Have you ever wondered what it would be like to literally walk in the footsteps of Jesus? Could you imagine the feeling of sitting on the very same stone benches that were part of an ancient synagogue where Jesus taught? Or what would it be like to walk up the same steps that Jesus would have used to enter the Jerusalem Temple? There is only one word that describes such a personal encounter with the Savior of the world: transformational.
Having led over 30 study tours to Israel, I have personally witnessed the transformational experience people encounter over and over again. While a follower of Christ can read the Gospels, hear messages each Sunday from the Gospels, participate in Bible studies about the Gospels, and even deeply research the various aspects of the life and ministry of Christ, nothing can substitute for reading about the events of Christ at the very site where it all took place! It is enlightening. It is powerful. This is why Billy Graham was right when he said, “Visiting Israel is much more than a tour… it is an experience.”
In Israel, walking in the footsteps of Jesus requires seeing past some of the traditional locations related to the events and ministries of Christ’s life. Traditional sites don’t compare to being able to see, feel, and touch something that dates to the time of Christ.
The newly identified synagogue at Magdala (the home of Mary Magdalene) is a prime example of being able to enter back into time and re-enter the world and culture of Jesus. Being an ancient harbor located on the NW corner of the Sea of Galilee and an archaeological excavation in progress, Magdala is still not officially open to tourists. Yet the synagogue found here is only one of seven such synagogues that date to the 1st century. What’s amazing about it all is this 1st century synagogue was covered by only about a foot and a half of debris for 2,000 years before archaeologists came and excavated.
It was one morning last year when I took the group to this ancient Jewish city. We expected to only see the synagogue from a distance since excavations were taking place. However, on this one day, excavations were not taking place due to the fact that the head archaeologist was holding a Bar Mitzvah ceremony for his 13 year old son in this newly-uncovered synagogue that afternoon. Remarkably, special permission was granted our group to see the synagogue! Carefully being led into this ancient structure, there we sat along the bench perimeter of the synagogue. There we listened to a 10 minute lecture of the site, similar to how people in Jesus’ day would have listened to a teaching rabbi 2,000 years ago! We sat on the same stones Jesus’ audience would have used. We could even see 1st century broken pottery partially protruding from the same ground, only partial unexcavated. Jesus would have sat on the same stones and seen the same pottery, then still intact! We alluded to Mark 1 and Luke 4, an example of when Jesus taught in the synagogues in Capernaum and Nazareth. We were literally touching the world of Jesus. It was one of those transformational encounters with the living Christ!
Another example is the Siloam Pool in Jerusalem. Uncovered just a few years ago, the Siloam Pool was used as a retaining pool for water. In the context of rabbinic practice, each fall during Sokkot (The Feast of Tabernacles), the High Priest would take an empty pitcher from the Temple, and with great fanfare he would process with the crowds down to the Pool of Siloam located about at the southern end of the city, a distance of about 1,500 feet. Scooping up the water as a symbolic gesture of thanksgiving to God for sending the first rains of the season, he would then return to the Temple. Upon arriving he would pour the water in the pitcher on to the Temple altar. This was the precise time that Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. (John 7:37-38).” What is remarkable is that there are various portions of this Herodian pavement along this route that are uncovered today, pavement once used by the High Priest, Jesus, and His disciples. We literally walk in the footsteps of Jesus!
Additionally, the Gospel of John offers a second story related to the Siloam Pool. According to John 9, this is where Jesus sent the man who was born blind. After He placed mud on the man’s eyes, Jesus told him to “go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.” When we read this marvelous story while sitting on the very steps of this ancient pool, our hearts are renewed as we pause to remember that Jesus is still today the Divine Healer for us.
To be sure, walking in the footsteps of Jesus has a way of deepening our commitment to follow Him. As we hear Jesus teach with authority (Hebrew, s’mekah, see Mark 1), it solidifies our resolve to yield to His authority over our lives. When we sit on the hillside of the Sea of Galilee and listen to Him preach the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), we understand in a refreshing way how Jesus expects us to live out our walk of faith according to the “malchut shamyim,” the kingdom of heaven.
Ultimately, following in the footsteps of Jesus take us to Calvary where Christ’s willingness to offer His life for us comes into full view. Here we appreciate His love for a fallen world. Here is where He would give His life for the ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). Unlike sites like Magdala and the Siloam Pool where we can actually pinpoint the precise area where Jesus ministered, even though we may not be 100% sure exactly where Jesus was hung on a cross, and where the tomb was located, our hearts are drawn to the reality of His love for us. Our footsteps take us to the heart of God’s redemptive purpose for the world. By virtue of His death and resurrection, Jesus secured spiritual victory for all those who would believe in Him.
Be sure of this. When we retrace the life and ministry of Jesus, we don’t worship the place where Jesus served, but rather the person of Christ! The Apostle Paul said it best, “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).”