Mosiah 18

I find that as I read the account of Alma preaching, his words on baptism and the account of the Church he established, there’s a few things I’m curious about; I’ve noticed (and wondered about) them before, and so am still wondering:

  1. Where and when (and how) precisely did Alma obtain his authority? He mentions having it when baptising Helam (v. 13, as is proper; we still do the same!), and again reference is made to him having it when he ordains priests in verse 18. Did this require something like angelic intervention, or was his prior ordination as a priest considered legitimate, even if the priests and Noah himself had been corrupt? There doesn’t seem to have been any opportunity for Abinadi himself to be the conduit (at least in terms of conveying it by ordination).
  2. Why did Alma immerse himself in the water at the same time he baptized Helam? That doesn’t seem like it would count as a full baptism (contrast, after all, the fact that John the Baptist had Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery alternate in baptizing each other, JS-H 1:70). Was it a symbolic act, or did it have deeper significance?

As said, these are curiosities rather than concerns. They shouldn’t trouble us as such: I think one thing this chapter illustrates is that there can and have been significant differences in Church organization and ordinances in different dispensations, but at the same time deep continuity. Sometimes I see people confused over the idea that God and truth don’t change on one hand, but seeing or experiencing changes within the Church on the other.

This is sometimes seen as contradictory: a conflict between “doctrine” doesn’t change and yet “doctrine” apparently changing. Of course, that really depends on how one defines “doctrine”; the word just means “teaching”, after all, and we tend to use it in a much more expansive and woolly sense than the Book of Mormon itself does. But not everything we do within the Church, even when commanded by God, is an eternal truth. The Word of Wisdom, for instance, may be based on good principles but is also a specific instruction for the last days (D&C 89:2). Likewise, the Mosaic prohibition against eating pork does not apply now (since I like bacon, I think we got the better half of the deal). Even the prohibition against murder can only apply while mortal life (and so the possibility of murder) exists (and there’s also been specific exceptions to that in this life…) God is eternal, but a wide variety of instruction, teachings, counsel and even commandments do change. This is because they are manifestations of God’s will to enable us to hold onto unchanging truths in a world where the challenges we face shift and change, not unchanging instruments in and of themselves.

And I think this chapter really demonstrates and shows that. Thus the Church is organized quite differently from the way we have it today, in the sense that only one in fifty members was ordained as a priest (v. 18). This may seem very different to members used to the current idea of every worthy male member being ordained; indeed so different that some readers attempt to project back modern practices and in doing so end up misreading the book. But – while it may not be entirely clear quite where Alma got it from – it is still the case that performing ordinances, teaching, and conferring authority required authority from God. The details may have changed, but there is a core of continuity. Likewise, the words that Alma baptizes Helam with are quite different from those given by Christ (which we largely follow today) in 3 Nephi 11. But conceptually the connection is so clear that this chapter including those very words are still used a primary resource to teach about the covenant we make at baptism. Indeed, the notion that we covenant to “serve [God] and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you” (Mosiah 18:10) is clearly expressed in current ordinances in the sacrament prayers. The form may have changed, but the truths expressed have not.

2 Nephi 31

Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.

(2 Nephi 31:7)

I was just reading this verse today when it caused me to reflect. Nephi is speaking of Christ’s baptism, and how despite being holy and needing no remission of sins, he got baptised as a gesture of humility and as a witness that he would keep the Father’s commandments. And of course what Christ did is an example to us too, for he “showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them” (2 Nephi 31:9). I think this is not just talking about the gate of baptism, or just the immersion as it were, but the humility and witness of obedience tied in that act.

And of course, it’s tied in other acts too – the sacrament is likewise a witness that we are willing to keep the commandments and willing to take upon ourselves the name of Christ (see v.13; much of what is said about baptism in this chapter is replicated in the sacrament prayers). I guess I’d never really thought of the sacrament, properly partaken (“acting no hypocrisy and deception before God” as it were, v.13 again), as a act of humility. But it really is, I guess, if properly understood: we are showing that we desire to repent of all our sins, and keep God’s commandments (including participating in the sacrament), and eat and drink in remembrance of the body and blood of Christ who did for us what we can never do for ourselves.

2020 Edit:

Nephi here moves to a different subject, bringing an “end to my prophesying” (v. 1) and turning instead to “the doctrine of Christ”. Doctrine is used in very particular senses in the Book of Mormon (as I discuss here): when plural, it is always attached to the word false; when singular it refers (aside from the one time it is used in conjunction with false, in 2 Nephi 28:12) to the doctrine of Christ, which appears from various summaries, including in 3 Nephi 27 and also this chapter, to refer to what we might regard as the most basic elements of the gospel. And it is to this that Nephi promptly turns, including repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.

I was struck again when reading by the line in verse 13, about following Christ “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent”. The acting no hypocrisy element seems straightforward although it may be something many of us struggle with: it means avoiding any variance between how we act publicly and privately. However, this line caused me to reflect on what deception before God even means. Because obviously we cannot deceive him: he knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts, he knows us better than we know ourselves. We cannot lie to God. That’s always been something I’ve been confident (and at times terrified) in.

But I guess that sometimes people might feel they can lie to God, or perhaps be tempted to act outwardly in accordance with the gospel (including participating in the ordinances) for other reasons. Perhaps the most obvious would be those I’ve read who talk about being practising but not believing – if one doesn’t believe he exists, then his opinion can hardly be the uppermost motivation. But I guess an element of this can creep in whenever any other motive other than seeking to be loyal and faithful to God creeps in: when we are obedient or participate in ordinances because we’re concerned about how other people will regard us, or fear being left out, or some other reason (even just convention or routine, as we may do with the sacrament). God, it seems, does not want us to act out of peer pressure regardless of which outward direction that drives us in. He’s concerned with the inward man. It likewise seems the case that at the end of the day, the only real opinion we should be concerned or worried about when it comes to our walk on the gospel path is God’s alone.

Verses 17-20 are very well-known (well, amongst readers of the Book of Mormon):

Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.

And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.

And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.

Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

An important realisation I had some years ago concerned this passage, when I realised the picture it painted (as do some other passages) of the journey to eternal life being exactly that: a path. I think there’s a tendency (I certainly have it; I think it may be a human one) to think of thinks in quite cut and dried terms, including when it comes to religion. Thus the big question becomes saved or damned. And due to my manifest imperfections, I would always come up with the latter answer, which was obviously quite demoralising. It was reflecting on this passage that helped me to realise that right now, at this moment, the question isn’t saved or damned: it’s “are you on the path that leads to eternal life?” If one is not on the path, one needs to enter (via the gate), or get back on it if one has strayed off. If one is on the path, then no matter where one is on the path – no matter one’s present imperfections and so on – if one is pressing forward – repenting, trying to obey God’s will and seeking his grace to overcome such imperfections – then it’s okay: the glorious day will come. God’s principal concern is not where we are on that path, but which direction we’re heading in.