Reflections from a Christian Pilgrimage

For years, I’ve heard of the joys of pilgrimaging to the holy land, but I had no opportunity to visit until now. Joining a large group from Prestonwood Baptist Church led by Pastors Jack Graham and Jarrett Stephens, we crisscrossed our way through the Promised Land to various biblical sites, including Caesarea, Capernaum, Jericho, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, and, of course, Jerusalem. Walking these sites did much more than satisfy my love for history; it was a spiritual experience that stirred in me a love for pilgrimage.

In its simplest form, pilgrimage is “voyaging to see and pray at a specific holy place,” and there is a long history of this practice.[1] In Genesis, God calls Abraham to journey to a new land (Genesis 12:1) and then, years later, uses Moses to lead the Hebrews out of exile to the same place. When he delivers the Law, Moses stipulates that the nation should pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for religious festivals (Deuteronomy 16:16). As they traveled, they sang the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134), and it’s not hard to imagine their emotions as they approached the temple singing, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem…”(Psalm 122:1-2).

In the New Testament, we see pilgrimage in the journey of the magi who come to visit the newborn king. Then, at the age of 12, Jesus, along with Mary and Joseph, pilgrimages to the temple for the Feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41-42). After the Lord’s resurrection, we also find the Ethiopian eunuch traveling to Jerusalem, where he meets Philip and discovers the true identity of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. These stories illustrate the reality that all Christians are “sojourners and exiles” journeying toward the Kingdom that is to come (1 Peter 2:11).

In the early church, pilgrimage to holy sites dramatically increased. Origen and Eusebius, for example, resided in Caesarea, and Eusebius boasts that Origen’s knowledge of Scripture was supported by visits to important biblical sites.[2] It was the Christianization of the empire under Emperor Constantine, however, that truly paved the way for the expansion of pilgrimage.

Not everyone was impressed with the developing culture of pilgrimage. Gregory of Nyssa warned against it because of the dangers in traveling to these sites. Egeria, a fourth-century nun, lamented that many sites were “being touted, with dubious historicity, by local monks who already witnessed to the ‘tourist trade’ element of pilgrimage.”[3] These criticisms were recycled by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther, who in his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation condemned the abusive practices, saying, “All pilgrimages should be done away with. For there is no good in them, no commandment, but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God’s commandments.”

While many shared Luther’s feelings, others found the concept of pilgrimage helpful, the most famous being John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s Progress. Like Bunyan, Christians from Anabaptists to Puritans continued to draw on the theme of pilgrimage as they imagined the Christian life as a progressive journey of sanctification toward the Kingdom of God.

With its biblical examples and spiritual allure, it seems that Christians cannot escape the attraction to pilgrimage. For all its problems, pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the evangelical yearning for relationship and communion with God.[4] It offers a form of spiritual discipline that educates and edifies the faith of the believer.

After returning home and reflecting on my own travels, I see many benefits in Christian pilgrimage.[5] First, pilgrimage undoubtedly sheds new insights into the events of Scripture and Christian history. It reminds us that Christians are decidedly anti-Gnostic and devoted to the work God accomplished in time and space. To stand in a synagogue in Magdala, where Christ most likely taught, or to stroll among ruined walls of the temple in Jerusalem, where Christ certainly walked, is a staggering reminder of the wonder of the incarnation. These stones, fields, seas, and rivers heard His voice and bowed to His miraculous works.

Second, pilgrimage sets aside concentrated time to reflect on the work of the Lord for spiritual renewal. Pilgrimage is a form of spiritual discipline that nurtures prayer and contemplation. Just as the Lord “would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16), so does pilgrimage offer a kind of retreat from the daily routines and troubles of life. As I walked the seaside where that the Lord restored Peter in John 21 or gazed out over the Judean wilderness where the Lord was likely tempted, I found myself praying, reading Scripture, and remembering the His works.

Finally, pilgrimage, especially with a group of fellow Christians, generates a deep sense of Christian community and fellowship. As we traveled, we joined together with so many Christians over the centuries to celebrate the works of God. I will never forget gathering in the fields on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where the shepherds heard the angelic voices, and joining in a chorus of Christians singing together, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

While pilgrimage has a rather checkered history, the allure of journeying to holy sites continues to edify the Christian pilgrim. Few if any in our group from Prestonwood left Israel unmoved by what they experienced, and I can only hope that many more will have the opportunity to share in the joys of Christian pilgrimage. When they do, my prayer, following the sentiments of N.T. Wright, is “that they may make the right use of their time journeying: to learn new things, yes, to pray new prayers, yes, but most of all to take fresh steps along the road of discipleship that leads from the earthly city to the city that is to come, whose builder and maker is God.”


[1] John A. McGuckin, “Pilgrimage,” in the Westminster Handbook of Patristic Theology, 274.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] John Gatta, “Toward a Theology of Pilgrimage,” Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University, 2016, accessed at: https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/270260.pdf.
[5] For a similar discussion of the benefits of pilgrimage, see N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, Eerdmans, 2014; or Ted Olsen, “He Talked to Us on the Road: The Surprising Rewards of Christian Travel,” April 3, 2009, accessed at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/april/15.23.html.
[6] N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord, 11.