The Journey of a Lifetime
What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before
God in Jerusalem. Ps 84:5-7 NLT
I am convinced that pilgrimage is still a bonafide spirit-renewing ritual. But I also believe in pilgrimage as a powerful metaphor for any journey with the purpose of finding something that matters deeply to the traveler. With a deepening of focus, keen preparation, attention to the path below our feet, and respect for the destination at hand, it is possible to transform, even the most ordinary journey into a sacred journey, a pilgrimage.” Phil Cousineau
There is an aspect of our Christian faith and life that has fallen under the radar for some time now. It’s a subject that one seldom hears pontificated in sermons or featured in Christian magazines or found as the topic at seminars or conferences. The subject of which I am speaking is pilgrimage. Rather than calling up ideas of one’s Christian walk, the very word tends to elicit thoughts of the Middle Ages, Crusades and holy shrines and sacred places. Most people tend to think of a pilgrimage as related to journeying to some foreign land to visit the sight of a biblical event or see some sacred relic or shrine. Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines our word this way:
A long journey, particularly a journey to some place deemed sacred and venerable, in order to pay devotion to the relics of some deceased saint. Thus, in the Middle Ages, kings, princes, bishops and others made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, in pious devotion to the Savior.”
More modern dictionaries define pilgrimage as an especially long journey made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion. Historically, Christians began sometime in the fourth century to journey to Jerusalem as a religious act of devotion.
When Pharaoh asked his age, Jacob, near the end of his life, answered him in this way:
Jacob said to Pharaoh, ‘The years of my pilgrimage are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and evil. They have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.’” Gen 47:9 WEB
For Jacob, his pilgrimage, his journeying, was the course of his life, not a trek to some holy site in devotion to the Lord. This understanding would agree with the secondary definition for pilgrimage in most dictionaries.
So, in understanding the significance of pilgrimage in the lives of believers, where does one start? I believe we start with Abraham, the father of our faith.
Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith…For Abraham is the father of all who believe.” Rom 4:11,16 NLT
Abraham was the progenitor both of a newly called into being unique people of God and of an equally unique monotheistic faith that would foreshadow the coming of Messiah and God’s New Covenant for all peoples. All of this started with a pilgrimage. When Abraham was called, he was told to get up and leave his homeland and journey to a land that God would show him. He was told that God would create through him a mighty nation that would lead to blessing for all nations. Abraham was also promised a land of his own.
Abraham would actually serve in a dual pilgrimage. The first would be as an individual in answering God’s call on his life. Secondly, he would in spirit be part and parcel of Israel’s long pilgrimage beginning with their deliverance from Egypt. Throughout the years of Abraham’s journeyings, he always resided in tents and never personally took ownership in the land. He was an alien and a stranger, a sojourner the rest of his life. His heritage on earth was through his offspring when Israel ultimately took possession of Canaan. The same was true for Isaac and Jacob after him. It is interesting that the faith chapter in Hebrews, chapter 11, uses 22 verses to cover Abraham’s pilgrimage of faith and obedience. Most all other entries in that chapter are covered in one or two verses.
I believe this relatively extensive coverage is due to the significance of Abraham’s life and all it foreshadowed regarding the New Covenant course of life in Christ. This Hebrews passage says that even when Abraham reached Canaan, he still dwelt in tents and lived as a sojourner, a stranger, a foreigner in that land. We are seeing here that even when the promise is given, there is still a journey to be made in coming into possession of the land. Scripture indicates that Abraham sojourned in faith as a stranger and foreigner because he “was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.”
Let us summarize what we are suggesting thus far regarding the essence and place of pilgrimage in the lives of believers. Pilgrimage is a biblical principle with its origin in Abraham and its story in the spiritual odyssey of Israel. It is significant because it represents the way of God in guiding and dealing with his people. For Christians, pilgrimage represents the course of their life in following Christ. The goal or end of pilgrimage is euphemistically Canaan, the Promised Land.
This heritage is not foretelling salvation as in believing in Christ as one’s savior and making a decision to follow him as his disciple. Abraham had already been declared righteous prior to his calling into pilgrimage. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt is widely accepted as a type of salvation. Therefore, Canaan has to represent something beyond salvation. You might say that it represents the completion or end of salvation. It is what our heavenly Father has purposed from eternity past and that is, many sons and daughters just like Jesus. It is the growing up into Christ, into his full stature. It is being conformed to the image of Christ. We see this as the cry of Paul’s heart as he wrote to the believers in Galatia:
Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives.” Gal 4:19 NLT
To the Ephesian Christians Paul wrote:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Eph 4:11-13 NRSV
Peter, in writing to mostly Christian Jews of the dispersion, refers to them three different times in his first epistle as strangers, sojourners and pilgrims. To these Jews, who were already believers, Peter points them to the ultimate end of their pilgrimage referring to it as an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you…
The truth be told, everyone, regardless of their relationship to God, is on a life’s journey leading to an eventual end of some nature. We are all following a life course, a pilgrimage, that leads to an eternal destiny, a destiny that is either purposed, prepared and paid for by God or one that is utterly devoid of his presence. The choices we make day by day will determine which destiny we ultimately choose. Decisions which reflect the truth of Scripture, that are consistent with obedience to the voice of God will lead us ever increasingly into the full stature of Christ and that inheritance guarded in heaven for us.
Everyone is in a process of spiritual formation! Every thought we hold, every decision we make, every action we take…every response we make…every reaction we have…all of these things, little by little, are shaping us into some kind of being. We are being shaped into either the wholeness of the image of Christ or a horribly destructive caricature of that image…” Robert Mulholland (Invitation to a Journey)
For confessing Christians to neglect or refuse God’s way of spiritual formation in Christ, as in designing or insisting on our own pilgrimage, is a tragic course to take. We are warned in Scripture that the narrow way to life is difficult. Our spiritual resolve and commitment, our faith, will be tested. Abraham’s faith was pushed to the very limit when he was told to sacrifice his only heir by promise.
When God brought Israel out of Egypt to take them into the Promised Land, they literally failed every test in the journey culminating in their refusal to enter Canaan following the pejorative report of the spies. Their failure of faith was so complete that they were ready to stone Caleb and Joshua for their insistence on trusting God. The Lord’s response to the people was staggering regarding their future spiritually:
Then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites from above the Tabernacle. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will these people reject me? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them?’” Num 14:10,11 NLT
The word translated as “reject” in this passage has the following definition in the Hebrew: to deride, to despise, to reject with contempt and derision. We must understand what this episode of Israel at the border of Canaan refusing to enter foreshadows. It is the most poignant picture we could have of one’s neglect and refusal to follow that life course which leads to completion in Christ. The consequence is forfeiture of the full stature life in Christ. It is turning down the fullness of one’s inheritance in Christ, the very thing he died to offer us. It would be hard to quantify the magnitude of this eternal loss.
Choosing to perceive this life as pilgrimage, to understand one’s life course as a spiritual journey unto completion in Christ, enables us to live as foreigners, strangers and aliens in this life. It frees us to perceive all of life’s experiences, trials, and challenges as opportunities to overcome and take the land.
The journey of faith, the path to spiritual wholeness, lies in our increasingly faithful response to the One whose purpose shapes our path, whose grace redeems our detours, whose power liberates us from the crippling bondages of our previous journey, and whose transforming presence meets us at each turn in our road.” Robert Mulholland