(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 4-29-15)
“After this there was a feast of the Jews,” reports John 5:1, “and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”
That notion of “going up” to Jerusalem is much more interesting than it might at first appear. Indeed, it’s a very rich idea, and an ancient one.
Of course, it’s partly a matter of literal, physical climbing. The city of Jerusalem rests at approximately 2,500 feet above sea level on a relatively high mountain ridge; Nazareth sprawls between 1,000 and 1,500 feet lower, to the north. So Jesus would really have been climbing up to Jerusalem.
And so would virtually every other visitor to the city. The Mediterranean coast is 37 miles west of Jerusalem, and the even deeper Jordan River Valley and Dead Sea sit 22 miles to the east — forming a part of the overall Great Rift Valley that extends for 3,700 miles from Lebanon in the north down to Mozambique, in southeastern Africa.
Thus, when, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “a certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves” (Luke 10:30), he was really going down. At 1,200 feet below sea level, Jericho is fully 3,700 feet lower than Jerusalem, although it’s only about 17 miles away. And anybody who’s ever driven the road from Jericho to Jerusalem — in very low gear for buses and trucks — knows how steep the upward grade is.
The Book of Mormon, incidentally, gets things exactly right when — clever boy, that Joseph Smith! — Lehi and the members of his family continually go down from Jerusalem into the wilderness and then return up to Jerusalem when they're sent back (as at 1 Nephi 2:5; 3:9-29; 5:1; 7:2-5, 15, 22).
But it’s not merely geography: Jerusalem was the site of the temple of God, “the Mountain of the Lord’s House.”
In medieval and modern Arabic, Jerusalem is known as “al-Quds,” “the Holy One,” which refers not to streets, hotels, intersections, office buildings, gas stations and cafes, but to the temple. It’s a shortened form of the still earlier Arabic name “Bayt al-Maqdis” or “Bayt al-Muqqadas” (“the Holy House”), which, in turn, reflects the ancient Hebrew term “Bayt ha-Miqdash.”
“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?” asks the Psalmist, “or who shall stand in his holy place?” He then proceeds to cite some of the characteristics of those permitted to enter the temple (see Psalm 24:3-5; compare Psalm 15).
In fact, 15 of the biblical Psalms (120-134) bear the label “song of ascent” or, as the King James Version puts it, “song of degrees.” (They’ve also been called “songs of steps” and “pilgrim songs.”) Many scholars believe that these psalms were sung by worshippers walking up the road to Jerusalem for the three great pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost, or by priests as they climbed 15 steps for their service in the temple — symbolically ascending to God. Some have suggested that they were composed for Solomon’s dedication of the temple.
Lingering traces of the notion of “ascending” to Jerusalem persist. Still today, for example, nearly 2,000 years after the Romans destroyed the temple, even secular Jews who immigrate to Israel are said to be "making ‘aliyah,’” where “aliyah” means “ascent.” (Think of the Israeli national airline, “El Al,” which means “to the skies” or “skyward.”)
And, for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are more than merely lingering traces. In modern temples, for instance, the initial ordinance of entry into God’s kingdom, baptism, is performed on a lower floor, “in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:13). Thereafter, worshippers typically climb ever higher in the temples as they receive the ordinances of the Lord’s house, symbolically approaching the presence of God.
Finally, too, the notion of temple-related ascent forms part of the prophesied future:
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (see Isaiah 2:2-3; compare Micah 4:1-2).