In the Book of Mormon we follow the account of one family of Israelites blessed with great knowledge concerning the doctrine of Christ. Even a superficial comparison of the Book of Mormon with the Bible shows that Lehi’s descendants had a far greater understanding of this doctrine than did the people from whom they came.
The Old Testament offers only a few precious passages that allude to Christian doctrine. And even in the Joseph Smith Translation, which reveals that the gospel was on the earth from Adam to Moses, we do not see a widespread or clear understanding of Christ from Moses’ day to John the Baptist’s. 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 given a full understanding of His gospel to 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; Joseph Smith Translation, Ex. 34:1–2). 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 lost opportunities, and ancient Israel, through much of its history, suffered the consequences of rebellion by having much gospel doctrine withdrawn or withheld (see Alma 12:9; Alma 29:8; 3 Ne. 26:9–10).1 But when Lehi and his family separated from their native society, they were given a “greater portion of the word.” To Lehi, the Lord restored the gospel in its fulness, and we, the readers of the Book of Mormon, are blessed by what he and his family learned and recorded. 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, an event that 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 own and his father’s prophecies (see 1 Ne. 19:2). About 30 or 40 years after the family’s departure, Nephi made the small plates and wrote on them the record 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 it describes.
This passage of time does not mean the record was inaccurate. 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. In fact, the passage of time allowed him to bring a more mature, seasoned, and broadened perspective to his descriptions of those early years.2
From chapter 1 of 1 Nephi we learn that what Lehi taught in Jerusalem was the same message being delivered by 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
But Lehi also learned of the Savior’s mortal ministry. He 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 and commanded to read it. 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 the vision continued and as he continued to read. Lehi proclaimed the greatness of the Lord in not allowing those who come unto Him to perish (see 1 Ne. 1:14), perhaps referring to his family’s deliverance from the coming destruction or to God’s power to save from sin. When Lehi preached to the Jews the message 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 prophecies, Lehi was persecuted, and the people tried to kill him (see 1 Ne. 1:20).
Nephi’s report of his father’s vision is intriguing. He mentions “One descending out of the midst of heaven” as though His identity were unknown. Although Nephi clearly knew much of Christ at the time he recorded his father’s vision, he was deliberately ambiguous. The record suggests that Lehi did not know then who the “One descending” was. This information apparently came in later revelations. Not until years later did Lehi begin to instruct his children on the topic of Jesus’ mission (see 1 Ne. 10).
A knowledge of Jesus Christ and His Atonement was not given to Lehi and his family all at once. It seems to have come “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Ne. 28:30). Chapter 10 of 1 Nephi gives us a sense of this gradual restoration. Here Lehi relates to his family some concepts he had learned through revelation, particularly in his vision of the tree of life (see 1 Ne. 8). Nephi’s paraphrase of his father’s teachings uses carefully chosen words that show Lehi was learning and teaching new precepts. Nephi summarizes, “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).
In using terms such as “a Messiah,” “this Messiah,” “a prophet,” “a Savior of the world,” and “this Redeemer”—all obvious references to Christ—Nephi suggests that he is introducing these concepts in the record for the first time. Clearly, what Lehi and his sons were learning about Jesus Christ and His mission was new to them. Nephi, the cautious and sensitive historian, reports the event with language carefully chosen to suggest the family’s limited knowledge at the time, even though he wrote of it years later.
More than 40 years would pass after Lehi left Jerusalem before the family learned the Savior’s name. Sometime between 559 and 545 B.C., Lehi’s 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 (see 2 Ne. 10:3). That name is used frequently thereafter, a total of 315 times in the English Book of Mormon. About the same time Jacob learned the Savior would be called Christ, Nephi learned He would be named Jesus. Nephi wrote, “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 appears in the English Book of Mormon 161 times.
In 1 Nephi 10, Nephi reported his father’s teachings about the Savior’s earthly experiences, beginning with the mission of John the Baptist (see 1 Ne. 10:7–9). 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 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 of the tree of life was opened to him. In addition to interpreting Lehi’s dream, Nephi’s vision offered an expanded view of the future, especially of the mission of Christ.
Nephi’s vision reveals significant information concerning Jesus’ mortal coming to the Jews in Palestine and His glorified coming to Lehi’s descendants 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 of the world” and slain (see 1 Ne. 11:32–33); in the Americas, destruction would precede His appearance there (see 1 Ne. 12:4–5); He would descend from heaven (see 1 Ne. 12:6) and choose twelve Nephite disciples (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 and His Atonement is made clear in the words he chose to teach his family. He said 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 atoning sacrifice in the context of the law of Moses, with which Lehi’s family was familiar. Christ would take away their sins as a sacrificial offering in their behalf. Between 1 Nephi 10:10 and 14:27, Nephi uses the term lamb 57 times with reference to Jesus.
The information Lehi and his family had concerning the mission of Jesus did not come to them only through personal revelation and the visitation of angels. The words of earlier prophets found on the plates of brass also taught them of Christ. Zenock prophesied that the Lord would be “lifted up,” and Neum foretold that Christ would be crucified (see 1 Ne. 19:10).
The writings of the prophet Zenos appear to have been a major source for Nephi’s knowledge of Christ.5 From him Nephi learned that Jesus would be buried in a sepulchre and that 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 scourged by all people” and scattered because they crucified their Lord, only to be gathered again in the last days when they would accept Him (see 1 Ne. 19:13–16).
To more fully persuade his people “to believe in the Lord their Redeemer,” Nephi read to them from writings of Isaiah (see 1 Ne. 19:23), and he reproduced several chapters of Isaiah’s words in his own record.
The testimony of Jesus Christ that Lehi and his descendants left for us has blessed the lives of millions of people and will bless the lives of many millions more. Because of what Lehi and his sons learned about the Savior during the early years of their callings, their descendants were Christians. Their record is “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”
It is significant that early in the Lord’s latter-day work, He gave the world a volume of pure testimony and doctrine of Christ. Even before He restored His Church, He gave us 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 participate in all its blessings.