3 Nephi 1

star-jesus-birth-154378-tablet

Told you.

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:

  1. 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..
  2. 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.
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Helaman 16

Wherein Samuel the Lamanite’s account concludes… perhaps it’s best to get this out of the way first:

samuel the lamanite and stormtroopers

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.

(Helaman 16:14)

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.

(Helaman 16:15–21)

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.

Helaman 14

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.

(Helaman 14:16–18)

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.

(Helaman 14:2)

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.

(Helaman 14:13)

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.

“The ox knoweth his owner”

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.