Thoughts on Gospel Doctrine Lesson 37

by | Sep. 16, 2004

Sunday School

Christ in the New World: The First Day

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown them!"

In the spirit of that thought, consider another startling—and much more important—scene that would evoke belief and adoration, a scene that, like the stars at night, we have undoubtedly taken too much for granted. Imagine the people of Nephi in the land of Bountiful in approximately a.d. 34. Tempests, earthquakes, whirlwinds, and storms, quickened and cut by thunder and sharp lightning, enveloped the entire face of the land. Entire cities burst into flame as if by spontaneous combustion. Others disappeared into the sea or were covered by mounds of soil. Some were carried away by the wind.

All this was done in three hours—the final three hours Christ hung on the cross in the Old World—a time and destruction so severe, as prophesied by Zenos, that "the kings of the isles of the sea" would exclaim, "The God of nature suffers." Then darkness settled upon the land for three days:

"And it came to pass that there was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness;

"And there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled with their fine and exceedingly dry wood, so that there could not be any light at all;

"And there was not any light seen, neither fire, nor glimmer, neither the sun, nor the moon, nor the stars, for so great were the mists of darkness which were upon the face of the land.

"And it came to pass that it did last for the space of three days that there was no light seen; and there was great mourning and howling and weeping among all the people continually; yea, great were the groanings of the people, because of the darkness and the great destruction which had come upon them."

Later (after at least the Savior's forty-day post-resurrection ministry to his disciples in the Old World), people were milling about the temple grounds at Bountiful, still marveling at the changes that had come to the land. Suddenly, out of the heavens, a voice of sweet, piercing power said, "Behold my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him." As the people gazed into heaven, a man clothed in a white robe descended, emanating the very essence of light and life. His glory was a splendid and sharp contrast to the three days of death and darkness experienced earlier by these people.

Then the Son spoke, with a voice that penetrated to the marrow, saying simply, "I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world."

That appearance and that declaration constituted the focal point, the supreme moment, in the entire history of the Book of Mormon. It was the manifestation and the decree that had informed and inspired every Nephite prophet for the previous six hundred years, to say nothing of their Israelite and Jaredite forefathers for thousands of years before that.

Everyone had talked of him, sung of him, dreamed of him, and prayed for his appearance—but here he actually was. The day of days! The God who turns every dark night into morning light had arrived.

Of all the messages that could come from the scroll of eternity, what was the declaration he brought? The Nephite faithful listened as he spoke: "I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning." Fifty-six words. The essence of his earthly mission. Obedience and loyalty to the will of the Father, however bitter the cup or painful the price. That is a lesson he would teach these Nephites again and again during the three days he would be with them. By obedience and sacrifice, by humility and purity, by unflagging determination to glorify the Father, Christ was himself glorified. In complete devotion to the Father's will, Christ had become the light and the life of the world. "And . . . when Jesus had spoken these words the whole multitude fell to the earth."

Signs of Christ's Birth

Consider the events that led up to this New World advent. It was not mere coincidence that this appearance came following a severe test of Nephite faith, a test on the very subject with which Christ announced his arrival—obedience to the will of the Father.

Prior to the night of Christ's birth, the Nephites had been watching steadfastly for the sign of his mortal advent, "that day and that night and that day which should be as one day as if there were no night, that they might know that their faith had not been vain." That sign was to be life-or-death evidence in more ways than one, for the unbelievers had declared that "all those who believed in those traditions should be put to death except the sign should come to pass."

When Nephi, the son of Nephi, saw the wickedness of his people, his heart was "exceedingly sorrowful." With great concern for the safety of the faithful, he "went out and bowed himself down upon the earth, and cried mightily to his God in behalf of his people, yea, those who were about to be destroyed because of their faith in the tradition of their fathers."

After Nephi had prayed with such urgency throughout the entire day, the voice of the Lord came to him, saying, "Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfil all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.

"Behold, I come unto my own, to fulfil all things which I have made known unto the children of men from the foundation of the world, and to do the will, both of the Father and of the Son—of the Father because of me, and of the Son because of my flesh. And behold, the time is at hand, and this night shall the sign be given."

In fulfillment of that promise, there was no darkness all that night. It was, rather, as light as midday. When morning came, the sun rose again, "according to its proper order," The Nephites knew it was the day the Lord would be born "because of the sign which had been given. . . . And it came to pass also that a new star did appear, according to the word."

Opposition from Satan

It is revealing and ironic to note how the adversary will use any means possible to abuse the gospel plan, even to the point of encouraging its use—so long as that use is not what God desires, as in this instance where the law of Moses (not the gospel) was still the governing code. As with New Testament teachings, so too with Book of Mormon theology. It was not the birth of Christ that fulfilled the law of Moses but rather his death, his atoning sacrifice. Therefore the Nephites were still under obligation to observe that ancient Mosaic code even though the sign of Christ's birth had been received.

Even though this sequence of events would bring the triumph of the Savior and the ultimate defeat of Lucifer, the latter must have smiled just a little to see that "there were no contentions, save it were a few that began to preach, endeavoring to prove by the scriptures that it was no more expedient to observe the law of Moses. Now in this thing they did err, having not understood the scriptures."

Something else must have given Lucifer foul delight as well. In spite of this miraculous moment of Christ's birth, in yet another manifestation of the natural man and the natural mind, "people began to forget those signs and wonders which they had heard, and began to be less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts, and blind in their minds, and began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen—

"Imagining up some vain thing in their hearts, that it was wrought by men and by the power of the devil, to lead away and deceive the hearts of the people; and thus did Satan get possession of the hearts of the people again, insomuch that he did blind their eyes and lead them away to believe that the doctrine of Christ was a foolish and a vain thing."

Some things never seem to change.

Prophetic Power

For the next thirty years, Nephite civilization proceeded according to their long-established pattern—moments of righteousness and consequent prosperity followed by transgression and alienation. But the transcendent moments were transcendent indeed. At one point "there was not a living soul among all the people of the Nephites who did doubt in the least the words of all the holy prophets who had spoken; for they knew that it must needs be that they must be fulfilled.

"And they knew that it must be expedient that Christ had come, because of the many signs which had been given, according to the words of the prophets. . . .

"Therefore they did forsake all their sins, and their abominations, and their whoredoms, and did serve God with all diligence day and night."

That kind of faithfulness brought prosperity so great that "nothing in all the land [could] hinder the people from prospering continually, except they should fall into transgression." But fall into transgression they did, as a result of those two challenges that were forever the destruction of Nephite righteousness—pride and riches. In a short time, great inequality developed in the Nephite church, insomuch that it "began to be broken up; yea, insomuch that in the thirtieth year the church was broken up in all the land save it were among a few of the Lamanites who were converted unto the truth faith; and they would not depart from it."

It is interesting to note—again against the backdrop of Christ's appearance and the declaration that in all things he had obeyed the will of the Father—that the unfaithful "did not sin ignorantly, for they knew the will of God concerning them, for it had been taught unto them; therefore they did wilfully rebel against God."

To counter such willful disobedience, many men, "inspired from heaven and sent forth," stood among the people and testified boldly of the redemption that the Lord would make for his people, "or in other words, the resurrection of Christ; and they did testify boldly of his death and sufferings." The most powerful of these was Nephi, son of Nephi, who had been visited by angels, had heard the voice of the Lord, and was an eyewitness, "having had power given unto him that he might know concerning the ministry of Christ" and who testified boldly the principles of repentance, remission of sins, faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Although his opponents were often unresponsive, they could not gainsay such prophetic power. "And it came to pass that they were angry with him, even because he had greater power than they, for it were not possible that they could disbelieve his words, for so great was his faith on the Lord Jesus Christ that angels did minister unto him daily.

"And in the name of Jesus did he cast out devils and unclean spirits; and even his brother did he raise from the dead. . . . And he did also many more miracles, in the sight of the people, in the name of Jesus."

The Voice of Christ to the Nephites

In spite of these kinds of divine manifestations, unrighteousness largely prevailed. Recompense came with unprecedented force. On the fourth day of the first month in the thirty-fourth year of the new Nephite calendar (who now reckoned time from the night and the day that had indicated Christ's birth), there arose the great storm that has been mentioned, "such an one as never had been known in all the land."

After noting the devastation among the people, over which "the devil laughe [d], and his angels rejoice[d], because of the slain of the fair sons and daughters" of the Lord's people, a voice from the darkness of destruction cried out, "O all ye that are spared because ye were more righteous than they, will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?

"Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life. Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me."

Out of the darkness of destruction came the voice the Nephite nation had waited more than six hundred years to hear.

"Behold, I am Jesus Christ the Son of God," he said. "I created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are. I was with the Father from the beginning. I am in the Father, and the Father in me; and in me hath the Father glorified his name.

"I came unto my own, and my own received me not. And the scriptures concerning my coming are fulfilled. . . . By me redemption cometh, and in me is the law of Moses fulfilled.

"I am the light and the life of the world. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

"And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.

"And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost. . . .

"Behold, I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin.

"Therefore, whoso repenteth and cometh unto me as a little child, him will I receive, for of such is the kingdom of God. Behold, for such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again; therefore repent, and come unto me ye ends of the earth, and be saved."

As should be expected, such an introductory pronouncement from the great Jehovah/Jesus himself is laden with doctrinal significance. Note the key doctrinal elements contained in these eight verses. Every line contains deep, divine meanings.

  • The heavenly voice was that of Jesus Christ, who declared himself to be the Son of God.
  • He was the creator of the heavens, the earth, and "all things that in them are."
  • He was with the Father from the beginning.
  • He is in the Father, and the Father in him.
  • In him the Father has glorified his name.
  • He had come to his own people (his own tribe or family), and they had received him not.
  • All the scriptures concerning his coming were now fulfilled.
  • To those who had received him, including the ordinances and covenants involved, he provided a way to become the sons and daughters of God.
  • He would extend that same privilege to all who would yet believe on his name.
  • By him alone redemption comes.
  • In his completed mortal ministry the law of Moses was fulfilled.
  • He is the light and the life of the world.
  • He is Alpha and Omega, the hope of our victory in the beginning of the plan and the evidence of our triumph at the end of it.
  • All blood sacrifices and burnt offerings were to be done away. None such would be accepted by him in the future.
  • A "new" sacrifice, the spirit of which was always to have been the motivating force behind the earlier symbolic sacrifices, is that of "a broken heart and a contrite spirit." These are the ultimate symbols of Christ's death, a death that came as a result of the contrition he felt for the world's sins and the broken, sorrowing heart that ruptured as he hung upon the cross.
  • Whoever will come to Christ with a broken heart and a contrite spirit will be baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost.
  • Christ came into the world to bring redemption and to save the world from sin.
  • All who so repent and come unto him "as a little child" will be received, "for of such is the kingdom of God." He said, "For such I have laid down my life, and have taken it up again."

Concurrent with these and other such magnificent declarations, the darkness lifted and the earth ceased to tremble. The light of the world had come. The more righteous part of the people had been saved, through their obedience, and were now prepared to receive the visitation of the Son of God himself.

Christ's Appearance at the Temple

Following his appearance and declaration of obedience, Christ dramatically reinforced the price he had paid to suffer the will of the Father in all things. As evidence of his loyalty and as a reward to the congregation for theirs, Christ spoke to those gathered at the temple, saying, "Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world."

At that invitation, the entire multitude went forth "one by one," thrusting their hands into his side and feeling the prints of the nails in his hands and feet. Even though the power of the Resurrection could have—and undoubtedly one day will have— completely restored and made new the wounds from the crucifixion, nevertheless Christ chose to retain those wounds for a purpose, including for his appearance in the last days when he will show those marks and reveal that he was wounded "in the house of [his] friends."

The wounds in his hands, feet, and side are signs that in mortality painful things happen even to the pure and the perfect, signs that tribulation is not evidence that God does not love us. It is a significant and hopeful fact that it is the wounded Christ who comes to our rescue. He who bears the scars of sacrifice, the lesions of love, the emblems of humility and forgiveness is the Captain of our Soul. That evidence of pain in mortality is undoubtedly intended to give courage to others who are also hurt and wounded by life, perhaps even in the house of their friends.

In spite of the size of the great multitude, Christ nevertheless took time for each one to have that personal experience. All "did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come." They shouted their exaltations and hosannahs and fell down at the feet of Jesus to worship him.

Baptism by Immersion at the Hands of One Who Has Authority

Before Christ taught these people the grand truths he was about to deliver, he gave wonderful evidence for the importance of ordinances in the gospel. Although these Nephites had authority to baptize in the old Mosaic dispensation, Christ invited Nephi forward to affirm his priesthood authority to baptize in the new gospel dispensation, and perhaps to ordain him to the apostleship at the same time. Then he called another group forward, instructing them how to baptize and noting that there would be "no disputations" among them on this crucial doctrine.

He instructed the Nephites to "go down and stand in the water" and to give a precise baptismal prayer; they were then to call the baptismal candidates by name and "immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water."

Stressing, "thus shall ye baptize," the Master in whose name and by whose authority baptisms are performed again said, "There shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been."

Perhaps anticipating the controversies that would creep into later Christendom over doctrines as fundamental as baptism by immersion, Christ made it clear from what source such confusion would come: "He that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another."

He continued, "Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away. . . .

"Behold . . . I will declare unto you my doctrine.

"And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; . . . I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.

"And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.

"And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.

"Verily, verily I say unto you, that this is my doctrine. . . .

"Ye must repent, and become as a little child, and be baptized in my name, or ye can in nowise . . . inherit the kingdom of God.

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.

"And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock."

The Savior stressed such strong, recurring themes as the unity of the Godhead and the need for all disciples to be as little children, but clearly the foundational doctrine of baptism is at the heart of Christ's saving ministry, for he repeated the phrase "my doctrine"—particularly as applied to baptism—at least eight times in his unequivocal counsel to the Nephites.'

Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon, 249-410.

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