In my new book, 3000 Miles to Jesus, I make the case that we are all pilgrims on the Jerusalem road. The book traces the journey of three pilgrims who made their way to the Holy Land in the 15th century. By following these travelers, we come to understand our biblical identity as strangers and sojourners on the earth.
I find it especially meaningful to think about pilgrimage during Lent and Holy Week, when, in our minds and hearts, we journey to Jerusalem as we ponder and pray through Jesus’ last days. You can read more about our Lenten pilgrimage in my recent Christianity Today article.
But there’s another side of pilgrimage I haven’t talked much about.
Did you know that Jesus himself was a pilgrim? On Palm Sunday, we commemorated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But we don’t often ponder the lengthy that journey preceded this event. In fact, Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem was a pilgrimage, undertaken to celebrate Passover in the holy city. The Hebrew Bible instructs Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover (and two other feasts as well). Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, traveled to Jerusalem every Passover (Luke 2:41–43), as did many others. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that during the Second Temple period, the number of Passover pilgrims totaled “not less than three millions.”
During his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus uttered many of his well-known parables and teachings, including his teaching of the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples (Luke 11:-2–4). So, if you think about it, many of Jesus’ lessons are “pilgrimage lessons”– wisdom of the road.
What was this final, momentous pilgrimage like? When he “resolutely set out for Jerusalem,” Jesus was in Capernaum. The shortest route led due south through Samaria. But because the Samaritans would not receive Jesus, he took a more roundabout way, going east through Peraea. Before leading to Jerusalem, this route crossed the Jordan River and passed through Jericho, Bethany, and Bethphage, where Jesus stayed at the house of Mary and Martha.
From Jericho to Jerusalem, this pilgrimage road leads through the Judean wilderness. It was probably only a day’s journey, but the route ascends about 4000 feet and is fairly rugged. I imagine it thronging with pilgrims who would then pour into Jerusalem and begin purification and preparation for Passover. Some of these pilgrims were surely among the “crowds” that Scripture mentions Jesus teaching along the way to Jerusalem.
In this final journey, Jesus models many of the traits we see in the medieval pilgrims I explore in my book. He had perseverance, taking a long route and enduring wilderness conditions. He traveled in poverty, frequently eating or staying at others’ homes (for example, Zacchaeus’s house and Mary and Martha’s house). And, despite the longer route and the time he took to teach along the way, he focused relentlessly on the goal of his pilgrimage. He resolutely “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).
But Jesus, of course, is far more than a model. His pilgrimage is bound up in our salvation. Before traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled to earth and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). Leaving his heavenly glory, he was a sojourner in ways that we will never be. His earthly journeys always had a bigger goal–that of showing us the way to the Father (John 14:2–6)–the way home. Nicholas T. Batzig says in an article on pilgrimage that “Jesus is the heavenly Sojourner, traveling through the foreign land of this fallen world to the eternal inheritance He came to possess by way of the cross.”
We love because Jesus first loved us. And we pilgrim because he first pilgrimed for us. I wish you a good journey during the next few days from the bright darkness of Holy Week to the light of resurrection.