Thoughts on Gospel Doctrine Lesson 39

Only after 1830 could one who sought God turn to a book to read about the true nature and post-resurrection ministry of the living, corporeal, resurrected Son of God. But when Joseph Smith entered the grove in 1820, the world had lain more than 1,600 years in ignorance of the nature of God. About A.D. 180 Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, France, wrote: "The Father of all is at a vast distance from those affections and passions which operate among men. He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to Himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good." 2

A few years after Irenaeus, Origen (ca. A.D. 230), a church scholar, described the Father and the Son: "Setting aside all thought of a material body, we say that [Christ] was begotten of the invisible and incorporeal God apart from any bodily feeling, like an act of will proceeding from the mind."3 Much of the Christian world today repeats creeds that describe a passionless, bodiless God.

The Prophet Joseph had seen more truth in a short interview with the Father and the Son than centuries of theological sophistry could discover. Further truths concerning the nature of God poured into our dark world through the pages of 3 Nephi. Joseph Smith remarked near the end of his life: "If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves."4 We will examine here several insights from 3 Nephi 17- 19 that pertain to the divine nature and its implications for man.

The First Day: God Revealed As a Man

One of the first doctrines to disappear when apostasy conceives in the hearts of mortals is the fact that God is a glorified man. When people repress that doctrine, they forget who they really are and what they may become (cf. the Zoramites, Alma 31:15). One of the first things Joseph Smith learned as the Lord undertook to educate him was that he was created in the literal image of the Father and the Son. Many express outrage at this doctrine, believing that it diminishes God and at the same time presumptuously exalts man. But Joseph Smith did not invent the idea. The Bible plainly speaks of man's creation in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27); Jacob saw God face to face (Gen. 32:30); God has feet (Ex. 24:10); he has a finger (Ex. 31:18); Moses saw his face (Ex. 33:11) and his back parts (Ex. 33:23) and spoke to God mouth to mouth (Num. 12:8). The "eyes of the Lord" and the "ears of the Lord" occur frequently in the Prophets and in Psalms. In Genesis God walks about in the garden. (Genesis 3:8.)

As apostasy progressed in the intertestamental period, as well as in the post-New Testament period, many theologians found the idea that God has a body and emotions to be an embarrassment.5 In spite of the fact that both the Old and New Testaments abound in expressions of God's love, joy, sadness, pity, and compassion, theologians of the third and fourth centuries A.D. preferred to envision God as impassible. R. M. Grant writes: "From the writings of early Christians after New Testament times we can discover relatively few references to God's love, though a few writers provide exceptions. In general the themes which were first developed were those related to God's transcendence and his relation to the cosmos."6 Hilary of Poitiers (ca. A.D. 350) declared that Christ felt the assault of suffering but not the pain of suffering; it was as if a weapon were to pierce water or fire or air. He allowed that Christ did display thirst and sorrow and hunger, but only for the sake of others, not to satisfy his own needs.7 Origen and other fathers avoided the themes of Christ's physical suffering in Gethsemane and of the atonement. The writings of even the Apostolic Fathers (second century A.D.) showed a marked weakening of the atonement idea, giving a minor place to the atoning value of his death.8 These themes of the nebulous and unfeeling nature of God sufficiently distanced God from mortals that they could occupy themselves with irrelevant spiritual debates. Settling for less in God, they could require less of themselves. But in Joseph Smith's day a new generation had come to the earth, and it was ripe for restoration of true doctrine.

With the sweet refreshment of simple truth, 3 Nephi described the appearance of the resurrected Christ: From heaven a Man descended clothed in a white robe. He declared he was the Christ and invited the people to confirm that by coming forward and thrusting their hands into his side and feeling the prints of the nails. (3 Ne. 11:14.) Twenty-five hundred people (3 Ne. 17:25), one by one, saw with their eyes, felt with their hands, and bore record that it was indeed Christ (3 Ne. 11:15).9 Each person saw and felt the tangible body of the resurrected Christ. The Apostle John declared: "Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist." (1 Jn. 4:2-3.)

God's Response to Man's Desire

As it grew late in the first day of the Savior's visit, and he had finished the teaching tasks of that day, he looked round on the people and declared: "Behold, my time is at hand." (3 Ne. 17:1.) "Go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds10 for the morrow, and I come unto you again. But now I go unto the Father and . . . unto the lost tribes of Israel." (3 Ne. 17:4.) Emotionally and physically spent, the people were overwhelmed. Yet their eyes held his.

Earlier the Lord taught them: "Blessed are all they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost." (3 Ne. 12:6.) They were not satisfied; they were hungry. They yearned for him. His intent was to go to the bosom of his Father and to visit the Lost Tribes, but the Nephites' desire prevailed with him. He invited them to bring their sick. As many as could crowd near him kissed his feet and bathed them with their tears. (3 Ne. 17:10.) He was compelled by their longing for him. They brought all their children. Then Jesus commanded the multitude to kneel. Groaning "within himself," he prayed; he was standing: "Father, I am troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel." (3 Ne. 17:14.) Kneeling, he continued his prayer, uttering things that could not be written; but those of the multitude who heard him bore record (3 Ne. 17:15): "The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father; and no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father." (3 Ne. 17:16-17.) Jesus arose to find the multitude overcome with joy. His joy was full in theirs. (3 Ne. 17:20.) Weeping, he took the children one by one,11 blessed them, and prayed to the Father for them. Then he wept again (3 Ne. 17:22): "Behold your little ones." The heavens opened, and angels descended in a fiery element that encircled the children; the angels ministered to them.12

Rendering comfort, relief, and healing knowledge belong to eternity. The whole host of heaven serves the cause of the healing and exaltation of God's children. Such simple virtues will continue into the eternities. Whatever Christ models for us is designed to endure in us. Whatever he teaches us he himself practices. Jesus, even though master of all, is servant of all. (Matt. 20:27.)

Bread of Life and the Mind of Christ

The Savior's next act was to institute the sacrament. (3 Ne. 18.) The Nephites ascended in their divine experience. They had witnessed outward manifestations of the Holy Ghost; now Jesus showed them how they could realize the promise of being inwardly filled in their hunger for the divine presence. He blessed bread and wine and instructed them to eat.

The Lord uses the image of "eating," whether fruit or bread or fish or living water, to provide a tangible symbol of obtaining a higher spiritual life, as though one could "eat" to replace one's old self with new cells of more dynamic and gifted life. Adam and Eve ate a new way of life (Gen. 3); the ancient Israelites ate the elements of the Passover and were delivered from spiritual and physical death (Ex. 12); they lived by the manna from heaven in the wilderness (Ex. 16); Lehi ate the fruit of the tree of Christ's love (1 Ne. 8); Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and John ate the words of Christ (Jer. 15:16; Ezek. 3:1; Rev. 10:10); Jesus bade the squeamish Jews to live by eating his flesh and blood (John 6:48-58). In each case, the people "ingested" the Holy Ghost, or obtained access to blessings through Christ. (1 Cor. 2:16.) The scripture records that the disciples and multitude were filled. (3 Ne. 18:4-5.) They were not only physically satisfied from an abundance of food, but also with what bread and wine represent: the spirit and body of Christ through the atonement. (3 Ne. 18:7.) Their physical satisfaction served as a device to teach spiritual satisfaction. In the sacrament covenant we promise to keep the commandments in exchange for the power to keep the commandments. We eat the emblems of the atonement to receive the spirit, the power, and the mind of Christ. The sacrament is not optional; it is the ordinance that unlocks the flow of the Holy Ghost and provides progression along the path of light and fullness.

True Prayer

True prayer is characterized by the presence of the Holy Ghost; that is, the Holy Ghost shows us what we may ask for and what we may obtain power to do: "Wherefore . . . feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do. . . . It [the Holy Ghost] will show unto you all things what ye should do." (2 Ne. 32:3, 5.) The words of Christ come not only from the scripture, but through the Holy Ghost as well.

Now that the multitude had eaten the sacrament, they were prepared to receive the mind of Christ through prayer. He is the light; he has set the example in prayer. (3 Ne. 18:16.) If we do not pray, we are in danger, because without the influence of Christ, we will absorb the influence of Satan. (3 Ne. 18:15, 18.) The Lord taught specifics:

1. (V. 19.) We pray to the Father of our spirits in the name of Christ, who is the Father of our spiritual rebirth. Our first Father holds the power of exaltation (Matt. 20:23; 3 Ne. 27:14-16); our second Father, Christ, holds the power of our spiritual rebirth on the path to our exaltation.

2. (V. 20.) (a) Ask aright, (b) believe, (c) receive: Prayer is labor in the spirit. Casually done, it has no power. We strain upward in spirit to grasp the answers we seek. We live for the Holy Ghost so that when we pray, we know what to ask for. Having power in the Holy Ghost, we have assurance that what we pray for will be granted. We believe, that is, we envision the realized blessing and actively receive it. "Believing," as it is used in the scriptures, signifies powerful confidence born of personal righteousness. (Hel. 14:13.)

3. (Vv. 21-23.) We learn that we may draw down the blessings of heaven on our loved ones, on the community of Saints, and on those who come to investigate. Prayer is not optional. We simply cannot move forward on the path of light without the Holy Ghost to illuminate the way.

The light that we must hold up, that must not be veiled in bushels of sin, fear, or pride, is the spirit of Christ that springs in us: "Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do." (3 Ne. 18:24.) We hold up, not the darkness of our own wills, but the light and love of God as Jesus demonstrated. He calls us to his works—not only sacrament, baptism, and so on, but also mighty miracles.

The image of holding up a light suggests that we hold up Christ's light in a dark world so those who are lost may come and have refuge in Jesus. Christ has given all in total consecration to the cause of saving God's children. We are to do the same in giving ourselves physically ("that ye might feel and see" [3 Ne. 18:25]) as well as spiritually, standing always behind his will rather than trotting ours out to the fore, being blind guides. (D&C 19:38-41.) For us to give less than all is by definition temptation and sin. (3 Ne. 18:25.) In fact, the implication is that if we do not actively and with full purpose of heart pursue the dissemination of Christ's light, we will find ourselves at cross purposes with God's will. Consecration saves us from ourselves.

Though we pray for and nurture those who live at the fringes of gospel commitment, the sacrament is reserved only for those in full fellowship. An unworthy person who takes the sacrament enters into spiritual chaos. If dangerous to the flock, the person shall not be numbered among them; that is, he or she may not be kept on the records of the church. But our responsibility to minister to the person continues as long as he or she will be ministered to. We never give up on someone lest Christ should "heal" the person and we be the means of bringing salvation to him or her. (3 Ne. 18:32.)

"And now I go unto the Father, because it is expedient that I should go unto the Father for your sakes." (3 Ne. 18:35.) The Lord made a similar statement to his apostles in Jerusalem: "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you." (John 16:7.) Christ had unveiled his glory to these Nephites. Spiritual realities were visually present with him. But we are here to live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), even though we lived by sight in our premortal home. It is not helpful for us at this stage of our progression to live with external visual heavenly manifestations. That fact underlies our separation from our premortal home. The reason is that inner perceptors of truth may not develop in the presence of manifestations. Now that we live on earth, we have even greater need for contact with our Heavenly Father. The Holy Ghost is sent to provide this contact by developing these inner perceptors. When those spiritual senses are developed, then we may reenter the presence of heavenly beings. The Second Comforter, or the physical presence of Christ and the Father, can come when we have developed our inner spiritual senses through the Holy Ghost.

The Savior's last act on this first day was to give his twelve disciples power to bestow the indispensable gift of the Holy Ghost (3 Ne. 18:36-37), that unseen link with the spiritual world. A heavenly cloud veiled his ascension into heaven.

The Second Day: Transfiguration

Through the night the people made known widely the fact that Jesus would return the next day. At the appointed time, Nephi and the rest of the Twelve divided the multitude into twelve groups; each disciple commenced teaching. After prayer, they accurately repeated the very words that Jesus had spoken the day before. (3 Ne. 19:8.) They prayed as Jesus had taught them, which was to pray for the Holy Ghost. Then Nephi baptized the rest of the Twelve, who received the Holy Ghost13 and the baptism of fire; angels returned to minister again. Jesus appeared in the midst of this heavenly fire, and at his command his disciples began to pray to him, calling him their Lord and God. (3 Ne. 19:18.) Jesus explained in 3 Nephi 19:22 that they prayed to him rather than the Father because Jesus was with them. But the instruction under all other circumstances was to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ. (3 Ne. 19:7.) We want to ask what they prayed to him. We cannot answer fully until we have experienced this kind of prayer ourselves, because the experience is grasped in one's spirit. But one thing we observe is that Jesus—even after his resurrection—continued to set the example in prayer.

Jesus thanked the Father for the giving of the Holy Ghost and prayed that all who heard the words of his disciples would believe them. The Lord encircled them with his love and righteousness, and they entered together into at-one- ment as Jesus prayed for that state of oneness. (3 Ne. 19:23.) It was a joyful fruition of his recent painful atonement.

It is the possession of the fullness that brings people into oneness with each other. As the Father has granted fullness to the Son, so a portion had been granted through the Holy Ghost to the disciples.

Jesus returned from prayer to find the disciples still praying: "It was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire. And it came pass that Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof. And Jesus said unto them: Pray on; nevertheless they did not cease to pray." (3 Ne. 19:24-26.)

The Holy Ghost performs two of his functions in these passages: he fills those praying with catalytic desire, and he burns out impurities and cleanses them. In this process the disciples were transfigured, being empowered to endure the presence of heavenly elements and beings without being wholly consumed. (D&C 76:118.)

"Father, I thank thee that thou hast purified those whom I have chosen, because of their faith, and I pray for them, and also for them who shall believe on their words, that they may be purified in me, through faith on their words, even as they are purified in me." (3 Ne. 19:28.) We grasp here the meaning of the promise to those disciples who believe the words of the Lord's apostles and prophets. We too can experience this increasing purification and glory of the Lord. The Holy Ghost performs this purification for our entrance into the Lord's presence. We cannot cleanse ourselves. This process is initiated by our desire and effort, but it is consummated by the power of the Lord. (D&C 88:74.)

"Father, I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me out of the world, because of their faith, that they may be purified in me, that I may be in them as thou, Father, art in me, that we may be one, that I may be glorified in them." (3 Ne. 19:29.) Jesus spoke of being glorified. As we understand from D&C 93, glory is a manifestation related to light, truth, and intelligence; that is, to fullness. The reception of the fullness causes one to be glorified.

"When Jesus had spoken these words he came again unto his disciples; and behold they did pray steadfastly, without ceasing, unto him; and he did smile upon them again; and behold they were white, even as Jesus." (3 Ne. 19:30.) What does the shining, smiling face of God signify? The smile reflects the joy in God's nature and his giving of that joy to his receptive children. Elder Melvin J. Ballard experienced that divine smile:

As I entered the door, I saw, seated on a raised platform, the most glorious Being my eyes have ever beheld or that I ever conceived existed in all the eternal worlds. As I approached to be introduced, he arose and stepped towards me with extended arms, and he smiled as he softly spoke my name. If I shall live to be a million years old, I shall never forget that smile. He took me into his arms and kissed me, pressed me to his bosom, and blessed me, until the marrow of my bones seemed to melt! When he had finished, I knelt at his feet, and, as I bathed them with my tears and kisses, I saw the prints of the nails in the feet of the Redeemer of the world. The feeling that I had in the presence of him who hath all things in his hands, to have his love, his affection, and his blessing was such that if I ever can receive that of which I had but a foretaste, I would give all that I am, all that I ever hope to be, to feel what I then felt.14

"The multitude did hear and do bear record; and their hearts were open and they did understand in their hearts the words which he prayed . . . [which] cannot be written, neither can they be uttered by man." (3 Ne. 19:33.) God has granted to many the right and power to communicate to others important things pertaining to the mysteries of the kingdom (although even this information is understood by the Holy Ghost). But there is reserved by God that knowledge which is communicated only by God directly to the one whose heart is prepared. This knowledge cannot be communicated to others. Joseph Smith wrote as he viewed the mysteries and works of God: "Which [works and mysteries of God] he commanded us we should not write while we were yet in the Spirit, and are not lawful for man to utter; neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him; to whom he grants this privilege of seeing and knowing for themselves; that through the power and manifestation of the Spirit, while in the flesh, they may be able to bear his presence in the world of glory." (D&C 76:115-18.)


In these chapters we observe how like God man is, how he is organized on the same principles that God is, and how it is man's destiny to develop into a Godly being. Through Christ, we learn that God is a man, that he has a tangible body; we see that he is deeply sensitive, patient, loving, and responsive to the pure desires of his children. He teaches us to study him and be as he is. We observe that coming to the sacrament table hungry in spirit will prepare us to receive the Holy Ghost and the mind of Christ. We begin to understand how intimate a relationship he offers us. We learn that he stands ready to share his fullness as fast as we can put aside the veil of fear and sin. We sense that a stronger envisioning of the spiritual realities around us might draw us closer to a face-to-face view.


  1. Catherine Thomas is a doctoral student in ancient history at Brigham Young University.
  2. "Adversus Haereses," 10.3. The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885).
  3. "De Principiis," 4.4.1, in G. W. Butterworth, ed., Origen: On First Principles (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 313-14.
  4. King Follett Discourse (Willard Richards's account) in The Words of Joseph Smith, Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook eds. (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1981), p. 340.
  5. Edwin Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church (London: Williams and Norgate, 1914), p. 69; for anthropomorphisms in the Old Testament, see Cecil Roth, "Anthropomorphism," Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 3 (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972), p. 53.
  6. Robert M. Grant, The Early Christian Doctrine of God (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1966), pp. 4-5.
  7. De Trinitas, 10-23.
  8. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (San Franciso: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 165.
  9. The image of 2,500 people going forth one by one arrests our attention. Even if each person had only ten seconds to touch the Lord's body, that adds up to nearly seven hours that he stood patiently and graciously allowed this examination.
  10. The Lord reminded us of the place our agency has in our receiving spiritual growth and blessing. We may understand spiritual experience too passively, waiting for something to happen to us. Perhaps we wait too patiently for the arrival of the spiritual blessings we need. We may not realize that many blessings require, initially, acts of will on our part, a labor in the spirit, a setting aside of time: cleansing of selfish purpose from the heart, submission, envisioning the blessing, thanks in anticipation of receiving the blessing. God gave us agency, and it may have more power than we have used.
  11. This is the second use of "one by one" and reassures us of the Lord's individual attention to each of his children. Again we calculate how much time the blessing of many hundreds of children individually must have taken. He illustrated what he says later: "I know my sheep, and they are numbered." (3 Ne. 18:31.)
  12. Cf. Matt 20:28: "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister." The New Bible Dictionary notes that the Hebrew term mesaret (LXX leitourgos) and its correlates normally refer to temple service, or else to the ministration of angels. It refers to service in general, has the special connotation of lowly service, often of a subordinate. In Luke 22:27 Christ appears among the disciples as ho diakonon, "one who serves." (J. D. Douglas, ed. New Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed. [Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1982].) Ministering suggests the giving of spiritual gifts for relief and comfort.
  13. These Nephites had baptism all along, but with the establishment of a new organization of the Church, they all underwent baptism and confirmation for admission into the new order.
  14. Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Missionary Service of Melvin J. Ballard (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1949), pp. 155-56.

Kent P. Jackson, Studies in Scripture, Vol. 8: Alma 30 to Moroni, 172- 181.

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