UNESCO claims that Jericho is the oldest inhabited city ever uncovered in the ancient world and geographically, is considered to be the lowest town on earth. In Old Testament times it had a significant part to play in the times of Joshua and the Judges. In the days of Elijah and Elisha there was a school of the prophets established there, and it was at Jericho where the nation’s last king was captured and dragged off into captivity.

Jericho in the time of Jesus was a gateway town. Lying near the southern end of the Jordan Valley, just north of the Dead Sea, it was the “pass-through” place for travellers making their way to Jerusalem. Pilgrims would travel from Galilee in the north, make their way south through Decapolis and then cross the Jordan at one of the local fords near Jericho. Having passed through Jericho, most travellers and pilgrims would then turn west and make their way up through the steep hills for 25 kilometres or so to Jerusalem. It was an exhausting journey through a parched wilderness, partly because it also involved an unrelenting ascent of more than 1000 metres.

The ancient city of Jericho was an oasis city fed by the spring that Elisha healed. It was also a very wealthy city because of its date palms and its precious balsam oil, which was exported throughout the Roman world.

It finds prominence in the New Testament when our Lord passed through the city on his final journey to Jerusalem. He had set his face to go to Jerusalem and the disciples were afraid because in that very determination he had warned them of his impending death and subsequent resurrection three days later (Mark 10:32-34). With that context in mind the record states “and they came to Jericho” “and a great multitude followed him” (Matt 20:29; Mark 10:46; Luke 18:36). The Passover crowds were swelling and there was an excitement in the air that this could be the feast where Jesus would proclaim his Messiahship.

Before we examine our Lord’s entrance into Jericho, it is important for us to return to the times of Joshua and reconnect with the early incidents that involve this ancient city.

Rahab the harlot

In Joshua 2 we have the wonderful account of the deliverance of Rahab and her household. But the record is intriguing. In verses 1-3 we have the two spies very carefully secreting themselves into the city by finding refuge in a very specific and seedy part of the town—Rahab, the harlot’s house. They would have taken great care to remain undetected, yet, despite all their precautions, we suddenly find that everyone knows who they are, why they are there and where they are hiding. Furthermore, the king could very easily have sent a contingent of troops to overwhelm Rahab’s house without warning. Yet we find that he sends messengers to her instead.

The emphasis in these opening verses is that the men were there to spy, view and search out the land. They were looking and searching and seeking. Hidden in those words, we have God’s intention to seek and find this woman. She would have been lost, had it not been for God’s providential arrangements bringing her faith to the fore.

And what a faith it was! In verses 10-11 we have a declaration from a woman who represents the most debased form of Canaanite culture. “We have heard,” she said, “how Yahweh dried up the water of the Red Sea for you”. Faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17) and she recounts an incident that had occurred 40 years before; something she had never personally witnessed; something that had only recently been reinforced by the sweeping defeat of Sihon and Og. She was an idolater yet now she confesses her belief in Israel’s God, Yahweh. We can imagine how the spies listened to this confession in stunned silence!

Her request was simple: she had shown kindness to the spies and now she sought a reciprocating kindness from them through the deliverance of herself and her house (v12-13). This brings us to the essence of the chapter. The two spies had recently heard the Word of God through Moses expressly state: “thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them” (Deut 7:2). The Law demanded their extinction, yet here was a woman who expressed faith in the power of Israel’s God to save and she was appealing for kindness. The spies would have been torn by the demands of the Law competing with the appeal for mercy. Which would win out? In the end mercy rejoiced over judgment and Rahab and her house were saved by faith.

The Ark of the Lord of all the earth

The next significant incident that occurred in full view of Jericho is recorded in Joshua 3. A series of commands were issued concerning the movement of the ark across the river Jordan. “When ye see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God,” said Joshua, “and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it” (v3).

The ark was a symbol representing the multi-faceted work of God. It symbolised God’s glory (Psa 80:1), His strength (Psa 132:8), His majesty (Psa 99:1) and His holiness (2 Chron 35:3). It was the place where God dwelt and spoke from (Num 7:89; 2 Kings 19:15). Its movement was also likened to a chariot going before the host and seeking rest (1 Chron 28:18; Num 10:33). Yet in the midst all this splendour was a mercy seat splattered in blood, which, once a year, became the focal point for forgiveness and mercy. In Joshua 3:10-11 it was a symbol of the Living God in their midst, the king, “the Lordof all the earth”, poised to drive out the enemy.

It pointed forward to God manifesting Himself firstly in His Son and secondly in those who are joined to him in faith. It was a template of redemption, representing the work of redemption through the sacrifice of God’s Son (Rom 3:25), followed by the glory and power of the redeemed in the future age (Rev 11:19).

The instructions were laid out before Israel. They were to be on the lookout. As soon as they saw it passing by, they were to follow it “that they may know the way by which ye must go” (v4). It was to lead, and they were to pursue it. Moreover, the priests were commanded in verse 8: “When ye are come to the brink of the water of Jordan, ye shall stand still in Jordan”. The miracle before them was to be in God’s power and strength and not in the strength of human achievement (cp Exod 14:13).

The fall of Jericho

The walls of Jericho spectacularly collapsed by faith (Heb 11:30). But amidst that victory lay the seeds of covetousness. The wealth of the city was too much of a temptation for Achan. He saw, he coveted and he took (Josh 7:21) and amongst those items he stole was “a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold”. He tragically chose wealth and riches over the explicit commands of God.

Zedekiah and Jericho

Jericho was the gateway into the land as the conquering Israelites under Joshua sallied forth to take their inheritance. Sadly, Jericho became the exit door for the nation’s last faithless king, Zedekiah. All that Joshua accomplished was finally unravelled by the disobedience of an ungrateful nation.

Zedekiah, whose name means “the righteousness of God”. He was captured in the plains of Jericho by the pursuing Babylonians (Jer 39:5) and taken to Riblah (“fruitful”) where his sons were executed before him whilst he himself was cruelly blinded (v6-7). He was a miserable symbol of the nation—blind and without fruit—a people who would feel the righteousness of God as they were removed from their inheritance.

Jesus arrives at Jericho

All these incidents are going to play an interactive role in the advance of the Lord through Jericho. He, like the ark of the covenant, had crossed the Jordan and, as he began that final journey to the stake, he is still able to save and heal.

The pilgrim crowds are swelling into a great multitude (Matt 20:29). There is also an expectancy in the air because those that came from Galilee were soon to echo the words of the Scriptures proclaiming the arrival of their Messiah (Mark 11:9-10). But the Lord had another work to do first—a work of salvation from sin and death.

At Jericho two major events are going to occur. Two blindmen are going to be healed and Zacchaeus is going to be converted. But before we examine these incidents, we need to clear up a Bible difficulty. Matthew records the healing of two blind men, but both Mark and Luke record the healing of only one. Mark 10:46 and Matthew 20:30 record the healing of the blind as Jesus was leaving Jericho, but Luke 18:35 states that the healing took place as he was arriving at Jericho. How can we reconcile these discrepancies?

Archaeologists have discovered that, in New Testament times, there were two cities both called Jericho. There was residential Jericho near to where the original city lay, and municipal Jericho built by Herod to house those who administered the affairs of the district. Both cities were connected by a road of approximately 2.5 kilometres in length.

With this detail in mind Matthew and Mark record the healing as Jesus left residential Jericho whilst Luke records the event as Jesus was arriving at municipal Jericho—the place that Zacchaeus would have lived as a tax collector. The healing, in fact, was one incident that occurred on the “highway” linking the two cities. All three writers are correct, but they are describing the events from different geographical perspectives. Two blind men were healed. Mark records the healing of Bartimaeus whilst Luke records the healing of the second, unnamed man. Putting all three records together we get the full picture.

Bartimaeus at Jericho

Despite the wealth of the city, blindness and poverty were still prevalent. Mark introduces us to Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, blind and begging by the highway. Strong informs us that this man’s name is derived from a Hebrew word which means “uncleanness, impurity”. So, he was blind and unclean. He was just like Rahab—despised and unclean. He is sightless, sitting in darkness, just off the highway, unclean and without money. He is in a city noted for cursing, uncleanness and judgment.

Blindness is a symbol of ignorance (Isa 56:10), of imprisonment in the prison house of sin and death (Isa 42:7) and of faithlessness and unrighteousness (Acts 13:10-11). The divine narrative is picking up where the nation left off under Zedekiah—in darkness, ignorance and held captive by sin (cp Psa 107:10; Isa 42:7). How wonderful to witness our Lord coming to reverse all that.

Now this man is in the way and the Lord is passing him by. Jesus is the anti-typical ark of the covenant passing by, of which Joshua had said, “when you see the ark ye shall remove from your place and go after it”. But these men were blind and incapable of seeing; how are they going to know when the ark is passing by?

The commotion of the passing crowd produced the trigger. Both blind men wanted to know more and after questioning the people around about, learnt who it was “and when they heard that Jesus passed by, [they] cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David” (Matt 20:30). The Lord was surely aware of the plight of these men, but he just passed them by. But he knew what he was doing. He was probing to see if any would understand their desperate need for help and seek it. He was not disappointed. The words “cried out” mean “to scream”. The Greek word is used of the demoniacs screaming out for help. They were desperate as they saw their one and only opportunity to find help going past. Faith comes by hearing, and like Rahab, they had heard of the miracles that had been wrought and now sought our Lord’s help.

But notice the basis of their appeal. They recognised he was the king, the Son promised to David. In their blindness they saw more than the rulers around them. Furthermore, they petitioned Jesus by asking for his mercy and kindness. This is the same type of request made by Rahab to the spies. They recognised that they were unworthy of any help and salvation. All they could do was to appeal for mercy.

Jesus stood still

We can picture the scene. The crowd tried to silence and censure them. They were, after all, but blind beggars, of no account to anyone! But faith refuses to be silenced. The more the multitude tried to suppress them, the more ardent and strident their shouts became. At that point the record states: “And Jesus stood still”. This is precisely what happened when the ark crossed the Jordan and the priests carrying the ark stood still! Jesus deliberately stands still, identifying himself with that ark, the Lord of all the earth. He is now going to test their resolve and see if they are prepared to follow him as commanded by Joshua so many years before.

As the Lord of all the earth (not just Israel), he commanded them to be called. Mark alone records that the disciples “call the blind man, saying unto him, Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee”. Literally, “be of good courage”. These are the very words that echo through the early chapters of Joshua as that man took on board the calling of God. Our calling involves courage. We have to resist the chants and peer pressure emanating from the crowd. Like the blind man, we have to arise from sitting in darkness and elevate our lives to things above. The words “‘he calleth thee” remind us of the similar urgent words that Martha spoke to Mary: “The Master is come, and calleth for thee” (John 11:28). It is a command that we dare not refuse.

Mark records the response from Bartimaeus: “And he, casting away his garment, rose, and came to Jesus”. This garment refers to the upper mantle which covered and protected the whole body. This was doubtless his sole possession. It was all he had to keep him warm at night; and he threw it aside. He knew it would impede his walk as he made his way to the Son of David. He stands in sharp relief compared with the rich young man who couldn’t part with his possessions (Mark 10:21-22). He stands in absolute contrast to Achan who in this very place coveted a goodly Babylonish garment. Significantly, that expression “casting away” occurs in Mark 8:35: “whosoever shall lose his life for my sake…the same shall save it”.

The blind rose from their obscurity (Isa 29:18). Rotherham translates the word “rose” as “springing to his feet”. The Diaglott has “leaping up”. There is joy and eagerness in that action. Normally blind men shuffle forward, carefully navigating the way ahead with some degree of uncertainty. Not these men. There is a childlike enthusiasm here. They had been called—and look at their response. If only we could maintain that same sense of energy and enthusiasm in our calling.

Even though Jesus knew what they yearned for, he still sought a declaration of their need from the two men. “What will ye that I shall do unto you?” he asked. It was the same question he had earlier asked James and John (Mark 10:36). Whereas the two disciples were blinded by ambition—seeking for a position of authority above their fellows—the two blind men were entirely different. All they sought was something all of us take for granted—their sight.

Jesus understood their need and had compassion upon them and healed them. Their faith had cleansed them as well. “Go thy way,” he told them, but even though they were free to choose any path, “they followed Jesus in the way”. This is what Joshua sought of Israel: “When ye see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it…that ye may know the way by which ye must go”.

The “way” our Lord was embarking on was a pathway leading to self-sacrifice and denial. This was the way that the blind men were prepared to eagerly follow, and it is the path that we need to pursue as well.