Book of Mormon Lesson #11: “Press Forward with a Steadfastness in Christ,” 2 Nephi 31-33 (Gospel Doctrine)
Posted by joespencer on February 25, 2012
As I’ve been explaining since the beginning of my posts on Nephi, 2 Nephi 31-33 forms a kind of conclusion to the fourfold structure of Nephi’s record. Here the task is, after a creation story, a fall story, and an atonement story, to introduce the reader of the record to the Lord at what Nephi presents as a kind of veil. These last chapters of Nephi’s record are deeply theological, and I’ll take them a piece at a time.
After a word or two of introduction, Nephi gets started. From that point, things might be broken down as follows (note that these three chapters were indeed three distinct chapters in the original dictation):
(1) 2 Nephi 31
___(a) 2 Nephi 31:1-3 — Introductory
___(b) 2 Nephi 31:4-8 — The baptism of Christ
___(c) 2 Nephi 31:9-12 — Baptism as universal task
___(d) 2 Nephi 31:13-16 — The promise to the baptized
___(e) 2 Nephi 31:17-21 — The way beyond the gate
(2) 2 Nephi 32
___(a) 2 Nephi 32:1-7 — Clarification
___(b) 2 Nephi 32:8-9 — Further clarification
(3) 2 Nephi 33
___(a) 2 Nephi 33:1-4a — The spoken and the written
___(b) 2 Nephi 33:4b-9 — Truth and charity
___(c) 2 Nephi 33:10-12 — Testimony
___(d) 2 Nephi 33:13-15 — Warning
My comments will, as usual, be divided up accordingly.
2 Nephi 31
I’ve provided the basic divisions of chapter 31 above. So let’s get started.
2 Nephi 31:1-3
The first verses of chapter 31 can be dealt with in short order. They serve principally as a transition: “And now I, Nephi, make an end of my prophesying unto you, my beloved brethren … . Wherefore, the things which I have written sufficeth me, save it be a few words which I must speak” (2 Nephi 31:1-2). But they also introduce the topic that occupies this final reflection: “a few words which I must speak concerning the doctrine of Christ” (2 Nephi 31:2). We’ll have more to say about this “doctrine of Christ” as we work through the remainder of the Book of Mormon, principally because it seems to have become a point of contention in Nephite history (as evidenced in 3 Nephi 11). Here our task will be just to get a handle on what Nephi understands by it. And he claims to be setting it forth “plainly.” Let’s let him do so.
2 Nephi 31:4-8
Interestingly, the whole of this exposition of the doctrine of Christ begins with a reference back to the visionary anticipations of the baptism of Christ (in 1 Nephi 10, from Lehi, and in 1 Nephi 11, from Nephi):
Wherefore, I would that ye should remember that I have spoken unto you concerning that prophet, which the Lord shewed unto me, that should baptize the Lamb of God, which should take away the sin of the world. (2 Nephi 31:4)
There are several things to be noted here. First, notice that Nephi doesn’t actually refer us back immediately to the baptism, but to the prophet who would do the baptizing. The focus, curiously, is on the baptist himself. Second, we ought to be asking why Nephi is so interested in that in particular. I’ve already noted before (see my post on 1 Nephi 11-14) that Nephi seems to have understood “the condescension of God” to refer to Christ’s baptism (rather than to His incarnation, etc.), and I’ve already noted before (see my post on 1 Nephi 6-10) that Lehi was said to have “spoken much” about specifically this event of the Christ’s baptism. Here we’re coming back to it, and at the most profoundly theological moment in Nephi’s record. It’s a focal point in Nephi’s thinking—more central, for him, even than the events surrounding Christ’s death, it seems. Third, note that Nephi suddenly begins speaking against of “the Lamb of God,” a title that appears only in the present discussion and in the report of Nephi’s vision (1 Nephi 11-14, with one mention in Lehi’s report in 1 Nephi 10 as well). The connection between what Nephi’s talking about here and that vision is crucial. None of this should be overlooked.
But what does Nephi want to draw from Christ’s baptism?
And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water to fulfill all righteousness—O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized—yea, even by water? (2 Nephi 31:5)
The language here, interestingly, would seem to be drawn from Matthew 3:15 (“fulfill all righteousness” appears only there and in this text), where Christ tells the baptist to “suffer it to be so now”—to let Him be baptized—because it had to be done to fulfill all righteousness. Nephi here simply assumes that idea (he doesn’t argue that such was the case, but wants simply to draw a consequence from it). But what does Nephi’s question mean? Taken straightforwardly, the question asks simply this: Given that Christ had to be baptized by water to effect some sort of righteousness, and He was holy, how much more do we have to be baptized, since we’re unholy? That’s straightforward enough, but it isn’t yet clear what “fulfill all righteousness” means. We’re not doing the same thing in baptism that Christ did, are we?
And so Nephi goes on, complicating the apparent logic of his question:
And now I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfill all righteousness in being baptized by water? (2 Nephi 31:6)
Ah, okay. That’s the question we were asking. And Nephi obviously recognizes that his rhetorical question too easily suggests that we do what Christ did in baptism. And that can’t be right. Hence:
Know ye not that he was holy? (2 Nephi 31:7)
What’s the point of this question? It seems to me that it’s meant to disrupt our interpretation of Nephi’s earlier question. If Christ was holy, He had no need of baptism. Whatever it means to say that His baptism “fulfilled all righteousness,” it can’t mean that He needed that ordinance to be saved. So then what was Christ doing being baptized? Nephi goes on:
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)
Here, at last, things begin to make sense. What righteousness was fulfilled in Christ’s being baptized—since He had no need to be made holy? Precisely this: He demonstrated a certain sort of relationship to the Father, a certain humility, and witnessed something specific to the Father.
Now what’s at work in all this? Nephi seems at first to be assuming that the ordinance of baptism makes one holy, but it’s clear by the end of this that something rather different is at work in the ordinance: it’s a covenant. It seems to me that that shift marks a shift Nephi wanted his readers (his people) to make in their own understanding. It would seem that they understood baptism in a certain way (remnants of an Old World rite we know nothing about because of its antiquity?), but he wanted them to understand it in another, in a specifically Christian way—in which it marks the establishment of a covenant relation with the Father, setting up a certain relation between Father and Son (or son/daughter).
And the consequence of the establishment of that relationship is very important:
Wherefore, after that he was baptized with water, the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove. (2 Nephi 31:8)
Here again we have a harking back to 1 Nephi 10-14. The “Holy Ghost” is never mentioned by the name (apart from a couple brief instances in 2 Nephi 28) in Nephi’s record except in those texts reporting Nephi’s vision (and Lehi’s introductory words to it) and in this chapter here. Everywhere else there is talk only of the Spirit or of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Ghost, as such, is introduced here only once there is a very particular relationship between the Father and the Son—it is the seal, it would seem, placed on a certain Father/Son relation.
All of this will have to become clearer as we go on.
2 Nephi 31:9-12
So far, the significance of Christ’s baptism has been a question only of the establishment of a triple relation: Father/Son, bound together by the Holy Ghost. Suddenly, though, Nephi introduces a new element into this discussion of Christ’s baptism:
And again, it sheweth 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. … And also the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me. Wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do. (2 Nephi 31:9, 12)
If verses 4-8 set up the scene in which the several relationships are established, verses 9-12 put a stage under the scene, so that it’s on display for everyone. All of this is an “example,” one that allows Christ to invite all to do exactly as He does, and so to receive exactly what He receives: the Holy Ghost. (I’ve skipped over, in the quotation above, the word from the Father calling for the same thing.)
It’s crucial, it seems to me, that Christ here speaks of all being baptized “in [his] name.” What one is to do in baptism is to imitate Christ’s baptism, to imitate the condescension of God. To do so, it seems, is to play the role of the Son in establishing a certain relation to the Father, and then to have that relation sealed up or confirmed by the Holy Ghost. One is, as it were, to be inscribed in the triple play of the Godhead.
And all this Nephi calls here, for the first time, the gate. It’s this gate that’s to be passed through at the end of all this. And as we’ll see in a moment, that gate might just as well be called the veil, because to pass through it is to pass into the heavenly chorus of angels that we’ve been seeing from the beginning of Nephi’s record. But let’s take this one step at a time.
2 Nephi 31:13-16
From the development of the previous few verses, Nephi now extends a promise:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and Savior down into the water according to his word—behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost. Yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel. (2 Nephi 31:13)
We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.
Remember back to the very beginning of Nephi’s record. There Lehi has an inaugural vision in which he sees the heavens open to reveal God enthroned and surrounded by a choir of angels “in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8). (On this, see my notes on 1 Nephi 1.) Much later in the record—indeed, significantly, at the heart of the “atonement” stretch of Nephi’s record—we saw Isaiah have a similar vision, but he had the chance to be inducted into the angelic choir, being given to speak with the tongue of angels by the reception of a white stone pressed against his lips. (On this, see my notes on 2 Nephi 16.) Now we see the culmination of this progression: the promise is extended to every reader to receive the tongue of angels, to join the heavenly choir, to pass through the veil and into the presence of God—and to do so by receiving the Holy Ghost. That, it seems, is the promise. After all we’ve worked through, the promise is that one can receive the Holy Ghost, pass into God’s presence, and then receive—like Isaiah—a task associated with building up the covenant people and helping to push forward the fulfillment of that covenant. The Holy Ghost will give us what to do to build up that covenant, it seems. (And there will be more on that later.) At any rate, it’s to “the Holy One of Israel” (a title Nephi borrows directly from Isaiah!) that the praises one can now offer are directed.
This is all glorious, but perhaps a bit too glorious:
But behold, my brethren, thus came the voice of the Son unto me, saying: After that ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue (yea, even the tongue of angels), and after this should deny me, it would have been better for you that ye had not known me. (2 Nephi 31:14)
This is serious business, and nothing to be played around with. To pass through the veil is to cross a line one shouldn’t recross in the wrong direction. And hence the next verses speak of “endur[ing] to the end” to “be saved” (2 Nephi 31:15-16).
That’s what’s at stake here. And I think it speaks for itself at this point. Now Nephi turns to the general point, coming to speak more consistently of the gate that’s in question here, as well as to say something about what all this Father, Son, and Holy Ghost talk really means.
2 Nephi 31:17-21
Nephi opens his last sequence by coming back to his invitation, but now he asserts that he was shown Christ’s baptism in vision precisely that he could make this invitation:
Wherefore, do the things which I have told you that I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do. For, for this cause have they been shewn unto me: that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. (2 Nephi 31:17)
With that clear, he now comes to the matter of passing through the gate—and of what lies beyond it:
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 straight 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 witness 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. (2 Nephi 31:17-18)
The identification of the gate is clear enough: it’s all Nephi’s been talking about. But it now becomes clear that the Holy Ghost marks the point beyond the gate—indicates, upon its reception, that one has passed through the gate and begun on the “straight and narrow path” (echoes of Nephi’s vision yet again). And all this is exactly what was promised.
But now Nephi takes up this “beyond the gate” business in greater detail:
And now, my beloved brethren, after that ye have got into this straight 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. (2 Nephi 31:19-20)
What Nephi does here is quite interesting. He sets up a point by point comparison of the path that leads to the gate and the path that leads from it toward eternal life once one has passed through it. To the gate: by the word of Christ. From the gate: feasting upon the word of Christ. To the gate: with unshaken faith in him. From the gate: having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. To the gate: relying wholly on the merits of him who is mighty to save. From the gate: press forward with a steadfastness in Christ. (Note that these are arranged in inverted order in the text: the parallel to the first detail on the way to the gate is the last detail on the way from the gate; the parallel of the last detail on the way to the gate is the first detail on the way from the gate; etc.)
What do these differences amount to? First, coming to the gate is a question of proceeding by the word of Christ, but only marginally, tentatively, while proceeding beyond the gate is a question of continually feasting on the word of Christ. There is first, then, a kind of intensification of one’s relation to the word of Christ that takes place as one passes through baptism and assumes the right relation to the Father by receiving the Holy Ghost. Second, coming to the gate is a question of faith—of strong, unshaken faith—while proceeding beyond the gate is a question of hope and love (or charity). There is second, then, a kind of augmentation of faith through an addition of its usual companions hope and charity as one progresses through baptism to the right relation with the Father. Finally, coming to the gate is a question of reliance on Christ’s merits while proceeding beyond the gate is a question of achieving a steadfastness in Christ. There is third, then, a kind of identification with Christ that takes place as one passes through the gate into the right relation with the Father.
Intensification of the relation to Christ’s word (from proceeding by it to feasting on it), augmentation of faith (by developing from it both hope and charity), identification with Christ (shifting from reliance on to steadfastness in Him). All of this is what takes place in passing through the gate of baptism if it’s genuinely done in the name of the Son. Obviously, much can be said about each of these: What does it mean to feast on the words of Christ? What exactly is at stake in the faith/hope/charity triad? What is steadfastness in Christ? I don’t want to get carried away here, but I do want to provide at least sketches of answers to each of these questions.
We tend to read Nephi’s reference to “feasting upon the word of Christ” in terms of serious scripture study. (Heck, that’s where we got the name for this wiki and blog combo!) That’s certainly right to some extent. One discovers the gate by following the word of Christ carefully, but the gate then opens up the possibility of serious work on scripture, of an ongoing feast. But it should be noted that “the word of Christ” is a good deal broader than just that. One has come to the gate because one has been invited (we’ve heard the word of Christ in the course of 2 Nephi 31 several times, always inviting), but now one goes beyond invitations to hear a good deal more of what Christ is saying. Much of what this means we’ll clarify in the comments on 2 Nephi 32, since Nephi himself clarifies things there. But let’s focus just for a moment on the word “feast.” What does it mean to feast? We talk about this a great deal, and we emphasize quantity: don’t nibble, but feast. But there’s much more about feasts worth mentioning. For one, a feast is never undertaken alone: feasting is a communal or a community affair. Also, feasting is a question of successive courses, rather than a single plateful: feasting is a matter of several meals, each a different kind of treat. Moreover, a feast is coupled with celebration (and usually with a good deal of wine): feasting celebrates something, focuses on some kind of boon. Still further, to feast is to go beyond the mere satisfaction of the need to eat for survival: feasting is eating without an end in view, is a kind of means without end. All of this ought to give us food for thought.
What, now, of the faith/hope/charity triad? First, it’s worth just noting how interesting it is that the triad shows up this early in the Book of Mormon. We’ll see it appear briefly also in the Book of Alma a couple of times, but generally it won’t become a focus until the very end of the Book of Mormon. For the most part, I want to let those later texts give us to think this triad. For the moment, I think it’s important just to spell out a basic picture. Faith, as I understand it, is always faithfulness, and faithfulness to something that calls for faith: an event or some such thing in the past (say, the resurrection or the events surrounding the translation of the Book of Mormon) that orients everything one does as a faithful adherent. Faith is thus precarious, because it relates to something one doesn’t know, to something one cannot prove. But if faith carries one far enough—this is what we’re being told here—then it takes on its fullest shape by augmenting itself with hope and charity. And what are these? At some point in the pathway of faithfulness, one begins to see that there is a brighter future, a real possibility of having a better world. Hope opens up for the faithful because they begin to see that things can in general be different from the way they are when one begins. Further, as fidelity begins to generate hope, one begins to see how crucial it is to spread the message of the faith-founding event as far as possible, and so one develops a real sense of charity—of love for all who might be changed by the message. Faith implies hope and charity if it doesn’t stop short. All this will be clarified again and again in the course of the Book of Mormon.
Finally, what is steadfastness in Christ? Steadfastness is, of course, a kind of staying power—stamina and undisturbed focus. All of that, yes. But it is literally (stead = place; fast = sure) “sure-placedness.” As one passes through the gate that brings one into the presence of the Lord—through the veil, as we’ve been saying—one becomes sure-placed, one passes from a kind of accidental relation with Christ to a sure relation with Christ. It is as if one’s imitation of Christ is doubled, confirmed, made sure, sealed. (I can’t help but think of Isaiah 22:23, where Isaiah speaks of an Israelite who is being fitted out at the veil of the temple: “I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place.”) From this point, one’s identification of Christ or one’s imitation of Christ is brought to a kind of culmination. At this point, one no longer relates to the Son, but one relates to the Father, in the Son. One is, as it were, inscribed within the play of the Godhead, and the Holy Ghost seals one to the Father (seals in something like the sense we use in speaking of the temple: one is made a member of God’s family, one becomes God’s son or daughter, and that for eternity). This reminds me of the language of the sacramental prayers: we address the Father, in the name of (as if we were) the Son, and ask for that relation to be sealed by the granting of the Spirit. The sacrament as an echo of baptism: we go back, as it were, to the moment of passing through the gate (significantly, we do so by unveiling the Son’s body, laid out on the table) in order to remember (to look back in fidelity to the event of) the death and resurrection of the one with whom we seek to identify.
From all these comments, I should hope it’s clear that Nephi isn’t talking about baptism in any simple or passing sense. We’re not here dealing with a mere dunk in the water. We’re dealing with baptism as it ought to happen, with baptism when it is crowned with a baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost—not a mere bestowal of the gift by the laying on of hands, but the overwhelming arrival of the Holy Ghost. Perhaps we’re talking about a baptism beyond baptism.
And Nephi wants us to know that this is the aim of everything:
And now behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way. And there is none other way, nor name, given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost—which is one God without end. Amen. (2 Nephi 31:21)
Two points here: this is the way (baptism); this is the doctrine (Father, Son, Holy Ghost). We’ll see Christ make the same twofold claim in 3 Nephi 11. At that point we’ll have to come back to this. At any rate, there is a clear delineation here of a practice (the way) and a theology (the doctrine), and the two are completely intertwined. We’ll have to see how this is lost or changed—and, I’ll be arguing, by God’s will!—in subsequent Nephite history.
For now, let’s get on to Nephi’s clarifications.
2 Nephi 32
Chapter 32 is the chapter Nephi didn’t want to write. We’ll see him twice express his concern that his people have no idea what he’s talking about, as well as his frustration that he can’t really say anything else about it. Let’s take each of these expressions in turn.
2 Nephi 32:1-7
Nephi begins with what he calls a supposition:
And now, behold, my beloved brethren, I suppose that ye ponder somewhat in your hearts concerning that which ye should do after that ye have entered in by the way. (2 Nephi 32:1)
This supposition will give way, interestingly, to what in verse 8 he describes as a perception. For the moment, he just suspects that his readers don’t understand, but later he’ll be, it seems, quite sure that they don’t. And what don’t they understand? What they should do after passing through the gate. Nephi suspects that his readers don’t have any idea what to do next. And this is what he has now to clarify. But he’s not happy about having to clarify this:
But behold, why do ye ponder these things in your hearts? Do ye not remember that I said unto you that, after ye had received the Holy Ghost, ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels, save it were by the Holy Ghost? (2 Nephi 32:1-2)
Nephi’s questions here show that while he suspects his readers don’t understand, he himself doesn’t understand why they—why we—don’t understand. The fact that he asks whether we remember what he had said indicates that he believes he has already explained what we’re wondering about as fully as possible, as much as it needs to be explained. And what is it we should remember that apparently explains it all? That, it seems, the reception of the Holy Ghost gives us to speak with the tongue of angels. But how does that clarify anything? Before going on to the next verses, let’s see if we can’t sort out what Nephi seems to have in mind with this reminder.
Remember what we’ve already said earlier in this lesson. The reception of the Holy Ghost as described in chapter 31 is not the mere ordinance of confirmation, but the actual event of receiving the Holy Ghost. (Remember Elder Bednar making this same distinction between the ordinance and actual reception a few conferences ago?) So what is that event? It’s the moment when one is carried—at least in the Spirit—into the presence of God, given to speak, like Isaiah, with the tongue of angels and so to shout praises to God. And as with Isaiah, it seems to be the moment at which one is given something like a prophetic task: to be an angel, or to acquire the tongue of angels, is to do whatever work God sends one to do. To receive the Holy Ghost and to begin to speak with the tongue of angels is to be sent from God’s presence with specific work to do, and that work is always associated—if Isaiah and Nephi have taught us anything (and the same thing is stated in Moroni 7, interestingly)—with the covenant.
How does all of that add up to a clarification of what we’re to do after we’ve passed through the gate and received the Holy Ghost? We’re to understand, it seems, that to pass through the gate is to move past a clearly defined path with specific steps (laid out in the starkest clarity in 2 Nephi 31:13) to begin to do work that is always subject to the exigencies of the moment. Whatever God asks is what we do now. Remember the triple comparison of the before and after of the gate: before, it’s a question of faith, of reliance on Christ, of moving by the word of Christ; after, it’s a question of hope and charity, of steadfastness in Christ, of feasting on the word of Christ. That difference is what we’re supposed already to have understood: we move from faithfully following the clear word of Christ in full reliance on grace—all of which just gets us into the presence of God—to hopefully and charitably attempting to change the world in light of the covenantal task, now fully feasting on the word of Christ and taking up, in steadfastness, a kind of identification with the Son. The reason Nephi hasn’t give us a list of what to do after we receive the Holy Ghost is because there is no list. We’re to do whatever God communicates to us.
But let’s get on to what Nephi has to say by way of further clarification (he spends only one verse on it):
Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost. Wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you: Feast upon the words of Christ, for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do. (2 Nephi 32:3)
Well, not much clarification here; just reiteration. We’re to do as the angels do, and they do what they do under the guiding influence of the Holy Ghost. And we’re to do this by feasting upon the words of Christ, because they will tell us what to do. But what words of Christ? Does this actually just mean scripture? Does this refer to a specific set of texts? Does this refer to the privately communicated words of Christ that might come to us through the Spirit? I think it may be all of these, but we ought to say a word or two about this here.
Remember from previous posts that, so far as Nephi understood from his vision (in 1 Nephi 11-14), the book that would eventually emerge (as what we know as the Book of Mormon) to get the fulfillment of the covenant moving in the last days would be above all an account of Christ’s words to the Nephites and Lamanites during His visit to the New World. Eventually, Nephi comes to see, it seems, that the record will be more complex than that. Nonetheless, his focus seems to have been pretty strongly on that event, and on the content of the book to come in light of it. Might that be Nephi’s referent here? The words of Christ might be best understood as those words specifically to be found in 3 Nephi 11-26 (and not overlooking the other words in 3 Nephi 8-9, 27-28, etc.). That’s something we ought seriously to consider.
But there’s good reason also, given all we’ve said here, to think that the words of Christ in question are those one learns privately through the Holy Ghost. Perhaps, then, we ought to consider the possibility that Nephi’s reference is actually deliberately ambiguous. I think we’ll see further reason to believe that further on. I wonder if the point might not be that we’re to listen to the Holy Ghost for the words of Christ, and that we can find a good guide to what we ought to be hearing in Third Nephi. I’ll come back to this point.
For the moment, let’s see what Nephi has to say after this brief (non)clarification. It’s not pleasant:
Wherefore, now, after that I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them, it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock. Wherefore, ye are not brought into the light but must perish in the dark. For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way and receive the Holy Ghost, it will shew unto you all things what ye should do. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ. (2 Nephi 32:4-6)
This is a bit harsh, but it’s crucial. If we haven’t understood by this point, it’s because we really don’t care to look carefully at what Nephi’s been saying. Or rather, if we don’t understand by this point, it’s simply because we haven’t actually received the Holy Ghost. And so Nephi can only reassert that our task is to follow the path laid out in chapter 31, enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost. Only then will we be able to understand what on earth he’s talking about. All of this suggests that Nephi’s suspicion in the first verse of this chapter expresses his concern that few of his readers will actually have received the Holy Ghost.
Note also here that Nephi’s language begins to be much more clearly an echo of veil language. Here it’s a question of knocking and entering, of being brought into the light, etc. It will become more so in the next part of what Nephi says:
And there will be no more doctrine given until after that he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh. And when he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you shall ye observe to do. (2 Nephi 32:6)
We’ve got the doctrine of Christ, what’s spelled out in chapter 31, and it’s the only doctrine that can be given until one has passed through the veil or gate, until one comes into the presence of the Lord—as Nephi now makes abundantly clear with his talk of “he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh.” Nephi can’t say anything more because his whole task is just to get us through the gate so that we can do what Isaiah and Lehi and Nephi and Jacob have all done—received a direct task from the Lord on the other side of the gate, a direct task that will help to build the covenantal remnant that will overcome the difficulties of the last days, etc.
Here also we have to come back to this ambiguity between the words of Christ as the words to be found, concretely, in Third Nephi and the words of Christ as the words communicated to us through the Holy Ghost. Here I think Nephi clarifies this a good deal. If we haven’t already passed through the veil and so begun to receive and to recognize our reception of the words of Christ through the Holy Ghost, we’ll have to wait around for Third Nephi (if we’re Nephi’s own ancient people reading this) or we’ll have to go read Third Nephi ourselves (if we’re modern readers of the Book of Mormon). We’ve got, it would seem, a crutch, but it would be best if we’d simply pass through the veil of our own faithful accord, receive a commission directly, and get to work. We’re much more likely, though, to need to go to Third Nephi even to get the basics clear—if we’re even inclined to do that. My unfortunate experience is that we have no idea, generally speaking, what’s going on in Third Nephi. We like chapters 11 and 17, but we don’t want much to do with the rest of it, where Christ goes on and on about the covenant, about Isaiah, about Micah, about Malachi. That sort of thing doesn’t make a lot of sense to us immediately, and so we’d rather huddle in the pre-gate darkness, refusing to knock at the veil to be let into the light of the covenant.
And that may explain Nephi’s bone-chilling next verse:
And now, I, Nephi, cannot say more. The Spirit stoppeth mine utterance. And I am left to mourn because of the unbelief and the wickedness and the ignorance and the stiffneckedness of men. For they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge when it is given unto them in plainness—even as plain as word can be! (2 Nephi 32:7)
Ouch. Nephi’s talking about his readers—us. He’s not condemning the wicked out there, but the wicked among us, those of us who can’t make any sense of his message because we’re simply not inclined to scripture. Nephi can’t tell us the real work of the kingdom because we, frankly, don’t care. And so he mourns because of our unbelief and wickedness and ignorance and stiffneckedness. He’s given us knowledge, but we refuse to search it—preferring simplistic lessons about everyday life drawn from his stories about his unfortunate brothers to the real message of Nephi’s text. And he’s given us great knowledge in what he calls plainness, but we don’t want to bother to take the time to sort out even his plain message about the covenant. We’re too focused on just seeing what blessings we can get from a quick read of Nephi’s writings, what blessings we can secure for our too-selfish lives—our own families, our own friends, our own people.
And so Nephi goes from mourning to grief in the last two verses of the chapter.
2 Nephi 32:8-9
Before Nephi supposed that his readers didn’t understand. Now something different happens:
And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts. (2 Nephi 32:8)
He no longer guesses or suspects; he now knows or can tell: we’re still pondering about what on earth he must mean. And this isn’t pleasing to him:
And it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing! (2 Nephi 32:8)
Nephi almost can’t believe we’re seriously still not getting it. He’s already been left to mourn. And the fact that we still don’t bother now has him grieving—grieving because we’re dead to his message.
But Nephi’s charity is boundless. Even here he gives us a further hint, turns us to a source that will give us to understand if we can muster the courage to do something he’s talking about. Since we’re stuck outside the veil, congregated before it wondering what on earth we’re supposed to do but refusing to knock, Nephi tells us we ought to pray—to pray before the veil for further light and knowledge, it seems:
For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray, ye would know that ye must pray. For the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray. But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always and not faint—that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul. (2 Nephi 32:8-9)
This is a bit of let-down. If you can’t figure it out, says Nephi, just pray. Hopefully the Lord will see fit to teach you what you refuse to hear from me. So keep praying. Pray on and on and don’t faint.
But Nephi’s done, and he’s ready to close off this whole record.
2 Nephi 33
The last chapter of Nephi’s writings has a strong sense of closure about it. We’ve worked through fifty-four chapters of material by this point, and Nephi has only a few closing words to say. They’re harsh, and Nephi recognizes it—but he knows it has to be said. I’ll be brief in commenting on it.
2 Nephi 33:1-4a
The first sequence of Nephi’s departing words expresses Nephi’s worry that he’ll be misunderstood simply because he isn’t a good writer. People “cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught” (2 Nephi 33:2), but Nephi has “written what [he has] written” (2 Nephi 33:3), praying by day and in tears by night because people don’t bother with his writings. But he trusts, importantly, that God will hear his prayers—that “the Lord God will consecrate [his] prayers for the gain of [his] people” (2 Nephi 33:4). That’s reassuring, but sad nonetheless.
2 Nephi 33:4b-9
So what is this text? Nephi now says a bit about the nature of his record: it persuades to do good; makes known to the Lehites their fathers; speaks of Jesus; speaks against sin; etc. (see 2 Nephi 33:4-5). And all this is, as Nephi says, a matter of plainness, of “the plainness of the truth,” but that’s what gets people a bit nervous about taking his writings seriously. So Nephi clarifies: “no man will be angry at the words which I have written save he shall be of the spirit of the devil” (2 Nephi 33:5). If we don’t like what he’s saying—perhaps particularly in chapter 32!—it’s because we’re misguided.
And so he begins to explain that his intentions have been right: “I glory in plainness. I glory in truth. I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell. I have charity for my people … . I have charity for the Jew … . I also have charity for the Gentiles” (2 Nephi 33:6-9). This has all been done through fidelity to God’s purposes, and through charity for all. But charity, sadly, is not enough: “But behold, for none of these I cannot hope, except they shall be reconciled unto Christ, and enter into the narrow gate, and walk in the strait path which leads to life, and continue in the path until the end of the day of probation” (2 Nephi 33:9). Back to the message of chapter 31. That’s where all of this leads, and no one has hope who doesn’t come to that path. Charity, but a bit desperately.
2 Nephi 33:10-12
So Nephi offers a kind of warning:
And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth: Hearken unto these words and believe in Christ! And if ye believe not in these words, believe in Christ—and if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me. And they teach all men that they should do good. And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye! For Christ will shew unto you with power and great glory that they are his words at the last day. And you and I shall stand face to face before his bar, and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness. (2 Nephi 33:10-11)
This needs no comment; it calls instead for action.
And even here Nephi expresses his desperate charity: “And I pray the Father in the name of Christ that many of us, if not all, may be saved in the kingdom at that great and last day” (2 Nephi 33:12). That’s bittersweet but beautiful. I should hope it’s a prayer we share with Nephi. “Many of us, if not all.”
2 Nephi 33:13-15
And finally, Nephi closes his record: “I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust: Farewell until that great day shall come!” (2 Nephi 33:13). To those, however, who refuse to partake of the goodness of Christ, Nephi bids “an everlasting farewell” (2 Nephi 33:14). And with that, it’s over.
And now we’re left to mourn.
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