JERUSALEM — As Friday’s evening sun set over the western reaches of Jerusalem and signaled the start of the Jewish 25-hour observance of Shabbat — a day of rest and spiritual enrichment — a select but diverse group of followers of Jesus Christ gathered on the hillside between the city’s Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus to worship and to listen to one of the Lord’s special witnesses who was in their midst.
Attendees thru the next day came not only from Jerusalem itself, but from nearby Bethlehem to the south, from Tel Aviv and Haifa north along the Mediterranean coast, and inland from Tiberias overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Some were from faraway lands — from North America and Latin America, and from Europe and Africa, and from Asia and the South Pacific.
A few were longtime residents, some were pupils studying in Israel, and others were journeying from distant countries, having learned of the regular weekly worship service and finding their way to join and participate.
With a view across the Kidron Valley and toward the Old City and its Temple Mount, with the sacred location visibly marked by the iconic Dome of the Rock, the modern-day disciples of Christ warmly greeted one another, sang hymns together and spiritually feasted on words from a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who greeted them as fellow disciples.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf spoke at two meetings held in the BYU Jerusalem Center on Friday and Saturday, April 21-22.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ and its role in helping God’s children repent and be worthy to return to Him served as a common refrain throughout Elder Uchtdorf’s messages.
“The great gift is the sacrifice of His Son, the Beloved Savior,” he said. “It is Jesus Christ who is at the center, and this great gift fills my heart with great gratitude. …
“I bear witness of Him. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ,” the Apostle frequently repeated to his listeners in both meetings.
Evening devotional, morning district conference
During the Friday evening devotional, Elder Uchtdorf and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, spoke to Brigham Young University students who have spent the past semester at the Jerusalem Center and who earlier in the day had finished the last of their final exams. The gathering kicked off a final weekend for the students before returning home.
The following Saturday morning in the same Jerusalem Center auditorium, Elder Uchtdorf, Sister Uchtdorf and others addressed members of the Jerusalem, Jordan River and Tel Aviv branches in the Church’s Jerusalem District.
As is often the case, local Church members were joined by Latter-day Saints touring the Holy Land and its sacred sites. Attendance was so great that the 250-seat auditorium was filled and dozens were sent to overflow areas to watch via videoconference.
Attendees sat looking toward the speaker, with large windows behind opening an expansive view of the Holy City. In his Saturday morning message, Elder Uchtdorf spoke of the mortal ministry of the Savior in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land and how the principles and truths of His gospel bless His disciples not only today but in preparation for the future, including Christ’s Second Coming.
‘I need to be ready’
“He will come — that is for sure,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “And we need to be ready. Readiness is not when He is coming, but what is important for me is that I am ready when I step through the veil of mortality, perhaps long before He comes back.”
In an emotional whisper, he continued, “I need to be ready so I can fall on my knees before Him, kiss His feet, thank Him for His sacrifice, for His gift to help me become perfect in Him. That is what we need the most — to be perfected in Him. We through our own strength will not be able to become perfect. Only through Christ, who is our strength. By His grace, by our Heavenly Father’s grace, we will be perfected through Him.”
Elder Uchtdorf underscored that Christ is generous in giving His gospel, His example and His life, but “it is up to us, it is our willingness to repent and our desire to become more like Him.
“We have to reach out to Him, accept the gift and be His disciple. He lives. He is real. I know Him. I know Jesus Christ.”
A ‘historic’ combination for many members
Saturday morning’s conference was also broadcast to Latter-day Saints living in Israel and the West Bank.
Elder Roland Bäck — a United Arab Emirates-based Area Seventy and Middle East/Africa North Area presidency counselor who spoke in Saturday’s conference — noted the fact that a latter-day Apostle was ministering to Latter-day Saints in the Holy Land this week. “Being able to be here and have one who is a special witness of Christ is very unique,” he said. “That combination is something that’s historic for many of the members.”
He added that while the members and branches of the Jerusalem District are unique because of their Holy Land location, “everybody should understand that regardless of where we are in the world, we can follow Jesus Christ in our own personal circumstances and always still feel close to Him and be a part of the body of the Church.”
And that is true for district members beyond Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Tiberias who because of distance and circumstances have to worship remotely through videoconference. “Even though we may be distant to where the large congregations are, in the Spirit we can be close and connected to them.”
Jerusalem District President Jason Belknap said he hopes members felt the Spirit and a confirmation of the Savior in their lives from the day’s messages. “To be here to overlook the place where Christ was and to feel the Spirit to understand that Christ lives today — that’s what I wanted them to feel so they can come closer to Christ.”
Visits to Gethsemane, the Garden Tomb
Recently sustained Young Women General President Emily Belle Freeman, who will begin serving in August, and her husband, Brother Greg Freeman, were among the dozens of tourists visiting Israel who joined the Saturday morning conference.
“One thing that really stood out to me is the importance here in the Holy Land of showing holiness without using words,” she said. “And I love that counsel. I think it applies to us here in the Holy Land, where we cannot proselyte but we can show God’s holiness through who we are here — but also at home, the same applies.”
Thérèse Matio is a district member from Cameroon, a French-speaking Central Africa county, and is waiting for a call as a FamilySearch service missionary. She said the conference provided “a deep feeling for me” and added: “I know that he is an Apostle of God and his message personally spoke to me today. It was an honor to meet him and to hear about needing to have more patience in my life.”
Following the conference and a light lunch, Eric Hunstman — the BYU Jerusalem Center’s academic director — and his wife, Elaine, took Elder and Sister Uchtdorf for a brief visit to the traditional area of the Garden of Gethsemane. Walking among the centuries-old olive trees, they paused to read New Testament verses on the Savior’s suffering in the garden before His trial and Crucifixion, and sang several hymns, including “Reverently and Meekly Now” (“Hymns,” No. 185).
They then went to the Garden Tomb, an early tomb representative of the one where the body of Christ may have been laid. There at the site, they read the New Testament accounts of Mary and other women coming to the tomb on the morning of His Resurrection and Mary greeting the resurrected Savior. The visit finished with the singing of the hymn “He Is Risen!” (“Hymns,” No. 199).
BYU Jerusalem Center devotional
In the Friday evening devotional with the 100 students attending the BYU Jerusalem Center, Elder Uchtdorf also spoke on the importance of discipleship — in word, thought and deed. “Discipleship is a state of being,” he said, “so please be that person who is a disciple, who bears witness through your life, through your actions, through your words.”
Acknowledging that Latter-day Saints are restricted from actively proselyting in Israel, Elder Uchtdorf said one can bear witness “through our being, our actions, just through our presence — so make sure you live the gospel and show the people that through your life, you have a testimony of Jesus Christ and of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He also testified of the resurrected Christ. “The Lord has risen. He lives now. He is real. He knows you. He is your Savior as He is my Savior, and you are His disciples as I am His disciple.”
And emphasizing the merits of repentance and forgiveness, the Apostle read Doctrine and Covenants 58:42 and added: “You have the power to say, ‘I know I have been forgiven because I repented and God remembers my sins no more.’ This is the message of hope, the message of joy. It is one of the most hopeful verses in the holy scriptures.”
Sister Uchtdorf spoke of visiting the area near the Sea of Galilee where Christ would have taught the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:3–12; Luke 6:20–23) during His Sermon on the Mount. “The Beatitudes can shape your attitude,” she said before reading them.
“Do you see how these words of Christ can influence you for good?” she asked before linking attitude with gratitude and then closing with her testimony of the Savior.
What BYU Jerusalem Center students were saying
Devin Duffy, a BYU Jerusalem Center student from Denver, Colorado, said he loved the Uchtdorfs’ point of cultivating an attitude of gratitude. “I’ve felt the presence of the Lord so much here in the Holy Land, and I want to maintain that when I go back. So it dawned on me that I can create a templelike space in my heart, wherever I’m at. I can create a sphere of positivity, uplift, joy, forgiveness and kindness wherever I am — and that will ensure that wherever I am, I will have the Savior with me.”
Said Sadie Eyre of Chicago, Illinois: “What was solidified for me was the joy that the gospel brings — not only to us as individuals, but that we can be peacemakers and see others as Christ sees them, whether that’s here in the Holy Land or at home. The light of Christ is truly in others, and we can find that light.”
Syrena Dyreng of Hillsborough, North Carolina, said the Spirit confirmed to her that God really does speak to His children and that He can in so many ways.
Cub Johnson of Boise, Idaho, said he appreciated Elder Uchtdorf’s message about the youth and young adults not only being the future of the Church but also its present and part of the body of Christ. “I might be the foot, but I’m still part of the body of Christ — that’s so beautiful that I can do my part to bring light to this earth right now.”
Ellie Mason of Mesa, Arizona, said she learned through the Spirit and Elder Uchtdorf’s instruction that she can help lead in the Church of Jesus Christ. “God is not just expecting me to foresee the future, and He doesn’t expect me to make perfect decisions for this perfect path that He already has created. God wants me to enable the future to happen and to co-create it with Him. And I thought that was really powerful, hearing that from an Apostle.”
Correction: An earlier version contained an incorrect approximation for the date of the Garden Tomb.