Photos by Mark Finster
One of the most significant developments in the history of The Master’s University was initially met with a collective yawn from the student body.
In 1995, the school launched the Israel Bible Extension (IBEX) campus, a semester-long study-abroad program and an ideal fit for a school committed to Christ and Scripture.
There was only one problem. Few students wanted to go.
In the first year, efforts to market IBEX — including the performance of Israel-themed skits in chapel — made little headway. Then, someone had an idea.
One morning, TMU (then The Master’s College) set up a live phone call with an IBEX student during chapel, broadcasting the girl’s voice across Bross Gym. She burst onto the phone and breathlessly raced through a long list of incredible experiences and new biblical understanding.
In the excitement, her words blended together and sentences ran on, but a theme emerged: You’ve got to come here, the girl insisted. When she finished, the crowd erupted with applause.
“It was pretty much all up, up, and away after that,” Dr. Doug Bookman, one of the program’s founders, wrote in a detailed history of IBEX. “As I listened to that young lady erupt with excitement and gratitude, I was once again confident that we were indeed doing the Lord’s work, that IBEX was going to do fine.”
Bookman was right. Today, TMU is the only Christian university with its own campus in Israel. And over the years, more than 1,000 students have attended IBEX, experiencing the Holy Land in a uniquely immersive and Christ-centered way.
As the program nears its 30th year, it continues to provide rich soil for friendship, discipleship, and deepened convictions about the historical accuracy of Scripture.
“IBEX helps our students learn the very point of education at TMU,” says President Dr. Abner Chou, “that Scripture is not just a bunch of stories, but the definition of history and reality, the very framework for everything they know and do.”
Dr. Jason Beals graduated from TMU in 2000 with a degree in biblical studies and one glaring hole in his experience. “My greatest regret from college,” he says, “was not doing IBEX.”
Beals, now a Bible professor at TMU, has since made up for lost time. He’s been on numerous short-term trips to Israel, and his faculty mentor, Dr. Greg Behle, was an IBEX co-founder. Beals even wrote his dissertation at The Master’s Seminary on the millennium-era temple.
Over time, Beals took on more IBEX responsibilities, and in 2021 he began overseeing the program stateside. His counterpart is John Black, IBEX’s field director and unquestionably an answer to prayer.
Black first traveled to Israel in 2007 with his alma mater, Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). As it happened, DTS had requested that Dr. Todd Bolen — a TMU professor and another IBEX co-founder — lead the trip.
“That trip changed my life,” says Black, who served as a senior pastor before returning to Israel with his family in 2017 to pursue a doctorate.
Four years later, when TMU was looking for an IBEX field director, Bolen recommended the man he’d met on that fateful seminary trip.
“You’re looking for a unicorn,” says Jason Beals, IBEX’s director. “It’s hard to find someone with the combination of knowledge and experience who theologically fits who we are and has a passion for impacting the lives of students. We’re in great hands with John.”
The same could be said of Beals.
Chou recently praised Beals for his “insightful” understanding of the logistics that come with running an overseas program for TMU, balancing the need for smooth operations with shepherding people.
“He loves the land of Israel, loves students, and most of all loves the Word of God and the God of the Word,” says Chou.
These days, IBEX alumni would recognize much of what takes place during the program. They’d see students forming lasting friendships, participating in Bible studies and chapel, and attending a local church each Saturday before venturing into the Old City of Jerusalem.
Alumni would also be familiar with the program’s campus and curriculum.
Since its founding, IBEX has resided at Yad HaShmonah, a small settlement of Jewish and Finnish believers 10 miles outside Jerusalem. The community (called a moshav) includes a hotel that provides IBEX with a cafeteria, bungalow-style dwellings, and a beautiful setting for evening walks.
As for class schedules, students still take Land and Bible, and Jewish Thought and Culture, both of which were offered in the fall of 1995, the program’s first semester.
Classroom lectures are complemented by 25 to 30 field studies. Some are day trips into Jerusalem, while others are longer ventures.
During a week-long Galilee trip, students stay at the Ein Gev Holiday Resort, traveling each day to sites such as Caesarea Philippi and Capernaum. An extended field trip to the Negev desert traces the lives of the Patriarchs.
At each biblical site, Black teaches in a way that’s not only academic, but also devotional. He wants students to understand the geography and history in a way that deepens their understanding of the text and their love for God.
For instance, during the Negev trip, students read Deuteronomy 8, where God reminds Israel of how He tested and sustained them in the wilderness. Black then takes the group on an extended hike into the desert, out of sight from modern buildings and roads. There, students are encouraged to pray and consider their lives in terms of what they’ve just read. Am I really depending on the Lord and His Word?
The experience had a profound impact on Camden Specht in the fall of 2022. Specht had been dealing with what he describes as anger and anxiousness over his “self-stagnating” relationship with the Lord.
“I walked for a mile and came to sit under a tree where I literally cried out to the Lord, begging for His forgiveness for my attitude and actions,” Specht says.
The aha moment differs by student, but the end result is generally the same — a deeper conviction that the Bible records real people, places, and events, orchestrated by a real God. Many who attend IBEX never read Scripture quite the same way again.
“It brings the Bible to life,” says Janet Canepa, who attended IBEX in spring 2023. “Instead of glossing quickly over locations, I can picture where passages took place because I’ve stood there.”
Justin Parsons had heard plenty about IBEX before attending last spring. In fact, he was the fourth Parsons brother to go, placing the family among the more than 70 sets of siblings who have gone to IBEX over the years.
“My brothers told me it was going to be the best semester of my life,” he says. “It absolutely was.”
Learn more about the program at masters.edu/ibex.
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