During a discourse to his people in the Americas in about 124 B.C., King Benjamin made a prophecy that some of his hearers may have found startling. He testified, “The time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 3:5). Even today, the idea that the great God Jehovah became mortal is amazing, especially when we consider that in coming to earth He retained both His eternal nature and His divine power. Therefore, He was unlike any other being ever born into mortality.
King Benjamin was not the only Book of Mormon prophet to learn about the nature of the coming Messiah and His ministry. Even so, none of those prophets would ever actually know the mortal Lord. That privilege was left to those who ministered with Him in Palestine. Thus, anything the Book of Mormon people knew about the mortal Christ came by revelation. In other words, the Savior chose what they should know. It would seem, then, that the understanding He gave to the Book of Mormon people would concentrate on those aspects He felt were the most important for them and for us to know.
“The Eternal God, Manifesting Himself unto All Nations”
The Book of Mormon wastes no time in teaching us about the Savior. On its title page Moroni testifies “that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” Two things of note come out of his statement: the Savior is and was “the Eternal God,” and we learn He has not manifested Himself to Jew and Nephite alone but to other people as well.
King Benjamin testified that the Eternal God would dwell in a tabernacle of clay. Yet it is important to note that the clay did not gain mastery over either the Lord’s eternal divinity or His omnipotence. Amulek recognized that in becoming mortal, Jesus was not bereft of His eternal powers. When asked by the lawyer Zeezrom, “Who is he that shall come? Is it the Son of God?” Amulek’s answer was a resounding yes. When Zeezrom asked further, “Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father?” Amulek replied, “Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth, … and he shall come into the world to redeem his people” (Alma 11:32–33, 38–40). In His premortal life, Jesus was Jehovah, the Creator. Even so, He condescended to come into the world as the Only Begotten Son of His Father in order to redeem all who would accept His great gift.
The Lord’s eternal nature played a central role in His work as Redeemer. But it also made Him unique among all those born of women. Amulek brought both of these ideas together when he told his people of a great and last sacrifice that would need to be made someday. He explained that it would not be “a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice” (Alma 34:10).
Amulek’s idea seems a bit surprising. How could Jesus, born of a mortal woman like the rest of us, not be human? The answer becomes apparent as we understand how Amulek was using the terms man and human.
Amulek was not using these terms as exact synonyms for any mortal. It was true that Jesus was fully man because He, like us, was flesh and blood and could therefore die. Amulek explained that the great and last sacrifice would “not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice” (Alma 34:10). But for Amulek, the terms man and human described all beings who do not yet have the attributes and powers of God; they are not infinite and eternal. Therefore, a human sacrifice would not meet the requirements of that great and last sacrifice.
This does not mean Amulek considered man or human derogatory terms. As King David said: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels [Hebrew elohim; that is, “gods”], and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Ps. 8:4–5). Certainly humans are not second-class citizens of the cosmos, but neither are they God. The Savior, on the other hand, though clothed in flesh and blood during His mortal ministry, is a God.
Amulek was not alone in testifying that the mortal Lord was matchless in rank and dignity. Abinadi testified to King Noah and his priests that the coming Messiah was “that God [who] should redeem his people.” He would fulfill that responsibility by coming “down among the children of men, and [taking] upon him the form of man, and [going] forth in mighty power” (Mosiah 13:33–34). Note that Abinadi did not say He would be a man; rather, He would have the form of a man. King Limhi picked up on this nuance, explaining that Abinadi taught “that Christ was the God, the Father of all things,” and He would “take upon him the image of man” (Mosiah 7:27). Again, the scriptures clearly distinguish between what the Savior was and what we are. Jesus may have shared our image, but He still retained His position as God.
It was because He was God and not man that Jesus could minister as He did. King Benjamin was told by an angel that the Savior would “suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” (Mosiah 3:7; emphasis added). The reason we could not endure the Savior’s suffering, hunger, thirst, or fatigue is that we do not possess the divine power He did.
The Condescension of God
The Book of Mormon keeps the unique aspect of the Savior ever before us. It testifies that Jesus, even in mortality, was a God. And why was He a God? Because He was the literal Son of Elohim.
Nephi learned this through a powerful vision. An angel asked him if he understood the condescension of God. The term condescension as it relates to Jesus Christ denotes His voluntary assumption of equality with humankind while yet remaining a God. Nephi answered that he knew “that [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Ne. 11:17). The angel then taught Nephi that Jesus would condescend in two ways.
First, the angel showed Nephi a virgin “bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto [Nephi]: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” (1 Ne. 11:20–21). The angel had earlier explained to Nephi, “The virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Ne. 11:18). Jesus condescended to be born as any mortal baby is born, “after the manner of the flesh.”
In Nazareth He experienced life as a child, then as a young adult, waxing “strong in spirit, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40). As He grew from grace to grace and acquired grace for grace, “he received a fulness of the glory of the Father; and he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him” (D&C 93:16–17). Therefore, though the Savior condescended to give up His divine privilege and to become like us, He did not give up His office or His infinite and eternal nature. He was born with these essential powers intact because He was literally the Son of God.
Second, the angel showed Nephi “the prophet who should prepare the way before him. And the Lamb of God went forth and was baptized of him” (1 Ne. 11:27). It is helpful to remember that it was Jesus—a God—who condescended to be baptized by a mortal man. Through this act of submission He did two things: He revealed the gate by which all would need to enter heaven, and He humbled His flesh to do His Father’s will (see 2 Ne. 31:4–10).
The Love of God
It is noteworthy that after seeing this vision, Nephi knew the answer to a question that had previously eluded him: what the tree in his father’s dream represented. After he saw the virgin with her divine Son, the angel asked him, “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” (1 Ne. 11:21). Nephi could now answer, “Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” (1 Ne. 11:22). What was the connection between the vision of the virgin, the vision of the tree, and the love of God? The Spirit seems to have whispered to Nephi the essence of the message the Apostle John would hear the Savior proclaim: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). One aspect of the mortal Messiah we must not overlook is that His very life is a revelation of the love of the Father for each of us.
The Savior manifested that same love during His ministry in three ways: First, He revealed it in His service to others as “he went forth ministering unto the people, in power and great glory” (1 Ne. 11:28). Note that the Savior manifested His love through divine power. Nephi reported: “I beheld the Lamb of God going forth among the children of men. And I beheld multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted with all manner of diseases, and with devils and unclean spirits. … And they were healed by the power of the Lamb of God” (1 Ne. 11:31). Alma also testified that “the Son of God shall come in his glory” and that He would be “quick to hear the cries of his people and to answer their prayers” (Alma 9:26). The Lord’s many miracles affirmed that He came in the power and glory of God to bless the Father’s children.
The second way the Lord demonstrated His love was by suppressing His divine powers so He could experience mortality fully. Alma noted that the Lord would suffer pains, afflictions, and temptations, “that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people” (Alma 7:11). Therefore, He knew “according to the flesh how to succor his people” (Alma 7:12).
Finally, the Lord showed His love by submitting Himself into the hands of wicked people. Nephi saw that multitudes would cast the Redeemer from among them and judge Him by the standards of the world. Further, Nephi understood that the Savior would be mocked, humiliated, scourged, and finally crucified (see 1 Ne. 11:32–33). The Sinless One would Himself suffer because of His persecutors’ sins and would suffer as an offering for all sins out of love for God and His children.
One of the greatest blessings that came out of the Lord Jesus Christ’s yielding Himself unto death was His gift of redemption. Alma testified that “he cometh to redeem those who will be baptized unto repentance, through faith on his name” (Alma 9:27). Lehi affirmed that the Messiah would be the “Redeemer of the world. 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. 10:5–6). The title Lehi uses for the Savior is important. To redeem is to free someone from bondage and suffering. In a religious sense, it is to free someone from the eternal consequence of sin, which is the second death.
Jewish leaders rejected the Lord in large part because He testified that He was the Redeemer. The Book of Mormon reveals that in spite of the divine deeds the Savior performed, the Jews would “consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him” (Mosiah 3:9). Lehi understood why this response would take place. As part of his call to the ministry, Lehi “saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day” (1 Ne. 1:9). When Lehi testified “plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world” (1 Ne. 1:19), Jewish leaders in his day became filled with anger and revulsion. They did not accept the idea that the Messiah would come as a Redeemer. They wanted a deliverer. Their Messiah, they fervently hoped, would free them from political bondage and make them rulers of the earth. They had no interest in another type of messiah. Therefore, they refused to hear Lehi’s testimony. His words cut them deeply, for he implied that they were living in a state of sin from which they would have to repent. Rather than admit their sins and have to change attitudes, ideas, and lifestyles, they sought Lehi’s life.
Yet the fervent wish of the Jewish leaders would not be realized. The work God assigned for the Lord’s first coming, as the Book of Mormon makes clear, was not to deliver the people from political bondage but to offer redemption from sin. The Savior came neither to save people from political tyranny nor to save them in their sins. He testified, “I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin” (3 Ne. 9:21). Amulek explained why: The Savior “cannot save them in their sins; for I cannot deny his word, and he hath said that no unclean thing can inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore, how can ye be saved, except ye inherit the kingdom of heaven? Therefore, ye cannot be saved in your sins” (Alma 11:37).
The Savior was able to bring redemption to humankind through His dual immortal and mortal nature. Abinadi told the people of his day that “God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people” (Mosiah 15:1). He explained that because Jesus would dwell in the flesh, He would be called the Son of God; but because Elohim bequeathed to Him divine power, Jesus would also be the Father of our eternal life. Thus, Abinadi declared that Jesus became “the Father and Son” (Mosiah 15:3). He emphasized that even though Jesus was the Son of God through the flesh, He was also “the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth” (Mosiah 15:4). Abinadi said that even though Jesus was the Father and the Son, He would not put Himself above temptation or people’s evil designs. Indeed, “he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father” (Mosiah 15:7).
It was because of the flesh—that is, His Sonship—that Jesus felt the frustrations, temptations, and pains of mortality. Thus, His Sonship was crucial to His ministry, for through it He felt what we feel, understood what we understand, and knew what we know. Even though He was divine, He experienced life as a mortal fully and completely, both the pleasant and the unpleasant. In this way He gained complete empathy, and though He was not man nor human in the same sense the rest of us are, “his bowels [were] filled with mercy,” as Alma testified, that He might “succor His people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).
The prophetic message of the Book of Mormon concerning the mortal Lord centers on His role as Redeemer. His act of redemption was accomplished out of His love for us and in large measure out of His understanding of what we are and what we face. Though He was always God, mortality fully touched Him. Therefore, He understood our strivings and failures; He knew us, because He became one with us. But in condescending to be like us, He is now able to lift us to become like Him (see 3 Ne. 27:14–22).