A modern apostle spoke before thousands of university students at Christmastime, sharing his spiritual deepening through retracing the Lord’s steps in Israel. He gave his audience vivid glimpses of the scenes of Christ’s birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. Yet four years later the apostle stood in the same pulpit and traced in a more meaningful way “the paths and the lanes we had traveled in that Holy Land where the Master had traveled.”1 He now felt “how short-sighted then was my view of the path where Jesus walked.”2 Seven years later Harold B. Lee became president of the Church, and his growing experience suggests a deeper meaning for walking in the steps of Jesus.
The paths of Palestine quickly tell visitors that Jesus did not come to a gentle environment. With the same arid climate as Utah, Israel is generally fractured by hills and jutting layers of rock. Sentimental illustrators drew the Savior on grassy slopes with brooks and shade. Irrigation or spring rains may change the land, but its reality is otherwise. Eliza R. Snow rode horseback into Jerusalem in 1873 and wrote of the “uneven” country;3 in the same group, George A. Smith mentioned leaving Jerusalem for Galilee in the midst of “a rocky, barren and almost desolate country.”4
A few years before, waspish Mark Twain sought to deglamorize the Galilean hillsides as “these unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounds of barrenness, that never, never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines.”5
He looked across the Sea of Galilee on a blistering day to imagine the New Testament swine running into the sea; in Twain’s unauthorized version they “doubtless thought it was better to swallow a devil or two and get drowned into the bargain than have to live longer in such a place.”6
Still earlier than Mark Twain (and with more reverence) Orson Hyde came to the land of Israel to dedicate it for the prophesied gathering of its people. Elder Hyde circled Jerusalem with spiritual thoughts in mind but could not escape the physical cost of walking there, commenting with mild humor: “After returning to the city, I found my feet and legs completely coated with dust; for the whole face of the country was like an ash bed in consequence of the great length of the dry season. I then thought how very convenient it must have been for the ancient disciples to fulfill one injunction of the Savior, ‘shake off the dust of your feet.’”7
In Israel one does not simply walk in the paths of Jesus, for that ignores the vertical dimension—often the path must be climbed. Jesus was born in the “hill country of Judea.” (Luke 1:65, 39.) He was likewise reared in Nazareth, which today slants steeply on hilly ridges. Luke noted the danger of the Lord being cast over “the brow of the hill” where the city was built. (Luke 4:29.) From his childhood Jesus attended Jerusalem feasts, descending on uneven roads, via the Sea of Galilee, where the Jordan route began. On occasion he might wind through the Samarian valleys. In both cases there was the final rocky ascent to the Holy City. In the Gospels travelers from Galilee (see John 2:13) or Jews from abroad (see John 12:20) correctly “go up” (anabaino) to Jerusalem, set high on Israel’s central spine. Jesus’ final journey was from Jericho (below sea level) to Jerusalem (elevation 2,500). He led the way through wastelands, “ascending up to Jerusalem.” (Luke 19:28.) Trudging up the backside of the Mount of Olives, Jesus next surveyed the city across the deep, eastern ravine. Then he mounted his donkey for “the descent of the Mount of Olives” (Luke 19:37), answering his detractors that if his followers would cease their praise, “the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40). This was but the latest journey of climbing and descending, normally through dust and rocks. Such physical travel becomes a powerful symbol of the great spiritual challenges that Jesus faced.
The Savior himself made this comparison in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 7:13–14), stressing that men walk the “way” of salvation or destruction.
This word means literally “road” (hodos) and is used variously for path, street, or highway in the New Testament. The broad and well-traveled road is worn down and easy to walk on. But the path of salvation attracts comparatively few. It is “narrow,” a Greek term meaning “compressed” or “restricted.” Many translators make this the “hard road,” the “difficult road,” or the “rough road.” These are correct meanings, although they oversimplify the Lord’s figurative language. Jesus’ “way” is like a lightly traveled country trail. Because it is not well-worn, it remains rocky and uneven; because it is narrow, briars and thistles crowd close to whoever walks on it. The traveler of that path must be determined, for he advances through obstacles.
Jesus’ audience had climbed such footways to the mount of his sermon. A little experience with that countryside—or a glance at photographs of it—gives the picture plainly. In simple association, the Lord said that his path was the steep path; the way of sacrifice and effort. He lived such a life in the physical poetry of his land. He climbed the parched hills of temptation; he climbed to many mountains of prayer; he climbed the “high mountain apart” for his magnificent transfiguration. Since his saving mission was filled with steady exertion, no one follows him by giving less. Jesus’ challenge on the mount is well captured in a common saying: “You can always tell when you’re on the right road—it’s uphill all the way.”
President Lee knew all of this as a seasoned apostle touring the Holy Land. But he did not then envision greater trials to come, particularly the death of his beloved wife, whom he both cherished and relied upon. He had come home from his first experiences in Israel “never to feel the same again about the mission of our Lord and Savior and to have impressed upon me as I have never had it impressed before what it means to be a special witness.”8 Yet there was a trying Gethsemane of grief following the loss of his companion. What might have been despair became a deepened spiritual perception, which he could share before a second Brigham Young University audience. His earlier pictures of Jesus’ paths were “shortsighted” only because the real way to follow the Lord is to experience the trials that he surmounted. Thus a stronger Elder Lee could share a special companionship with Jesus:
“I have come to learn that only through heartbreak and a lonely walk through the valley of the shadow of death do we really begin to glimpse the path that Jesus walked. Only then can we come to claim kinship with Him who gave his life that men might be.”9
Jesus spoke of the “narrow way,” but also said that he himself was “the way.” (John 14:6.) He grew through years of obedience to his parents, of patience with brothers and sisters. For years he worked with his hands, his mind and spirit, in preparation for his mission. He knew joys but many sorrows, for scripture records his tears. His prayers express gratitude for success, but especially seek courage in great trials. His greatest success was not a materially rewarding life, but unswerving faith in the Father in every aspect of life. In a higher light, the land of the Lord becomes a parable more than a pilgrimage as modern disciples seek his way in every land of the earth.