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Via Dolorosa

John 19:13-18 - Pilate brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge's seat at a place known as The Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of preparation for the Passover, about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, "Behold your king!" But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!" "Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked. "We have no king but Caesar," the Jews answered. Finally Pilate handed Him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying His own cross, He went out to The Place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified Him.

Luke 9:23 - Then Jesus said to them all, "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me."

1 John 2:6 - The one who says he abides in Him [Jesus] ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.

Philippians 2:7-8 - He made Himself nothing, taking the very form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross!

Galatians 2:20 - I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

In the Old City of Jerusalem today there is a pilgrim walk called the Via Dolorosa - "the way of sorrows" or "the way of tears". It purports to be the route which our Lord walked, carrying His cross, from His trial to His crucifixion. The Via Dolorosa starts at the traditional site of the Lord's trial before Pilate, the Antonia Fortress, and it ends at the traditional site of His crucifixion and burial, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Many tourists follow the Via Dolorosa as a highlight of their Holy Land pilgrimage - and most of them are extremely disappointed if they find out that the Lord's feet never actually touched the crowded and twisting Jerusalem streets that form the Via Dolorosa today! The streets of the present-day Via Dolorosa do not date from the time of Christ, but actually date as late as the 16th century AD, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire was in control of Jerusalem. In fact, the route of the Via Dolorosa itself was not established until hundreds of years after the trial and crucifixion of Christ.

Furthermore, the location of the traditional site where the Lord was tried before Pilate is still in question. Was His trial held in the Antonia Fortress at the northwest corner of the Temple Mount (where the Via Dolorosa begins), or was it in the praetorium or palace of Herod on the west side of the city? And even if the trial was held in the Antonia Fortress, the Roman "lithostratos" (which was always thought to be the "Pavement" of John 19:13) is now dated by many scholars to the time of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled about 100 years after the time of Christ.

The location of the crucifixion and burial of our Lord has been debated for years. The traditional sites of Calvary and the Tomb are both within the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which dates from the 4th century AD. This location has some substantial supporting historical and archaeological evidence. However, Gordon's Calvary and the Garden Tomb, the alternative sites, have some valid supporting evidence behind them as well. Here again, we cannot say for sure which is the authentic site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. But there is no debate about the fact that both tombs are empty!

Not "Where," but "As"

So the Holy Land pilgrims who walk the Via Dolorosa today may not even be walking in the same general direction that our Lord walked when He carried his cross to the site of Calvary, and they certainly are not walking on the same streets "where Jesus walked." Although this is a major disappointment to many pilgrims, it shouldn't be, because it doesn't really matter whether we travel--or even know--the exact path of the "way of the cross." The Bible does not teach that we are to aspire to walk where Jesus walked, but to walk as Jesus walked!

The apostle John tells us in 1 John 2:6 that committed believers--those who say they belong to Jesus Christ--are to "walk in the same manner as He walked." So how did Jesus walk? He walked the way of sorrow and suffering--He walked the real via dolorosa. Isaiah 53:3 says that He was a "Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." If we are to "walk in the same manner as He walked," then we will walk a real via dolorosa as well.

What does it mean to walk the via dolorosa--the way of sorrows? Does it mean that we should force ourselves to be serious or even sorrowful all the time, or practice asceticism, or refuse to enjoy life, or avoid and not participate in harmless activities that are just plain fun? While many people down through the history of the Church thought this type of lifestyle was godly, the Bible certainly doesn't teach such a distorted idea. 1 Timothy 6:17, for example, says that "God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment."

Jesus said that He had come to bring abundant life to His flock (John 10:10). And remember that while our Lord was a Man of sorrows, He was not a miserable or unhappy person. People were attracted to Him. Multitudes followed Him. He took children into His arms and blessed them. He attended social occasions such as dinners and weddings. His critics even accused Him of too much socialization--of "eating and drinking" with the sinners of the community (Luke 7:34). So if we are to walk as Jesus walked, our lifestyle will not be dreary and unhappy, and we will not be stern, self-righteous hermits. Then what does it mean to walk as He walked--along the path of sorrows?

Denial of Self

Philippians 2:5-11 is probably the New Testament passage that best explains what it means for us to walk the via dolorosa. As our Lord denied Himself and gave up His rights in order to serve and save us, so we are to follow Him by denying ourselves and giving up our "rights" in order to serve others and glorify God. Our Lord Jesus carried out this principle to the utmost. He laid aside His heavenly glories and took on human frailty, He lived on earth in humble and sordid conditions in order to serve the fallen creatures He had created, He allowed the human race to abuse and demean Him, and finally He gave up His life for us by dying on a cross--the most humiliating death possible. This was His via dolorosa--the way of suffering that He chose to travel for us.

Philippians 2:5 emphasizes that our Lord's path is an illustration of how we are to walk--we are to have the same attitude which was in Christ Jesus! The preceding verses describe it: "Don't be selfish; don't live to make a good impression on others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourself. Don't just think about your own affairs, but be interested in others, too, and how they are doing" (Philippians 2:3-4).

A walk of self-denial in the interest of others may involve a decision to give up hours of free time to help others--perhaps a teenager who needs a mentor, a single mother struggling to cope, an inner city youth ministry. Sometimes our sacrifice of time and love will involve helping people who are not easy to work with and who may not even be thankful for the help! (If this happens to you, remember that you're following the path that Jesus walked. Some people failed to respond--and still fail to respond--to our Lord's gracious walk of service and self-sacrifice! See Luke 17:12-19, for example.) A lifestyle of self-denial doesn't come naturally--it's difficult, but it will please our Lord Jesus and glorify God.

Several times in the letter to the Ephesians our "walk" is mentioned. Ephesians 2:10 says that we should "walk in good works." Ephesians 5:15-16 advises us, "Be very careful how you walk...be wise; make the most of every opportunity." And in Ephesians 4:1-3 we read, "I beg you to walk in a way that is worthy of the calling to which you have been called. Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other's faults...be at peace with one another."

This describes a walk or lifestyle of service and humility. Being humble means that we won't expect or demand that our own needs should always be met first, or our personal opinions be validated and adopted by the church fellowship, or our comfort be priority #1. "In humility considering others ahead of ourselves" and putting the "interests of others before our interests" (Philippians 2:2-3) is one of the most difficult lessons we human beings can learn--but we must learn it if we want to "walk as Jesus walked."

Death to Self

In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me." This is the via dolorosa the Lord calls us to follow. This is the way of the cross. Some Christians have the idea that "bearing my cross" means carrying a certain burden in life, such as coping with a physical handicap or caring for a disabled child or living with a demanding mother-in-law! And some Christians think that "taking up the cross" means we should try to get ourselves persecuted for the sake of Christ. No!

Trials and sufferings are sure to come if we live righteously (2 Timothy 3:12) and share the gospel. And that's certainly part of walking as our Lord walked. But when Jesus spoke those words, taking up a cross meant death, and that's what it means today, too. "Taking up the cross" to follow Jesus specifically means applying the "death to self" principle. It means we must put our "self" in the place of death in order to follow Christ. This is not easy, and it sounds extreme--but the Lord did use the metaphor of thecross!

Galatians 2:20 captures this "death to self" doctrinal principle: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." When the Lord Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again for our justification, we died with Him and were raised with Him. This is our spiritual position before God, according to Romans 6 and many other passages of the New Testament. However, until we leave this earthly life, our sinful natures are still at work in our earthly bodies, and we constantly need to put our desires for a natural, easy, carnal, materialistic, selfish lifestyle in the place of death. We recognize this truth, in a very real and practical way, by an unselfish lifestyle--a life that is not characterized by self-indulgence, but by self-denial, to the glory of God.

Daily Decisions

Every day of the Christian life there will be hard choices to make--decisions that mean self-denial and "death to self." This is why our Lord said that following Him meant taking up the cross--daily! Taking up the cross daily may involve a deliberate decision each day to turn away from the ungodly attitudes or crude conversations in your work-place or on your campus, knowing that as a result you may lose friendships or even suffer a career set-back, and that you will certainly never be popular or part of the "in-crowd."

Denying self to glorify God will daily involve even "small" choices, like turning off popular (and maybe even funny)--but immoral or crass--TV shows, or deciding against associations or activities that you know will undermine spiritual growth and health for you or your family.

A Paradox

Paradoxically, for our Lord the way of self-denial and the cross was the path of greatest joy and reward--as it will be for us! We are to walk in His footsteps, "fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). The via dolorosa is not a joyless and somber way, but it is not the easy, natural way. It is not a bleak, ascetic way, but it is not the "prosperity gospel" way. It is not a dreary, fun-less way, but it certainly "goes against the flow"! It is not a way without laughter, but there will be tears.

Humility, patience and a servant's heart are not acquired easily. Sacrifice of time and pleasure in order to serve others for the sake of Christ brings joy but it's hard--much harder than just writing out a check for a good cause when you could do more. Putting our selfish desires in the place of death involves difficult struggles and costly decisions. The via dolorosa is the "the way of suffering," but it is also the path of joy as we follow our Lord. "I delight to do Thy will, O my God (Psalm 40:8).

Colossians 1:10-12 exhorts us to, "Walk worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened...so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father..." It's not easy and it will involve hard and painful decisions, but it's the right way.

Many pilgrims who walk the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem are unwilling to walk the way the Lord calls us to walk. What about us? Are we willing to walk the real via dolorosa? The bottom line for growth and joy in the Christian life is not to walk where Jesus walked, but to walk as Jesus walked.
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