Yea, I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came; for it is expedient that it should be among them; for it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him.
(2 Nephi 9:5)
I am convinced the scriptures teach us far more about the atonement than we have yet realised. This passage is but an example of this: there is some sort of symmetry at work, by which the fact that the Saviour became subject unto men, and suffered and died at their hands, means that we are all subject to him. Yet while being subject unto him means we are liable to his judgment (2 Nephi 9:15-17), it also means we become subject to the power of his redemption, and that if we believe and repent we shall be freed from both death and hell and inherit the kingdom of God (vv. 18-19, 23).
I thought about mentioning first that this is one of my favourite chapters, but as I was reading over it and pondering it my mind I think I’ve come to the realisation that this is my actual favourite chapter in the Book of Mormon. There is so much in it, and so much powerfully said.
This is a continuation of Jacob’s sermon, but here he leaves off quoting Isaiah – which he notes teach about the covenants God has made with the house of Israel (and perhaps above all, their continuing validity and ultimate fulfilment) – to directly address the redemption God will work through the atonement. And while his sermon begain in 2 Nephi 6, I think it’s here that for the first time one really hears Jacob’s rather distinctive voice. A couple of examples:
- As I discuss here, Jacob speaks with a characteristic lack of self-assurance, in marked contrast to Nephi. Note how in describing the situation of the righteous and wicked at the last judgment, he mentally includes himself with the wicked (“we shall have a perfect knowledge of all our guilt”) rather than the righteous (“and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment”) in 2 Nephi 9:14, although we know that’s hardly an objective assessment of the man, and it’s rather different from the way Nephi speaks of the final judgment, and different again from the grim realism of Mormon.
- There is his concern with the feelings of the audience, the sort of thing perhaps most clearly seen in Jacob 2:7-10. Here it is seen in 2 Nephi 9:47-48:
But behold, my brethren, is it expedient that I should awake you to an awful reality of these things? Would I harrow up your souls if your minds were pure? Would I be plain unto you according to the plainness of the truth if ye were freed from sin?
Behold, if ye were holy I would speak unto you of holiness; but as ye are not holy, and ye look upon me as a teacher, it must needs be expedient that I teach you the consequences of sin.
Again, this seems a striking contrast to how Nephi speaks.
The bulk of the chapter itself really covers the core of the gospel, addressing our need for redemption, how Christ’s atonement saves us from death and hell, how we will all face God’s judgment, and our need to repent so that we might face that final judgment without fear and a perfect remembrance of our guilt. As such, there is so much that could be talked about, in a chapter that could be mined again and again.
One important topic is, of course, is Christ’s atoning sacrifice. People have tried to explain this act in a variety of different ways, through reconciliation, through legal metaphors, analogies of creditors and debt, or a transfer of sin and of suffering. I think an important thing to realise is that, as much as we try to understand or explain the atonement by use of earthly analogies, the atonement came first. It was already part of the plan of God before the world was created, and so long before any of these earthly institutions we use to try and understand it existed. And so, in approaching this issue, I think it’s important for us to understand that Christ’s atonement is the original, while any concepts we might use as a lens to better understand it are at best patterned after and are the echo of more eternal realities. Earthly comparisons may help us better understand the atonement, but they cannot completely explain it.
The scriptures therefore talk about the atonement in a variety of different ways. Some speak in terms of reconciling justice and mercy, others focus on a more sacrificial aspect, of Christ as an offering. Alma 7:11-12 extends the point of Christ’s suffering to speak of him suffering and taking upon him all our pains (including, ultimately, death). And many of these overlaps, because they’re talking about the same thing that did all of this. We see that here too in this chapter. There’s the aspect that I picked up on in the original post (and discuss when talking about 1 Nephi 11 too), that by being becoming subject to men, all men become subject to him and his judgment. But this chapter also speaks quite a bit about the resurrection (vv. 6-8):
For as death hath passed upon all men, to fulfil the merciful plan of the great Creator, there must needs be a power of resurrection, and the resurrection must needs come unto man by reason of the fall; and the fall came by reason of transgression; and because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord.
Wherefore, it must needs be an infinite atonement—save it should be an infinite atonement this corruption could not put on incorruption. Wherefore, the first judgment which came upon man must needs have remained to an endless duration. And if so, this flesh must have laid down to rot and to crumble to its mother earth, to rise no more.
O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace! For behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more.
We sometimes (I wonder if from a human tendency to subdivide things and try and organise them) separate the resurrection from Christ’s atonement, but as is quite clear here it is part of parcel of the whole thing. The power of the resurrection is part of the process by which Christ conquered both “death and hell”, “this awful monster” (v. 10); note this monster is singular, death and hell/sin are not treated as two separate entities (I also love how at this point the atonement is treated almost in mythic terms, as a battle that Christ waged against some beast). Spiritual and physical redemption are part of the same process, and indeed if it weren’t for the latter the former could not take place: “our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell” (v. 8). This atonement here is a power, by which Christ conquered that monster and by which corruption can be replaced by incorruption. Yet another necessary dimension of the core fact of our religion.
One thing in this chapter linked to the above which is perhaps important to note is in that verse 8 and then what follows in verse 9:
And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself; yea, to that being who beguiled our first parents, who transformeth himself nigh unto an angel of light, and stirreth up the children of men unto secret combinations of murder and all manner of secret works of darkness.
It is common within the Church to speak of our “divine potential”. This is true, although sometimes people go a little too far and speak of our “divinity”, which is not (at least yet) true. We have the potential, as children of God, through the atonement of Christ, to become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. But as Jacob points out here, we also have the potential to go to the opposite extreme, a diabolical potential in which we become devils. And as we learn from Section 76, there’s going to be at least some who don’t end up at either extreme, who become angels and so on. Potential is not the same as current reality. In a sense, we shouldn’t count our chickens before they are hatched; what potential we end up fulfilling will depend on the choices we make.
Another facet of this chapter I like, but which I only noticed this time through: Jacob peppers his sermon with statements praising different attributes of God as he speaks of different parts of the redemptive process.. Thus “O the wisdom of God, his mercy and grace!” in verse 8, then “O how great the goodness of our God” in verse 10. “Oh how great the plan of our God” he proclaims in verse 13, and then “O the greatness and justice of our God!” in verse 17. These continue (see verse 19-20), and serve to almost punctuate his address.
From about verse 27 there is a turn in the sermon:
But wo unto him that has the given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that them, and that the days of his , for awful is his state!
From this point on, Jacob’s less on the process of the resurrection and the judgment, and more towards our need to repent, and not be one “that wasteth the days of his probation”. Which is a question to always consider: we all fall short and doubtless transgress (I know I do), and it makes one consider the various ways one might have wasted or be wasting the day’s our own probation. Jacob then speaks of particular sins and tendencies, and I was struck particularly by verses 28-30:
O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.
But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.
But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.
One thing that struck me was the different way these potential perils (of being rich and of being learned but thinking oneself wise) strike as described here. Both risk pride, though for riches it’s described as being mostly against other people (“they despise the poor” and “persecute the meek”) while for knowledge it’s against God (“they hearken not to the counsel of God”). But riches also seem to affect one’s heart and desires (“their hearts are upon their treasures”), one’s aims, while the risk of being puffed up with knowledge as described here seems to be that it doesn’t so much change your desires, as affect your opinion on how to get there (i.e. that one can “set [God’s counsel] aside, supposing they know go themselves”).
Personally I’ve never been in a position to be regarded as rich (though I’d like to think I’m ready for that trial!), but I have been accused of knowing things, which made me consider various ways that I might be neglecting the counsel of God. I guess the trick is that any degree of learning must also be coupled with humility, to realise that knowledge not only isn’t wisdom, but even with much knowledge there is still no certainty that one knows the right way forward for any given course, and of course that there is the absolute certainty that no matter how much learning we acquire, God knows better.