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RS/MP Lesson 1: “Living What We Believe” (George Albert Smith Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on January 2, 2012

The theme and quotes in this lesson follow, I think, fairly expectedly from the title of the lesson. Time is short for me, so I’m going to focus on some issues relating to John 8, how it is used in this lesson, and what I think are some ways this passage gives us for thinking about the lesson as a whole in fresh ways that can generate interesting discussion. (If anyone else is interested in posting lesson notes, since time will likely be somewhat short for me for the next several months, please say so below, or email me at rcouchZZZ@gmail.com, without the ZZZ. Of course, making interesting comments is a very easy and non-committal way to help enhance the value of these notes!)

On p. 3 of the manual, Pres. Smith effectively raises the question: are we like “the self-righteous Pharisees, who rejected His message, claiming that they were the descendants of Abraham and indicated that their lineage would save them in the Kingdom of God”? This, I think, is a great question to begin the lesson with: to what extent are we (individually, as well as communally—both locally, and as a church culture more generally) like the Pharisees? What tendencies and temptations do we have that are similar? How can we overcome these tendencies? These questions lead to the following question that will set the stage for thinking about John 8:33-39 that Pres. Smith quotes: what were the Pharisees like?

The manual cites verses 33-39 of John 8, but it’s confusing to start with verse 33. Actually, it’s hard to start anywhere after verse 12, since the themes of this chapter are highly interwoven. In verses 13, after Jesus declares himself the light of the world, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of bearing record of himself. Jesus responds in a curious way, first that although he bears witness of himself, his witness is true (v. 14), but also that the Father bears witness of him (vv. 16-18). The Pharisees then ask where Jesus’s father is, and Jesus replies, “Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also” (v. 19). This theme of the Father is again picked up in verse 26 when Jesus declares, “he that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those thigns which I have heard of him.” Jesus continues to declare his relation/unity with the Father in vv. 28-29, and in response some misunderstand (v. 27) whereas some believed him (v. 30).

Then we get to the more immediate context of the verses cited in the manual: Jesus says “to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (vv. 31-32). This sets the stage for the response, “We be Abraham’s seed,” which I’ll discuss more below. For now, it is worth thinking a bit about these issues of freedom and truth, and how all of this relates to what follows (and to the theme of this lesson more generally).

The notion of freedom in the New Testament usually pertains to freedom from sin (e.g., Romans 6:18-23), freedom from law (e.g., Romans 7:3; 8:2; Galatians 2:4; 4:21-31; 5:1, 13) or freedom from death (e.g., Romans 6:21; 8:21). In many ways, I think the theme of this lesson can be nicely conceived as a question regarding precisely the kind of bondage suggested by this New Testament notion of freedom: why, after all, don’t we live what we believe? (One possible answer, which I have in minde here: we are, effectively, in bondage to sin or death, or—in a more complicated sense, discussed by Paul esp. in Romans 7—law.)

The question of truth should be understood here, I think, in terms of the Hebrew notion of truth meaning “to be true to.” Much of what Christ is talking about here is being true to the witness of Heavenly Father—and, subsequently, being true to the legacy of Abraham. It is also interesting to note the following about truth and the Hebrew term that is the root for our term amen. First, God is called the God of amen (“truth” in the KJV) in Isa 65:16, and He is referred to as just “the Amen” (in English) in Rev 3:14. Thinking about the relation between Jesus and Heavenly Father in terms of “amen” is, I think, quite helpful. Also, when Jesus says in the next verse of John 8 (v. 34), “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” the word “verily” is the Greek word amen. The Holy Ghost, as a kind of second comforter (the Paraclete, in John’s gospel), is what helps us recognize this confirming relation between the Father and the Son. When Christ talks about this kind of truth rooted in his fidelity to his Father, and uses the Hebrew terms for truth to introduce his own teaching (remember, Jesus spoke Aramaic, basically a dialect of Hebrew) it sets a very rich stage for thinking about Abraham, and his seed—and in a manner that parallels the way we should think about our own baptism and the extent to which we really can be considered God’s seed (since we often like to talk simply in terms of everyone being children of Heavenly Father in a way that I think downplays the importance of the covenantal family relations that we should be focusing more on…).

So, finally, we get the response to Jesus in verse 34, “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” First, this is a curious claim since the Israelites were in bondage at least to the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans. But it’s unlikely these learned Jews had forgotten these episodes in their history, so it’s more likely that they interpreted these episodes as exceptional and of short-duration in the context of their chosen and blessed status as the inheritors of Abraham’s blessings (“they had never been in a continuing state of bondage,” Andreas Kostenberger writes in his Baker Exegetical Commentary volume on John). The response here seems to have more direct canonical reference to Leviticus 25:39-42 that prescribes “that no Jew, however poor, should descend to the level of slave” (Kostenberger, p. 262).

But Jesus goes on to clarify that he is talking about slavery to sin (John 8:34). Jesus goes on in this discussion to elaborate on the idea that the Jews who do not receive him, and do not do righteous works are—as the claim of the argument culminates in v. 44—children of the devil. This is, I think, a very strong claim, and one that strikes me to the heart. Oftentimes when I fall into sin, I rationalize this away by telling myself that no one is perfect, and that God will understand and forgive me, and that I’ll just try harder, etc., etc. But I think that this line of thinking is often abused in an effort not to see the bondage that we are truly in. This is what I think Pres. Smith is ultimately getting at when he says on p. 3, “The world has gotten into such a condition and has been deceived by the adversary . . . declar[ing] that the mere belief in God is all that is necessary. . . . That is a trick of the adversary.”

I think 1 John 2:3-6, cited in the Related Scriptures section of the lesson, would also be quite interesting to take up in the context of the thoughts above (Moroni 7:3-5, on “by their works ye shall know them,” also teaches something very similar, and thus might also be worth taking up, but I like the less familiar wording of 1 John, which might help shake us out of our tendency to read in a mode of slumber…). Verse 3 reads, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” What’s interesting to me is the way that this is said in a non-prescriptive way. John isn’t advocating explicitly here that we keep the commandments. Rather, he is simply stating that if we claim to know God, but do not keep the commandments, we are lying (v. 4). This, I think, is a powerful way to think about the underlying principle in this lesson, and in a way that is not very common for us in the Church these days, at least in my experience. If we are not keeping the commandments, and yet we claim to know God, we are in self-denial. This kind of self-deception is dangerous, since it keeps us from knowing God, and experiencing the love of God (v. 5). I think the message of 1 John is quite clear that this problem can be overcome only by recognizing and receiving the love of God, “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), and then showing love toward others. If we are not acting in accordance with this divine love, there is something clearly wrong in our relationship with the source of this love, and we should plead on our knees until we truly feel God’s love, and let it have its transformative effect on our hearts.

8 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 1: “Living What We Believe” (George Albert Smith Manual)”

  1. emrajr69 said

    It is the same as asking of us,”Will you know his face when you see him again?” If we have not familiarised ourselves with his teachings while we are here on earth, and kept the covenants we have made with him, will we know him in our hearts when we stand before him to give an account of our lives. Will we kneel before him in fear and trepidation, or in love and respect, in expectation of eternity in his presence.

  2. Matt W. said

    I am actually going to focus more on George in this lesson, and try to balance his rhetoric regarding living what we believe with his life situation of having lupus and depression and a bad stomach and a bad back and nosebleeds and joint pains and heart problems etc. I’m going to try and balance the idea of living what we believe with living with and magnifying the hand we’ve been dealt in life.

  3. joespencer said

    An interesting post at BCC on George Albert Smith: http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/01/04/mental-illness-and-george-albert-smith/.

  4. kirkcaudle said

    Thanks for this Robert.

    A few of my own thoughts on John 9:33-39 and freedom that came to me as I read this.

    First, I think we can look at v36 as the master (Christ) freeing the slave (us), :If the Son, therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”

    Second, how does Christ set us free? v 32, “ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Therefore, Christ=Truth

    I think that knowing truth means possessing the capacity to live fully in the world outside of bondage.Knowing Truth leads to freedom. In other words, freedom is not what little kids have. Freedom is not running around the backyard screaming and having fun. Freedom is not ignorance of the world around you. Rather, freedom is feeling. Freedom is an artist painting a picture. Freedom is closing your eyes and knowing that you are ok in the world.

    Freedom/Truth is a feeling of comfort more than it is an actual action or a physical state of being.

  5. Robert C. said

    Thanks for these extra comments, they give me some nice ideas on how to approach the actual teaching of this lesson Sunday.

    Here’s an additional thought building on the various comments above, mixed with some of my own navel-gazing about my role as a teacher in my quorum. We all struggle with our own challenges and temptations. The purpose of studying God’s word, individually and communally, is to help focus our thoughts on principles and truths that we care deeply about, but frequently get distracted by. Focusing on Pres. Smith’s teachings, and/or the scriptural passages that underlie these teachings, helps us to:

    * reaffirm our commitment to these truths,

    * block out the distractions that often impede us in living according to these commitments,

    * engage us in personally reflecting on the particular meaning and significance of these teachings, as we variously understand them,

    * learn from each other in the process, often in a way that shakes up our own proclivities to interpret the teachings in self-serving ways, perhaps rooted in self-denial.

    As we read about the words of Christ, and of Pres. Smith, calling their interlocutors to repentance, they also call us to repentance, and model a way that we can call each other to repentance. Making commitments publicly, like during the ordinances of the sacrament, baptism, marriage, etc., makes it possible for others to help us remember these commitments. This shared sense of responsibility to these commitments makes all of us better people, both individually and as a community. Moreover, I think this process draws quite close to the kind of “truth” that forms the heart of the what the Gospel is all about—it certainly seems to be the aspect of truth that Christ is focusing on in John 8, esp. considered in its entirety (not to mention 1 John 2, Mormon 7, etc.).

  6. Pattyann said

    Love your notes on this lesson. I am planning on using a few of them for my own lesson tomorrow. Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. Mike B. said

    – Are we like “the self-righteous Pharisees, who rejected His message, claiming that they were the descendants of Abraham and indicated that their lineage would save them in the Kingdom of God”?

    I kind of had the idea that Pharisees had too much of an obsession with works, rather than too little. Do I perhaps have too simplistic a view of the Pharisees?

  8. Robert C. said

    Mike, good question. I think you’re right that the Pharisees were overly obsessed with works, though it seems they were more obsessed with the display of works (in public) rather than works per se (e.g., in private)—hence their hypocrisy (cf. Matt 23:13ff).

    In this episode in John, after re-reading more carefully, I think Pres. Smith is making a slightly different point than is being made in John 8, and I failed to make this distinction in my notes above. It seems Jesus is simply referring to the fact that Abraham would not have killed someone bringing God’s word, and this action is what makes them the children of the devil, not their excessive focus on works.

    But this is all quite interesting to think about and study more. My own thinking is that there is, in fact,a connection between focusing too much on works and being unable to actually perform such works. That is, “too much” in the phrase “focusing too much on works” suggests something unhealthy that I think is tantamount to making the law an end in itself rather than properly understanding the deadness of the law (2 Ne 25:25ff). So, when the Pharisees, or when we ourselves, focus “too much” on works, without keeping our efforts to do good works properly subordinate to a larger desire to love (God and others), then we will know we are not doing things properly because our efforts to produce good works will fail. Put differently, I think “too much” can be understood as inauthentic desire to perform good works: the Pharisees wanted to display good works, but did not want to humble themselves enough to go through the change of heart required to actually produce good works (on a consistent basis, across time and in public as well as private…).

    I take this, then, as all related to the central tension, or paradox, of the gospel: only when we lose our focus on producing good works, and instead focus on Christ and the atonement, will we actually be able to produce good works! There is a danger, then, in a lesson like this, that we actually worsen the problem simply by focusing on good works as an “end” in itself (I’m hinting at the language of scripture which condemns an understanding of the law as an end in itself—Christ is the “end” of the law!). Really, a lack of good works is simply a sign that our relationship to God and to the law/commandments (and to others and ourselves) is wrong. We can really only produce good works, not simply by deepening our resolve to display good works (since that would be focusing too much on works, in manner reminiscent of the Pharisees), but by coming unto God with penitence and a contrite heart humility, and a purified desire to love (which comes, as 1 John 4 tells us, only as a result of experiencing God’s love, not through some heroic effort or resolve on our part…). Then, although we may indeed desire to perform good works, such desire is authentic rather than hypocritical, and the results will obtain rather than be frustrated, and we will not be like the Pharisees….

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