In His divine role, the Lord 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 a land with places stark and arid, a land where nomads dwell, living in tents and wandering as freely as the sheep and goats that they tend. He took advantage of the setting to teach with geographical visual aids, and to fulfill scripture.
Birth in Bethlehem
He chose to the born in Bethlehem, adjoining Jerusalem. 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, who 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 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 And Childhood
The place of His birth was to be in close proximity to Egypt in order to fulfill prophecy: “[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).
But He didn’t stay in Egypt very long. As a child, the Savior was brought to the village of Nazareth. 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).
The River Jordan was the site Jesus chose for His baptism by John to “fulfill 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.
We don’t know the precise location 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.” Could it be that Christ chose this location for His baptism in the River Jordan as a silent commemoration of the crossing of the faithful Israelites under Joshua’s direction so many years before (see Josh. 3), as well as a symbol that baptism is a spiritual crossing into the kingdom of God?
Mountain 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 [page 17] mountain apart,
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 some of 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.
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.
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 the 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!
Symbols of the Atonement
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 ever bearing—always green. Even if the tree is chopped down, life will spring from its roots, suggesting everlasting life.
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 them. So the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane was literally pressed under the weight of the sins of the world. He sweat 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 life blood of our Redeemer. 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, 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 (Hebrew) 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).
“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).
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 on the American hemisphere. (See 3 Ne. 15:21.) He taught the gospel to them. 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. 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). The Mount of Olives to which He will return “shall cleave in twain” (D&C 45:48).
Our sacred charge is to prepare the world for that glorious second coming of the Lord.
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.