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RS/MP Lesson 33: “Missionary Work” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by joespencer on May 2, 2011

As is often the case, the most redeeming part this lesson is the “Additional Scriptures” bit included at the end. In these notes, I’ll focus only on the first of these additional scriptures: D&C 1:17-23.

These verses come from the revealed preface to the Book of Commandments, the volume of modern scripture—never actually or official published—that was replaced by the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. Despite its being placed at the head of the revelations in the many editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, it remains very much a preface to the originally projected 1833 Book of Commandments, which was to be a collection of the revelations leading from the revelation given when the 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript were lost (now section 3) to the revelations given concerning the organization of the Saints in Zion. The revelations were to be chronologically arranged (as they are now, though they have not always been so in the Doctrine and Covenants) so that, as this revelation puts it, reads could see that the revelations “were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). The revelation was given during a conference dedicated to organizing efforts to publish the revelations.

Verses 17-23 follow immediately after the Lord’s chilling warning concerning the wickedness of the world, which concludes with a condemnation of the idolatry of the world. That idolatry, according to the revelation, will culminate in a kind of spectacular collapse: “every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall” (verse 16). The passage to be considered here begins with a reference to that fall, the fall of “Babylon the great”: “Where, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth,” did something (verse 17). This context is crucial. All that the Lord spells out in the subsequent verses about missionary work is spelled out as the Lord’s own response to idolatry. Still more, as the preceding paragraph has made clear, that response unfolds over the course of the revelations gathered in the Book of Commandments.

Two initial points, then, that must not be missed in the description of missionary work contained in these verses: (1) missionary work, as the Lord conceives it, is a way of subtracting people from the traffic of Babylon, which is quickly heading for spectacular systemic failure; (2) the way that work unfolds cannot be divorced from the larger history of revelation in the first years of the Church’s history, according to the Lord, since it is there that the Lord set in motion what is still rolling on as our collective missionary effort.

Those points clear, to the verses themselves!

Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments. (Verse 17.)

The Lord here explains that, in response to what was—is—coming, He did three things with respect to Joseph Smith: (1) He “called upon” him; (2) He “spake unto him from heaven”; and (3) He “gave him commandments.” There is obviously here—especially if one keeps an eye on the fact that this is part of the official, revealed preface to the Book of Commandments—a kind of progression. That is, there is a movement of sorts from calling, through speaking, to the issuing of specific “commandments” (the early Mormon term for what we usually just call “revelations”). This then sets up the Book of Commandments itself (the Doctrine and Covenants, for us) as the culmination of the Lord’s calling out Joseph Smith. There is a sense, in short, in which it is the written collection of revelations that marks the telos of the Lord’s work with Joseph.

And then this is complicated slightly:

And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world. (Verse 18.)

Here, in the first part of verse 18, we have a kind of democratization of what is described in verse 17: commandments were given not only to Joseph, but to others. Again we’re left with the same idea of culmination in written, transmissible revelations. But now we’ve got this important clarification: certain revelations (revelations of a certain kind?) were given to Joseph, while certain other revelations (revelations of a different kind?) were given to others. It isn’t difficult to guess at how this should be interpreted: the revelations given “to others” were, verse 18 says, given so that “they [those others] should proclaim these things unto the world.” One need not look far in the revelations from the first years of the Church’s history to see that the revelations given to others besides Joseph Smith were principally aimed at inscribing those others within the work of proclaiming the gospel, what this revelation calls “these things.” One is left, of course, to decide what “these things” mean. It could refer back to the warning about the collapse of Babylon. Or it could refer more straightforwardly—and this is, I think, the better interpretation—to the calling, the speaking to, and the commandments directed to Joseph Smith (I would think that this includes the Book of Mormon). If the latter is indeed the better interpretation, then what we have in this verse is the idea that those called to the work in the revelations were called specifically to make the reality of a new dispensation, replete with translations of ancient scripture and modern revelation known to the world.

Why, though?

And all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—the weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that . . . . (Verses 18-19.)

This spreading of “these things” to the world is meant, curiously enough, to fulfill prophecy—and a specific prophecy at that: “the weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones.” Now, it should be noted that this snippet does not actually quote any identifiable prophecy from the Bible (or Book of Mormon). The point would seem rather to be that these words capture the general spirit of the prophets, their consistent prediction that what is mighty and strong will be ruptured by the weak. But the wording of this passage actually says a bit more than just that. It is not just that the weak will break down the strong, but that they will do that, so that something else takes place (this is the significant “that” that I’ve included before the ellipsis). This rupturing of the strong by the weak—this overturning of the order of things—is to be effected for certain specifiable purposes.

And as it turns out, the revelation provides a list of these purposes. In order:

that [1] man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of the flesh—but that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;
that [2] faith also might increase in the earth;
that [3] mine everlasting covenant might be established;
[and] that [4] the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers. (Verses 19-23.)

Four specified purposes: (1) to divert human beings from their trust in things mortal to God, thus allowing them to speak with authority; (2) to give faith to increase in the earth; (3) to establish the everlasting covenant; and (4) to give the gospel to be proclaimed even before kings and rulers by the weak and simple.

Each of these can be expounded on at length. But I’m going to leave that work to you. Feel quite free to add thoughts on this (or anything else, of course). In the meanwhile, I’ll be reflecting on these four things, since I’ll be teaching this lesson in a couple of weeks.

9 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 33: “Missionary Work” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

  1. kirkcaudle said

    I think the first paragraph in the manual (actually the verses within that paragraph) goes very well with purpose #2 (the increasing of faith) that you nicely laid out in D&C 1:18-19.

    Here is the paragraph:

    “The Lord revealed the gospel plan to Adam: “And thus the Gospel began to be preached, from the beginning” (Moses 5:58). Later, Adam’s righteous descendants were sent to preach the gospel: “They … called upon all men, everywhere, to repent; and faith was taught unto the children of men” (Moses 6:23).”

  2. Carol B. said

    Like so many other principles of the gospel, this topic (in my mind) has everything to do with the decision to live the gospel deliberately, with the guidance of the Spirit. As active members of the church we may go to church regularly, fast, pray, read scriptures, fulfill a calling, home/visit teach, attend the temple, and a thousand other things performed as a routine that fills up our lives.

    But if we choose to do these things without consistently asking for the Lord’s direction, or meditating on his will, our efforts will keep us busy, and maybe help us become wiser or maintain a social life, but they will probably not really make us happy — and we may eventually find ourselves like some of the LDS people I see around me, embroiled in midlife crises and making choices that take them away from the gospel, because they are not reaping the rewards of communion with the Spirit. They go looking for happiness elsewhere.

    Am I rambling? The point I set out to make was that the desire to do missionary work is not something that necessarily happens as a natural outgrowth of attending church every week. It’s part of a decision, the decision to go beyond merely saying “thy will be done” in our prayers, and ask the Lord how to make that happen, on a regular basis.

    And that decision to share the gospel news with other people is probably not something we’re going to feel motivated to make if the gospel does not bring us joy — if it’s a burden, not a blessing.

  3. kirkcaudle said

    I thought this lesson last week and a good question came up.

    D&C 1:18, 22, “And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world . . .
    That mine everlasting covenant might be established”

    What is the everlasting covenant that is being referenced here? The class gave many answers, including: Baptism. The Gospel. Eternal Marriage.

    • joespencer said

      Kirk, that’s where I drove the discussion in my class last week (I taught it also). But I have a few ready-made answers that I introduced in the course of the discussion: I think it has everything to do with the Abrahamic covenant, etc., from the massive OT tradition….

  4. kirkcaudle said

    Joe, I also went the Abrahamic covenant route. However, we spent most of our time focusing on vv.16-18.

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