Pilgrimage

As the tour bus wound its way towards the ancient city of Philippi, our guide talked enthusiastically into his microphone, giving us tons of information about the history, climate, culture, and geography of the area. My mind was already set on Paul, since we had been tracing his second missionary journey as we traveled across Greece over the last few days. The section of Acts 16-19 was becoming more and more real since we visited Mars Hill where Paul gave his famous speech to the athenians, the Jewish synagogue in Berea where the faithful Bereans searched the scriptures, and the upper city of Thessalonica where Jason likely lived and welcomed Paul. 

Now, the trip was culminating in a visit to Philippi, and as we approached, the guide casually made a remark about how this area was an epicenter for many earthquakes, one of which just happened the week before. Although his information was strictly geological, I couldn’t help but think about how Paul was released from his prison cell in Philippi by an earthquake, and something deeper in my heart believed that all the stories are true. 

We visited the river outside the city gates where Lydia was baptized. We walked the ancient portions of the Roman road that Paul would have walked to get to Philippi. We saw the ruins of the agora marketplace and the religious buildings where he would have preached and reasoned. We even visited his alleged prison cell. All of it surrounded by the same beautiful mountains that Paul would have woken up to see in the mornings so many centuries ago. 

We don’t worship the ground Paul walked on like he was some celebrity. We don’t get all overly giddy because Paul touched this or Paul sat there. For we didn’t come here for Paul, but for pilgrimage. 

There is something unexplainably surreal, even holy, about visiting biblical sites and places. Because it makes the stories true. It makes the events real. And it draws my heart and mind back to thousands of years ago, when Christianity was so new and fresh, and makes the time gap of centuries feel only a breath away. It makes the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews not some abstract fog of heavenly creatures, but a real group of people who lived before us and left traces of their faith so that we can be faithful, too. 

All this richens and deepens the heritage of our faith, a faith that is so old and so new and so remarkably unchanged. For the same spirit that led Paul to Philippi is leading us on missionary journeys today. The same God who opened the heart of Lydia is opening hearts to listen and obey Jesus today. What is more, the same persecution that multiplied the impact of the gospel in Paul’s day is repeating itself along the Mediterranean rim. 

Two thousand years ago, persecution in this very same region of the world served to multiply believers and spread the church. Now, in the very same location, God is using the refugee crisis to bring people out of their hostile countries where the gospel could never be heard, directing them to places like Greece where they are hearing the gospel, and then sending them either back to their home countries or to other nations to tell of this new found salvation with a passion that mimics that of the disciples of the early church – not like people who have grown up in church and heard bible stories their whole lives, but like people who have seen Jesus resurrected and who have passed themselves from death to life. 

We visited a church that has ten services during the week and four on Sunday – in English, Greek, Russian, and Farsi – and people are being baptized every week. The service we attended on Sunday night was incredible, full of middle easterners who have found life in Christ. The leaders had names like Muhammad and Ibrahim, people who have turned in the recent months from Islam to Christ, simply because they have been displaced and heard the gospel and believed. 

We must marvel at the beauty and sovereignty of Jesus Christ, who can transform the refugee crisis into something that multiplies and spreads the gospel to unreached places. Displaced people are becoming the most radical disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ. 

So I’m walking the same road that Paul walked, thinking about how the same gospel that compelled Paul compels us also. The same Jesus Christ that changed the world two thousand years ago is still changing the world today. The stories written in the Bible are true, and we are still living in the same story as we walk by faith in 2018. 

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