A Theology of Pilgrimage
In 17th century England, a minister named John Bunyan, while in prison for preaching illegally, began his written allegory entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. Usually referred to as simply The Pilgrim’s Progress, it became one of the most widely distributed and printed Christian books apart from the Bible. The book follows the story of the main character, the pilgrim Christian, as he journeys through many trials and temptations while making his way from the earthly City of Destruction to the heavenly Celestial City.
Aside from this influential literary work, the word “pilgrim” has very little usage in the Western, evangelical Christian world today. Usually when we say “pilgrim” we are referring to the group of English pilgrims who held the first Thanksgiving feast on the shores of colonial America!
To the people of Israel both ancient and modern, the idea of pilgrimage carries with it a vitally significant meaning, which God is beginning to restore to this generation of the Church.
While our pilgrimage from earth to heaven is certainly a central and powerful part of our faith, there is even more that we can recover of a biblical theology of pilgrimage that will align us with God’s eternal purpose in our lives.
Psalm 84:5-7 declares:
5 Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
They make it a spring;
The rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength;
Each one appears before God in Zion.
This psalm was written in the context of the yearly spiritual pilgrimage of the people of Israel to Zion (Jerusalem) to participate in the annual biblical feasts of the Lord, which was a long and arduous journey from different parts of the land of Israel. Requiring several days for many who traveled, it often involved passing through the desert to arrive at the destination of the house of God in Jerusalem.
By contrast today, because of the strong emphasis in the evangelical world on a personal relationship with God, we have often focused on how scripture tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19) and that we can have a life-giving, personal connection with God wherever we are.
Although this is true, the piece that is often missing from our Western view is the importance that the Bible places on Jerusalem as the center of our faith. And although the Bible is clear we cannot earn our salvation by our works, as a Church we have lost much of the rewarding exertion of the journey of faith when we limit it to only, in a few minutes’ time, “asking Jesus into our heart”.
Like the people of ancient Israel and like Jews who make pilgrimage from all over the world today, there is something profound that happens in our hearts when we make pilgrimage not just inwardly, but literally to our spiritual birthplace, the center of God’s house in Jerusalem. In the deepest sense it is a returning home. Our theology is expanded when we see first-hand the land that shouts by its very existence that our God, the God of Israel, is the God who keeps His promises for a thousand generations.
Today, the land of Israel under normal circumstances is flooded with several million tourists each year, as they come to witness the Holy Land, many for the first time. For those who possess a real and personal faith, this journey becomes a modern-day pilgrimage deep with significance and fulfillment.
Have you yet made your first pilgrimage to your spiritual home, Jerusalem? If not, it is never too late to receive the blessing that comes from planning your own journey. As Psalm 84 says, blessed is the one “whose heart is set on pilgrimage” (verse 5). To join us this year in Jerusalem, click here now to find out more!
A theology of pilgrimage will allow us to see God in living color rather than black and white; it will enable us to have a multi-dimensional faith that is just as real on earth as it will be in heaven. So what are you waiting for? Together let’s recognize what God is doing in this hour in awakening His people. To those who embrace a theology of pilgrimage, He promises that we will go from strength to strength! (Psalm 84:7).