of Olives, where a photographer took group photos with the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock in the background. From there we walked down past the extensive Jewish cemeteries (where Orthodox Jews are buried to be close to the site of the resurrection) to the Church of the Tear Drop. This is a Catholic Church building that is built in the shape of a tear drop, because of the account of the Messiah beholding Jerusalem and weeping. It is here that we reflected together on the message of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25.
Working our way on down the hill, we arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane, close to the Kidron Valley, which separates the Mount of Olives from the Temple Mount. The Church of All Nations was built there to commemorate the place where our Lord struggled in prayer shortly before His betrayal and arrest. We never think of the Mount of Olives quite the same after walking from the summit down to its base and looking upon the City of the Great King spread before us.
Temple Mount. The bus then took us to the Old City, in which cars are not allowed and tourists can walk throughout. The focal point in the Old City is the Temple Mount, where the ancient Temples of Solomon and Herod stood successively and the Moslem Dome of the Rock stands today. Massive retaining walls hold up the platform of the Temple Mount, and the most famous of these contains the Western Wall (sometimes known as the Wailing Wall). It is a sobering sight to observe the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Jewish people who gather at the foot of the Western Wall to pray and insert written prayers in the crevices between the stones. On certain days there are also colorful Bar Mitzvah ceremonies at the Wall, as Jewish boys are initiated into Torah observance.
The guides took our group around the corner of the massive retaining walls to the Southern Wall, where the original steps going up to the Huldah gates have been uncovered. The Lord Jesus and His disciples must have walked on these steps as they prepared to enter the Temple of old. From there it is a short walk up to the top of the Temple Mount, where travellers can take off their shoes and enter the Dome of the Rock. The “Rock” is the summit of the Temple Mount. One prominent view is that this rock is the base of the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Seeing all this provides a great opportunity to discuss with the pilgrims the history of the Temple and the layout of the Temple Mount.
Yad Vashem. Leaving the Old City and going westward among the hills and valleys of the new part of Jerusalem, the bus took our group to the Yad Vashem Memorial, which commemorates the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Six-million Jews were killed in death camps during World War II. Hitler was determined to destroy all the Jews he could, and he was equally committed to stopping the creation of the Jewish homeland from coming to pass. One of the saddest times of our mostly joyous visit to Israel was this vivid reminder of the suffering of Israel, not only in our century, but during all the long Diaspora. One of the themes of this museum is that we must never forget what happened during the Holocaust.
Dead Sea Scroll Museum. Close to the Knesset (or Parliament) government buildings is the campus of the University of Jerusalem, where also resides the Israel Museum. One part of the museum is the Shrine of the Book, which houses numerous examples of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Our people were particularly thrilled as they viewed the central column around which is exhibited the entire scroll of Isaiah. This is one of the greatest proofs of the validity of our Old Testament manuscripts, and also of the authenticity of the great prophecy of Isaiah 53, which is clearly visible on the ancient document. One leaves the Shrine of the Book with a strong conviction that God has carefully and faithfully preserved His Word for all these centuries.
Many other places were visited by our tour group while in Jerusalem, including the Arab markets in the Old City and the Promenade Restaurant with its stunning southern view of Jerusalem, as well as trips to Bethlehem, Masada and the Dead Sea. After 10 days of pilgrimage in Israel, our tour group arose early on the morning of departure, and boarded the bus for Ben Gurion Airport for the plane trip home. More than a vacation, more than an educational trip, this pilgrimage was a great spiritual adventure through the Land of the Bible: past, present and future.
See our Israel Slide Show for pictures of some of the sites discussed in this article.