A pilgrimage is a journey made to a place considered sacred as an act of religious devotion. Muslims are required, if at all possible, to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammed’s birthplace. This pilgrimage is part of their religious duty as Muslims and a way of helping insure paradise for themselves. Christianity makes no such requirements. In fact, any act performed for the purposes of insuring eternal life for ourselves is wrong—including making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Titus 3:5 says, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.”
Many Christians dream of going to Israel to see the places we read about in Scripture. Visiting Bethlehem, the temple ruins, and the empty tomb can be spiritually impacting. Given the relative ease of modern transportation, such a trip is an attainable goal for many, and thousands of people make the trip to the Holy Land every year. However, some consider their trip to Jerusalem a “pilgrimage,” on par with a Muslim’s trip to Mecca. When we view a visit to Jerusalem that way, we are entering dangerous spiritual territory. When we add to or take away anything from the finished work of Christ in purchasing our salvation, we are guilty of perverting the gospel (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16; Titus 3:5). A pilgrimage to Jerusalem will not change one thing about our standing with God (Ephesians 2:8–9).
We should consider several factors when deciding whether or not to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem:
1. Finances. Depending upon where a person lives in the world, the trip itself can be quite costly. Travel expenses, lodging, food, souvenirs, guides, and side excursions add up to quite a bill. If a pilgrimage to Jerusalem would require going into debt or spending money that is needed elsewhere, then such a trip is not a wise decision. Before planning a trip to Jerusalem, a wise Christian should consult the Lord about whether this is the way He wants the money spent. Could that money be better used to help others know Him?
2. Motive. People have different reasons for desiring to go to Israel. Unfortunately, many who consider themselves Christians see a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a way of growing closer to God, rather than by following His instructions to repent, be baptized, and live holy lives (Matthew 4:17; Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 1:15). If the reason for the trip is to better understand Scripture or to delight in seeing and touching the very places where Jesus and the patriarchs walked, then it can be a good experience. But if the purpose is to obtain grace or earn a better standing with God, then priorities need to be adjusted before such a trip can be productive.
3. Spiritual significance of relics. Human beings have a tendency toward idol worship. Unfortunately, many who consider themselves Christians can create idols out of relics thought to be a part of Christian history. Near hysteria occurs when a fragment of Peter’s boat, the skull of a saint, or some such object is supposedly discovered, and millions flock to it for a glimpse or a touch. Deeming physical objects to possess spiritual power is superstitious and wrong. If we are prone to such idolatry, even for things or places presumed to be connected with Jesus, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem could be little more than an extended episode of idol worship. Trinkets, rocks, or pieces of wood purported to be part of the cross are often snapped up and given their own shrines where people pay obeisance to them. Certain religions tend to do this more than others, but we can all be prone to idolizing items rather than reserving all our worship for the invisible God. Those who touch objects or visit ruins as a means of growing closer to God may need to reexamine their understanding of salvation before making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (see 2 Corinthians 13:5).
For reasons unknown to us, God chose the tiny nation of Israel through which to bring salvation to the world. Jerusalem is mentioned throughout Scripture as a place near to the heart of God and a city that plays a big part in His future earthly kingdom (Revelation 3:12; 21:2–3). Those who love Jesus and love His Word naturally have an interest in Israel and especially Jerusalem, so a desire to visit those places is understandable. If the trip is financially wise, the reasons are sound, and idolatry is not an issue, then planning a trip to Jerusalem can be an exciting adventure. But it need never be considered a religious pilgrimage.