Why This Holy Land?


Russell M. Nelson

Have you ever wondered why the Lord chose to accomplish His mortal ministry in the exact location that He did? He created the earth. In His divine role, He could have selected any portion of this bounteous planet to accomplish His mission. He could have selected the beautiful islands of the sea with their lush vegetation and breathtaking beauty. He could have chosen the scenery of Switzerland or Scandinavia, or He could have preferred to walk upon the acres of Africa or Australia.

Instead, He selected the land with places stark and arid, but made holy by His presence there. He did so for many reasons, including His desire to teach with geographical visual aids, and to fulfill scripture.

Birth in Bethlehem

This is a land where nomads dwell, living in tents and wandering as freely as the sheep and goats that they tend. He chose to be born in Bethlehem, adjoining Jerusalem. This He did to teach symbolically and to fulfill scriptural prophecy. Years before this event the prophet Micah foretold:

“But thou, Bethlehem … though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” (Micah 5:2.)

The Book of Mormon also records that the Lord’s birthplace was foredetermined, as prophesied by Alma eighty-three years before the Savior was born:

“And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.” (Alma 7:10.)

Yes, after millennia of preparation, the long awaited event occurred. Christ was born among men. No wonder angelic choirs sang as they knew that extended centuries of death and darkness were to be relieved by the Atonement, which was finally to come through this Babe of Bethlehem.

Why Bethlehem? Is there symbolic significance in the meaning of the name Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “house of bread”? The Great Provider declared Himself to be the “bread of life.” (See John 6:48.) How appropriate it was that He, the “bread of life,” was to come from the “house of bread.”

But why among the animals? He, whom John declared to be the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29), was born during the season of Passover amongst the animals, as were other lambs being prepared for Paschal sacrifice.

At the birth of Him who is called the “good shepherd” (John 10:14), shepherds were the first to receive the announcement of His holy birth (see Luke 2:8–16).

At the birth of Him who once identified Himself as the “bright and morning star” (Rev. 22:16), a new star appeared in the heavens (see Matt. 2:2; 3 Ne. 1:21). Shining brightly over Bethlehem, that star had been placed in orbit far in advance of the foretold event in order that its light could coincide in time and place with His blessed birth.

At the arrival of Him who is called “the light of the world” (John 8:12), darkness was banished as a sign of His holy birth (see 3 Ne. 1:15, 19). He was born the Son of God and the son of a virgin mother, as foretold by Isaiah (see Isa. 7:14) and other prophets. (See 1 Ne. 11:13–21; Alma 7:9–10.)

Exodus to Egypt

The place of His birth was to be in close proximity to Egypt in order to fulfill other scriptural prophecies. Shortly after his birth, Jesus was taken to Egypt, comparable to travels of earlier Israelites. The sojourn of the Holy Child in Egypt fulfilled the prophecy recorded in Hosea 11:1: “I … called my son out of Egypt.” That this scripture truly pertained to the Savior was affirmed by Matthew:

“Joseph] took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: … that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Matt. 2:14–15.)

Childhood in Nazareth

But He didn’t stay in the spiritual darkness of Egypt very long. As a child, the Savior was brought to the village of Nazareth. Why Nazareth? Again, to fulfill prophecy. Jeremiah foretold:

“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper.” (Jer. 23:5.)

I am intrigued with the symbolic significance of the fact that some scholars suggest that the word Nazareth is derived from the Hebrew word neser, which means “branch.” Jesus, the divine Branch, was to be reared in the place with the name meaning “branch.” Jeremiah further prophesied that the Lord would “cause the Branch of righteousness to grow up unto David; and he shall execute judgment and righteousness in the land.” (Jer. 33:15.)

We read in the Book of Mormon of another interesting connection between “branch” and “Nazareth.” Do you remember the reply after Nephi had asked the Lord the meaning of the tree of life? The Lord then revealed to him a glimpse of the city of Nazareth, where Nephi beheld in vision “a virgin, most beautiful and fair.” She was destined to become the mother of the Son of God. (See 1 Ne. 11:8–18.) Isn’t it interesting that the little town of Nazareth, which name signifies “branch,” was shown to Nephi in vision after his inquiry about the tree of life?

From Matthew 2:23 we learn that Jesus “came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” [Matt. 2:23]

Water

Much of the Holy Land is desert with very little water. Because water was scarce and precious, it became the object of special lessons taught by the Lord.

The River Jordan was the site Jesus chose for His baptism by John to “fulfil all righteousness.” (Matt. 3:15; see also 2 Ne. 31:5–6.) Is it significant that this sacred ordinance was performed in virtually the lowest body of fresh water on the planet? Could He have selected a better place to symbolize the humble depths to which He went and from which He rose? By example, he taught us that He literally descended beneath all things to rise above all things. Surely, being baptized after the manner of his baptism signifies that through our obedience and effort we, too, can come from the depths to ascend to lofty heights of our own destiny.

To us, the River Jordan is a sacred stream. The Jordan marked the termination of the wandering of the children of Israel. They had journeyed there from the banks of the Nile. Joshua had led some 600,000 Israelite warriors and their families across that roiling river during flood season, when the waters were suddenly stopped and heaped up to allow the faithful Israelites, carrying the ark of the covenant, to cross an empty river bed. (See Josh. 3.)

We don’t know the precise location where this crossing occurred or the exact spot where Jesus was baptized. Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon indicate that the baptism took place in the vicinity of Bethabara. (See John 1:28; 1 Ne. 10:9; JST, John 1:34.) Bethabara in Hebrew means “house of the crossing.”

Time and again, we quote the statement of Jesus to Nicodemus. To him the Savior declared, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5.) Could it be that Christ chose this location for His baptism in the River Jordan as a silent commemoration of the crossing of those faithful Israelites under Joshua’s direction so many years before, as well as a symbol that baptism is a spiritual crossing into the kingdom of God?

Amidst wilderness and desert isolation such as this, the Savior was able to teach important lessons that only those who knew what it was to be thirsty could fully appreciate. To the woman of Samaria at the well He said:

“Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:

“But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13–14.)

The Savior brought his disciples a great distance to teach at a place called Caesarea Philippi, where He asked them this crucial question: “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?”

Simon Peter gave his inspired answer:

“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

“And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven . … upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:13, 16–18.)

The modern-day scene in Caesarea Philippi is unique. There is a mountain at the base of which is a mighty rock from which water seems to be flowing. These cascades comprise one of the three major headwaters of the River Jordan, literally the liquid lifeline of this country. As Jesus was preparing to conclude His mortal ministry, here He trained future leaders of His Church. Could it be that the Savior brought His disciples to this spot to teach the lesson that this majestic mountain symbolized the rock of Christ from whom revelation would flow?—revelation to bring light and life to them, just as that flowing water of the River Jordan nourishes Israel.

Mountains

Other mountains in the land were also made holy by Jesus. He employed them as spiritual and visual aids to teach His followers.

Nearly a week after the Lord was with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus took “Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,

“And was transfigured before them: and … there appeared unto them Moses and [Elijah].” (Matt. 17:1–3.)

Scholars do not know for sure whether Mount Hermon or Mount Tabor was the actual site of the Transfiguration. What is more important is that Moses and Elijah there conferred keys of the priesthood, under the direction of the Lord, on Peter, James, and John.

Remarkable is the fact that Moses and Elijah were those who conferred those same special keys upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple, 3 April 1836, just one week after the dedication of that temple. (See D&C 110:11–16.)

For centuries faithful Jews have anticipated the return of Elijah at the Passover. Isn’t it interesting that the date of 3 April 1836 was one of the few times when Easter Sunday coincided with the beginning of Passover? Elijah did return as had been hoped, at the Passover, on Easter, to restore keys of the sealing power that were uniquely assigned to him to convey.

Those same keys are used today to effect eternal linkage in the holy temples of the Lord. We know that the Lord will honor these ordinances, performed by His duly authorized agents, as He declared, “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18.) Each such eternal ordinance is performed in a holy temple, appropriately known as a “mountain of the Lord’s house.” (Isa. 2:2; see also 2 Ne. 12:2.)

Mountains were often used anciently for the same purposes temples are used today. Moses, for example, was brought to Mount Sinai to be instructed there by the Lord.

Mountains are not easy to climb. Then, as now, the Lord called His disciples to climb mountains to emphasize the efficacy of effort and obedience. He will ask the same of you, figuratively and possibly literally, also.

Christ again used a mountain to emphasize effort in His Sermon on the Mount. While speaking near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, His disciples were commanded to be perfect even as their Father in Heaven. They were taught the principles of prayer. They were commanded to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. The Lord promised salvation to those who followed His example in doing the will of His Father. (See Matt. 5–7.)

There is another important mountain known in today’s Israel, as in yesteryear, as Mount Moriah. Now ornamented by objects and mosques of man, it still suggests sacred recollection of the obedience and faith of Abraham and Isaac. Their long three-day journey from Beersheba to Mount Moriah was taken at the request of God. Moriah in the Hebrew language means “seen or chosen by Jehovah.”

The first sacred temple of Jerusalem was constructed on Mount Moriah. At that site, Jesus attended the remodeled second temple. Initially He called it “my Father’s house.” (John 2:16.) There He accomplished the first cleansing of the temple by driving out the money-changers.

At the time of the second cleansing, He called it “my house.” And He said unto them, “It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Matt. 21:13.)

Finally and sadly, He called it “your house” when He said in desperation, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Luke 13:35), and predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple of which one stone would not be left upon the other. How could these important messages regarding the temple have been delivered in any other land? For His own mortal ministry He chose the land with the temple.

Local Knowledge and Sites

Underground tombs were commonly used for interment of the dead. Jesus was elsewhere when His dear friend Lazarus died. But the Lord knew very well what had transpired. The scriptural account relates that not until Lazarus had been dead four days did Jesus appear on the scene. At that late date Martha, sister of Lazarus, exclaimed, “By this time he stinketh.” (John 11:39.)

Jesus then “cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.

“And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.

“Then many … believed on [the Lord].” (John 11:43–45.)

There is great significance to the four-day interval between the death of Lazarus and his being called forth alive from the tomb. A portion of that significance was that, according to some Jewish traditions, it took four days before the Spirit finally and irrevocably departed from the body of the deceased person, so that decomposition could then proceed. The Master, in order to demonstrate His total power over death and His control over life, knowingly waited until that four-day interval had elapsed. Then He raised Lazarus from the dead!

Toward the end of His mortal ministry, the Messiah entered the old city of Jerusalem, riding upon a donkey. This, too, was in fulfillment of scriptural prophecy.

“Thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” (Zech. 9:9.)

That prophecy of Zechariah could hardly have been fulfilled if the Savior had ministered in any other locale.

Olive trees are special in the Holy Land. The olive branch is universally regarded as a symbol of peace. This tree provides food, light, heat, lumber, ointments, and medicine. It is now, as it was then, crucial to life in Israel. It is not a deciduous tree, but everbearing—always green. Even if the tree is chopped down, life will spring from its roots, suggesting everlasting life. Jewish tradition often refers to the olive tree as the tree of life. To me it seems to prefigure the Resurrection.

Sites and Symbols of the Atonement

Jesus came to the base of the Mount of Olives to effect the first component of the Atonement. This He did at the Garden of Gethsemane. The word Gethsemane comes from two Hebrew roots: gath, meaning “press,” and shemen, meaning “oil,” especially that of the olive.

There olives had been pressed under the weight of great stone wheels to squeeze precious oil from the olives. So the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane was literally pressed under the weight of the sins of the world. He sweated great drops of blood—his life’s “oil”—which issued from every pore. (See Luke 22:44; D&C 19:18.)

Jesus was accorded titles of unique significance. One was the Messiah, which in Hebrew means “anointed.” The other was the Christ, which in the Greek language means “anointed” as well. In our day, as it was in His day, the ordinance of administration to the sick includes anointing with the consecrated oil of the olive. So the next time you witness consecrated oil being anointed on the head of one to be blessed, and these sacred words are said, “I anoint you with this consecrated oil,” remember what that original consecration cost. Remember what it meant to all who had ever lived and who ever would yet live. Remember the redemptive power of healing, soothing, and ministering to those in need. Remember, just as the body of the olive, which was pressed for the oil that gave light, so the Savior was pressed. From every pore oozed the lifeblood of our Redeemer. Throughout the joyous days of your mission, when your cup of gladness runs over, remember His cup of bitterness which made it possible. And when sore trials come upon you, remember Gethsemane.

The second phase of His atonement was effected on the cross. Hours before that was accomplished, Barabbas was released and, in his stead, Jesus the Christ was consigned to the cross. Ironic it is that Barabbas in local language literally means “son of the father.” While he was released, the true Son of the Eternal Father was condemned to death. (See Matt. 27:17–26.)

Pilate delivered the Lamb of God to be crucified at the same time Paschal lambs nearby were being prepared for sacrifice. (See John 19:13–14.)

The Crucifixion took place at a hill called Golgotha (Greek) or Calvary (Latin) meaning “the skull.” The skull symbolized death. At a place such as this, the atoning sacrifice was completed. On the cross, the Savior of the world was lifted up over death in the greatest of all possible significance—the realization and reality of the Lord’s power over death.

God the Father offered His son Jesus at Golgotha (or Calvary), a northern outcropping of Mount Moriah, where Abraham had nearly sacrificed Isaac some two thousand years previously. Foreseen long before, there the Savior’s atoning sacrifice was completed.

But of course that was not the end. It was but a new beginning. The reality of the resurrection was the most glorious event of all. The Apostle Paul wrote that after three days in the tomb Jesus had “risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. …

“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:20, 22.)

As a resurrected personage, the Lord charged his disciples with this important responsibility: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15.)

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” (Matt. 28:19–20.)

Future

This charge still applies to each of us. All true disciples of the Lord bear that sacred responsibility.

But the Savior’s ministry was not limited to the Holy Land. He spoke of “other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: … they shall hear my voice.” (John 10:16.)

Love for those other sheep brought the resurrected Lord to them here on the American hemisphere. (See 3 Ne. 15:21.) He taught the gospel to them. Here He established His church. He charged them with the responsibility of keeping records of His ministry among them.

This precious record we received from them as the Book of Mormon is the great clarifying scripture. It is the great missionary scripture. It is another testament of Jesus Christ. Its four major writers—Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, and Moroni—were all eye-witnesses of the Son of God. No wonder this sacred text has become our great and valuable friend as we teach and testify of the Lord.

We testify that God our Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith in upstate New York in 1820. There and then the promised restitution of all things was begun. The great latter-day work of which we are a part was established, on schedule, to bless a waiting and weeping world.

But eventually the Lord will return to the land that He made holy by His mission there in mortality. In triumph, He will come again to Jerusalem. In flaming royal robes of red to symbolize His blood, which oozed from every pore, He shall return to the Holy City. There and elsewhere, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” (Isa. 40:5.) His “name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6; see also 2 Ne. 19:6.)

The significance of the Holy Land as headquarters of the Lord’s ministry is not all in the past. Other prophecies are yet to be fulfilled in the future. Ultimately, at the onset of His millennial reign, Christ shall come again. The Mount of Olives to which He will return “shall cleave in twain.” (D&C 45:48.) When He appears, He will utter these words:

“I was wounded in the house of my friends. I am he who was lifted up. I am Jesus that was crucified. I am the Son of God.” (D&C 45:52.)

Our sacred charge is to prepare the world for that glorious second coming of the Lord.

Another temple will yet be built in Jerusalem. Water will issue from under the temple. Waters of the Dead Sea will be healed. All this and more will occur prior to the promised second coming of our King. From that temple He shall reign forever as Lord of Lords.

Nothing in the Savior’s life was without supernal significance or eternal consequence. He used locations available during His mortal ministry to fulfill prophecy and to teach in His “more excellent way.” (1 Cor. 12:31; see also Ether 12:11.)

As I contemplate our call to stand as witnesses of Christ “at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9), I think of a special scripture. After the priesthood had been given to the Lord’s Apostles, as His Father had given it to Him before, Jesus said, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.” (John 20:21; see also John 17:18.) Praying to His Father, He concluded, “And the glory [which is the priesthood] which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:22.)

So we are one, my beloved brothers and sisters, united in this cause and in the glory of Him who has sent us forth on His errand. May we sense and appreciate the symbolic significance of His mortal ministry in this Holy Land. May we understand His ministry to other sheep that He loved. May we realize our role in the restoration He has required, to prepare the world for His second coming. May we comprehend the eternal consequences of the endless life of our Lord, whose servants we are. May we have power and strength to motivate ourselves to do His will in the mountainous responsibilities that are before us.

[photos] Photos by Don Thorpe

[illustrations] Illustrated by Del Parson

[photos] Photos by William Schaefermeyer

[photo] A hillside near Bethlehem serves as backdrop for a scene of the Nativity.

[photo] It was somewhere on the Mount of Olives (backdrop) in a garden called Gethsemane that the Savior knelt in prayer and began his atoning sacrifice.