Latter-day Saint Life

Elder Holland’s insights on how the Book of Mormon can deepen our understanding of the Sermon on the Mount

Lead image a screenshot from YouTube of the 2016 Worldwide Teacher Council Meeting.

Editor's note: The following is adapted from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s book, Christ and the New Covenant. This excerpt was originally published on in February 2019.

Following his appearance [to the Nephites] and declaration of obedience, Christ dramatically reinforced the price he had paid to suffer the will of the Father in all things….

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….

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, 49 for he repeated the phrase "my doctrine"—particularly as applied to baptism—at least eight times in his unequivocal counsel to the Nephites.

Sermon at the Temple

This clear, resonant call to baptism was important not only because of baptism's role as the first of the saving ordinances of the gospel but also because it provided the context for Christ's Sermon at the Temple, a sermon parallel to but more extensive than his Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. 50 No attempt will be made … to examine the verse-by-verse magnificence of this greatest of all Christian sermons. Entire books can—and have—been written doing just that. This present work will limit its review, … to those elements in the Book of Mormon sermon that cast new or distinctive light on the New Testament account.

It is clear at the outset that the sermon in the Book of Mormon is built upon one overwhelmingly important premise that is not so obvious in the New Testament—that the doctrines taught and the blessings promised are predicated upon first principles, on saving ordinances and covenants of the gospel, including the baptismal covenant, which brings people through "the gate" to the strait and narrow path leading to eternal life. As Christ taught here, so Nephi taught earlier—that these first principles and ordinances constitute the "doctrine of Christ." 51

That the full and complete promises of the sermon are intended for baptized members of his church is clear from the Savior's introductory admonition to those gathered. When he had concluded his message to Nephi and the eleven others who had joined him for that priesthood instruction, Christ turned to the congregation and said,

"Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants; and unto them I have given power that they may baptize you with water; and after that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost; therefore blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am. "And again, more blessed are they who shall believe in your words because that ye shall testify that ye have seen me, and that ye know that I am. Yea, blessed are they who shall believe in your words, and come down into the depths of humility and be baptized, for they shall be visited with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins." 52

Clearly the last half of 3 Nephi 11 and the significant first two verses of 3 Nephi 12 indicate that the covenant and doctrine of baptism—over which there was to be no disputation—is fundamental to the full meaning and realization of what we then hear the Savior promise in the Sermon at the Temple or the Sermon on the Mount.

For example, Christ began, "Yea, blessed are the poor in spirit"; the Book of Mormon sermon added the phrase "who come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." 53Obviously in the 3 Nephi rendering, being poor in spirit is not in itself a virtue, but it will be so if such humility brings one to claim the blessings of the kingdom through the waters of baptism, making covenants, and moving toward all the promises given to covenant-making disciples. It is significant that the phrase "come unto me" is used at least four more times in the twenty or so verses that follow this one. So, too, with those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness." If they hunger and thirst enough to be baptized and keep the commandments, they will be filled "with the Holy Ghost." 54

Latter-day Saints are not the only ones to see significance in the sermon, which goes well beyond standard Christian truths and noble Christian ethics. Some scholars have thought, for example, that the Sermon on the Mount was used by early Christians as a catechism for "baptismal candidates or newly baptized Christians." Others suggest it was produced for use in "a school for teachers and church leaders," a kind of general handbook of instructions for teaching and administration. Still others thought it was "the new law of God given at a mountain, replicating the giving of the law of Moses on Mount Sinai set in a five-part structure that mirrors the five books of the Pentateuch." 55

One example of the contribution made by the Book of Mormon to our understanding of the New Testament text is the explicit distinction made between the portion of the sermon that was for the multitude generally and the part that was for only the twelve disciples. The Book of Mormon text makes clear that all of 3 Nephi 12 and the first twenty-four verses of 3 Nephi 13 were given to the multitude at large.

Then (as recorded in 3 Nephi 13:25) Christ made a distinct shift in his audience. He ceased speaking to the multitude and turned to teach the twelve disciples, giving them specific apostolic promises. This distinction is not clear in the Sermon on the Mount.

"When Jesus had spoken these words he looked upon the twelve whom he had chosen, and said unto them: Remember the words which I have spoken. For behold, ye are they whom I have chosen to minister unto this people. Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? "Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? "And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; "And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these. "Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, even so will he clothe you, if ye are not of little faith. "Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? "For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. "But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. "Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient is the day unto the evil thereof." 56

In a general sense these verses can apply to all believers, but at their most literal level they apply to those the Lord has called as his full-time witnesses. Most people must give some thought to what they will eat and what they will wear; the necessities of life require it. But the twelve disciples were not to do so, for they were chosen "to minister unto [the] people." Their call was to give complete devotion to their spiritual ministry and to trust in God's—and the people's—providence for their temporal needs.

Then, "when Jesus had spoken these words [to the twelve disciples] he turned again to the multitude, and did open his mouth unto them." 57

The Law and the Covenant

As Christ concluded, he perceived that some of his congregation were confused about the law of Moses, about old things passing away and all things becoming new, a theme running through the entire sermon.

To them he said, "The law is fulfilled that was given unto Moses. Behold, I am he that gave the law, and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel; therefore, the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfil the law; therefore it hath an end." 58

Regarding the concluding of Moses' law, Christ made it clear what—or more properly who—was taking its place: "I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life. Behold, I have given unto you the commandments; therefore keep my commandments. And this is the law and the prophets, for they truly testified of me." 59 …

Christ returned to probe the interesting distinction between "the law," which had been fulfilled, and "the covenant," which had not. Regarding the larger covenant and the role of the Book of Mormon in gathering scattered Israel, he said to the Nephites: 

"I have other sheep, which are not of this land, neither of the land of Jerusalem, neither in any parts of that land round about whither I have been to minister. "For they of whom I speak are they who have not as yet heard my voice; neither have I at any time manifested myself unto them. "But I have received a commandment of the Father that I shall go unto them, and that they shall hear my voice, and shall be numbered among my sheep, that there may be one fold and one shepherd; therefore I go to show myself unto them."

The Savior then revealed the relationship between the gathering of the tribes of Israel and the fulfilling of the covenant. To the Nephites he continued, 

"I command you that ye shall write these sayings after I am gone, that if it so be that my people at Jerusalem, they who have seen me and been with me in my ministry, do not ask the Father in my name, that they may receive a knowledge of you by the Holy Ghost, and also of the other tribes whom they know not of, that these sayings which ye shall write shall be kept and shall be manifested unto the Gentiles, that through the fulness of the Gentiles, the remnant of their seed, who shall be scattered forth upon the face of the earth because of their unbelief, may be brought in, or may be brought to a knowledge of me, their Redeemer. "And then will I gather them in from the four quarters of the earth; and then will I fulfil the covenant which the Father hath made unto all the people of the house of Israel." 64

That covenant will be remembered by Christ in those last days when people of the house of Israel are "to be smitten, and to be afflicted, and to be slain, and to be cast out from among them, and to become hated by them, and to become a hiss and a byword." At that time, if "the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel," the Savior warned, they being lifted up in the pride of their hearts "above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth," and being guilty of lyings, deceits, mischiefs, hypocrisy, murders, priestcrafts, whoredoms, and secret abominations, rejecting the fulness of Christ's gospel, "behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them. And then will I remember my covenant which I have made unto my people, O house of Israel, and I will bring my gospel unto them." 65

Christ and the New Covenant

Introducing a major new doctrinal work written by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland who shares his apostolic witness of the central figure of the Book of Mormon—the Lord Jesus Christ. For most of a decade, Elder Holland has read the Book of Mormon repeatedly and thoroughly, focusing on all references to the Savior and his teachings. The result is an intelligent observation and thorough study of the Book of Mormon's contribution to our understanding of Christ.


49 See 2 Nephi 31.

50 For a verse-by-verse comparison of these two sermons, see Appendix D.

51 See 2 Nephi 31:18-21.

52 3 Nephi 12:1-2.

53 3 Nephi 12:3.

54 3 Nephi 12:6.

55 The definitive LDS work on the sermon at the temple and its relationship to covenant making people, including temple covenants, is John W. Welch's, The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co. and Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1990). See especially pp. 14-15. For several non-LDS scholars' views of the covenantal aspect of the Sermon on the Mount, see Welch's citations of Betts, Jeremias, Stendahl, Davies, and others, pp. 6-7ff.

56 3 Nephi 13:25-34.

57 3 Nephi 14:1.

58 3 Nephi 15:4-5.

59 3 Nephi 15:9-10.

60 3 Nephi 15:12-15.

61 3 Nephi 15:18.

62 John 16:12.

63 3 Nephi 15:20-24.

64 3 Nephi 16:1-5.

65 3 Nephi 16:9-11.

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