What the Bible Says About Pilgrimage
The Hajj—It's the fifth pillar of the Islamic faith. The term refers to the annual pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca, a mandatory religious duty that Muslims must fulfill at least once during their lifetime if they are physically fit and financially capable. This pilgrimage is an important element in Islamic faith and practice. But what about pilgrimage in the Christian faith? What does the Bible say about pilgrimage?
During the Old Testament era, that is, the period of time before Jesus was born, God required that every Jewish male make three pilgrimages or three haggim--to use the Hebrew term whose singular form, hag, demonstrates the linguistic link to the Arabic term hajj—per year to the holy city of Jerusalem.i These three pilgrimages were made in order to celebrate three festivals: the Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Tabernacles. While these three festivals were unique from one another in many ways, they shared a common core element: all three festivals required the pilgrim to offer sacrifices to God upon arriving at the temple in Jerusalem. In Psalm 42:3 we find one pilgrim offering the following fond recollection his pilgrimages to Jerusalem: “I used to go with the multitude. I went with them to the house of God with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.” These three annual pilgrimages were joyous occasions for Old Testament believers.
In addition to the three pilgrim journeys just mentioned, the Old Testament also pictures our short, fleeting lives as a pilgrimage. For example, the author of Psalm 119 says, “I am a sojourner [ie. pilgrim or stranger] on earth” (Psalm 119:19). And the author of Hebrews tells us that the saints who lived during the Old Testament era “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
That's the twofold picture of pilgrimage presented in the Old Testament: first, God required His people to make three annual pilgrimages to the city of Jerusalem; and second, God's people viewed their brief life on earth as a pilgrim journey.
When we get to the New Testament era, that is, the period of time that begins with the birth of Jesus, we see a change in the Bible's concept of pilgrimage. Believers living in the New Testament era are no longer required to travel to Jerusalem at all—not three times per year, not even once per year. And here's why: The main reason God required His people to travel to Jerusalem in the Old Testament era was because He required that they offer sacrifices in the temple to pay for their sins. However, the Holy Bible teaches that when Jesus came to earth He came to offer Himself as the final sacrifice, a sacrifice which actually paid for our sins once-and-for-all (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10)! And because Jesus' sacrifice of Himself actually paid for our sin, we no longer need to go to Jerusalem to offer animals as sacrifices. Christians certainly may visit Jerusalem, but the Bible does not require Christians to make such a pilgrimage.
What the Bible does do, though, is depict our entire life as a pilgrimage. For example, Jesus tells His followers that this world is not their home (John 15:19; 16:33; 17:14). He also says His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). And before leaving this world, before departing from His disciples and ascending into heaven, He explained: “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me, that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3). In other words, Jesus teaches that we are not at home on this earth. This life is just a short pilgrimage in which we travel toward our eternal destination.
The Apostle Peter also teaches that we are pilgrims in this life. Listen to how he addresses the Christians to whom he writes his first letter: “To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1b). Similarly, a little later on in his letter he writes, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11).
According to the Bible we are pilgrims, our entire life is our hajj, and our hajj leads to one of two very different destinations: heaven or hell. Follow Jesus Christ. Believe that He died as a sacrifice for your sins. Heed His instruction to “enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24) and believe what He says of Himself: “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, He will be saved” (John 10:7, 9). Then you can be assured that your pilgrim journey will bring you to your eternal home in heaven.