An excellent article by Daniel Peterson has appeared on The Interpreter, “The Book of Mormon Witnesses and Their Challenge to Secularism”, addressing secularism, theism, the meaning of life, and importance (and strength) of the testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses. I heartily recommend reading it.
But take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found wanting.
In the eighty-fourth section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord decreed that the whole Church was under condemnation, even all the children of Zion, because of the way they treated the Book of Mormon. “And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent,” said the Lord, “and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon.” (D&C 84:57).
Zion cannot fully arise and put on her beautiful garments if she is under this condemnation.
Second, for whom was the Book of Mormon meant? Moroni, the book’s last writer, speaking to us said, “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.” (Morm. 8:35). God inspired Mormon, its chief compiler, to put into the book what we would need in our day.
Fourth, what is the major purpose of the Book of Mormon? To bring men to Christ and to be reconciled to him, and then to join his church—in that order.
We do not have to prove the Book of Mormon is true. The book is its own proof. All we need to do is read it and declare it! The Book of Mormon is not on trial—the people of the world, including the members of the Church, are on trial as to what they will do with this second witness for Christ.
Ezra Taft Benson, “A New Witness for Christ”, 154th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 1984
So as I mentioned, by pure happenstance I happen to have read the account of the signs of Christ’s birth on Christmas day itself. Since this is Christmas, I’ll keep it brief, but two points of observation from today’s reading:
- Christ is often described in scripture – especially in the gospel of John – as both “light” and “life”. Here, this is very literal: Christ’s birth is accompanied by literal light, so that there is a night with no darkness. Likewise, the appearance of the sign literally saves the lives of the believers, who were otherwise to be put to death (v. 9). Christ is also both our light and salvation for our lives, in many different senses: he shows us the way, illuminates our souls, is the source of the grace that will exalt us, and will redeem us from both physical and spiritual death..
- God seems to have this habit of letting timing be quite short. The passage doesn’t actually say when the assigned date for killing all the believers was in relation to when the sign appeared, but it was undoubtedly pressing in view of Nephi’s praying all day for those “who were about to be destroyed” (vv. 11-12). And it turned out that that night was the very time for the sign to appear. Likewise, the Israelites were trapped against the Red Sea and the Egyptian armies were upon them before the Lord saved them. The Lord will often test our faith, but redeem us at the very last moment, and I guess what we must do is simply hold on in faith. The example of the believers here is instructive: while they worried “lest by any means those things which had been spoken might not come to pass”, “they did watch steadfastly” (vv. 7-8). While they were worried, they did not let those worries stop them from holding on and hoping for the sign. And sure enough, in the Lord’s timing, that hope was justified and all things fulfilled “according to the words of the prophets” (v. 20). Likewise we may worry about the fulfilment of God’s promises to us, and wonder how long we must wait or whether such things will ever happen. Such worries are natural, but I guess the lesson is that we must not let our worries stop us from “watch[ing] steadfastly”, and that – in the Lord’s timing – he will fulfil his promises to us.
Wherein Samuel the Lamanite’s account concludes… perhaps it’s best to get this out of the way first:
Anyhoo, there are several interconnected things that caught my eye while reading this passage today. Firstly, a verse that has caught my eye before:
And angels did appear unto men, wise men, and did declare unto them glad tidings of great joy; thus in this year the scriptures began to be fulfilled.
Angels appearing declaring “glad tidings of great joy”, announcing the coming birth of Christ, and appearing to “wise men” seems obviously connected to the accounts in the biblical gospels. This is one of the passages which fuelled my rather speculative post about possible identities for some of the wise men that I wrote several years ago. However, reading it today caused me to reflect on what the existence of such wise men in this account can mean for us. It’s interesting to compare to the attitude of the majority of the people:
Nevertheless, the people began to harden their hearts, all save it were the most believing part of them, both of the Nephites and also of the Lamanites, and began to depend upon their own strength and upon their own wisdom, saying:
Some things they may have guessed right, among so many; but behold, we know that all these great and marvelous works cannot come to pass, of which has been spoken.
And they began to reason and to contend among themselves, saying:
That it is not reasonable that such a being as a Christ shall come; if so, and he be the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, as it has been spoken, why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?
Yea, why will he not show himself in this land as well as in the land of Jerusalem?
But behold, we know that this is a wicked tradition, which has been handed down unto us by our fathers, to cause us that we should believe in some great and marvelous thing which should come to pass, but not among us, but in a land which is far distant, a land which we know not; therefore they can keep us in ignorance, for we cannot witness with our own eyes that they are true.
And they will, by the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one, work some great mystery which we cannot understand, which will keep us down to be servants to their words, and also servants unto them, for we depend upon them to teach us the word; and thus will they keep us in ignorance if we will yield ourselves unto them, all the days of our lives.
It’s interesting here that the basis of their concerns expressed here is truly baseless, for (SPOILERS!) Christ will appear to the people here after his resurrection. Firstly, its useful to know that provoking such “foolish and vain” worries is a Satanic strategy, that he too will aim to disturb us by getting us to worry about things we actually don’t need to worry about. Secondly, the people here use this worry to rationalize away belief and explain away “the signs and wonders” (v. 23) that they witnessed. It’s interesting to compare this with the wise men mentioned here (as well as the biblical wise men, who perhaps overlap), who – rather than seeking to rationalize away seeing God’s hand – could see God acting even in events that many people couldn’t. Millions must have seen the star, or whatever astronomical phenomenon it was, that accompanied the Saviour’s birth. But only a few were in a position to see what it really meant. Perhaps, then, one important thing we can learn from this is that we can emulate the example of such wise men, so that rather than rationalizing away the experiences we do have, we too can be blessed to see God’s hand in things others might dismiss as mundane.
Much of this chapter is a warning for the Nephites, and compares the Lamanites and the Nephites and their prophetic future. It’s typical for those who have not read the Book of Mormon in depth to think that the Book of Mormon is a straightforward account of “good guys” and “bad guys” (such as described by Thomas O’Dea, for instance). I’d wager that most of those who’ve read the book through realise this is not the case, and this chapter is likewise a good instance of that. At first, even while warning the Nephites, it seems to be making that distinction (vv. 3-4):
Yea, wo unto this people who are called the people of Nephi except they shall repent, when they shall see all these signs and wonders which shall be showed unto them; for behold, they have been a chosen people of the Lord; yea, the people of Nephi hath he loved, and also hath he chastened them; yea, in the days of their iniquities hath he chastened them because he loveth them.
But behold my brethren, the Lamanites hath he hated because their deeds have been evil continually, and this because of the iniquity of the tradition of their fathers…
Yet there then comes a significant twist (vv. 4-5, 7):
… But behold, salvation hath come unto them through the preaching of the Nephites; and for this intent hath the Lord prolonged their days.
And I would that ye should behold that the more part of them are in the path of their duty, and they do walk circumspectly before God, and they do observe to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments according to the law of Moses.
And behold, ye do know of yourselves, for ye have witnessed it, that as many of them as are brought to the knowledge of the truth, and to know of the wicked and abominable traditions of their fathers, and are led to believe the holy scriptures, yea, the prophecies of the holy prophets, which are written, which leadeth them to faith on the Lord, and unto repentance, which faith and repentance bringeth a change of heart unto them—
Many of the Lamanites have converted, and not only converted, but have genuinely remained faithful. And because of this, they will be blessed (vv. 10-12):
And now, because of their steadfastness when they do believe in that thing which they do believe, for because of their firmness when they are once enlightened, behold, the Lord shall bless them and prolong their days, notwithstanding their iniquity—
Yea, even if they should dwindle in unbelief the Lord shall prolong their days, until the time shall come which hath been spoken of by our fathers, and also by the prophet Zenos, and many other prophets, concerning the restoration of our brethren, the Lamanites, again to the knowledge of the truth—
Yea, I say unto you, that in the latter times the promises of the Lord have been extended to our brethren, the Lamanites; and notwithstanding the many afflictions which they shall have, and notwithstanding they shall be driven to and fro upon the face of the earth, and be hunted, and shall be smitten and scattered abroad, having no place for refuge, the Lord shall be merciful unto them.
Despite future “dwindl[ing] in unbelief”, and despite the afflictions they will suffer, the Lamanites will ultimately be blessed. Again, it’s been commonplace for scholars to fit the Book of Mormon into the context of common 19th century American beliefs about the USA being the new Israel. But (as I discuss in the 3rd and 5th chapters of The Book of Mormon and its relationship with the Bible), the Book of Mormon does not articulate those beliefs: rather it is the descendants of Israel (including the descendants of the Lamanites) who are heirs of the promises attached to Israel, not the Gentile colonists, despite whatever role said colonists may have in being a conduit for the Gospel (much as the Nephites have been here in fact).
So what of the Nephites?
Therefore I say unto you, it shall be better for them than for you except ye repent.
For behold, had the mighty works been shown unto them which have been shown unto you, yea, unto them who have dwindled in unbelief because of the traditions of their fathers, ye can see of yourselves that they never would again have dwindled in unbelief.
Therefore, saith the Lord: I will not utterly destroy them, but I will cause that in the day of my wisdom they shall return again unto me, saith the Lord.
And now behold, saith the Lord, concerning the people of the Nephites: If they will not repent, and observe to do my will, I will utterly destroy them, saith the Lord, because of their unbelief notwithstanding the many mighty works which I have done among them; and as surely as the Lord liveth shall these things be, saith the Lord.
A fascinating thought struck me while reading this: it seems to suggest that the (future? the “again” seems suggestive) Lamanite “dwindl[ing] in unbelief” could have been outright prevented, had the Lord showed them the same miracles that he did the Nephites. So why didn’t he? Would acting in this way somehow invalidate the purpose of mortal existence (by robbing them of the need to act in faith)? Whatever the answer, however, one thing is very clear, which is that while the Nephites have been favoured, this now turns to their condemnation. The Lamanites would not have gone astray had they been witnessed the same miracles, and when aware of the truth are faithful. The Nephites however have still apostatized. Thus while the Lamanites will be preserved and ultimately blessed, the Nephites face the threat of being “utterly destroy[ed]”.
Reading today a chapter which spent quite some time talking about the signs of Christ’s birth – and knowing what’s coming in the next few chapters – it suddenly dawned on me on how appropriate it is to be reading this section of scripture at this time of year. Especially since with my current pattern of reading (I’m reading mostly from the Bible at present, but am reading a chapter of the Book of Mormon each day), I should hit 3 Nephi 1 on Christmas day itself, which seems positively serendipitous.
Aside from this fortunate timing, two things from this chapter really stuck out to me today. Firstly this chapter discusses Christ’s role in saving us from spiritual and physical deaths, and speaks of the first and second deaths. Now a lot of the time at Church I’ve heard people use the terms first and second death as synonyms for physical and spiritual death. This is not how the terms are used in the Book of Mormon, however, and it is especially clear here:
Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual.
But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.
Yea, and it bringeth to pass the condition of repentance, that whosoever repenteth the same is not hewn down and cast into the fire; but whosoever repenteth not is hewn down and cast into the fire; and there cometh upon them again a spiritual death, yea, a second death, for they are cut off again as to things pertaining to righteousness.
Christ saves all from the first death, which includes being saved from physical death and from the spiritual death of the fall, and brings everyone back into the presence of God. However, those who do not repent will then experience spiritual death again, which is the second death. So both the first and second death are spiritual. The distinction between them is less about type, and more about timing.
The second thing that really popped into my mind while reading this chapter was the phrase used several times here, and also throughout the Book of Mormon and in the New Testament too, of believing on/in Christ’s name:
And behold, he said unto them: Behold, I give unto you a sign; for five years more cometh, and behold, then cometh the Son of God to redeem all those who shall believe on his name.
And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.
This caused me to ponder what is the particular significance of believing on his name. I am sure that part of the significance is more than just the actual label, just like in the similar concept found in the Book of Mormon and expressed in the sacrament prayers of taking upon ourselves his name means so much more, including being part of his family, and being his disciples and seeking to emulate him in all things. His name may also connote his attributes, character, reputation, faithfulness and so on as well. At the same time, this did make me think of the actual names of Christ if we take this literally. There’s the title Christ, the Greek term for Messiah, or anointed one. There’s Immanuel, meaning God with us. Or there is the name Jesus himself, which must carry some significance because both Mary (Luke 1:31) and Joseph (Matthew 1:21) were commanded that that should be his name. Yeshua (Jesus comes from the Latin transliteration of the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name) is a fairly common Hebrew name, seen in figures like Joshua. But its meaning seems particularly applicable, since the name is closely connected to the Hebrew verb and noun for saving and salvation. This is seen in Matthew 1:21, where Joseph is commanded to call him Jesus “for he shall save his people from their sins”. Thus while I think that to believe on his name has a more than literal meaning, literally believing on the actual name of Jesus itself surely means to believe this: that he will save his people, and can save us, from our sins.
It’s been a long while since I’ve written one of these, and I feel that I’d like to do better at it. To recap, this is part of a series generated by my personal reading of the Book of Mormon, in which I happen to comment on one or two (or occasionally more) things that leapt out at me during my reading. It doesn’t aim to be an exhaustive or comprehensive examination of the chapter (the former I’d argue would likely be impossible), but simply commenting on something that struck me during my reading.
While reading Helaman 13 this morning, several points of varying importance came to mind:
- Firstly, I was curious about the fact that Samuel the Lamanite mentions several times (Alma 13:5, 9) that the Nephites face destruction in under “four hundred years”. Alma the younger has already mentioned the figure in Alma 45:10, although that is privately to his son Helaman. I am curious as to whether Samuel’s audience dismissed his remarks because it all sounds so far away. Of course, Samuel is also discussing more imminent events (and gives more imminent dates for those in the next chapter), but I guess many people’s natural response is to not worry about what will happen in four hundred years.
- One line that struck: “nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Helaman 13:6). I think this is true (and think it is being used here) both individually and collectively. But, individually and collectively, we often have a tendency to look towards different sources of salvation, whether it be the “right” political leaders, wealth, our own powers or intellect or whatever. In an ultimate sense, however, we all need to depend upon those two principles.
- Overall the chapter spends a lot of time talking about wealth, and it becoming “slippery”, so that the people are unable to find or keep it. I was wondering about why the focus on this, and think that part of the reason is the relationship people have with their riches here is emblematic of several serious sins. On one hand, one major sin is that the people do not remember and thank God for their material blessings, instead becoming prideful (Helaman 13:22); ingratitude may be a far more serious sin then we realise (see D&C 59, in which thanking God is specifically listed amongst the commandments given in vv. 5-13, and “confess[ing] not his hand in all things” is described as invoking God’s wrath in v. 21). On the other hand, the people trust in their riches (rather than God) and depend on them to preserve them from their poverty (Helaman 13:31-32), or to work or defend themselves (the mention of tools and weapons in particular in v. 34). The treasures becoming slippery teaches both that He who gave them can take them away, and that such material things are not dependable and to be trusted in.
- One to tag onto the list of “scary passages”, Helaman 13:37-38 is a particularly imposing passage:
Behold, we are surrounded by demons, yea, we are encircled about by the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls. Behold, our iniquities are great. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us? And this shall be your language in those days.
But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.
A fairly famous scene from a fairly famous movie that I have long loved:
What I particularly love about this scene comes at the point where Luke asks about “Obi-Wan Kenobi” (at 3:15 on the video above). There’s a beautiful synergy between Alec Guinness’ facial reaction (before he says any lines), the way the soundtrack kicks in, and even the way the camera moves ever so slightly out and up, suggesting the impact on Obi-Wan of hearing that name. The soundtrack at this point is wonderful, suggesting (to my ears at least) an air of something both exciting and mysterious. Even as a child, I knew this moment was special.
This scene does a great job of helping to evoke the existence of a wider universe (something the original Star Wars in general is great at, hinting at a much wider universe than it’s telling us about). But more importantly, it gives the right feel and weight to this moment, because this is the point at which something mythic kicks in. Sure, exciting stuff has happened (the opening, the Droids escape and so on), but this is the point at which the story isn’t just about a Galactic Empire and political rebels, but the force, the Jedi and everything else enters the story. And this is the point that Luke himself receives his “call to adventure”.
It’s no secret that Star Wars has heavy overlap and was likely directly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s ideas of the monomyth or “Hero’s Journey”. In this schema, the “call to adventure” is precisely the point at which the hero learns (often via a wise mentor) of something beyond their mundane world and is summoned to act in this new realm. The call is often refused at first (as indeed Luke tries to too), but once that call is accepted, there is no going back to that former world. And – while there is more to come right after this scene, including Obi-Wan telling Luke the truth (“from a certain point of view”) about his father and presenting him with his lightsaber, this little scene manages to capture the atmosphere of such a moment, the point at which Luke learns of a new, mysterious world and begins his hero’s journey. It’s a fantastic moment that continues to stand out.
And then I remember with some amusement that this was made by the same man who gave us the prequels and Howard the Duck…
I’m really having trouble comprehending it’s December already. This year has gone by so fast, and with such unexpected (and in some cases undesirable) twists, that I can’t quite compute that the year is nearly drawing to a close while I am in such an unanticipated place. So I guess on with the Christmas videos!
I love the film Ben Hur so much: while fictional, and obviously including other things, I particularly like it’s depiction of Christ (who is shown more in the effects he has on others). The first scene is a fairly standard depiction of the nativity, but one I enjoy for all that. One interesting detail can be seen from 2:25 onwards, as the wise men enter the stable they pass between a donkey and an ox, which briefly grabs our attention though it’s lowing. Many traditional depictions of the nativity include a donkey and ox, but this is not a detail drawn from the Gospels, but actually from Isaiah 1:3:
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.
Early Christians saw this verse as applying to Christ, and so the donkey and ox found their way into Christian iconography, a place which they have continued to claim until the present day.
Incidentally, while writing this I came across what looks like an interesting website on Christian iconography in art at http://christianiconography.info. The page on the nativity discusses a range of details (including the above) that you’ll find often find not only in Medieval artwork, but in modern depictions as well.