The New Testament—A Matchless Portrait of the Savior


Neal A. Maxwell
This is an edited, condensed version of a talk delivered 23 February 1985 at the New Testament Symposium held at Brigham Young University.

The New Testament—

Occasionally, a few in the Church let the justified caveat about the Bible—“as far as it is translated correctly” (A of F 1:8)—diminish their exultation over the New Testament. Inaccuracy of some translating must not, however, diminish our appreciation for the powerful testimony and ample historicity of the New Testament.

Latter-day Saints gladly share in the Holy Bible with all Christians. Since, alas, the Old Testament is so very, very little read in Christendom, what we end up sharing with other Christians, practically speaking, are the four Gospels and the precious epistles of the New Testament. Even so, these pages are a treasure trove testifying of Jesus.

On occasion, the pages of the New Testament come especially alive for me. A year ago, in the midst of certain Pauline pages, it was as if the cultures and centuries that stood between Paul and me were melted away by the warmth of the Spirit. Paul’s words flowed into my mind unimpeded, and I understood as never before. They seemed to fall upon my ear and soul, not printed words being processed by my brain, but communication, friend to friend. It was an experience lasting perhaps no more than twenty minutes, but it was one I shall never forget.

Far more than many have perceived, we learn in the New Testament how Jesus and the Old Testament prophets were interactive associates:

“For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.” (John 5:46; see also Deut. 18:15.)

“By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; …

“Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” (Heb. 11:24, 26.)

Still other scriptures confirm the interactiveness: “For this intent have we written these things, that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us.” (Jacob 4:4.)

The New Testament is unique in that it, and it alone, gives us so many events, episodes, and useful chronologies of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Though Jesus made multiple appearances later as the resurrected Savior, there was only one birth at Bethlehem. There was only one boyhood in Nazareth about which the Prophet Joseph provided an encapsulating insight:

“And it came to pass that Jesus grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come.

“And he served under his father, and he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him.

“And after many years, the hour of his ministry drew nigh.” (JST, Matt. 3:24–26.)

As far as I know, no words uttered by Jesus have proven to be obsolete. Even a seemingly tactical utterance such as the instruction to betraying Judas, “That thou doest, do quickly” (John 13:27), is filled with meaning. It illustrated the foreknowledge of Jesus, demonstrated His heroic pursuit of His ominous but glorious task, and showed His refusal to be diverted or overcome by the steadily encircling gloom.

The pages of the New Testament uniquely and resplendently show us Jesus working out His salvation, at one point, with trembling. (See D&C 19:18.) Since with fear and trembling we must do likewise on our smaller scale, the exemplifying and instructing pages of the New Testament are, in this regard, incomparable indeed.

Imagine, for a moment, where we would be without the New Testament’s matchless portrait of the Savior—clearly not “of” but very much “in” the world. Granted, much doctrinal fulness came later in “other books,” as did also enhanced information and confirmation concerning the multidimensional roles of Jesus, premortal and postmortal, but it remains for the New Testament to provide the portrait of the mortal Messiah.

In the New Testament and its four Gospels, each with its unique emphasis, the portrait of the living and mortal Messiah is painted powerfully. All of it was done not merely to provide an assemblage of aphorisms, but for the primary purpose described by John: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:31.)

How grateful we should be to Luke for writing not to satisfy curiosity, but as a messenger of Jesus Christ to Theophilus, “that thou mightest know the certainty” of the gospel. (Luke 1:4.)

Paul’s painstaking epistles were no mere chronological log, but were words designed to testify of Jesus and the Resurrection.

“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, …

“Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh;

“And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (Rom. 1:1, 3–4.)

The various emphases in the four gospels are intriguing. John, for instance, does not stress the parables of Jesus, these being featured in the synoptic gospels. But John does tell us about the supernal ordinance of the washing of feet. (See John 13:5.) The importance of John’s record is attested to in Doctrine and Covenants 88:141. [D&C 88:141]

John and Paul tell us that before His mortal ministry, Jesus was the Creator of this and other worlds. (See John 1:3, 10; Eph. 3:9; Heb. 1:2.)These truths, of course, are verified and amplified in plain and precious ways in “other books” of scripture. (See 1 Ne. 13:39–40; D&C 76:23, 24; Moses 1:1–10.) It is interesting that some sincere Christians do not think of Christ in those, perhaps galactic, terms, thus ignoring this dimension of Jesus’ divinity.

We know not, even now, the outer circumference of the ministry of Jesus Christ. In any event, the Perfect Shepherd, Jesus, who is affirmed Creator of worlds by the New Testament, certainly did not create other worlds and then forget them. That He did create other worlds is intriguingly alluded to in these verses of modern scripture:

“That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.” (D&C 76:24.)

“Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?” (D&C 88:46.)

“Behold, I will liken these kingdoms unto a man having a field, and he sent forth his servants into the field to dig in the field.” (D&C 88:51.)

“And thus they all received the light of the countenance of their lord, every man in his hour, and in his time, and in his season.” (D&C 88:58; italics added.)

“Therefore, unto this parable I will liken all these kingdoms, and the inhabitants thereof—every kingdom in its hour, and in its time, and in its season, even according to the decree which God hath made.” (D&C 88:61.)

But, again, so far as Jesus’ mortal ministry is concerned, it occurred on a small stage, in the manner set forth in the New Testament.

But what drama took place on that small, sparsely populated stage, such as that which occurred on the Mount of Transfiguration! Think of Peter, a Galilean fisherman, in the midst of this transcendent experience:

“And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,

“And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.

“And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

“Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.

“While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.

“And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.” (Matt. 17:1–6.)

Even so, it was the very outward ordinariness of Jesus’ life that gave unjustified excuse to some neighbors to refer to Him merely as the son of Joseph the Carpenter. (See Matt. 13:55.) Likewise, proximity and undiscerning familiarity provided unjustified excuse for even some of Christ’s kinsmen to reject Him. Jesus’ lamentation, “[For] a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house,” (Matt. 13:57) framed that painful provinciality for us.

We also get glimpses of the conspiratorial political context in which Jesus functioned even to the end of his mortal Messiahship: “And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.” (Luke 23:12.)

The New Testament, however, provides happy longitudinality: “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue:

“For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12:42–43.)

Some time passes after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and note what occurs: “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7.)

Some in the ecclesiastical establishment, at one point, would not come forth and confess Jesus publicly. Yet later “a great company” joined the Christian church. This must have been a remarkable episode. Sympathetic Joseph of Arimathaea may have likewise, and perhaps also Nicodemus. (See Matt. 27:57; John 19:38–39.)

Jesus’ brief mortal ministry reminds us pointedly and repeatedly that life is not lineal, but experiential, not chronological, but developmental. We live in deeds, not days; in service, not seasons.

How much Christ compressed into not only narrow geographical space, but also into those three ministerial years! How perfectly prepared beforehand He was! During those brief years, His grip on Himself represented all mankind’s grip in immortality and eternity. But He held fast! John and Paul ask us to do likewise. (See Rev. 2:25; Rev. 3:11; 1 Thes. 5:21.)

We see in the epistles of the New Testament a regulatory emphasis, the caring of apostolic and other shepherds watching over the institutional Church. So far as we know, there were no handbooks then, only infrequent letters and visits. So far as general Church leaders were concerned, it was mostly administration by correspondence, and, where possible, by personal presence.

In fact, Paul and other Apostles knew that the early Church they and others had so diligently labored to build was, erelong, to fade out. Professor Richard Anderson put it well:

“Paul loved God’s work and his converts more than his life. He reviewed his three years of labor at Ephesus, warning ‘every one night and day with tears’ (Acts 20:31). … The tears were not in thankfulness for new generations of Christians but in sadness in realizing that all that he had worked for would be spoiled. He bluntly warned of apostasy soon after his time: ‘For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves’ (New King James Version, Acts 20:29–30). … Thus, Paul left the astounding testimony that local Christian leaders would reverse the apostle’s doctrines.” (Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983, p. 65.)

Nevertheless, Paul labored strenuously to regulate and build up the early Church, coping in his special way with the tendency of many to Judaize new converts to Christianity.

James, no doubt from long and sad experience as a Church leader, gave practical and needed counsel to balance faith and works—“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17)—and also to control the tongue: “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8.)

Peter taught how behaving better could lead to knowing more: “For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet. 1:8.)

But Peter’s eyes were not alone upon the meridian-day Church; he described the work overseen by the resurrected Jesus into the spirit world:

“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;

“Which sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” (1 Pet. 3:19–20.)

Peter had heard Jesus teach: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.” (John 5:25.)

John, too, saw the extinguishing of early-day Saints by the adversary: “And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.” (Rev. 13:7.)

But with equal clarity John saw Jesus’ triumphal return in power and glory: “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.” (Rev. 1:7.)

The healings of Jesus tell us of His divine nature but also tell much about human nature: “But so much the more went there a fame abroad of him: and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by him of their infirmities.” (Luke 5:15.)

“And he spake to his disciples, that a small ship should wait on him because of the multitude, lest they should throng him.

“For he had healed many; insomuch that they pressed upon him for to touch him, as many as had plagues.” (Mark 3:9–10.)

The more declarative Jesus was, the more tentative some followers. Is this not the same today? As long as Jesus’ church and its prophets are doing certain things of which people fully approve, there is admiration. But when modern prophets begin to be declarative, then it is a very different matter!

“The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, I am the bread which came down from heaven.” (John 6:41.)

“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” (John 6:66.)

Jesus had a perfect understanding of the relationship of faith and miracles: “And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (Luke 16:31.)

We also see differential degrees of divine disclosure:

“Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.” (John 4:26.)

“Then charged he his disciples that they should tell no man that he was Jesus the Christ.” (Matt. 16:20.)

“And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.” (Matt. 17:9.)

“And when the voice was past, Jesus was found alone. And they kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen.” (Luke 9:36.)

“But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God.

“Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said.” (Matt. 26:63–64.)

Jesus taught that God accounts for all sparrows and all hairs on heads. Obviously, He is omniscient and all-noticing, but in the life of Jesus we see how the Father is also all-anticipating; He is able to bring His purposes to pass.

Wonderful as the New Testament is, it is even stronger when it is joined with the “other books” of scripture. One example may suffice: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3.)

What is the full significance of becoming childlike? The Book of Mormon delineates with specificity: “And becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19.)

Since Jesus, the Light of the World, and His followers are the children of light, the luminosity or spiritual radiance of the dedicated disciple and the true believer is very real. Paul even described the changed condition of faithful Church members—“after ye were illuminated.” (Heb. 10:32.)

As we focus on our need to become like the Savior, the New Testament helps us with glimpses of the growth of illuminated men like Peter and Paul. In fact, it is from these and others like them that we can see how totally serious the Lord is about our need to develop, how willing He is to tutor us and to stretch our souls, if necessary. We must be tried as to our faith and patience. (See Mosiah 23:21.) Indeed, the Master taught the Twelve, “In your patience possess ye your souls.” (Luke 21:19.)

Not only did the Savior of Mankind work His own way through the second estate, but in the process of so doing He became Our Perfect Exemplar. He and He alone became entitled, thereby, to say to us that we are to become perfect as is the Father. (See Matt. 5:48.) Later, as our perfected and resurrected Lord and Savior, He urged us with full justification to become perfect, even as He and His Father are perfect, by our striving to become “even as I am.” (3 Ne. 27:27; see also 3 Ne. 12:48.)

To be truly about our Father’s business, we must ever be striving to become more like His Only Begotten Son, Jesus! Developmental mortality should be just that. It surely consists of more than just passing through this world, since we, like Jesus, are required to overcome the world.

No one has been or will be tempted as was Jesus. He never yielded, and He thus grew in His effective empathy: “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.” (Heb. 2:18; see also Alma 7:11–12.)

His methodology for dealing with temptation is that which we should emulate, if we would escape: “He suffered temptations but gave no heed unto them.” (D&C 20:22.)

Our Heavenly Father would not be the Perfect Father, nor Jesus our Perfect Shepherd, if they were content with us as we now are. Why? Because they know what we have the power to become! The pages of the New Testament contain marvelous and numerous insights to help reinforce this reality.

Our appreciation for Jesus is so enhanced and augmented throughout the New Testament.

Alas, however, for some who regard themselves Christians, Jesus is a brilliant, itinerant moralist—not the Son of God, not the resurrected Lord who is our Lawgiver and Redeemer. Peter foresaw this damnable heresy, which would lead to “denying the Lord that bought them.” (2 Pet. 2:1.) How ironic that Jesus, who rebutted the Sadducees “which deny that there is any resurrection” (Luke 20:27), should have His name appropriated by those who now deny the Resurrection.

Jesus spoke of the Resurrection but was not fully understood. He told some who should have known better, including the Sadducees, that they did not know the scriptures or the power of God (see Matt. 22:29), yet Jesus put the Sadducees and others to silence:

“And after that they durst not ask him any question at all.” (Luke 20:40.)

“When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left him, and went their way.” (Matt. 22:22.)

“And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.” (Matt. 22:46.)

But the New Testament witness of the Resurrection—not only that of Jesus but also that of many others—is pointedly and shiningly there! Praise be to Matthew for so writing and to others for so preserving these witnessing lines:

“And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,

“And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” (Matt. 27:52–53.)

There is no diluted symbolism in those words! Resurrected individuals—many of them—appeared unto many mortals and were presumably known or recognized.

Yes, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was matchless in beauty and verity, but Jesus’ declarations about His divinity are at the center of His sermons. Furthermore, Jesus also established an institutional church, for the “perfecting of the saints.” This should not surprise us, in view of His commandment, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48.)

Yes, Jesus gave us guidelines for daily living. But He also provided priesthood power, doctrines, ordinances, and fellowship. He was not merely a Socrates of Samaria or a Plato in Palestine.

Indeed, His parables and sermons, lauded or accepted by many, are the more to be valued and followed by Latter-day Saints precisely because such words came from the Creator of this and other worlds. Such words came from Christ, who was the Jehovah of the Old Testament. Thus, we are to pay special attention to the words of Jesus pertaining to daily life because they came from Him, Christ, who made eternal life a reality!

I do, therefore, rejoice as well in the other books of scripture. These bring us to elaboration, elucidation, confirmation, and further declaration concerning the divinity of Jesus—with the blessed New Testament playing its unique role by providing not only biography but historicity and testimony of Jesus, born at Bethlehem, later of Nazareth—but, now, on the Father’s right hand.

I rejoice in gospel fulness that instructs us as to the dispensational nature of religious history on this planet. This blessed framework accounts for the fragmentation and dispersion of truth following Adamic wholeness and post-Noachian dispersal, showing how a merciful Father provides for his children in various nations and cultures “all that he seeth fit that they should have.” (Alma 29:8.) Thus, whether it be similarities in certain religious beliefs in cultures otherwise diverse, or scrolls found in a cave, which puzzle those not dispensationally positioned, we are blessed with a fulness of which the precious New Testament is a significant part.

Alas, it is a fulness the bounds and depths of which we today in the Church are so very slow to measure and to appreciate!

The following New Testament passages fill me with gospel gladness. I refer to the hours that comprised Gethsemane and Calvary and also the period just before.

It was, for Jesus, a time of both anticipating and remembering: the great high-priestly prayer, “O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.” (John 17:5.)

The enormous weight, which by then Jesus had begun to feel, confirmed His long-held intellectual understanding as to what He must do! In the temple, His pleading and His working through began: “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour.” Then, whether in spiritual soliloquy or by way of instruction to those about Him: “But for this cause came I unto this hour.” (John 12:27.) The voice of the Father spoke audibly with reassuring words, but some who heard it merely thought it was thunder.

While weary and worried Apostles slept, in Gethsemane Jesus began to be “sore amazed” (Mark 14:33), or in the Greek rendition, “awestruck” and “astonished” and “very heavy” as the Psalmist had foretold. (See Ps. 69:20–21.)

Jesus, Creator and Jehovah, surely had known for a long time what He must do. Nevertheless, He had never known, personally, the exquisite and exacting process of an atonement before. And it was so much worse than even He with His unique intellect had ever imagined. No wonder an angel appeared to strengthen Him! (See Luke 22:43.)

No wonder He began to be “very heavy” or, also in the Greek rendition, very “dejected” and “depressed” and filled with anguish. The cumulative weight of all mortal sins, somehow, past, present, and future, pressed upon that perfect, sinless, and sensitive soul! All infirmities and sicknesses were part, too, of the awful arithmetic of the Atonement. (See Alma 7:11, 12; Isa. 53:3–5; Matt. 8:17.)

“And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me.” (Mark 14:36.) It was the cry of a Child, in deep distress, for His Father.

As Jehovah, Jesus had said to Abraham: “Is any thing too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14.) Jesus had taught this very truth about what was feasible for believers in His mortal ministry. Had not an angel told a perplexed Mary about her own impending miracle, saying, “For with God nothing shall be impossible”? (Luke 1:37.) And so in His anguish, Jesus actually pled that the hour and cup might pass from Him. In His anguish, He even quoted back to the Father those special, significant words—“All things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me.” (See Matt. 16:26; 26:39.) This was not theater—this was shuddering reality! Did the Lamb, in this extremity, hope for a ram in the thicket? I do not know, but the suffering was enormously multiplied by infinity. His soul-cries are understandable.

Even so, Jesus’ sublime, unparalleled, spiritual submissiveness then came—“Nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:36; see also Matt. 26:39.) The Savior was bearing our sins, our pains (see 2 Ne. 9:21), our infirmities, our sicknesses, to bring to pass the Atonement. Simultaneously He thus came to know, “according to the flesh” (Alma 7:12), how to succor His people. He became the perfected and empathetic Shepherd, making these lines of Paul’s especially tender and relevant: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Rom. 8:35.)

The atonement was a most wondrous and glorious moment. In fact, it was the central act in all of human history!

Think upon the feelings, at that hour, of the Father who loved His Only Begotten Son with a perfect love and with perfect empathy.

What I read now are exclusively New Testament words spoken well before the atonement of Jesus, full of more portent and more truth than we can manage. We can, Mary-like, keep these sayings in our hearts and ponder them—not speculate about them:

“But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. …

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

“For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel.” (John 5:17, 19–20.)

Just what a tutoring Father had earlier shown Jesus, so that the Savior could do “likewise,” we do not now know. In my opinion, the substance of that earlier showing—whatever it comprised—strengthened Jesus later in Gethsemane and on Calvary. After all, there had been much Fatherly tutoring: “Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.” (John 8:28.)

No wonder, as we are set spiritually aflame by the words of holy scripture, we unhesitatingly “talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write … that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2 Ne. 25:26.)

So when we read and turn the pages of the precious New Testament, there is a barely audible rustling like the quiet stirrings of the Spirit, something to be “spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14.) The witnessing words came to us—not slowly, laboriously, or equivocally through the corridors of the centuries, but rather, swiftly, deftly, and clearly. Upon the wings of the Spirit these words proclaim, again and anew, “JESUS LIVED. JESUS LIVES!”

And likewise, I humbly so proclaim!

[illustration] “Jesus Christ,” by Harry Anderson

[illustration] “About My Father’s Business,” by Harry Anderson, © Pacific Press Publishing Association; used by permission.

[illustration] “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” by Harry Anderson, © Pacific Press Publishing Association; used by permission.

[illustration] “There Came a Leper and Worshiped Him,” © Pacific Press Publishing Association; used by permission.

[illustration] “Not My Will, but Thine, Be Done,” by Harry Anderson, © Pacific Press Publishing Association; used by permission.