RS/MP Lesson 47: “Exaltation” (Gospel Principles Manual)
Posted by joespencer on December 3, 2011
Here we are finally, the last Gospel Principles lesson. And the topic, naturally, is exaltation, a fitting end to things. I’ve decided that, for these notes, I’ll offer just a reading of D&C 76:50-70, beside a quick note on one part of the lesson material.
A note on what it takes to be exalted
First, then, a quick note. One the most damaging ideas we have, in my opinion, is that there is a kind of list of things to be done in order to achieve exaltation. (It leads to that most damning claim that “we are saved by grace, but exalted by works”!) I think it’s therefore worth noting that what looks like a list of what has to be done to be exalted on page 278 of the lesson is anything but that. Let me see if I can make this clear.
First, the wording of the texts introducing the “list” is careful: “To be exalted, we first must place our faith in Jesus Christ and then endure in that faith to the end of our lives.” No hint here of “there’s a list of things I’ve got to do to be exalted.” Then this: “Our faith in Him must be such that we repent of our sins and obey His commandments.” Note that this doesn’t say “and then there’s a list of tasks to be fulfilled if one is to be exalted,” but “there’s a certain shape that faith, if it is faith, takes.” The “list” then follows, but not as a list of what has to be done in order to be exalted. Instead, it is a list of what God commands.
The list comes in two sequences, first “certain ordinances,” and then other commandments. There is never a word about what has to be done in order to be exalted. And the questions immediately following the list are beautiful: “How do ordinances and covenants prepare us for exaltation?” Note that there is no question here of minimum requirements, etc., but of ordinances and covenants preparing us for exaltation. “How does faith in Jesus Christ help us obey the commandments?” Wonderful. “Why must we learn to follow the direction of the Holy Ghost to become exalted?” Here it seems there is a requirement provided, but it’s a question of how we attune ourselves to the overwhelming grace of the Spirit.
It’s worth noting, further, that the lesson has been edited for the current edition in order to make it as clear as possible that there isn’t a list of requirements for exaltation that we have the task of fulfilling. How so? The list of what “the Lord commands all of us to” do has been drastically shortened. The previous edition had seventeen items on that list, where one finds only ten now. Those that were nixed include “Live the law of chastity,” “Pay honest tithes and offerings,” “Speak the truth always,” “Keep the Sabbath day holy,” “Honor our parents,” etc. I don’t think that the change in the lesson is meant to suggest that these aren’t commandments, so why the change? I think it’s clear: by dropping these and leaving things (and replacing them with what is now number 2 on the “list”: “Keep the commandments”), things look less and less like a list. What we’re left with is a list of ways of living, nothing like a list of requirements. If we take seriously everything on the list that is left, we will come to see how grace works.
Exaltation: not a task, but a gift. Let no one use page 278 to teach otherwise.
I want to spend the rest of my time on this (somewhat lengthy) passage, since it is the only longish passage we have in the scriptures describing exaltation itself. I won’t be doing extensive interpretation. Mostly I just want to focus all we have to say about exaltation on what the scriptures have to say on the topic.
Verses 50-53 introduce the crowd we’re talking about. The exalted are those who will come forth in the resurrection of the just, and they are those who received the testimony of Jesus, believed on His name, were baptized so that they could received the Holy Spirit, and overcome by faith so that they are “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise.” Note the double relation to the Holy Spirit: (1) they are baptized in faith in order to receive the Spirit in the first place; (2) they overcome by faith and so are sealed by the Spirit in the second place. First they hear their calling into the gospel, realizing their part in the election; second, eventually, they make that calling and election sure.
What happens to them?
Verse 54: “They are they who are the church of the Firstborn.” This is a reference, note, to Hebrews 12:23, where—on Joseph Smith’s interpretation—the text is pointing to the gathering at the time of Adam-ondi-Ahman. It seems to me that that is what D&C 76:54 has in mind: those who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise are a part of that gathering (I take it that “the Firstborn” in “the church of the Firstborn” is Adam, though I know it is usually taken to be Christ).
Verse 55: “They are they into whose hands the Father hath given all things.” The language here, interestingly, comes from the Gospel of John, where it appears several times, and always in descriptions of Christ. Christ is the one into whose hands the Father hath given all things. To say that those in the celestial glory are those “into whose hands the Father hath given all things” is to say that they have become like the Savior in a very strong sense. It seems clear to me that D&C 93 is the further elaboration of this idea, an elaboration worked out with explicit reference to the writings of John.
Verses 56-57: “They are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory, and are priests of the Most High, after the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son.” The language of “priests and kings” comes from Revelation, while the language of “fulness” and “glory,” is again from the Gospel of John (and is again what will be expanded on in D&C 93). The language of “priests of the Most High, after the order of Melchizedek” is clearly drawn from Psalm 110. All of these references, etc., point to the idea that those in the celestial kingdom will have become like David, like the kings-priests of the Old Testament, holders of the priesthood that has the injunction to exalt a people (Melchizedek, Enoch, the Only Begotten Son Himself).
Verse 58: “Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God.” Several things to note here. First, “Wherefore.” Note that this claim about being gods is connected with the question of kingship and priesthood. That, I think, is crucial. There seems to be no distinction between being kings and priests (queens and priestesses) and being gods. Second, “as it is written.” Curiously, this phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in scripture but here. But I wonder if it isn’t a reference to Psalm 82:6, since Christ quotes that passage in a similar fashion in John 10:34: “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” It seems clear to me that that’s the “written” reference. Third, “even the sons of God.” Again things seem to be aimed at the Gospel of John, where there is developed a very careful theology of being “sons of God.” I should note that I don’t think this “even the sons of God” business undoes the “they are gods” business in any strong sense, but indexes it to a very specific theology, one that we should be paying a good deal more attention to.
Verses 59-61: “Wherefore, all things are theirs, whether life or death, or things present, or things to come, all are theirs and they are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. And they shall overcome all things. Wherefore, let no man glory in man, but rather let him glory in God, who shall subdue all enemies under his feet.” This is unmistakably a reference to 1 Corinthians 3:22 (and a somewhat more oblique reference to the last verses of Romans 8) and to Philippians 3:21. The point, it seems, is clear. Paul is saying in the first reference that the Saints are beyond partisanship, beyond being “Paul’s” or “Apollo’s” or “Cephas’s.” Rather than belonging to another, those in the celestial kingdom are those to whom things belong. Or rather, they belong, but only to Christ (who belongs to God). And in the second reference, Paul is saying that Christ overcomes everything through God. Part of being Christ’s, then, and so of not belonging to anything but Christ, is to overcome with Him all things—to be a part of the subduing of all things. But all glory, then, is not to be “in man,” but rather “in God.” Forget Paul, Apollos, Cephas, etc. The celestial kingdom has no teams; it has only those who belong to Christ.
Verse 62: “These shall dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever and ever.” This will be set, later in the revelation, against those who enjoy only the presence of the Son or of the Holy Ghost.
Verse 63: “These are they whom he shall bring with him, when he shall come in the clouds of heaven to reign on the earth over his people.” One should be looking, here, to the discussion of the so-called “Rapture” in First Thessalonians. These are those who are already with Christ, or will be caught up from their graves, or from the earth, to be with Christ in His glorious arrival.
Verses 64-65: “These are they who shall have part in the first resurrection. These are they who shall come forth in the resurrection of the just.” Notice that the language is here coming back to verse 50. Interestingly, added to that is the notion of the “first resurrection,” a notion that is a bit tortured in scripture, since it has a number of different senses there. I’ll leave open exactly what’s at stake here in the claim.
Verses 66-67: “These are they who are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly place, the holiest of all. These are they who have come to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of Enoch, and of the Firstborn.” Here again the reference is to Hebrews 12 (as in verse 54), but now the quotation is fuller and more robust. Again the reference points to Adam-ondi-Ahman, though now with enough detail to keep one working for a long time on the implications. I’ll leave that work for another occasion.
Verse 68: “These are they whose names are written in heaven, where God and Christ are the judge of all.” The book in heaven is a theme not only in the Doctrine and Covenants (see especially sections 85 and 128!), but throughout scripture, from the first vision in the Book of Mormon (Lehi gets a chance to read that book) to the last vision in the Bible (John sees this book opened seal by seal). From especially the references in the D&C, it is clear that that book is absolutely central to the work of the last days. I could write a whole series of posts on the topic, but for now I’ll just gesture toward the texts I just mentioned.
Verse 69: “These are they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood.” Yet again: Hebrews 12.
Verse 70: “These are they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical.” The text in mind here is clearly from 1 Corinthians 15, but one should be very careful interpreting that passage. Paul does not have in mind the three degrees of glory, but the difference between earthly and heavenly bodies. The Lord is playing on that language here in this revelation, but complicating it drastically. At any rate, these bodies are heavenly bodies, glorious like the sun. We’re all quite familiar with that idea.
Exaltation, in a nutshell. Obviously, even to begin thinking about all these claims, we have to bury ourselves in the scriptures, and in scriptures from all over the canon. I highly recommend we get to work.
Verse 61: “Wherefore, let no man glory in man, but rather let him glory in God, who shall subdue all enemies under his feet.”
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