“For a Wise Purpose,” Ensign, Jan. 1996, 12
I wish to highlight in just two or three ways the most central and rewarding theme in the Book of Mormon—indeed, the theme of the Book of Mormon—the declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
We all know something about the Lord’s system of plural witnesses—why there is a Godhead; why there is a First Presidency; why the Book of Mormon testifies of the Bible, and the Bible testifies of the Book of Mormon, and both will testify of the records of the ten tribes; and so forth. Along with a growing body of external evidence of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, there is also an elaborate structure of internal witnesses within the book. For example, some twenty-two men in the Book of Mormon saw the Son of God. And of that group three principle witnesses stand shoulder to shoulder, right at the outset, to bear special witness of Christ, an introductory witness, if you will, to the reader beginning the Book of Mormon.
At least six times in the Book of Mormon, the phrase “for a wise purpose” is used in reference to the making, writing, and preserving of the small plates of Nephi (see 1 Ne. 9:5; W of M 1:7; Alma 37:2, 12, 14, 18). We know one such wise purpose—the most obvious one—was to compensate for the future loss of 116 pages of manuscript translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith from the first part of the Book of Mormon (see D&C 3, 10).
But it strikes me that there is a “wiser purpose” than that, or perhaps more accurately, a “wiser purpose” in that. The key to such a suggestion is in Doctrine and Covenants 10:45 [D&C 10:45]. As the Lord instructs Joseph Smith on the procedure for translating and inserting the material from the small plates into what had been begun as the translation of the abridged large plates, he says, “Behold, there are many things engraven upon the [small] plates of Nephi which do throw greater views upon my gospel” (emphasis added).
So clearly this was not a quid pro quo in the development of the final Book of Mormon product. It was not tit for tat, this for that—116 pages of manuscript for 142 pages of printed text. Not so. We got back more than we lost. And it was known from the beginning that it would be so. We do not know exactly what we have missed in the lost 116 pages, but we do know that what we received on the small plates was the personal declarations of three great witnesses, three of the great doctrinal voices of the Book of Mormon, testifying that Jesus is the Christ.
I am suggesting that Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah are three early types and shadows of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris—witnesses positioned right at the front of the book where Oliver, David, and Martin (who in spite of their later difficulties remained true to their testimony) would later be positioned. But Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah bore a very special witness—they testified of the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, he who would be the central, commanding, presiding figure throughout the Book of Mormon.
Nephi stresses this idea himself when he writes: “And now I, Nephi, write more of the words of Isaiah, for my soul delighteth in his words. For I will liken his words unto my people, and I will send them forth unto all my children, for he verily saw my Redeemer, even as I have seen him. And my brother, Jacob, also has seen him … ; wherefore, I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word” (2 Ne. 11:2–3; emphasis added). Witnesses. Proof. The best evidence in the world of law, eternal or otherwise—eyewitness testimony.
Then Nephi concludes, “My soul [and he could have said the souls of all three of these prophets] delighteth in proving unto [our] people [the truth of the coming of Christ,] that save Christ should come all men must perish” (2 Ne. 11:6). And by the time we have read Nephi, his brother Jacob, and the prophet Isaiah, we have a remarkable foundation in what Nephi calls “the doctrine of Christ” (2 Ne. 31:21). It is a foundation lifted almost verbatim from the title page of the Book of Mormon itself. After reading Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah, we know two things in bold, powerful strokes—(1) that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and (2) that God will keep his covenant promises with the remnants of the house of Israel. These two themes constitute the very purpose of the Book of Mormon, and that is precisely what these three prophets teach so emphatically in the Book of Mormon material we have from them.
Of course, many other witnesses follow Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah. King Benjamin adds a truly magnificent sermon on Christ almost instantly upon our return to the translation of the abridged large plates. Abinadi follows shortly thereafter. Indeed, the book becomes replete with messianic material on nearly every page—so much so that Alma asks in exasperation at one point, “Behold, my brethren, I would ask if ye have read the scriptures? If ye have, how can ye disbelieve on the Son of God?” (Alma 33:14.)
But marvelous Jacob, surely one of the least acknowledged or perhaps only least appreciated doctrinal voices in all of scripture, has already made that point, stressing just how replete and extensive the biblical scriptures (at least the early, unexpurgated versions of them) were regarding the Savior and his mission. “We knew of Christ,” he says, “and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves … , but also all the holy prophets which were before us. … None of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning … Christ” (Jacob 4:4; Jacob 7:11; emphasis added).
How we wish we had all those plain and precious testimonies which have been stripped from the biblical record! But at least as readers of the Book of Mormon, we have Nephi, Jacob, and Isaiah to speak to us immediately as personal eyewitnesses of the premortal Savior. They are recipients of marvelous revelations regarding his life and ministry and of God’s covenant relationship with the house of Israel, ancient and modern.
We could make a pretty obvious case that the primary purpose of the small plates was to preserve the testimony of these three witnesses. After all, their writing constitutes a full 135 pages of what is only a 145-page record. These three are who they are and saw what they saw and are positioned where they are in the book for a very “wise purpose” indeed.
It would be exciting if the 116 pages of manuscript turned up some day, but I would never trade them for the material in the small plates of Nephi. I love these “greater views” given through the grand prophetic sentinels who stand at the gate of the book as we now have it.
Let me suggest something else about this matter of early, powerful, doctrinal declarations of Christ.
I am intrigued that more than four-fifths of the Book of Mormon—86 percent by actual page count—comes out of a period before Christ’s personal appearance to the Nephites in his resurrected state. I am deeply moved by that simple little statistic. I am profoundly, powerfully touched by it. What faith! And what a way to teach us faith. We are expected to have faith in a Christ who has already come and lived and walked and talked and been crucified and resurrected. And we have witnesses—believers and nonbelievers—who saw him and heard him, touching the hem of his garment and feeling the wounds in his hands and feet and side.
But those early Book of Mormon people? This keystone record of ours? It deals in remarkable faith of a very special kind, greater, it seems to me, than the faith we are asked to exert. Those people had (at least 458 pages’ worth of them had) not a Christ who had come in the flesh, but only the trust in and consummate hope of such a Christ who would come—far in the future and after most of them were dead. What godly, believing, stalwart people! I am moved to tears at their trust. And I feel ashamed for our post-Advent generations who have so many witnesses and so much evidence but still do not believe.
How did God work out a fairness doctrine with those who lived before Christ came? What did he do for those who had no Shepherds’ Field, or Upper Room, or Sea of Galilee, or steps of St. Peter’s at Gallicantu to visit? What should be done for those who could only trust there would be a garden tomb just outside of Damascus Gate, as opposed to the certainty that we who have visited and prayed and wept at the actual site enjoy?
The answer to such questions is yet another contribution made clearly and powerfully by the Book of Mormon, more clearly and more powerfully than in any other book upon the face of the earth. Yet sometimes we let this great doctrinal principle pass by unacknowledged or unnoticed.
Alma, some three-quarters of a century before Christ was born, posed to his son Corianton this very issue. In teaching this transgressing boy something about justice, mercy, repentance, the Atonement, and the Resurrection, he says: “Behold, you marvel why these things should be known so long beforehand. Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
“Is it not as necessary that the plan of redemption should be made known unto this people as well as unto their children?
“Is it not as easy at this time for the Lord to send his angels to declare these glad tidings unto us as unto our children, or … after the time of his coming?” (Alma 39:17–19; emphasis added.)
In that little passage of encouragement to a wayward son, Alma gives insight as to the special help God would provide for those who were born before Christ’s mortal ministry. Of that portion of Adam’s family who lived the first four thousand years with what could of necessity be only an eye to the future Messiah, Alma asks essentially, “Would God not send angels to declare these glad tidings unto us?”
That same doctrine—the answer to Alma’s rhetorical question—is at the heart of the great last witness of Moroni who, quoting his father, says:
“And now I come to that faith, of which I said I would speak; and I will tell you the way whereby ye may lay hold on every good thing.
“For behold, God knowing all things, being from everlasting to everlasting, behold, he sent angels to minister unto the children of men, to make manifest concerning the coming of Christ. …
“Wherefore, by the ministering of angels, and by every word which proceeded forth out of the mouth of God, men began to exercise faith in Christ” (Moro. 7:21–22, 25; emphasis added).
I am convinced that one of the profound themes of the Book of Mormon is the role and prevalence and central participation of angels in the gospel story.
On a recent news show an author who had just written a book about belief in God was being questioned about whether he personally believed in God.
The author answered with something like this: “If I knew whether or not I believed in God, I wouldn’t have had to write this book. I have no idea whether there is a God, but I do know that religion has gotten a bad name from people who do things like worship cactus and believe in angels.” That was it. That was his whole response. He didn’t know whether he believed in God or not, but believing in angels was clearly equal to worshipping cactus.
One of the things that will become more important in our lives the longer we live is the reality of angels, their work and their ministry. I refer here not alone to the angel Moroni but also to those more personal ministering angels who are with us and around us, empowered to help us and who do exactly that (see 3 Ne. 7:18; Moro. 7:29–32, 37; D&C 107:20).
In 2 Nephi 6, Jacob says that the Lord has now shown him that Jerusalem had in fact been destroyed and that most of those in the city had been either slain or carried away captive (see 2 Ne. 6:8). He also says he was shown by the Lord that the Jews should return again and that “the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, should manifest himself unto them in the flesh; and after he should manifest himself they should scourge him and crucify him, according to the words of the angel who spake it unto me.
“And after they have hardened their hearts and stiffened their necks against the Holy One of Israel, behold the judgments of the Holy One of Israel shall come unto them. And the day cometh that they shall be smitten and afflicted.
“Wherefore, after they are driven to and fro, for thus saith the angel, many shall be afflicted in the flesh, and shall not be suffered to perish, because of the prayers of the faithful” (2 Ne. 6:9–11; emphasis added).
A remarkable communication from the Lord, and how did it come? By an angel. That same revelation goes on with increasingly powerful messianic prophecy.
As a prelude to Mosiah 3, King Benjamin says: “And the things which I shall tell you [about Christ] are made known unto me by an angel from God. And he said unto me: Awake; and I awoke, and behold he stood before me. And he said unto me: Awake, and hear the words which I shall tell thee” (Mosiah 3:2–3; emphasis added). Perhaps more of us could literally, or at least figuratively, behold the angels around us if we would but awaken from our stupor and hear the words God is trying to tell us.
In Alma 12, another one of those excellent explications of the plan of redemption, the Resurrection, and the remission of sins, Alma says:
“And after God had appointed that these things should come unto man, behold, then he saw that it was expedient that man should know concerning the things whereof he had appointed unto them;
“Therefore he sent angels to converse with them, who caused men to behold of his glory.
“And they began from that time forth to call on his name; therefore God conversed with men” (Alma 12:28–30; emphasis added).
In light of Jacob’s experience earlier, I think there are at least two ways to read that last phrase from Alma—that “God conversed with men.” One way is to note that angels came first and then, with men thus spiritually prepared, God conversed directly with them. But another way is to see the phrases “he sent angels to converse with them” and “God conversed with men” as synonymous, that when God sends angels to converse with mortals he was then speaking to them, just as if he were personally doing so.
There are, of course, literally dozens of references to angels in the Book of Mormon. In Helaman 13 we find Samuel the Lamanite facing great rejection in Zarahemla and about to return to his land (see Hel. 13:2). “But behold, the voice of the Lord came unto him, that he should return again, and prophesy unto the people whatsoever things should come into his heart” (Hel. 13:3). What he then prophesies—what he says that the Lord “put into [his] heart”—was that the “sword of justice hangeth over this people; and four hundred years pass not away save the sword of justice falleth upon this people. …
“And nothing can save this people save it be repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ, who surely shall come into the world, and shall suffer many things and shall be slain for his people.
“And behold, an angel of the Lord hath declared it unto me, and he did bring glad tidings to my soul. And behold, I was sent unto you to declare it unto you also, that ye might have glad tidings; but behold you would not receive me” (Hel. 13:5–7; emphasis added).
Samuel the emissary of the angel, Samuel the missionary with the angelic mission, Samuel who knows what he knows in such power because an angel told him so. This is exactly the same missionary experience Alma has when trying to preach in Ammonihah—an angel appears in Alma’s moment of greatest rejection and tells him to return, and assists him and Amulek in taking the message to that cold city (see Alma 8).
It is not insignificant to me that when Sherem, the first great anti-Christ we meet in the Book of Mormon, receives his only-too-eagerly-sought-for “sign,” he admits before death his dishonesty, confessing to the three great truths he had denied. The three truths he mentions, the three great testifiers Sherem now openly acknowledges, are “Christ, … the Holy Ghost, and the ministering of angels” (Jacob 7:17). An interesting threesome.
No wonder we speak of our missionaries as the angels that they are. “Now when Ammon and his brethren saw this work of destruction among those whom they so dearly beloved, and among those who had so dearly beloved them—for they were treated as though they were angels sent from God to save them from everlasting destruction—therefore, when Ammon and his brethren saw this great work of destruction, they were moved with compassion” (Alma 27:4; emphasis added).
I believe we need to speak of and believe in and bear testimony of the ministry of angels more than we sometimes do. They constitute one of God’s great methods of witnessing through the veil, and no document in all this world teaches that principle so clearly and so powerfully as does the Book of Mormon.
Finally, no discussion of Christ in the Book of Mormon would be complete without at least some reference to the remarkable material in 3 Nephi. There is so much there that is so exciting. For example, as the Savior comes to the end of that remarkable first day of visiting the Nephites, he says, noting that they are weary and that he needs to leave them for a time, “Prepare your minds for the morrow, and I come unto you again” (3 Ne. 17:3). Then to stress that he wasn’t leaving for just any casual reason, he mentioned his assignment: “Now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel, for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them” (3 Ne. 17:4).
But then he casts his eyes around the multitude, and the tears in their eyes speak volumes, pleading for him to tarry just a little longer with them. Moved with compassion and without a word spoken, he yields, inviting them to bring forward their sick, their lame, their blind, leprous, withered, and deaf, all to be healed at his hand according to their faith and the will of the Father (see 3 Ne. 17:5–10). As miraculous and moving as all that must have been, it is only a prelude to the stunning experience he then has with the children over whom he weeps, blessing them one by one. Angels (there they are again) descend out of heaven in the midst of holy fire and circle round about the children, ministering unto them in glory and grandeur (see 3 Ne. 17:11–25). What then follows in this saga of spontaneous spiritual majesty is the institution of the sacrament, with all its sacred significance (see 3 Ne. 18:1–11).
So we have come through powerful doctrines, overwhelming declarations from the lips of the Son of God himself. We have had our first day with him from 3 Nephi 11 to 3 Nephi 18, personally feeling the wounds in his flesh, hearing the sermon at the temple, learning about the covenant, seeing fiery manifestations of angels—all capped by the institution of the sacrament.
And then we have this counsel, what I believe is intended to be the jewel in the crown of a day filled with incomparable jewels. As the sacrament of the Lord’s supper is being administered, we get this glistening diamond, this simple, clear imperative. To the Nephite Twelve he says, “I say unto you, ye must watch and pray always, lest ye be tempted by the devil, and ye be led away captive by him.
“And as I have prayed among you even so shall ye pray in my church, among my people who do repent and are baptized in my name. Behold I am the light; I have set an example for you” (3 Ne. 18:15–16; emphasis added).
Turning away from the Twelve, he speaks to the multitude, “Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, ye must watch and pray always lest ye enter into temptation; for Satan desireth to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (3 Ne. 18:18). Then he invites all of them to pray in their families and to pray for those investigating the Church—a great, sweeping invitation about how broadly we should pray, followed by these words: “Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do. Behold ye see that I have prayed unto the Father, and ye all have witnessed” (3 Ne. 18:24; emphasis added).
And indeed they have. They witnessed Christ at prayer. “He prayed unto the Father, and the things which he prayed cannot be written, and the multitude did bear record who heard him.
“And after this manner do they bear record: The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father;
“And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father” (3 Ne. 17:15–17; emphasis added).
I can hardly imagine what it might be like to have heard the Savior pray in that setting, but I cannot even comprehend what is meant when they say that “no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive” what they saw the Savior pray. It’s one thing to hear such a prayer. It’s surely something altogether more to see one. What did they see? Well, it can’t be written. But suffice it to say that this is the great, consummate, concluding example the Savior sets for those people that day, the culminating jewel, the crowning, post-sacramental counsel given to the Twelve and all others who would take up the cross and follow him—they must pray always.
They must pray individually and as families. They must pray for the newest member and littlest child and the most senior citizen among them. And they must pray for those still in the world, those who do not yet have the truth. They must pray for everyone, including their enemies and others who despitefully use and persecute them. This is the light that they shall hold up. This is the evidence they will give of their faith in their Heavenly Father.
Prayer is worship in both its simplest and most powerful form, as the unknown Zenos taught (see Alma 33:3). It is “the soul’s sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed” (“Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” Hymns, 1985, no. 145). “Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do. Behold ye see that I have prayed unto the Father, and ye all have witnessed” (3 Ne. 18:24).
The praying Christ. That is the example to which we are to point others. The Christ of humility. The Christ of spiritual communion. The Christ who is dependent upon his Father. The Christ who asks for blessings upon others. The Christ who calls down the powers of heaven. The Christ who submits, yields, and obeys the will of the Father. The Christ who is one with the Father in at least one way that we may be united with him as well—through prayer. That is the light we are to show to the world. It is the image of Christ praying such unspeakable things.
My testimony is that of Moroni’s, surely the loneliest voice in scriptural history. In his isolation, Moroni becomes something of three witnesses in one, speaking to us three times, as it were, in final declaration of the Savior and of this messianic testament (the Book of Mormon) for which he will be the last author. His first witness is his conclusion to his father’s book, comprising chapters eight and nine of that text. One passage of scripture in that sequence about Christ blessed me at a crucial moment in my life more powerfully and more dramatically than has any other verse of scripture anywhere in the standard works. I would love Moroni forever for that one experience alone, if for no other reason—and there are lots of other reasons.
His second witness comes with the book of Ether—his own comments in that book, following that singular, unparalleled experience of the brother of Jared. Those twenty-eight verses in the third chapter of Ether may well be the single most remarkable encounter with Christ ever experienced by mortal man, and we are indebted to Moroni for preserving it.
Moroni’s third and final testimony comes in his own concluding book, emphasizing faith in Christ, hope in Christ, the charity of Christ, with the prayer that these three great Christian virtues, these consummate Christian principles, will lead us to purity. “Pray unto the Father with all … energy of heart, … that ye may become the sons [and daughters] of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; … that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen” (Moro. 7:48; emphasis added).
My prayer is Moroni’s prayer as taught by his father—a prayer for the purity of Christ, coming to us from our faith and our hope and our charity. May we see him as he is and be like him when he comes. May we be purified as he is pure. “Come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift, and touch not the … unclean thing. … Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him. … And … if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot” (Moro. 10:30, 32–33).
The final and ultimate appeal of the keystone of our religion and the most correct book ever written is to touch not the unclean thing, to be holy and without spot—to be pure. That purity can come only through the blood of that Lamb who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, the Lamb who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, the Lamb who was despised and afflicted, but whom we esteemed not (see Mosiah 14).
But for all that we have placed on him, and in spite of stripes he should not have had to bear, and though our sins be as scarlet—yet we can be made “white as snow” (see Isa. 1:18).
“[Who] are these … arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? … These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:13–14).
Purity—through the blood of the Lamb. That is what this book pleads for, and that is what I pray we will strive to achieve. Such is God’s covenant. Such is Christ’s mission. Such is our privilege and our duty and our unmerited opportunity. May we one day greet each other, clothed in robes of righteousness, whiter and brighter than the noonday sun, there at the pleasing bar of the Great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both the quick and the dead.