In the Book of Mormon we follow the account of one family of Israelites who proved worthy to be blessed with great light and knowledge concerning the doctrine of Christ. Even a superficial comparison of the Book of Mormon with the Bible lets us see that the level of understanding concerning sacred things was far greater among Lehi’s descendants than among the people from whom they came.
The Old Testament offers only a few precious passages that allude obliquely to Christian doctrine. And even in the Joseph Smith Translation, which reveals dramatically that the gospel was on the earth from Adam to Moses, we do not see a widespread or clear understanding of Jesus among the people from Moses to John the Baptist. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is central to the Book of Mormon. Its title page affirms that the book was written, among other reasons, “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”
Modern revelation explains that God has not always allowed a full understanding of His gospel to be had among the people of the earth, even among the house of Israel. Because of rebellion, the Israelites from Moses to John the Baptist were denied the higher priesthood and gospel blessings reserved for the faithful (see D&C 84:23–27; JST, Ex. 34:1–2, Bible appendix). Alma taught:
“He that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.
“And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries” (Alma 12:10–11). Rebellion leads to loss of opportunities, and ancient Israel, through much of its history, suffered the consequences by having much of the light of the gospel withdrawn (see Alma 12:9; Alma 29:8; 3 Ne. 26:9–10).1
But with the separation of Lehi and his family from their native society came a great revelation of gospel knowledge that was unknown to the mainstream of their countrymen. To the Lehites the “greater portion of the word” was revealed. With the prophetic training of Lehi and his sons, a restoration of gospel fulness took place. And we, the modern readers, are blessed by what they learned and by what they recorded in the Book of Mormon. Indeed, the greatest aspect of the Book of Mormon is its clear teaching and testimony of Jesus Christ.
Nephi began his record keeping by making the large plates, which probably happened more than 10 years after his family left Jerusalem. On them he included his father’s record, an account of their journeys in the wilderness, and his and his father’s prophecies (see 1 Ne. 19:2). Thirty to forty years after the family’s departure, Nephi made the small plates and wrote on them the record that we have in 1 and 2 Nephi (see 2 Ne. 5:28–34). Our information concerning Lehi’s and Nephi’s early visions thus comes from a record written at least 30 years after many of the events that it describes. In writing on the small plates, Nephi drew from his memory, his father’s written record, his own earlier account on the large plates, and the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. But his descriptions of those early events reflect his more mature, seasoned, and broadened perspective of later years.2
From 1 Nephi 1 we learn that when Lehi was preaching in Jerusalem his message was the same as that of the Old Testament prophets of his own time: Jerusalem would be destroyed soon and its inhabitants taken away because of their wickedness. According to Nephi, his father was one of “many prophets” in Jerusalem who preached that same message (see 1 Ne. 1:4).3
Lehi saw in vision “God sitting upon his throne,” “One descending out of the midst of heaven,” and “twelve others following him” (1 Ne. 1:8–10). The one sitting on the throne is identified as God, but the others—including the “One” who descends—are not identified in that chapter of Nephi’s record. Lehi was given a book which he was commanded to read. He read in it “concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon” (1 Ne. 1:13).4
Nephi does not tell us more about the content of the book, but he mentions that his father was greatly moved as he continued to read and as he continued to see things in vision. He proclaimed the greatness of the Lord in not allowing those who come unto Him to perish (see 1 Ne. 1:14), perhaps with reference to his family’s deliverance from the coming destruction, or perhaps regarding God’s power to save from sin. When Lehi preached to the Jews the message that he learned from his visions, he focused on two things: the inhabitants of Jerusalem were wicked and would be destroyed, and, in Nephi’s words, he “manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world” (1 Ne. 1:19). For these pronouncements, Lehi was persecuted, and the people attempted to kill him (see 1 Ne. 1:20).
Nephi provides an intriguing report of his father’s vision and its consequences. He mentions “One descending out of the midst of heaven” as though His identity were unknown at the time. Although Nephi clearly knew much of Christ when the record was written, his ambiguity, or that of his father, was deliberate. The record suggests that Lehi did not know then who the “One descending” was. It is not until 1 Nephi 10 that he began to instruct his children on the topic of Jesus’ mission, giving them information that he had received in later revelations.
As Nephi further recounts the preaching of his father, he mentions that Lehi spoke of one whom he called “a Messiah.” The term a Messiah—without the definite article the—is uncharacteristic of the writing of Nephi, who later wrote of Christ with tremendous clarity and directness. Yet Nephi’s writing conveys the family’s limited knowledge at the time concerning the Savior, His identity, and His mission.
Text in 1 Nephi 10 allows us to witness the restoration of important knowledge of Christ to Lehi and his children. Here Lehi related to his family some things he had learned through revelation, particularly in his vision of the tree of life in chapter 8. Nephi’s paraphrase of his father’s teachings uses carefully chosen words that show Lehi was learning and making known new things. Nephi summarizes, “Yea, even six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world” (1 Ne. 10:4; emphasis added).
In the next verse Nephi mentions “this Messiah, of whom he had spoken, or this Redeemer of the world” (1 Ne. 10:5; emphasis added). The power of Christ’s Atonement is introduced in the next verse for the first time in the Book of Mormon: “Wherefore, all mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer” (1 Ne. 10:6; emphasis added).
Thus in recounting those early revelations, Nephi uses terms such as “a Messiah,” “this Messiah,” “a prophet,” “a Savior of the world,” and “this Redeemer”—all in obvious reference to Christ. Words like these are chosen for a concept that Nephi is introducing for the first time. Clearly such was the case regarding knowledge of Jesus Christ and the nature of His work that was being revealed as new ideas to Lehi and his sons. Nephi, the cautious and sensitive historian, preserves the integrity of the event with carefully chosen language, even though his report of it was written years later.
It was over 40 years after Lehi left Jerusalem that his son Jacob was visited by an angel who told him, for the first time in the Book of Mormon, that the Savior would be called Christ (2 Ne. 10:3). That name is used very frequently thereafter, for a total of 315 times in the Book of Mormon. The name Jesus is not introduced in the Book of Mormon until 2 Nephi 25:19, also more than 40 years after Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem. Nephi taught that, “according to the words of the prophets, and also the word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ” (2 Ne. 25:19). Beginning with this first reference, the name Jesus is found in common usage in the Book of Mormon, and it appears a total of 161 times.
In 1 Nephi 10:7, Nephi reported his father’s teachings about the Savior’s earthly experiences, beginning with the mission of John the Baptist (see 1 Ne. 10:9). Lehi taught his children that the gospel would be preached to the Jews, who would slay “the Messiah, who should come,” after which He would rise from the dead (1 Ne. 10:11). Nephi himself points out that this Messiah would be “their Lord” (1 Ne. 10:14; emphasis added) and also “the Son of God” (1 Ne. 10:17; emphasis added), giving us the Book of Mormon’s first reference to this important doctrine.
Nephi was anxious to see the things his father had seen, and in 1 Nephi 11 a similar vision was opened to him. In addition to giving the interpretation of individual items in Lehi’s dream, Nephi’s vision provides an expanded prophecy of the future and gives a fuller and deeper interpretation of what Lehi had witnessed. The most important part of Nephi’s vision is his testimony of the mission of Christ.
Nephi’s vision reveals information concerning Jesus’ mortal coming to the Jews in Palestine and His glorified coming to Lehi’s children in the Americas. Adding to the things that had been made known to his father, Nephi taught the following: Christ would be the Son of God, born to a virgin (see 1 Ne. 11:13–21); He would minister “in power and great glory,” blessing the lives of others (see 1 Ne. 11:24, 28, 31); He would be followed by “twelve others” (see 1 Ne. 11:29); He would be judged and slain by the Jews (see 1 Ne. 11:32–33); in the Americas there would be destruction preceding His coming (see 1 Ne. 12:4–5); He would appear in glory (see 1 Ne. 12:6); twelve Nephite disciples would be called (see 1 Ne. 12:7–10); and three to four generations of righteousness would follow His appearance (see 1 Ne. 12:11–12).
Nephi’s understanding of the doctrine of Christ is made clear in the Atonement-centered words he chose as he taught his family. Jesus would be “the Lamb of God,” who would “take away the sins of the world” (1 Ne. 10:10). The term lamb puts the Savior’s ministry in the contexts of His atoning sacrifice and the law of Moses, with which Lehi’s family was familiar. Christ would take away our sins as a sacrificial offering in our behalf. Between 1 Nephi 10:10 and 1 Nephi 14:27, Nephi uses the term lamb 57 times with reference to Jesus.
As is apparent in several Book of Mormon passages, Lehi’s family’s information concerning the mission of Jesus did not come to them only through revelation and visitation of angels. They also learned through reading the words of earlier prophets found on the plates of brass. In the writings of Zenock, Nephi read that the Lord would be “lifted up”; and in Neum’s record it was foretold that Christ would be crucified (see 1 Ne. 19:10).
The prophet Zenos appears to have been a major written source for Nephi’s knowledge of Christ.5 From him Nephi learned the following: Jesus would be buried in a sepulchre, and there would be “three days of darkness, which should be a sign given of his death unto those who should inhabit the isles of the sea, more especially given unto those who are of the house of Israel” (1 Ne. 19:10). Zenos taught further that the Lord would “visit all the house of Israel at that day,” the righteous with His voice and the wicked with His vengeance (see 1 Ne. 19:11–12); the people of Jerusalem would be scattered because they crucified their Lord, only to be gathered again in the last days when they would accept Him (see 1 Ne. 19:13–15).
But to more fully persuade his people “to believe in the Lord their Redeemer,” Nephi read to them from the writings of Isaiah (see 1 Ne. 19:23), and he reproduced several chapters of Isaiah’s words in his own record.
Lehi and his descendants were separated from their fellow Israelites for a special mission, and the testimony which they left for us has blessed the lives of millions of people and will bless the lives of many millions more. What Lehi and his sons learned about the Savior during the early years of their callings formed the foundation for later Nephite and Lamanite knowledge of Christ and His redeeming ministry. Because of what was revealed to them, the Book of Mormon people were Christians. Their record accurately is “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
It is significant that very early in the Lord’s latter-day work, He gave to the world a ready-made volume of pure testimony and doctrine of Christ. Indeed, before the restoration of the Lord’s Church, we had the Book of Mormon, which testifies and teaches of Him.6 Because the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion, the unfolding of the gospel to Lehi and his descendants is also the unfolding of the gospel to us. And as we come to understand it, line upon line as they did, we can become participants in its blessings.