Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 14

Stairs to a Blank Wall

Read Luke 18:10–14

Left. Right. Left.

I’m actually taking video of my feet.

Can you blame me? I’m walking up steps once ascended by Jesus. This is the place I’ve been looking forward to visiting since our plane touched down in Israel.

I’m on the Southern Steps, a massive first-century stone staircase.

If you had visited Jerusalem before the early 1980s, you wouldn’t have seen these steps; they were buried under tons of dirt and debris. No one knew they were even here. Archaeologists since then have discovered not only this staircase, but whole streets and shops from the time of Christ.

These stairs lead up to the southern side of the Temple Mount wall in Jerusalem. Today they end at a blank, bricked-up gate near the Muslim mosque, but in Christ’s time they led under arches in the massive Herodian retaining wall and then up through the dark substructure of the vast temple platform, surfacing into bright daylight on the paved surface near the Court of the Gentiles.

Back then these would have looked very much like the wide steps going up to the U. S. Capitol, or, from the top, like stairs emerging from an underground subway.

It was a very impressive structure, far more complicated and “modern” than we usually imagine from our old Sunday School pictures of Jerusalem. But what makes this really special for Christians: Jesus stood right here, many times in his life.

The first time he was here, it was as a baby — Mary and Joseph carried him up to the Temple for his dedication (Luke 2:22). Since these steps were the public entrance into the Temple for commoners, it’s certain they walked here.

As Jesus grew up, his parents made the Jerusalem pilgrimage annually (Luke 2:41), and Jesus was probably with them each time, watching as Herod’s master architects slowly crafted the Temple complex into what many considered the most beautiful building on earth.

Then at twelve, Jesus was discovered as something of a childhood prodigy here, astounding the teachers at the Temple with his questions and answers (Luke 2:42–50).

During the three years of his public ministry Jesus came down from Galilee to speak at the Temple a lot; during those times Luke says he’d teach at the Temple “every day” (Luke 19:47; 20:1; 21:37–38; 22:53). The Southern Steps would have been one likely place for these teachings. We know that large crowds of both men and women listened to him together, a detail that favors this location, since genders were separated up on the Temple Mount.

I don’t think it’s any accident that most of the stories told by Jesus on these steps are meant to puncture religious pride. There was plenty of that to go around here; the magnificence of the buildings was apparently producing in many people a kind of spiritual cockiness. Jesus said a lot to comfort the weak, guilt-crippled sinners. But he said a lot to correct the strong-willed, self-righteous people too.

My favorite of these stories is told in Luke 18:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evil-doers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” Luke 18:10–14a

I imagine a twelve-year old Jesus ascending these steps with Joseph and Mary, watching the proudly religious Pharisees wearing outward symbols of their piety, and then, looking down, he sees the sad, humbled “sinners,” so desperate for God that they dare not even ascend the steps. And he finds his heart going out to those people. And he never forgets them.

His point in the parable? Be like the second guy.


The long stairway to the Temple I’m standing on is, in many ways, a metaphor for what religion had turned into for people in Jesus’ time — and in ours: a stairway to heaven.

The “stairway to heaven” idea is not thinking you have to listen to Led Zeppelin to see God, although a friend of mine in high school did try that, with some additional stimulants, but that’s another story (didn’t work).

The “stairway to heaven” idea is thinking that you get closer to God, step by step, all the way to the top, on your own effort. Every prayer, every tithe, every time you go to church, every time you help someone, you’re an incremental step closer. But every time you sin, you slip down a step or two.

It’s the popular view of religion, really. It’s religion that accurately sees we’re sinners separated from God. He’s way up there, we’re way down here. Something must be done!

And then someone always says, “I know! We’ll make a list of rules! And we’ll keep score! And we’ll teach people! And then God will look down and say, ‘These good guys kept the rules — and those other ones didn’t keep the rules. I’ll save the good guys!’”

So naturally, it becomes a source of pride: “God, you’re obligated to me — you have to save me. Because I’m a good person. Look at the score sheet I have handily devised. I did good things. I’m better than that guy, that’s for sure.” 24

I find myself slipping back into this stairway mentality all the time. Don’t you?

If you think that going on a mission trip, or reading a certain Bible translation, or having an ecstatic religious experience, or doing Bible study gets you extra credit from God, you’re on the stairway.

Even if you’re not religious, if you think you’re going to heaven because you’re better than most people, you’re on the stairway.

“Thank you God, that I am not like other people! I am further up the steps!”

In this way of thinking, you become self-obsessed instead of God-focused.

Left. Right. Left. You focus on your feet. Look at me go, as I progress up the staircase.

Jesus talked a lot about this danger:

“You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Matthew 23:23

The Pharisees were so focused on the steps to God they forgot God.

Standing here on these steps, I think to myself: How dare I think that any effort of mine gets me an inch closer to a God who is infinitely beyond me in power and perfection? If there was a stairway to heaven, it would stretch not to the top of some hill, but all the way out of our galaxy, all the way to the furthest star.

And then I realize it does. And someone already has travelled it. All the way down.

The Pharisees were right: Something must be done! And Jesus is the One who did it.


One time, some people who only knew the stairway-to-heaven idea asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” They realized Jesus was criticizing their system — but then what system was he advocating, they wondered? What new stairway was he building?

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: To believe in the one he has sent.” John 6:29

No steps for you. Just believe.

For years I didn’t get this. I tried to climb the steps myself, to do all I could to get closer to God. But nothing seemed to work. In fact, the harder I tried, the further away I seemed to get. Then I discovered grace. And my whole life changed.

The sad thing is, if you’re trying to climb some stairway to heaven, even if you get to the top, you find it bricked off. Like the gates at the top of the Southern Steps. You just can’t get inside from here.

Your efforts might help you get more disciplined. They may help you learn manners. They might help you with anxiety. But you can’t get through the wall of separation. Only God can pierce that veil.

The way to the very top is at the very bottom.

Did I say Jesus once stood on the long staircase leading to the House of God?

Correction: He’s still there.

He’s at the very first step, extending his hand. To you.


Why do you think the idea of a “stairway to heaven” is more appealing to many than the idea of grace? How do you fall back into the “stairway” worldview?