For evangelical churches, one of the biggest selling points for going to the Holy Land is having the opportunity to “walk where Jesus walked.” The phrase has become cliché—it may have been platitudinal from the beginning—but the idea is significant to most American Christians. The older, more sacramental and iconographic (among other things) Christian branches think the places where Jesus lived and ministered are important, though for fundamentally different reasons. While Protestants glean a more subtle, spiritual significance from experiencing the Holy Land, Catholics and Greek Orthodox see such trips to Holy sites and the churches built over them as meritorious deeds designed to achieve some kind of divine favor. Both views are flawed. “Walking where Jesus walked” doesn’t really make sense, if you think about it. The water Jesus sailed on and walked on and probably even swam in is gone, and the actual soil that Jesus touched is buried beneath two-thousand years’ worth of destruction layers and other debris.
And even if the dirt itself were the same, there’s no way to know the exact spots where anything happened. This can be frustrating to evangelicals; at least those who want to feel like they touched what Jesus touched. As for the more orthodox churches’ sacramental view of the land, there is nothing physically holier or more important about the land of Israel than any other place in the world. When the woman at the well in John 4 asked Jesus whether it was better to worship in Jerusalem—as the Jews did—or to worship on Mount Gerazim—as the Samaritans did—our Lord’s answer was characteristically both unexpected and cryptic. He said that the day will come when “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” It doesn’t matter where you worship, but who you worship. It is not better to be baptized where Jesus was—in the Jordan River—than it is to be baptized in a sticker blue plastic children’s swimming pool behind a trailer church in some backwater region of Kentucky. Our prayers are not more valuable when uttered in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher than they are in the dark and smelly loneliness of dorm closets.
On the other hand, being in Israel and seeing the places where Jesus walked and manifested his divine authority does stir a deeper meaning in our hearts to the words Jesus spoke and the things Jesus did. I wanted to get that in there before my parents begin to wonder whether their trip here in a couple weeks is worth it. There is a special spiritual impact that comes with seeing remnants of old Roman roads, touching cracked stones torn down in charred heaps from Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, in sitting by the Sea of Galilee at night and feeling the waves lick at your ankles as you watch the lights of Tiberias glisten beneath the moon, knowing that Jesus may have done the exact same thing. There is something to be said for walking through the broken streets of Beth Shean, skipping stones on the sea while standing on the scattered ruins of Capernaum, sleeping in Nazareth—the very town where Jesus spent most of his life. There is power there. Certainly not saving power, meritorious power, or even special power that one only experiences when they come to Israel. Christians are not ordered to take pilgrimages. The fact that I’ve sailed on the Sea of Galilee and John Piper hasn’t doesn’t make me a better Christian. There isn’t anything particularly holy about Galilee; in fact, selling droplets of water from the sea is the kind of thievery that may have ignited a whip-cracking, table-shoving anger in Jesus.
But there is still power. There is still a spiritual meaning that can be gained from being where Jesus was, and yes, walking where Jesus walked. Galilee provided that. It renewed my mind to the reality of Jesus’ life, scrubbed the rust off the parts of my faith that have grown old and jaded to the specifics of the Gospel. We evangelicals often get caught up in the message of Jesus’ ministry that we forget the means. If the places weren’t important, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would have never gone to such tedious lengths to record them. If geographical and historical studies of Jesus’ life were meaningless, then Jesus going in the wilderness, or being crucified in Jerusalem, or dying over Passover, or being born in Bethlehem, or going down to Egypt after birth, or experiencing agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, or any of the other things he did would have never been mentioned in such detail. Instead, Jesus came down to earth, came right here, to the very places where those before him failed, and overcame it all to purchase redemption and victory over sin.
Places have memories, and Jesus turned all those memories onto their heads. To stand on those sites—to sleep where Jesus slept, see what Jesus saw, and sweat where Jesus sweated—is to feel and see the truth of what we believe. Our faith is not a lie, it wasn’t made up, it wasn’t conjured by some master storyteller—unless the storyteller is God, of course, who not only wrote the story but orchestrated the flow of history to create it (something modern writers can’t touch; we have to make up our stories). These places—Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Mt. of Beatitudes, Tabgha, Tiberias, Bethsaida, Caesarea Philippi, Chorazim and all the rest of Galilee—testify to the truth of what we believe. It is powerful indeed when inanimate nature can speak so loudly and attest so strongly to the truth of what Jesus said and did. It can drown out those who deny Jesus’ claim to deity, as it did when he died and the wind blew and the rocks were split and the tombs were opened. Even when stubborn man doesn’t obey the voice of its creator, nature will. That’s what makes Galilee so special—it declares the glory of God, and validates what we believe. It points to Jesus, and reminds us once again of what makes his so awesome. And anything that does that is worth its weight, even if we don’t exactly walk where Jesus walked.