Report From Israel
February 18th, 1973 @ 7:30 PM
REPORT FROM ISRAEL
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2-18-73 7:30 p.m.
On the radio of the city of Dallas you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church. The message tonight concerns Mount Sinai. As some of you know, the last two weeks we have been with a group in Israel, and upon a day, while the others were touring some of the holy and sacred places in that Holy land, I took advantage of an opportunity to make a journey that I never thought I would have the privilege to make. I went down to Mount Sinai, where Moses stood, and Elijah stood, and lived through once again some of the most marvelous innovations of God in human history.
The plane left Tel Aviv, Archea Airlines, an internal airline in Israel, and though I had been introduced to security measures here in the United States, I never went through any such thing as the security precautions they have there in Israel. They took my camera. They had me open it and take out the film. They had me click it and take a picture, then they confiscated it, took it away from me and said, “You can find it returned to you when you arrive at your destination.”
Then they took every little piece of everything that I had and carefully examined it. And when I asked the officer why such unusual and meticulous precaution, he said to me, “It is not that we suspect you.” I look like a good and honest man I am sure. “It is not that we suspect you, but without your knowing it somebody may slip something in your pocket, like a little fountain pen or ballpoint pen or some little something and on the plane it will explode and destroy you and your fellow passengers.”
So they not only went through everything that I possessed outwardly, but they went through everything that I possessed inwardly. They went all through me from top to bottom, and making security we entered that little plane and started off. And for the first time I saw the inward part of Palestine from the air. The flight from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and then skirting the Dead Sea, on down to the end of the Sinaiatic Peninsula, and plainly and visibly and impressively I could see what in geology is known as the Great Rift. And it was doubly meaningful to me to look at it there in Israel because I had followed it for thousands of miles in Eastern Africa.
Sometime in the geological ages past, in the millions and millions of years of the long ago, there was a great split in the crust of the earth. It starts up there in the north in Syria and in Lebanon. At one time the Lebanese range was one great range of mountains, but that vast, geological split divided the Lebanese mountains into the Lebanese and anti-Lebanese. And there’s a great valley between them, and that rift comes down and it makes the Sea of Galilee. Then it follows down and makes the Jordan Valley. It continues down and makes the Dead Sea. It continues down and down, the mountains of Edom on one side and the mountains of Saudi Arabia on the other side and the Negev of Israel and the mountains of Sinaiatic peninsula on the other side. And that rift goes down and down and it makes the Sea of Aqaba or the Sea of Eilat. And it goes down and down and it makes the Red Sea and it goes down and down through Africa and those great lakes in eastern Africa are in that rift such as Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, Lake Nasser or Malawi, that rift goes down and down and when it gets to the end of South Africa it was so deep and large that Madagascar island was separated from the mainland and became isolated to this day.
That rift is just so many feet and so many miles wide and it is easily discernible all the way to the end of Africa. And in that rift is Galilee, the Jordan, the Dead Sea, following on down to the Sea of Aqaba. When we came to Aqaba, Aqaba an arm of the Red Sea that goes northward, it suddenly stops.
Usually, an ocean will have a jagged indentation as it comes inland, but not Aqaba. It stops suddenly just as though you had dammed it, had built a human dam across the head of it. And on that side is Aqaba that belongs to Jordan, and on this side is Eilat that belongs to Israel, and they are right there together. And not only can you see that great rift in the crust of the earth, but you also see it visibly in the human relationship between the Arab and the Jew.
Aqaba is right there, and Eilat is right here, and the ships of Jordan are right there, and the ships of Israel are right here, and they are almost side-by-side, so small is that gulf—about three miles wide. The ships of Israel are filled with oil. Great oil tankers come there from the Persian Gulf, and they discharge their heavy cargo, and it is pumped across the Sinaitic peninsula to Ashqelon on the other side on the Mediterranean.
And that rift is seen in two parallel roads that you can follow for miles and miles through desert. This road, the one right there, and from the plane it’s just right there. This road goes from Aqaba to Amman and is in Arabic Jordan. And this road goes from Eilat to Tel Aviv and in Israel. And between those two roads, in that burning desert, is the demarcation line between the Arabic nation of Jordan and the Jewish nation of Israel.
We followed Aqaba on down to the Red Sea, and at the end of Aqaba, the Sea of Aqaba, the arm of Aqaba where it becomes a part of the Red Sea, there is a strait, the entrance from the Red Sea into Aqaba, and those are called the Straits of Tehran. They’re only eight hundred yards wide—just a little narrow passage through which the ships can come from the world up to Eilat or up to Aqaba. And the guns that are stationed there control those straits.
That is the place where in 1956 Nasser started the war with Israel by blocking those straits. And in that same place in 1967, the second war of Nasser began by blocking those straits. I took pictures of all this that I hope to show to our people sometime, and I took pictures of those two guns.
Isn’t it remarkable that a whole ocean could be blocked off with two guns. I took pictures of those two guns, now destroyed, that the Egyptians used to blockade the Tehran Straits, to make it impossible for the ships of Israel to go through.
And after 1956, a United Nations commission was stationed there at Tehran. But under the covenant of the United Nations, when a commission from the United Nations, from the UN is asked to leave, they are under obligation to leave. So when Nasser asked the UN Commission to leave in 1967, of necessity they left, and it was the signal for Nasser to begin the war by the blockade there in Tehran.
As the plane followed down that rift and so made its way to the range of Sinai, we got out of the plane. I was so sorry that I could not take pictures of that rugged country. And then there was a forty minute bus ride from the landing strip in the range of mountains up to Mount Sinai and the monastery of St. Catherine’s built at the foot of that jagged peak.
And as I looked at the country, and several times the bus stopped in order for us to walk around and take pictures of it—as I looked at the country, I thought this is exactly like the surface of the moon—those great jagged, jagged, jagged peaks made out of solid rock, and the valleys made out of rock, and the great boulders strewn everywhere, and not a living thing in sight. It is barren, blistered, burned, empty, awesome, terrible. As I looked at the land I cannot imagine a more impossible feat than that Moses could take over two million Israelites, maybe three million Israelites, out of Egypt and for forty years exist in that barren place [Deuteronomy 29:5]. Where did they find food? Where did they find water? Surely it was the providential care of God in sending manna [Exodus 16:12-18], and the providential care of God in making water pour out of those barren boulders that sustained God’s people in that burning oven [Exodus 17:1-6].
As I said, I could think of the surface of the moon looking exactly like the mountains of the peninsula of Sinai. So barren is that valley that the bodies of the monks of St. Catherine, a monastery that has been there at the foot of the mountain for a thousand five hundred years, so barren is the plain and so barren is the soil that the monks are buried in a little enclosure, in a garden, and then after two years their bodies are dug up and their skulls and their bones are carefully placed in the charnel house in the monastery in order for to give room to the other monks who die and are buried in that same place. And that charnel house is filled with thousands of skulls and tens of thousands of human bones.
And I asked one of the monks, “Why do you not leave your dead buried?” And his answer was, “There is not soil here in which to bury the dead, but in the little enclosure of the garden, we bury the monk. And then, after two years, he is exhumed and his skeleton carefully placed in the charnel house.”
That is almost unthinkable to me in itself, that there is not soil in that country, not enough to bury the dead. It is a rocky and barren and jagged and awesome place. As I stood there and looked at those jagged peaks, and that Mount Sinai that at one time thundered with the presence of God and burned in fury with the word of the Lord:
And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow . . .
And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai.
And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall surely be put to death:
There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: and when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount . . .
And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.
And Moses went forth from the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.
And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.
And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.
[Exodus 19:10-13, 16-19]
And Moses went up into that awesome mountain and there received from God’s hand Himself the two tables of stone [Exodus 31:18]. Ah, what an awesome place and what an awesome sight, Mount Sinai!
Then again, Mount Sinai was visited by the prophet Elijah after his conquest and triumph on Mount Carmel [1 Kings 18:17-40]. And after his defeat at the hands of Jezebel, in discouragement and despair Elijah fled from the face of the queen of Israel, and coming to the Negev to Beersheba, he sat down under a juniper tree and asked that he might die [1 Kings 19:1-4]. But the Lord appeared to him with an angel, and said, “Eat and drink for strength for the journey that abides” [1 Kings 19:5-7]. And in the power and strength of that food, he journeyed forty days and so came to that same Mount Sinai and finding a cave in that jagged, jagged ascension, God visited Elijah [1 Kings 19:8-12].
First, there was a mighty wind that shook the rocks and break them in pieces, a wind from heaven, but God did not speak in the wind [1 Kings 19:11]. Then, as the prophet stood on Mount Sinai, there was a great earthquake and the mountain shook, but God did not speak in the mighty trembling quake [1 Kings 19:11]. Then there was a fire, a flaming fury and a mountain burned, but God did not speak in the fire [1 Kings 19:12].
And after the wind, and after the quake, and after the flaming conflagration, there was a vast stillness, and in the quietness of that awesome hour the voice of God was heard, and Elijah covered his face with a mantle and bowed in the presence of the Lord [1 Kings 19:12-13], as Moses before him, standing in the presence of the burning bush, had unloosed his shoes and listened to the voice of God [Exodus 3:1-10]. Oh, what an awesome place, is that holy, jagged, serene, and awesome mount!
Now what does it mean for the Christian? Oh, so much! For one thing, one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time was made by Count Tischendorf in the monastery built at the base of that rugged and jagged and awesome mountain. About one thousand five hundred years ago, the Greek Orthodox Church built a monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai and in itself is an awesome thing. The only way it could be entered in the years past was a lift, a bucket, was let down and you put in that bucket the purpose of your coming. Then it was pulled up to the height of that great stone wall, and then, if the monk or the abbot so acquiesced, the bucket, the lift was lowered and you got in it and it was pulled up.
There was no access to that monastery where it was built in a rugged place. It was framed there for pilgrims, and because it became a resting place for the Mohammedan pilgrim to Mecca, in the library of the monastery is a large, long letter from Mohammed making it a sacred place. There is a letter there from Napoleon Bonaparte, setting aside, setting it aside from destruction. And there is a letter there from Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel, making it a sacred place. And that is why in the bitter onslaught of the Mohammedans in 622 AD, that the monastery and its church were left without destruction. It’s a sacred place in the eyes of all humankind.
But especially it is of interest to us because Tischendorf, Count Tischendorf, who was a scholar, a textual critic, seeking manuscripts of the New Testament, there in 1844 coming to the monastery at St. Catherine at the base of Mount Sinai, he saw in a wastebasket where the monks were using the leaves of a manuscript to start the fire. He saw what could be a precious copy of the Word of God and he was able to take from the basket about forty-three leaves. And talking to the monks, they said to him that this is a part of many, many other leaves, but he could not find the rest of the book. And then 1859, coming back again with the commission from the czar of Russia who is the titular head of the Greek Orthodox church, he gained easy access to the monastery and sought that manuscript, but he could not find it.
And in despair upon leaving, a monk asked him into his cell for refreshments, and while they were there, Tischendorf and the monk, the monk brought out of his cell a manuscript wrapped in a red cloth. And when he unwrapped it, Tischendorf immediately recognized that it was the remainder of the leaves of the book that he’d seen in 1844, the leaves of which were being used to start the fires. He took the manuscript. It’s the only ancient codex, the only ancient manuscript in the world that has in it the entire New Testament. He brought it back and presented it to the czar. He called it Codex Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And it is the basis of textual criticism for the true words of the New Testament.
In 1933, the Russian government sold that manuscript to the British Museum for $500,000, and I have seen it there in the British Museum, the most prized of all the Christian possessions in the earth, that early first manuscript of the entire New Testament. Ah, what God has done! And it happened there in that monastery. I went to the library where Tischendorf found that manuscript. And there are many, many manuscripts still there—ancient books, kept sacred and inviolate by those Greek Orthodox monks.
But what else does Mount Sinai mean to the Christian? It is used as a type of the contrast between the condemnation of the law and the grace that we find in the love and sacrifice of Christ on Mount Calvary.
I sought out two places here in the New Testament where Mount Sinai is contrasted with Mount Calvary. “Tell me,” Paul writes to the Galatians in the fourth chapter of his letter:
Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law—
that is, to obey laws in order to be saved—
do you not hear the law?
For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid—
and the other by the freewoman—Sarah.
But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he who was of the freewoman was by promise.
Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar.
For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, which is in bondage with her children.
But Jerusalem which is from above is free, which is the mother of us all.
Sinai came, in the Christian message, to represent the law and the judgment of God upon those who disobey His commandments [2 Corinthians 3:6]. And not one of us, the apostle says, is able to keep those commandments [Romans 3:23]. We all fall short of the expectation and the glory of God, but the grace we have in Christ delivers us from the bondage of the law [Ephesians 2:8]. And we find in the atoning blood of our Lord the forgiveness of our sins [Ephesians 1:7].
This is what Paul writes in the Galatian letter. Now this is what the author of Hebrews writes contrasting Sinai and Mount Calvary:
For you are not come unto the mount that might be touched, that was right there and that burned with fire, and with blackness, and darkness, and tempest,
And the sound of the trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice David heard and entreated the words should not be spoken to them any more:
For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touched the mountain, it was stoned, or thrust through with a dart:
And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake.
This is Mount Sinai, and the terrible judgments of God upon those who break His law. It burns with fire. It is curious to listen to. It is awesome in sound. It is death in judgment, Mount Sinai:
But ye, ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
And to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.
Sinai in its awesomeness, Sinai in its grandeur, Sinai in its jagged and rugged peaks, sharp, jagged Sinai, intense—Sinai represents the demands of Almighty God. “Do this and thou shalt live [Luke 10:28]. Disobey this and thou shalt surely die” [Hebrews 10:28]. And if man or beast just touch the mount, he was to be stoned or thrust through with a dart [Exodus 19:12-13; Hebrews 12:20]. Sinai is the law of God and the judgment of God upon us [Romans 3:19-20]. And the law says, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the law” [Deuteronomy 27:26; Galatians 3:10]. If I break one part of it, I am lost. My soul is damned.
And who could keep the perfect law of God? All of us fall short. All of us transgress in some ways [Romans 3:23]. There is none righteous and perfect—no, not one [Romans 3:10]. And the dark, thundering, fiery judgments of Sinai fall upon us. The law of God condemns us and we die [Ezekiel 18:4].
And in contrast, the Lord leaves before us in the Holy Word and in the revelation, the mount called Calvary [Luke 23:33-34]. It is by a city where we live. It is approachable. You can touch it. It speaks of the love and mercy and forgiveness of God. It has on it a cross. And the One who is dying on that cross is our friend and our Savior [Luke 23:26-46].
The golden sun, the silvery moon,
And all the stars that shine
Were made by His omnipotent hand
And He is a friend of mine.
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
To head the victorious line,
We shall kneel at His dear, blessed feet,
For He is a friend of mine.
[“He Is A Friend of Mine,” John H. Sammis]
For you are not come unto Mount Sinai . . . that burned with fire—and the word so often even that Moses said,
I do exceedingly quake in fear.
But you have come unto Mount Sinai—unto Mount Zion, to the New Jerusalem . . . to the church of the firstborn, to the innumerable assembly of angels,
To the spirits of just men made perfect,
And to Jesus, the Mediator of a new covenant,
[Hebrews 12:18, 21-24]
whose blood speaks not of judgment and of wrath but of mercy and forgiveness and salvation [Hebrews 12:24]. Oh, how sweet and how dear the gospel of the blessed, Holy Lord Jesus! And that’s God invitation tonight. Come, come, come!
In a moment we sing our song of appeal and while we sing it, you, does God speak to you? Make the decision to answer with your life [Romans 10:8-13], and come now. In the balcony round, a one somebody you, or a family you, or a couple you; on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, “Pastor, tonight I make that decision and I’m coming.” Do it now, respond now, walk down that stairway now; into the aisle now; do it now, come now, while we stand and while we sing.