Why is the witness of Christ and His mission much clearer in the Book of Mormon than in the Old Testament?
, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.
Some readers of the Old Testament, noticing that it lacks the explicit emphasis on the mission of Jesus Christ so common in the Book of Mormon, wonder how much the ancient Israelites knew of Christ and His redemptive mission. Did they have or understand the gospel to the same degree as the ancient inhabitants of the Americas? And if they did, why does the Book of Mormon “talk of Christ” and “preach of Christ” (2 Ne. 25:26) so much more directly?
Omissions from the Bible
From the time of Moses to the end of the Old Testament, there are no clear and explicit references to Jesus Christ and His gospel.
It is likely that the Old Testament’s lack of information about Christ results in part from textual omissions. Nephi saw in vision that records from the Old Testament era were pure when they went forth (see 1 Ne. 13:24–25). But “many parts which are plain and most precious” were later removed from those records (1 Ne. 13:26). With its allusions to and quotations from the records of Neum, Ezias, Zenock, and Zenos—ancient Old World prophets who wrote about the Messiah’s coming (see 1 Ne. 19:10; Hel. 8:19–20)—the Book of Mormon provides evidence of prophetic writings not included in today’s Old Testament.
Modern revelation teaches that Adam was taught and accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Moses 5:4–9; Moses 6:50–62), was baptized (see Moses 6:64–66), and received the priesthood (see D&C 107:40–42; Abr. 1:2–3). Adam and Eve taught the gospel to their children (see Moses 5:12). Enoch and Noah believed in Christ, worshiped the Father in His name, and preached faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost (see Moses 7:10–11, 50; Moses 8:23–24). Abraham knew of Christ and the plan of salvation, rejoicing in the distant coming of the Lord in the flesh (see Abr. 3:22–28; John 8:56; JST, Gen. 15:12). Moses also understood the gospel and Christ’s role as Creator and Redeemer (see Moses 1:6, 32–33; Moses 4:1–4).
We know these things only because God revealed them to the Prophet Joseph Smith, mostly as part of the Prophet’s inspired translation of the Bible—a process of restoring saving knowledge that was “taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith , sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, 10).
The Rebellion of Israel
A second reason Christ and His gospel are not readily apparent in the Old Testament is the pervasive apostasy of ancient Israel during the period from Moses to Jesus. “When the Israelites came out of Egypt they had the Gospel preached to them,” the Prophet Joseph Smith taught (Teachings, 60). Moses prophesied to them concerning the coming of the Messiah (see Mosiah 13:33) and “sought diligently to sanctify his people” and make them Saints in the fullest sense. But they rejected the invitation—an action whose dramatic consequences included the loss of the Melchizedek Priesthood (see D&C 84:19–25; JST, Ex. 34:1).
Because the people were unwilling to live the gospel, the higher priesthood was withdrawn, and the law of Moses, administered by the Aaronic Priesthood, was revealed as Israel’s system of worship. “When [Moses] was taken,” President John Taylor said, “the keys went with him; … [and] the Aaronic priesthood ruled until Christ” (The Gospel Kingdom , 154).
A Loss of Light
The loss of priesthood blessings was not the only consequence of Israel’s rebellion. The scriptures suggest that significant gospel knowledge was forfeited as well.
Alma the Younger taught the important principle that knowledge is withheld or withdrawn from unbelieving individuals. “They that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries” (Alma 12:11). Joseph Smith taught that “all the prophets had the Melchizedek Priesthood” (Teachings, 181). Their countrymen who were unworthy of the priesthood, however, were denied its blessings and enjoyed only “the lesser portion” of the gospel.
Joseph Smith also taught: “When God offers a blessing or knowledge to a man, and he refuses to receive it, he will be damned. The Israelites prayed that God would speak to Moses and not to them; in consequence of which he cursed them with a carnal law” (Teachings, 322). As the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob said, “God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it” (Jacob 4:14). Consequently, even in the hundreds of changes in the Joseph Smith Translation, the Old Testament after Moses does not explicitly mention the name of Jesus Christ.
Because Old Testament prophets held the Melchizedek Priesthood and knew of Christ, we can infer that others received the fulness of their message and were worthy of both knowledge and priesthood blessings beyond those of many of their contemporaries. Perhaps we do not have any record of such individuals or groups because the Old Testament is a book directed to the Israelite nation in general—not to possible faithful Saints among them who had risen above the sins of their generation.
Christ in the Law and the Prophets
Modern revelation explains the origin and intent of animal sacrifice: “This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth” (Moses 5:7). Sacrificial offerings pointed to the great offering that Jesus would make in behalf of God’s children.
Amulek taught, “This is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal” (Alma 34:14). But while it is clear from the Book of Mormon that the purpose of the law of Moses was to point to Christ (see 2 Ne. 11:4; Mosiah 3:14–15; Mosiah 13:30–32; Alma 34:14), the Israelites “did not all understand the law; and this because of the hardness of their hearts; for they understood not that there could not any man be saved except it were through the redemption of God” (Mosiah 13:32). By the time of Jesus, the Jews had long since lost the true meaning of the law and were performing sacrifices and other observances without any reference to Christ or His Atonement.
In ancient Israel, prophets labored under circumstances that required that their message be first and foremost a call for Israel to repent and return to the obligations of the law of Moses. But they also proclaimed the message of salvation by foretelling the Lord’s coming in glory at the end of the world. Such prophecies show Israel’s God, Jehovah, as a God of salvation, whose mighty acts of deliverance in the past are proof of even greater deliverance in the future. Salvation from earthly trials points to the greater salvation from sin and death. Thus, prophecies of triumph over earthly enemies also foretell triumph over spiritual enemies. All the prophets who testified of Jehovah’s work, of His mercy, and of His power to save and redeem the world were also testifying of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, since Jehovah is Christ and His work is the same.
Sometimes we fault the Jews of Jesus’ time for not understanding the prophecies or for confusing prophecies of Christ’s second coming with those of His first coming. But in the Old Testament, prophecies of the Lord’s coming in glory abound, while those of His mortal ministry are relatively few. And rather than being clear and open, they are veiled in the richly figurative and symbolic language that the Book of Mormon calls “types” and “shadows” (Mosiah 3:15), in harmony with the principle of protecting sacred things from abuse by the irreverent (see JST, Matt. 7:10). In general, only those who understand the plan of salvation or are familiar with Jesus’ mortal ministry can understand the meaning of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament.
When we understand, however, that Jesus is Jehovah, we can see the message of His gospel throughout the Old Testament. Every ordinance of cleansing, every exclamation of praise, every hymn of thanks, and every prophecy of redemption bears testimony of Him and His work. Taken together, they proclaim that salvation is only to be found in Him.