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RS/MP Lesson 17: “The Church of Jesus Christ Today”

Posted by Robert C. on September 6, 2010

As usual (for me), I am going to focus on the scriptures that underlie this lesson, rather than the other parts of the lesson. I think the content of this lesson, in particular, justifies this approach, as I will suggest below. The scriptures I will take up, in the order they occur in the lesson are: Amos 8:11–12; Isaiah 29:14; JS-History 1:19; and 2 Nephi 3:6ff.

I will take up these scriptures in a different order, starting with Isaiah 29:14.

Isaiah 29:14

For context, let’s read verses 13 and 14:

Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.

Question: Why does the Lord do this marvelous work?

I think a common response to this question would be that the marvelous work is being done because there was an apostacy and thus a need for a restoration, so the marvelous work is simply a response to the condition of apostasy. I think this response has some elements of truth in it, but i’ts a very reductive view and I’m not sure it is based on a very careful reading of this scripture.

The passage here says that the marvelous work is a result of, among other things, the people having fear toward God that is “taught by the precept of men.” This is somewhat surprising because it seems that a negative practice is precipitating a wonderful act. Isn’t this contrary to the principle of righteousness we usually think about, that righteous acts lead to miracles (like the marvelous work and wonder), rather than unrighteousness?

I think anything like an adquate answer to this question would entail a rather in-depth discussion of Isaiah and the question of why God allows such intense apostasy (that entails a withdrawal of his word) in general. And I think we must at least touch on the curious-but-pivotal idea taught in Isaiah 6:9ff where the Lord seems to purposely effect a hardening of the hearts of Israel.

It seems that a chief concern of the prophets (Isaiah in particular, but also Amos and Nephi) is that there will be a kind of worship that appears righteous, but in fact is not. (For a great respnose to the issues raised by Isaiah 6:9ff, see Comment #2 on this post.) That is, if we read Isaiah 29, it seems that the marvelous work is not the bringing forth of a book that restores truths that, once revealed, appear clear and sensible to everyone, making everyone realize that what they previously believed was quite errant. Rather, the marvelous work is the bringing forth a book that is “sealed” (29:11). It is not so much that the doctrine being taught was incorrect, as much as it was the fact that the doctrine being taught was an impediment to an actual fear of God. Rather than drawing near unto God, the doctrines were causing the people to be remain in a spiritual sleep (29:10).

If we take up the correlated lesson manual in the wrong way, for example, there is a danger that we will never reckon with the scriptures themselves, a danger that we will simply continue believing a reduced (and propositional/creedal) version of the Gospel that is tantamount to the precepts of men that Isaiah is criticizing. We must be constantly vigilant to be sure that our hearts are drawing near to God, seeking to know his ways and mysteries, without mistaking what appears as wisdom for God’s marvelous power. (For more on this question regarding the philosophies of men, see this discussion).

Amos 8:12 versus 2 Nephi 3:11

Question: Amos 8:11–12 discusses a spiritual famine where the word of God cannot be found. This is usually understood as a reference to the apostasy. However, in 2 Nephi 3:11, we read that when Joseph initiates the restoration, there was not really a famine regarding the word of God. Rather, Joseph will not only bring forth new scripture, but he will convince others regarding God’s word, “which shall have already gone forth among them.”

It seems we cannot simply take Amos as prophesying the same apostasy as Nephi quoting Lehi quoting Joseph does. So, how are we to understand this?

My main purpose in posing a pointed/challenging question like this is to get us to actually and carefully read the scriptures, and to draw near unto God with a sincere and motivated desire to understand, without simply imposing a reductive presuppositional doctrine onto the scriptures rooted in a non-seeking approach that feels rather content with one’s understanding of the scriptures and scriptural doctrines.

If we start at the beginning of Amos chapter 8, we see a discussion of the conditions that precipitate the apostasy. This discussion paints a picture, stemming from hypocritical neglect of the poor (8:4), that is quite similar to that painted by Isaiah (and by Nephi in 2 Nephi 28, where Nephi quotes Isaiah 29, regarding the “precepts of men,” and talks about neglect of the poor, e.g., 28:13).

I would suggest, then, that although I don’t think Amos and Joseph (via Jacob via Nephi) are prophesying about the same Great Apostacy (viz., during the dark and middle ages), or at least the same details of this apostasy, there is a very important typological/theological link between these prophecies. The pattern seems to be that the Lord withdraws when there is mere lip-service being paid to God and his word, a withdrawal that will hopefully induce a greater desire to draw near unto God and to learn the rich teachings and mysteries contained in scripture.

JS-History 1:19

This passage says basically quotes Isaiah 29 in the context of the warring sects during Joseph Smith’s time, adding God’s description that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight.”

Question: Is it that their creeds were simply incorrect that was abominable, or that creeds in general are abominable?

Unfortunately, I’m out of time (i.e., that baby’s crying for me!), so I’ll simply refer you to a couple of excellent essays by Jim F. that address this topic, basically suggesting that if a creedal approach to worship is taken, this is analogous to the way that apostates allow their fear to be taught by the precepts of men (i.e., creeds are dangerous in general since they crowd out drawing near to God with one’s heart). The relevant articles are titled “Why a Mormon Might Drink a Coke but not Coffee” and “Rethinking Theology” and they can be found here.

10 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 17: “The Church of Jesus Christ Today””

  1. kirkcaudle said

    Great job on this lesson Robert. The questions and thoughts are both fantastic.

    With that said, allow me to interject a few thoughts on Isa. 29:13. This verse says that, “this people [those living in the apostasy] draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me.” Too often in Sunday School lessons do we discount those who lived in the “dark ages” as ignorant and sinful. We talk about them as if they had religion but all their teachings were false and their understanding was almost zero. However, as one studies history, philosophy, and theology (among other disciplines) one soon discovers that the dark ages were not so “dark” when it came to faithful and god-fearing intellectual activity. In fact, I would argue that many of the great theological thinkers lived in what we would label the apostasy.

    In verse 29 of Isaiah we find that the people of the apostasy were very pious and faithful in their preaching. These people faltered when they “moved their heart far from [God].” I do not think most of the world (and perhaps many within the church) are far from this second category. We love to go to church wearing our Sunday best, say nice things while we are there, and all the while preach true doctrine to one another. However, although our lips may be saying one thing, our heart might be in another place all together. Therefore, I think we should be slow to judge those that lived in the apostasy when it comes to their righteous, piety, and understanding of true principles.

    They, like us, were just people trying to do the best with what they were given at the time. We simply have an added advantage (and responsibility) of getting a crack at understanding a “sealed book.” Therefore, to me, the marvelous work and wonder is for us (as believers) to help those are truly seeking to understand that book. God gives us the book and we lead other to it.

  2. joespencer said

    Thanks for putting this together, Robert. As it turns out, I was called today as an instructor in the high priests group, so I’ll be teaching this lesson next week….

  3. Robert C. said

    Kirk #1, yes good point. I think the trick is to see the ways in which we fall into the same traps: by relying on “a creedal kind of understanding” of Mormonism, we are no better than those whom Isaiah is criticizing, whose fear toward God is rooted in the precepts of men. By “a creedal kind of understanding,” I mean basically a lazy (or dead) form of belief rooted in our past experiences and beliefs, that is not actively searching for truth, the Spirit, God’s will, and pondering the mysteries, treasures and, as D&C 43:34 nicely puts it, “the solemnities of eternity”—basically, not open to revelation or always actively seeking further light and knowledge.

    Joe #2, I taught this yesterday. Here are a couple of “post-game” thoughts regarding the parts and structure of the lesson that I think worked well:

    * I first baited the class into agreeing that Amos 8 is about the apostasy, then I asked them about the 2 Ne 3:11 passage which sounds very different on this point about the word which is prophesied by Joseph (of Egypt) to have “already gone forth among them.” Then I gave ample time to think about how this tension might be resolved between these verses. This turned into a rather lively and interesting discussion. One idea was that the word was among the people, but in Latin. I mentioned the context in 2 Nephi 3 seems to be addressing latter-day Lamanites, which might change how we think about this. We also discussed what the word “convince” could mean (e.g., convinced in mind but not heart, etc.).

    * We next read Isaiah 29 and I asked why God allowed the apostasy to happen. This lead to a discussion of Isaiah 6:9ff and Mark 4:12ff (which quotes Isa 6:9ff). We discussed how parables can provoke us into thinking about various interpretations and meanings, and seeking more understanding—in contrast to a spoon-feeding/Socratic manner of teaching/parenting, where students/kids tend not to internalize, remember or absorb as much. Maybe God was withholding the word of God as punishment, like tough-love parenting. But is this holding children responsible for the parents’ mistakes, contra the spirit of Article of Faith #2? Sometimes withholding seems to be a good technique for generating more genuine desire and appreciation (like the withholding/delay of signs in Alma 32, which is also a passage about the word of God and food/fruit, like Amos 8…).

    We ran out of time before reading JS-History and the quotation there of Isa 29, which I was leading up to, but I was able to close with a testimony and desire that we follow Joseph Smith’s example of following this basic pattern, not being content to merely take others’ creedal teachings at their word, but—like Nephi in response to hearing Lehi’s vision—wanting to learn the truth for himself by searching and pondering the scriptures, etc.

  4. Julie said

    I couldn’t get a conclusive answer as to WHY Heavenly Father allowed the apostasy to happen. Why take the priesthood away? If He chose to make sure that His church remains today with a living prophet and modern day revelation, why didn’t He just keep it that way back then? What was accomplished by allowing the apostasy to happen in the first place?

    What is “ff” as in 2 Nephi 3:6ff. I thought it was just a typo till I saw it elsewhere: Isaiah 6:9ff, etc.

    • Jim F. said

      Julie, I think you didn’t get a conclusive answer because we don’t have one. The death of the apostles, necessary to continue to ordain people to the priesthood, explains why the priesthood disappeared, but that doesn’t explain why the Lord allowed the apostles to die out without replacement.

      “ff” means “and following.”

      • Heidi said

        I think the apostasy occured as a consequence of agency. The people living at the time began to not obey the prophets and didn’t follow the gospel. In the lesson manual it says: “After the Savior ascended into heaven, men changed the ordinances and doctirnes that He and His Apostles had established.” So I think Heavenly Father had to allow the apostasy as a natural consequence. Unfortunately we don’t have any records of what exactly happened to bring an end to the church and the apostles. Maybe like in the Book of Mormon the people “dwindled in unbelief”.

  5. kirkcaudle said

    Actually, we have more early Christian documents than most people realize. I think it might be a fair assumption to say that the people “dwindled in unbelief” on some level. However, the ordinances and doctrines were not changed until after the apostles had already died. Therefore, the people dwindling in unbelief were a people without a prophet on the earth.

  6. Karen said

    Robert, thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking notes on this lesson. I’ve read 2 Ne 28 plenty but I’ve never connected it with Isaiah 29:13-14. That is a real strong allusion and I want to follow it out further. Great thoughts on the lesson!

  7. […] reading Robert’s lesson notes for the RS/MP Lesson 17 (a fantastic post), I have lots of thoughts and questions about 2 Nephi […]

  8. Karen said

    I have been in Primary for the last year and (sadly!) took that as an excuse not to keep up with these lessons. I’m back in Relief Society now so I’m planning to follow these lesson plans more closely. I see a lot of good coming from this approach, where the lesson is drawn from the scriptures in the lesson. What else are we as a church, but something growing out of and based on the scriptures themselves? We all have much to learn from them, new convert, or old-time member. Great idea!

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