Editor's note: This was previously published on the author's website.
Why did Jesus pass through Jericho?
Jesus spent most of his life in the Galilee region of northern Israel. Several times a year he traveled to Jerusalem to attend special festivals (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles) held on holy days, as God commanded in Deuteronomy 16. Now, on his last journey to Jerusalem, during his final Passover where he would be the sacrificial lamb, Jesus made his way to Jerusalem.
There were three major paths to take from the Galilee to Jerusalem. One could travel westward to the Mediterranean coast, follow the coastal road south and then turn east to climb back into the mountains up to Jerusalem. Or one could travel directly south from Galilee through the mountain region, portions of which were called the Mountains of Ephraim, where the Samaritans lived (and this generally corresponds to the area of modern day Palestine today). Or one could travel from the Galilee region to reach the Jordan River and then follow the roads south until reaching Jericho.
Jericho is a unique city in many ways. It’s the oldest city in the world and it’s the lowest city in the world, in terms of elevation. From Jericho, it’s a long and steep climb through the Judean wilderness (and it truly is a wild area) to reach Jerusalem.
We know that during his lifetime Jesus traveled various routes to Jerusalem and back. We know that on one occasion he passed through Samaria (see John 4). And during his last journey to Jerusalem he used the Jordan River route that passes through Jericho (Luke 19).
What do we learn in Jericho about eternal life?
In Jericho a significant short New Testament episode occurs. As he was passing through Jericho, the crowds thronged Jesus. One man desired to see Jesus for himself. But being short of stature he couldn’t see Jesus in the pressing crowd. Being creative and enterprising, the man climbed a nearby sycamore tree to get a better view.
We hear in Luke 19:5-6, “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house. And he made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully.”
There are beautiful gems of truth packed into these few verses.
First, as I’ve written elsewhere, the name Zacchaeus means “pure” or “innocent.” Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). I think we see a fulfillment of his promise in the person of Zacchaeus, who is aptly named “pure” and who makes the concerted effort to both see God and to be seen by God.
The second gem I see in this story has to do with the sycamore tree. In many cultures around the world, trees are symbols of life, love, wisdom and eternity. Sycamores are one of the trees considered to be sacred, to symbolize eternal life. I love the idea that the “pure in heart” (Zacchaeus) must actively seek after and climb into the tree of life. Once they do, they will see God. God will see them. And God will invite the pure in heart to his banquet, which is a symbol of being brought back into the ever-living light of his presence.
These short verses in Luke 19 remind us that eternal life is available to everyone who seeks after it and that God, through his son Jesus Christ, will see us and accept us as we climb into the embrace of the tree of life, which symbolizes God’s eternal love.