Sunday, January 30, 2011

New Testament Lesson #6 "They Straightway Left Their Nets"

Luke 4:14-32; 5; 6:12-16; Matthew 10


Christ announced the start of his ministry from the logical place, the place Jews might have expected their Messiah to appear:  the synagogue.  It was custom that a visitor in town was invited to read the scripture.  Christ, visiting his hometown of Nazareth, took this invitation.  Among the Jews, the speaker would stand to read the scripture, and then sit down to teach about it, which is what Jesus did here (Harper-Collins). 

It should have been a glorious event, but it was rather disappointing.  They "all bare him witness and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth" (Luke 4:22), but then they remembered that they knew him, that he had been an ordinary boy raised in an ordinary family.

Christ perceived their thoughts and responded.  "You are expecting that if I'm the Savior," he said, "I'll suddenly appear magnificent in your eyes, and I'll do wonderful miracles here like I've done in other places (v. 23), but you have to accept me and have faith for that to happen" (v. 24).  He pointed out Old Testament miracles in which only the person who had great faith was the witness and beneficiary.

This infuriated his townspeople.  They were not willing to see their own lack of faith; they only saw a hometown boy who was bragging on himself, and then not delivering the goods. They wanted to hurl him off a cliff as a heretic!  But of course, he miraculously escaped.

(For more details on this event and scripture, see "The Mission of Jesus Christ" in a previous post.)


Too bad the people of Nazareth did not possess the great faith that a group of friends in another city exhibited shortly thereafter.  They brought a friend who was paralyzed (see footnote to Luke 5:18) on a stretcher to be healed by Jesus, yet apparently they could not get in the building or get his attention because of the crowd.  Rather than being offended that they were ignored or overlooked, and rather than being discouraged that their goal was unattainable, they just continued to exercise their faith (displayed here as determination) to find another way to get their desired miracle.  They climbed up on the roof, removed tiles, and lowered their handicapped friend through the opening. (This would have taken some serious faith on the part of the paralyzed man as well, to be so precariously transported!)

We might have chastised them for dismantling the roof instead of exercising patience, but look how the Lord responded:  "When he saw their faith, he said unto him, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee...Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house" (Luke 5:20, 24).  One significant word here teaches us an important lesson about faith:  their.  "When he saw their faith," he healed him.  We can exercise faith effectively in behalf of others.  Collective faith is powerful.


Even though he was the Messiah, Christ did not spend much time working on his own.  The Kingdom of God is a cooperative effort, and those in it are blessed, not just by being served, but by serving.  As soon as his disciples were ready, Christ called them to be his Apostles.  The first four were called at the Sea of Galilee.

The Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberias, the Lake of Gennesareth, and the Sea of Chinnereth are all the same sea.  "Its form is an irregular oval, with the large end to the north.  It is about 14 miles in length, and from 6 to 9 in width...Many populous cities once stood on its shores, such as Tiberias, Bethsaida, Capernaum, Chorazin, Hippo, etc...It is, however, stormy, owing probably to the high hills by which it is surrounded" (Barnes, p. 38).

Readers who are familiar with Bear Lake, on the Utah-Idaho border, might be interested in the following comment written by my stake president, Kent Wallis who, with his artist's eye, notes: 

"After reading this description and having been there personally, [the Sea of Galilee's] similarity to Bear Lake is very striking.  Even the dry hills to the east and the verdant hills to the west are Bear Lake-like.  Even the drive over the mountain [from Logan] and down into Garden City looks just like coming down to the Sea of Galilee.  What is more remarkable is that the distance between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee is about the same distance as that between The Great Salt Lake and Bear Lake."

Sea of Galilee (above), Bear Lake (below)

"And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets" (Luke 5:1-2). 

These fishing vessels were manned by brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, and their partners James and John, who had previously been invited to become disciples of Christ, and who had been spending time with and learning from him for possibly a year (Hendrickson, p. 248), while continuing their livelihood as fishermen.  (See "The Calling of the Apostles" in a previous entry.)  The fish were not biting that morning, and the men had given up.  Since their day's work was cancelled, their ships were on the shore in the perfect position to serve Christ's purpose.  Jesus was not a stranger to them, and so he asked Simon to push out from the shore and allow him to teach the crowd from the ship (v. 3). 

There is a small bay on the Sea of Galilee, now called "The Bay of the Parables", at the foot of what is now called "The Mount of Beatitudes."  "The slope of the hill forms a natural amphitheatre, rather like a Roman theatre. Acoustical research has demonstrated that as many as 7,000 people could hear a person speaking from a boat in the bay."  It is a popular attraction for present-day visitors to the Holy Land. (  Jesus knew the acoustics of this place--after all, he created it!--and used it for amplification long before microphones and speakers were invented.

After Jesus preached his sermon (which is not recorded), "He said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a [haul]" (v. 5).  Simon Peter answered, "Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net."  Here is another example of faith which we can follow.  We may have reason to argue with the Lord's commands, but in the end we need to follow Simon's example and say, "nevertheless at thy word I will do it."  Simon and his brother Andrew (mentioned by name in Matthew's and Mark's accounts) cast their nets and took in so much fish they had to call their partners to bring the second ship, and both boats were so weighed down, they nearly sank (v. 6-7).

Even though they knew the Savior and his works already, it was a shock to them.  Simon Peter felt immediately unworthy for this obvious miracle in his behalf (v. 8).  (Compare this attitude to that of the townspeople of Nazareth.)  He had offered a small service to the Lord in allowing the use of his ship as a podium, and in return he had been given a financial windfall.

The four fishing partners were then called to the full-time ministry by Christ (v. 10).  The remaining eight apostles were soon called, and are listed in Matt. 10:2-4.  (Note Levi and Matthew are considered to be the same person.)  But in the telling of this call to the first four apostles, we see a great example:  Peter, Andrew, James and John, having just seen the largest profit of their careers, straightway "forsook all, and followed him" (Luke 5:11; Matt. 4:20; Mark 1:18).  These men passed the test of prosperity straight through to the Law of Consecration.  Can we do that?


Jesus taught with parables quite effectively, and we might do the same.  Here is a fun little parable that exposes some truths about the ways we serve in the Kingdom that may not quite follow the example of Peter and his fellow fishermen. 

Jesus said, "Whereunto shall we liken the Kingdom of God?  or with what comparison shall we compare it?" (Mark 4:30).  He often began his parables by saying, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto..." So we might begin this one by saying, "The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a loaf of bread..."
By Nancy Wyatt Jensen

Once there was a baker who wanted to bake a loaf of bread.  He called all the ingredients together and asked them to help.  They all agreed that it would be great to make bread, but you will see how well it worked.

The first time the baker tried to bake bread, the yeast felt inadequate.  She thought of herself as just a coarse, grainy substance, with no spectacular qualifications.  Even when the baker told her that with his mixing and kneading and the help of the sugar and warm milk, she would rise to the occasion, she didn't believe it and wouldn't get in the mixing bowl.  The end result was a flat loaf of bread. 
[Post wordstrip:  Felt Inadequate for the Calling]

The second time the baker tried to bake bread, the oil had been thrilled to be asked to participate, but got so busy frying donuts and French fries late the night before, that she slept in and forgot all about getting in the mixing bowl.  The end result was a very tough loaf of bread. 
[Post wordstrip: The Calling was a Low Priority]

The third time the baker tried to bake bread, the sugar didn't show up.  She knew that her role was only to support the yeast, and she felt the yeast could easily handle the job of rising by herself.  The end result was a thick and heavy loaf of bread. 
[Post wordstrip: The Calling Seemed Insignificant]

The fourth time the baker tried to bake bread, the salt felt annoyed with her job.  It was a lot of work to spread herself so thin to flavor the entire loaf.  If she had had a better job--or at least one that was more prestigious, like the flour's--she would have happily climbed in the mixing bowl.  The end result was a bitter loaf of bread. 
[Post wordstrip:  Didn't Like That Particular Calling]

The fifth time the baker tried to bake bread, the milk was frustrated.  Although she poured herself into her work, no one seemed to notice in the end.  So she stayed in the fridge rather than waste her time and effort.  The end result was a hard, cracked loaf of bread. 
[Post wordstrip: Felt Unappreciated]

The sixth time the baker tried to bake bread, the flour had already been asked to be in the gravy, the biscuits, the pretzels, and two batches of cookies.  She was sick and tired of doing more than her fair share, so she just plain turned down the request to get in the mixing bowl.  The end result was a glob of goo that didn't remotely resemble bread. 
[Post wordstrip: Resented Being Overworked]

The seventh time the baker tried to bake bread, the flour, the sugar, the oil, the yeast, the salt, and the milk realized that each of them was essential to the baking of bread.  They each realized that, working together, they were much more than they had been alone.  They each realized their jobs were equally important, although different.  Each finally offered her services in the mixing bowl with a joyful heart and a trust in the baker and his recipe.  The end result was a light and beautiful loaf of bread, much more nourishing, delicious and fulfilling than any of them had imagined. 
[Display a loaf of bread.]

(Note:  If you have the time and means to "teach through tastebuds," you can make tiny loaves of bread using frozen Rhodes Texas Roll Dough.  Thaw and roll into 4-inch loaves and place them either in 2 x 4 inch mini loaf pans, or an inch apart from each other in a rectangular pan.  Follow the instructions for rising and baking printed on the package.)


In Christ's call and instruction to the twelve apostles in Matt. 10, we find these familiar phrases:  "Freely ye have received, freely give" (v. 8), and "He who seeketh to save his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (v. 39 JST).  These commands apply to our own service in the Kingdom as well. 

We are not often in jeopardy of dying for the gospel cause, but this scripture applies to the way we live for the gospel cause as well.  We sometimes seek to "save" our lives by hoarding our time and talents and everything with which we have been blessed, or by holding back just a little corner of them from the Lord.  Anytime we do so, we are abandoning the Law of Consecration. 

We don't have to be called as Apostles to be expected to give our all.  At the time of President Hinckley's call as the prophet, he said:

"Now, my brethren and sisters...I wish to leave with you one thought which I hope you will never forget.  This church does not belong to its President. Its head is the Lord Jesus Christ, whose name each of us has taken upon ourselves. We are all in this great endeavor together. We are here to assist our Father in His work and His glory, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Your obligation is as serious in your sphere of responsibility as is my obligation in my sphere. No calling in this church is small or of little consequence. All of us in the pursuit of our duty touch the lives of others. To each of us in our respective responsibilities the Lord has said:

"'Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees' (D&C 81:5). 

"'And in doing these things thou wilt do the greatest good unto thy fellow beings, and wilt promote the glory of him who is your Lord' (D&C 81:4). 

"Further, 'And if thou art faithful unto the end thou shalt have a crown of immortality, and eternal life in the mansions which I have prepared in the house of my Father' (D&C 81:6).

"All of us in this great cause are of one mind, of one belief, of one faith.  You have as great an opportunity for satisfaction in the performance of your duty as I do in mine. The progress of this work will be determined by our joint efforts. Whatever your calling, it is as fraught with the same kind of opportunity to accomplish good as is mine. What is really important is that this is the work of the Master. Our work is to go about doing good as did He...

"Unitedly, working hand in hand, we shall move forward as servants of the living God, doing the work of His Beloved Son, our Master, whom we serve and whose name we seek to glorify."


Harper-Collins Study Bible
Albert Barnes, Barnes Notes on the New Testament, Vol. 9
Hendrickson Publishers, New International Biblical Commentary: Matthew
President Gordon B. Hinckley, "This is the Work of the Master,", April 1995 General Conference

Sunday, January 23, 2011

New Testament Lesson #5 "Born Again"

John 2-3


Stories in the scriptures are often placed in a way that enhances the lessons that the stories teach.  Such is the case with the stories of Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman.  Principles are taught by both stories, and more principles are taught by the juxtaposition of the two, which lets us see clearly the opposites involved, and the scope of Christ's reach.


"There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews" (3:1).  It is apparent that he was "one of the great Sanhedrin" (McConkie, p. 470; Stern, p. 165); in fact, verse 10 tells even more:  The phrase "Art thou a master of Israel" is "literally, 'You are the teacher of Israel.'  The use of the definite article implies that [his] position was uniquely important, although it is difficult to reconstruct precisely what it was" (Stern, p. 165).

"The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him" (3:2).  Was it a little unusual to come to Jesus at night and ask about his doctrine?  Yes!  "Nicodemus wanted to investigate the gospel in secret, lest his associates turn against him...But at least he came, and it is apparent that he thereafter believed in Christ and supported the gospel cause.  Indeed, as Edersheim says: 'It must have been a mighty power of conviction to break down prejudice so far as to lead this old Sanhedrist to acknowledge a Galilean, untrained in the Schools, as a Teacher come from God, and to repair to Him for direction on, perhaps, the most delicate and important point in Jewish theology.  But even so, we cannot wonder that he should have wished to shroud his first visit in the utmost possible secrecy.  It was a most compromising step for a Sanhedrist to take.  With that first bold [purging] of the temple (2:13-17) a deadly fued between Jesus and the Jewish authorities had begun" (McConkie, p. 470).


"Then cometh [Jesus] to a city of Samaria...Now Jacob's well was there.  Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour [noon].  There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.  (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)" (4:5-8).  In telling his account of the story, John makes sure we understand that Jesus was in Samaria, and he was talking to a Samaritan.  Why is this important?  "Though both Jews and Samaritans were descended from ancient Israel and practiced similar religions, there was long-standing hostility between them.  Thus it was also unusual for Jews to buy food from Samaritans" (Harper-Collins, p. 2019).  "Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and deported many of its people, who belonged to the ten northern tribes, replacing them with pagans; they later intermarried with the remaining Jews to produce the Samaritans.  Their descendants were not idolaters, but they acknowledged only the Pentateuch [the five books of Moses] as inspired by God.  They also denied Jerusalem as the religious center, opting instead for Mt. Gerizim (4:20)...they [had] tried to obstruct [the] rebuilding of Jerusalem" (Stern, p. 167)   In fact, most Jews took the long way around the land of Samaria, even though it meant increasing the difficulty of their journey.  All of which explains the next verse:

"Then saith the woman of Samaria [John says it again, just to make sure we remember that we are talking about a Samaritan here] unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans" (4:9).

There were at least three reasons that Christ, according to social custom, shouldn't have spoken to this woman:

1) She was a Samaritan.
2) She was an adulterer (4:16-18).
3) She was a woman.


Neither of these two would have been considered "golden" missionary contacts.  A Pharisee of the Sanhedrin which despised and mistreated Christ?  A woman of Samaria who was also an adulterer?  These were Christ's first two investigators noted by John (after the apostles)?  Interesting!  Nicodemus was from the highest standing possible within the Jewish church; the Samaritan woman from the lowest--a despised outcast.  Nicodemus certainly would have kept all the outward rules and commandments of the Law; the Samaritan woman obviously didn't.  Nicodemus sought Christ under cover of night; the woman in the brightness of noonday. By putting these stories back-to-back, John gives us the clear message that the Lord will answer us from wherever we are.  None is above or beneath his reach, and there is no one he loathes to help.

It is good to note that Jesus "neither criticizes [Nicodemus] for fearing to seek him openly nor praises his insight in perceiving that [Jesus] has come from God.  Rather, he deals with him at his point of need, which is to be born again from above. [The Greek word used] is sometimes rendered 'born again' and sometimes 'born from above'" (Stern, p. 165).

Jesus also offered the gospel, the "living water," to the Samaritan woman.  He addressed her by the respectful title, "woman," (4:21), similar to our saying "lady."  When the disciples returned, they "marvelled that he talked with the woman" (4:27).  But Jesus is truly "no respecter of persons."  "He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile" (2 Nephi 26:33).  Bear in mind that John's gospel was written to the Church members (see "The Gospel of John" in a previous post) so that they would learn what we should also learn:  We are to give up our prejudices and reach out to all, whether their position in life is above us or below us, and use the gospel to lift them to higher ground.


The result for Nicodemus:  When the church "officers" failed to take Jesus later in his ministry saying, "Never man spake like this man," the chief priests and Pharisees were livid and retorted, "Are ye also deceived?  Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him?" (7:45-48)  Well, the answer was yes, although they didn't know it:  One of their leadership, Nicodemus, believed.  Perhaps his conviction was not strong enough yet to stand in front of his brothers and testify, but it was enough to defend Christ by reasoning, and therefore buy him a little time.  "Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?" Nicodemus asked the others.  Even this was spoken dangerously, as the Sanhedrin insulted him, "Art thou also of Galilee?" (7:50-52).

At Christ's death, Nicodemus was still there. When Joseph of Arimathea (also a secret disciple from the Sanhedrin, according to Stern, p. 211) claimed the body of Christ, Nicodemus "brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight," (19:38-39) a very costly gift for the embalming of his Savior.  "The myrrh and aloes (the latter is an aromatic wood) would have been in powdered form and were meant to reduce the odor of decay.  The hundred (Roman) pounds (about 75 English pounds or 34 kilograms) of burial spices is much more than was necessary" (Harper-Collins, p. 2052).  Clearly, Nicodemus' testimony had grown, and he wished to show great love and honor for Christ.  Was he still a secret disciple?  Not after this act, which would have been reported widely among the believers.

As for the Samaritan woman (too bad we don't have a name!), she first said to Christ, "Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet" (4:19).  Within minutes, she added, "I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ; when he is come, he will tell us all things" (4:25), and as soon as the conversation was over, she shared her testimony with any who would listen, saying, "Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?" (4:29)  And, although a woman was not considered a credible witness in that culture,

"Many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which when the Samaritans were come unto him, they besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days.  And many more believed because of his own word; and said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world" (4:39-42).

It took quite a long time for Nicodemus to become a public witness for Christ.  But for the Samaritan woman, it was instantaneous.


Being Born Again

To Nicodemus, Jesus said, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."  Then to clarify, he said, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:3,5).

The leaders of the Jews did not believe that Jews needed to be baptized, according to some historians.  (See "The Baptism of Jesus Christ" in a previous post.)  Jesus taught Nicodemus clearly that baptism and the receipt of the Holy Ghost were necessary.  He also taught it by example, being baptized himself.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught, "We were born again when we entered into a covenant relationship with our Savior by being born of water and of the Spirit and by taking upon us the name of Jesus Christ...In order to realize the intended blessings of this born-again status, we must still keep our covenants and endure to the end. In the meantime, through the grace of God, we have been born again as new creatures with new spiritual parentage and the prospects of a glorious inheritance."

So being "born again" is more than just the single act of baptism.  It is a life-long process.
Elder Bednar clarified this doctrine:  "The Lord’s authorized servants repeatedly teach that one of the principal purposes of our mortal existence is to be spiritually changed and transformed through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Alma declared: 'Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God' (Mosiah 27:25–26).

“'Because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters' (Mosiah 5:7).
"The spiritual rebirth described in this verse typically does not occur quickly or all at once; it is an ongoing process—not a single event. Line upon line and precept upon precept, gradually and almost imperceptibly, our motives, our thoughts, our words, and our deeds become aligned with the will of God. This phase of the transformation process requires time, persistence, and patience."  Elder Bednar compared spiritual rebirth to pickling cucumbers: a process, not a single event, with multiple steps that cannot be skipped and which take time.

The Atonement

Christ also told Nicodemus of his divine mission: "For God so loved the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).  Most interesting is this comment by David H. Stern, a Messianic Jew

"This perhaps most famous and most quoted of verses in the New Testament epitomizes the truth of God that has come to Jews and Gentiles alike in Yeshua [Jesus Christ] the Messiah.  It teaches that (1) God loves his creation, the world; (2) to love is to give, to love much is to give much, and God loves the world so much that he gave what is most precious to him; (3) Yeshua was fully aware in advance that he would die as God's own sacrifice, (4) Yeshua knew that he was uniquely God's son; (5) the destiny of man when he relies on himself and does not trust in Yeshua is total destruction...not cessation of conscious existence, but the eternal suffering that is the inevitable consequence of sin; and (6) the destiny of an individual who trusts in Yeshua is everlasting life--not only in the future but right now--not just survival beyond the grave, which everyone has, but positive life 'in' Jeshua.  Trusting in Yeshua is not mere intellectual acknowledgement but adherence to, commitment to, trust in, faith in, reliance upon Yeshua as fully human, completely identified with us, and at the same time fully divine, completely identified with God" (Stern, p. 166).

The Identity of Jesus

When the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, "I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.  Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he" (John 4:25-26).  In the King James Translation of the Bible, words that were added by the translators for clarification are italicized.  So the word he is an addition.  "The original phrase used by Christ is ego emi in Greek, translated as I AmJehovah is the third person form of this term: He is.  Christ, therefore, was saying that he was the God of the Old Testament, Jehovah" (Bokovoy). 

David Stern explains it similarly:  "The declaration, 'I am,' echoes [God's] self-revelation [to Moses], "I am who I am" (Exodus 3:14).  Yeshua says this "I am" nine times in [John's] Gospel (here; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58, 13:9; 18:5, 6, 8).

Living Water

Kathleen Hinckley Hughes taught us about the Living Water. "The Samaritan woman looked into the face of Christ, listened to His voice, and recognized Him at a time when most others rejected all He taught. We know Him too, or we can, if we allow His healing power, His nourishing strength, His peace and joy, to flow through us like 'a well of water springing up into everlasting life.'

She explains, "The living water is the gospel of Jesus Christ; its communicator is the Holy Ghost."  In our times of trial, worry, depression, heartache, "a wellspring of goodness, of strength and confidence is within us, and when we listen with a feeling of trust, we are raised up. We are healed. We not only survive, but we love life. We laugh; we enjoy; we go forward with faith.

"The living water also nourishes. I testify to you that just as He promises, Christ comes to all who are heavy laden; He gives us rest. He sustains us when we are weary. A wellspring is a flowing well, offering continual refreshment—if we drink of it. Pride can destroy its effects, as can mere inattention. But those who drink deeply not only become whole themselves, but they become a fountain to others, as one spirit nurtures and feeds another...

"Christ’s promise is simple and sublime: 'Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid' (John 14:27). Brothers and sisters, turmoil is raging all about us. Economies are in distress; families are struggling; we are living in, as President Hinckley has said, 'perilous times'. But the living waters still offer peace and joy. When we live righteously, when we have done all we can do, one of the gifts we receive is confidence. The Lord tells us, 'Be still and know that I am God' (D&C 101:16). In the midst of chaos, we must pause. We must listen for the Spirit that tells us, 'All is well!' just as the early Saints had to do. There is cause to be concerned, but there is greater reason to be at peace."

The great LDS psalmist, Joseph L. Townsend, voiced the invitation made by Christ to Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman, and to each of us, to partake of the Living Water in his hymn, "Reverently and Meekly Now:"

Bid thine heart all strife to cease;
With thy brethren be at peace.
Oh, forgive as thou wouldst be
E'evn forgiven now by me.
In the solemn faith of prayer
Cast upon me all thy care,
And my Spirit's grace shall be
Like a fountain unto thee.


Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, Book 1
David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary
The Harper-Collins Study Bible
Dallin H. Oaks,"Have You Been Saved?" General Conference, April 1998
David A. Bednar, "Ye Must Be Born Again," General Conference, April 2007
David Bokovoy, BYU Campus Education Week Lecture, August 2002
Kathleen H. Hughes, "Blessed by Living Water," General Conference, April 2003
Joseph L. Townsend, "Reverently and Meekly Now," Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no. 185, verse 3

Free downloadable/printable pictures of Christ, including those used in this post, are available from the online Gospel Art Book at

Monday, January 17, 2011

New Testament Lesson #4 "Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord"

Matthew 3-4; John 1:35-51


Let's look at a very familiar passage from the Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 25:26.  Ask your class if they can fill in the blank without opening their scriptures; good chance nobody will be able to do it.  Here is the scripture: "And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophecy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that...[fill in the blank]."  The missing phrase is: "that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins."

John the Baptist stood in a unique position in history:  He "was the last legal administrator of the old dispensation, the first of the new; he was the last of the old prophets, the first of the new. With him ended the old law, and with him began the new era of promise. He is the one man who stood, literally, at the crossroads of history; with him the past died and the future was born"  (McConkie, p. 113).

In this pivotal spot, what was his message?  "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."  This was also the first recorded phrase of the Savior's ministry.  (See Matt. 4:17.)

We spend great effort teaching and preaching about the importance of keeping all of the various and specific commandments and striving to "be therefore perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect," sometimes so much that we eclipse the greatest message of the gospel:  that everyone is going to mess up in major ways and minor ways and fall short of that perfection, and so our Father in Heaven has provided the wonderful opportunity, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, for us to repent.  Repeatedly.  Throughout our lives, we must hear this message and heed it over and over and over.  We must drill it into our children's heads and hearts so that they know there is always a way back, a way out, a way up from wherever they are right now, and that Way is Jesus Christ.  (See John 14:6.)

The Greek word translated as "repentance" in the New Testament "denotes a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world...a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined" (Bible Dictionary, p. 761).


John the Baptist was the prophet who prepared the way for the Lord. And what did he preach? Repentance, of course. (See Luke 3:7-9.) He demanded of the multitude that they show by their actions that they were sincere about repenting, or they would be cut down like a tree that didn't produce good fruit.

Three groups of people were listening: the Jews (the people), the Jewish tax collectors (the publicans), and the Roman soldiers. Each asked him, "What shall we do?"

To the Jews, the "Church members," he said, "Give your excess to the poor" (Luke 3:11). Throughout scriptural history, whenever someone sincerely repents (think=Enos, Alma, sons of Mosiah) they are filled with the love of God (manifest in the Spirit) which immediately creates in them an overwhelming desire to share that love with others. If you truly repent, you are then filled with the Spirit, which prompts you in how to help others.

To the publicans, the Jewish tax collectors who worked for the Romans, he said, "Don't cheat or embezzle" (Luke 3:13). They were well known for padding their own coffers from the taxes they collected.

To the soldiers, he said, "Don't be violent. Don't frame people for crimes. Don't complain about your wages (Luke 3:14).

It's interesting that for each of these people, he offered them the next "best step" they could take in the repentance process. He told the Jews, who were already trying to be good, to help those less fortunate; in essence, to start working towards a Zion society in which everyone is cared for. That's a big step! But this is not what he told the other two groups. He told the publicans the next "best step" they could take, which was simply to be honest. And he didn't tell the soldiers, "Join the church, be baptized, get circumcised, go to the temple, give all your money to the Church." He told them three ways in which they could improve themselves and come just a little closer to Christ.

This is a very helpful example for us when we are working with nonmembers, wayward children, or even ourselves. All we/they need to do now to "bring forth fruits meet for [worthy of] repentance" is to take the next "best step." We can ask the Lord daily for this instruction for ourselves, and if we are trying to help someone else, we can ask Him how we can help them with their next best step. We don't need to expect people to make massive changes right away. One step at a time (more steps, if we're far, far away from the path) is enough. The Lord is infinitely patient. The more we read the scriptures, the more we see that He is willing to wait for us to learn; He is willing to wait for our children and our neighbors to travel the path to Him, one step at a time.


According to some historians, the Jews would baptize their proselytes, but were not baptized themselves (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 103).  With our additional Latter-day revelation, we know that baptism has been a necessary ordinance since the world began--even Adam was baptized (see Moses 6:53)--but perhaps this practice had disappeared with the decline into apostacy that preceded John's time.  The Jews seemed to feel that simply being of the House of Israel made them holy, and they had no need of the ordinance of baptism, or of a Savior.  That would explain why Jesus criticized the Pharisees and Saduccees who came to his baptism, but did not intend to be baptized themselves.  To be told they were "outside the Messianic kingdom, and unfit to enter into it without a [baptism] was distasteful to [their] pride..." (Dummelow, p. 630).  (Notice the JST change in verse 7.)

But Jesus was baptized of John to set the example, "to fulfill all righteousness."  Even for the Perfect Person, the ordinance was required.  As a ratifying sign, a dove came down, witnessing the presence of the Holy Ghost.

"The sign of the dove was instituted before the creation of the world, a witness for the Holy Ghost, and the devil cannot come in the sign of a dove. The Holy Ghost is a personage, and is in the form of a personage...The Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a dove; but the sign of a dove was given to John to signify the truth of the deed, as the dove is an emblem or token of truth and innocence" (Smith pp. 275-76).  "It thus appears that John witnessed the sign of the dove, that he saw the Holy Ghost descend in the "bodily shape" of the personage that he is, and that the descent was 'like a dove'" (McConkie, p. 123-4).

"The dove was the only fowl that was offered in sacrifice (Lev ), and Christ by the spirit, the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God.  The tidings of the decrease of Noah’s flood were brought by a dove, with an olive-leaf in her mouth; fitly therefore are the glad tidings of peace which God brought by the spirit as a dove" (Henry, p. 24).


The first thing that is very important to note in the telling of the temptation of Christ is that the devil did not take Christ anywhere; he has no such power over the Son of God.  The JST footnotes to Matt. 4:1, 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9 tell us that it was the Spirit that led Christ to the wilderness, set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and took him up to the high mountain.  It is specifically mentioned that his purpose in going to the wilderness was to commune with God His Father, and that is also the purpose for which one would go to the temple or to a high mountain.  Jesus did not intentionally go to a place where he would find temptation (nor should we).  He prepared himself for 40 days to meet his Father.  (For the symbolic meaning of 40 days, see a previous entry.)  It is not our privilege to be told what transpired between the Father and the Son in those communications, but it is important for us to know that the devil will try with all his might to win us over once we have taken a giant spiritual step such as this.  (See Moses 1 for another example.)

Each time, presumably after the spiritual enlightenment, the devil approached the Lord with a temptation.

1) "If thou be the son of God, command that these stones be made bread" (verse 3).  Satan tried to cast doubt as to Christ's relationship with God.  This is the same thing he will try to do to us. 

Lucifer also tried to convince Christ that God The Father would not want him to hunger.  How similar is this to the argument we often hear:  "If there was really a God, he would not allow his children to suffer."  And this temptation often succeeds in casting doubt!  Another angle in this first temptation is the temptation to feed the flesh and neglect the spirit.  Jesus answered, "Man shall not live by bread alone [physical concerns], but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God [covenants and commandments]" (verse 4). 

"In the life of Jesus there is not a single example of a miracle worked for His own advantage" (Dummelow, p. 633).  His turning the stones to bread would have been in direct opposition to his role as the Savior.  By overcoming this temptation he proved that he could be trusted to always have our best interest (or God's will) in mind over his own.

2) "If thou be the son of God, cast thyself down, for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee" (verse 6).  The devil loves to twist scripture to his advantage.  Here he quoted Psalm 91:11-12. 

"The porch on the south side [of the temple] was...150 feet high.  From the top of this to the bottom of the valley below was more than 700 feet, and Josephus says that one could scarcely look down without dizziness….How much more easy would [a dramatic leap and angelic rescue] be than to engage in a slow work of years to establish [the] claim [of divinity]; to encounter fatigue, and want, and poverty, and persecution, before that claim would be admitted?  And where could be a more fit place for thus at once demonstrating that he was the Son of God, than on this pinnacle of the temple, in the very midst of Jerusalem, and perhaps in the presence of thousands who would see the wonderful performance?" (Barnes, p. 34-35)  The temptation here was not just showing off (pride: something by which we are also often tempted), but taking a short cut.  There are no shortcuts in the Kingdom of God--not for Christ's mission and not for ours.

Jesus said, "It is written again, thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."  What is meant by tempting God?  Trying to get him to change his plans to fit ours.  We also try to "tempt the Lord" when things are rough and we question God's designs.  It is good to remember that "God casts down, that he may raise up; the Devil raises up, that he may cast down…." (Henry, p. 28).

3) "All [the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them] will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me" (verse 8-9).  What was the temptation here?  I've always struggled with this one.  Why would Christ, who had such great knowledge that he couldn't even be taught by men (see JST Matt. 3:25), be tempted by this kind of power?  I'll give credit to my awesome husband who pointed me toward an answer neither of us had thought of before, but which finally satisfies me.

First, let's clarify that Lucifer did not have the power to show Christ all the kingdoms of the world; "such was done by the Spirit; it was after he had seen the vision that the devil made his false offer" (McConkie, p. 128).  What might this vision have been like?  Well, the best commentary on scripture is always other scripture.  Who else in scripture had this type of a vision?  Enoch comes to mind instantly.  Enoch saw in a vision the God of heaven crying.  He asked what could be so devastating that it could cause God himself to cry. (Moses 7:31)  In answer, he was shown a great vision of the children of men, their sins, their refusal to accept the Atonement, and their resultant agony in spirit prison (Moses 7:38-39).  The scene tormented Enoch so that he "wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook" (Moses 7:41).

If the God of heaven wept when he showed this devastating vision to Enoch, it is likely that he was similarly in an agony when he saw it at the beginning of his earthly ministry in his semi-mortal condition.  How discouraging to see how many people would not accept his great sacrifice!  In this state, might there be the tiniest doubt as to whether Satan's plan had been the best one after all?  Wouldn't any good parent give almost anything to alleviate such intense suffering in their offspring?  If he would worship Satan, he would be accepting Satan's plan.  He would then be given power to rule over the kingdoms of the world and force everyone to do what was best for them (or at least that was Satan's claim), and all this misery to his dearly beloved children would be circumvented.

But the scriptures were written in Jesus' heart, and he would not abandon his Father's plan.  "Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve" (verse 10).  He knew, as we should also learn, that our Heavenly Father's plans and designs are always best, and that our only chance to experience joy and growth and any degree of glory is through the exercise of our agency, even if that agency leads us first through various degrees of hell. 

(Note the JST footnote to verse 11.)


John notes the call of five apostles immediately after his baptism (John 1:35-51), where the other gospels report them called later, in a different order, and under different circumstances (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11).  Is this a contradiction?  "If we take [John's account] as historical, Simon, Andrew, Philip, and Nathaniel first followed Jesus at an earlier date [than that recorded in Matthew and Mark].  On returning to Galilee, they again took up their normal work.  This is inherently plausible.  The disciples’ commitment and understanding advanced by degrees; even after the Resurrection, they returned once more to their fishing.  Here an earlier commitment may explain their haste in following Jesus [later]."  (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 119)  In this preliminary or preparatory call, they were invited to "come and see" (verse 39).  They spent time with Jesus, and their testimonies grew as they did so.  First, Andrew told his brother Simon, "We have found the Messias" (John 1:41).  This term means "the anointed one," who was prophesied to lead the Israelites to freedom.  The next day, Philip was invited to follow Christ, and afterwards he told Nathanael, "We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (John 1:45).  As Jesus let Nathanael know he was aware of a private moment of divine communication Nathanael had experienced under a fig tree, Nathanael's witness expanded: "Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel" (John 1:49).

Later, when their call to full-time apostleship came, the disciples were told, "I am he of whom it is written by the prophets; follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (JST Matt. 4:19).  Knowing they had previously had the opportunity to "come and see," to learn of Christ, and to educate their desires, we can comprehend how they could now, with joy, and without a moment's hesitation, "straightway [leave] their nets," follow Christ, and become fishers of men (Matt. 4:18-22).


Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Vol. 1
J. R. Dummelow, The One Volume Bible Commentary
Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. 5
Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the New Testament, Vol. 9

I am indebted to my stake president, Kent R. Wallis, who shared his copious research with me.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

New Testament Lesson #3 "Unto You Is Born...a Saviour"

Luke 2; Matthew 2

Preparation:  Stick a little gold star somewhere around the room where it is in plain sight, but not obvious, like on the frame of the blackboard or on a doorframe. One of those little gold star stickers that we use to reward children for their schoolwork or piano practice would be fine.  Also, dig back out your nativity set (an unbreakable one) from the Christmas decorations you probably just put away. (Sorry about that.)  Put them in a box or a bag so that class members can reach in and pull them out without looking.  If you have a stable as a part of the nativity set, display that on the table, empty.  If you don't have access to a nativity set, you can put cards with the names of the nativity figures on them in a bag, or you can download cute little paper figures here.  If you don't have access to a printer or a Nativity set, draw stick figures as you give the lesson :) You will need the following:  one angel, three wise men, Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, a shepherd, a sheep, a donkey.


Ask the class if any of them noticed the gold star in the room.  Once they are told, they can look around and easily find it.  Ask why they didn't see it before, even though it was in plain sight.  Their answer will be because they didn't know to look for it.  When Christ was born, there was a special star in the sky.  The wise men saw it.  But what about all of the other people in Bethlehem, and in Jerusalem, and in the East?  Why did they not see the star?  Because they were not looking for it.

All around us, there are things that testify of Christ to us, just as the star testified of Christ's birth.  If we are looking we will see them: The beauties of nature, the miracle of the human body, the many times that we almost have accidents but don't, or the times that things that seem bad turn out to be really great in the end.  People who are not looking for them do not see them as proof of Christ's influence in their lives.  For example, everyone can watch General Conference on television or the Internet and see President Monson, but only those who are looking for a prophet see him as a prophet.


Before we get started, let's talk about Christmas Day. "Both scriptural and historical evidence suggest [that Jesus was born] in the spring of the year, near the Jewish Passover" (Nelson, p. 3), so why do we celebrate Christ's birthday on December 25th?  The answer to that question is rather interesting and ironic.

The Romans crucified Christ for the Jews.  After Christ's death, Paul traveled to Rome to teach the gospel.  As a result of his efforts, Christianity spread to Rome, and eventually the Roman Catholic Church was born, which is the world's largest Christian denomination today.  As a result, the descendants of that nation that crucified Jesus Christ now wear crosses around their necks to remind themselves of Christ's sacrifice for them.  Sweet.

When the Romans made Christianity their official religion, they wanted to celebrate Christ's birth, but no one knew the correct date.  So they decided to honor it in the place of a celebration they already had: the imaginary birthday of the sun god they had previously worshipped: December 25th (Skousen, p. 15).  Some atheists therefore accuse present-day Christians of participation in idolatry, even though the Christians have never heard of the sun god and could therefore hardly be considered worshipping him.  But even though Christmas (as it was called hundreds of years later) wasn't a clean and instant break from paganism--all major cultural and religious changes take time--it was a way of turning the honor to Christ while eclipsing the centuries-old idolatrous traditions.  And it was effective:  At least a third of the world's population celebrates Christmas, while very few have even heard of the sun god Nimrod.

Regardless of the origin/evolution of Christmas, its present-day celebration is a powerful reminder of the divinity of Christ.  Let's look a little more closely at all the individuals and circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus and see how they, like everything else, testify of Christ. 

Have class members pull a figure out of the bag or box.  Then tell about that particular person or animal using the notes below as you place it in the stable.


The angel who told Mary that she would be the mother of the Son of God was Gabriel.  Gabriel had also appeared to two other people that we know of:  Daniel of the Old Testament, and Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist.  Who was Gabriel when he was a mortal?  Noah.  (History of the Church, 3:386).  Noah would have been one of Mary's ancestors, as well as Daniel's and Zacharias's, since everyone on the earth after the flood descended from him (Skousen, p. 9)

Luke 2:13 reads, "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God."  We tend to think of the heavenly host as a choir, and they probably were, but the meaning of the word host in the scriptures usually refers to an army.  When we read that our God is "the Lord of hosts," the meaning is "the captain of the heavenly army" (Harper-Collins Study Bible; see also 1 Samuel 17:45).  The word host can also refer to "a great multitude" (See Topical Guide heading for "Host"), but as the word multitude is already being used in the scriptural sentence, a different meaning for the word host is logical--"A multitude of the heavenly multitude" just doesn't make a lot of sense.  Since our entire existence, including premortal and postmortal, is the story of a war being waged against evil, it would be appropriate for the heavenly army to rejoice at the birth of the one who would lead them to victory.


How many wise men were there?  We have no idea.  Matthew 2:1 reads, "Behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem."  No number is ever mentioned.  Three gifts are itemized, so the assumption has been that there was one wise man for each gift, but there might have been only two wise men, or there might have been 100.

There is a fascinating new translation of an ancient text found in the Vatican that appears to be the record of the journey of the wise men.  It was just this month featured in multiple news stories.  In this record, there is a large company of wise men, they travel from China, and they are even baptized by one of the apostles.  According to the translator, the word magi means "to pray in silence," and has no reference to astrology or sorcery (Landau).  "When they first encounter the long-prophesied star, the text says it initially appears in a celestial form that then transforms into a human form or 'star child,' who instructs them to go to Bethlehem to witness its birth. Each of the Magi, in fact, sees the star child in a different form, with each vision representing a different time in the life of Christ."  You can read about it in USA Today or on  The book of the translation is called Revelation of the Magi.  The translator is Brent Landau.  It is available to the general public in bookstores.


Most people think that the wise men were not Jews, and this new book suggests that they weren't, but it is possible they were.  There were Jews living in many different countries surrounding Israel.  When kings from other countries conquered Israel over the years, they usually moved some of the Jews out so that their own people could move in, and so there were little groups of Jews in many countries to the East.  It makes sense that it would have been Jews or Jewish converts who would have studied the prophecies of the Old Testament (see Matt. 2:5-6; Micah 5:2; Numbers 24;17) in order to know about the sign of the star, and the general location of the birthplace of the Messiah (McConkie, p. 358).

When the wise men traveled to Jerusalem, they thought it would be easy to find the baby king.  They expected everyone to be excited and the city to be in an uproar because of the birth of Jesus.  But, as we said, most people did not see the star because they were not looking for it.  So they had to figure out how to find the baby, and they decided to go to the palace and ask the king.  Perhaps they thought Jesus would have been the king's son (Skousen, p. 30).

When King Herod wasn't able to give them any information, they went back out searching and the star moved, perhaps like a satellite, or maybe as a vision.  "It went before them" (Matt. 2:9) until it led them the five miles to Bethlehem, and even to the right house where Joseph and Mary were living.  The census was over, all the people who had come to be taxed had left, and now there was a place available for Joseph and Mary to live (Matt 2:11).  We don't know the age of the Savior at this time, but he was under the age of two, since that is the age of children Herold commanded to be killed.


We often call the wise men the three kings, but scriptures never say that they are kings.  This image results from the wealth they carried with them.  They brought gold, which has always been rare and pricey.  They brought frankincense, a very expensive crystalline resin from a tree in Arabia, used in temple worship, and also as a perfume.  They brought myrrh, an extracted resin from various thorny bushes in Arabia, and worth a small fortune.  It was a perfume, also used for temple worship, and particularly used to embalm the dead.  When Jesus was in the tomb, this may have been one of the "spices" that the women brought to put on his body (Skousen, p. 33).  It is sometimes said by scriptorians that the wise men honored three roles of Christ:  They brought gold for the King, frankincense for the High Priest, and myrrh for the Savior who would give His life to atone for our sins.


Joseph did not call his wife "Mary" and neither did anyone who knew her.  The New Testament was written in Greek, but Mary and Joseph and all of the Jews spoke Hebrew.  Mary is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Miriam

Mary was a direct descendant of King David, and if other countries had not taken over Israel, she could have been a princess and her baby could have become the earthly King of the Jews (Skousen, p. 6; see also "Joseph" in last week's lesson, and Matt. 1:1).


Joseph was Mary's cousin; she was the daughter of his uncle Jacob.  Joseph was also a direct descendant of King David, and could have been the king of the Jews if the Hebrews were still in control (McConkie, p. 316).

We always assume that Joseph was poor.  Was he?  Yes.  How do we know this?  The Law said that all the firstborn boys should be presented at the temple and the parents should bring a sacrifice with them of a lamb, but if they couldn't afford a lamb, they could sacrifice two doves (Numbers 8;15-18; 18:15-16).  Joseph and Mary brought two doves (Luke 2:22-24; Talmage, p. 96).


Jesus was not called "Jesus" by the Hebrews.  The name Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua or Jehoshua.  The meaning of the name Joshua is very significant:  "Jehovah saves."  Jehovah was the God of the Old Testament.  The name Joshua was a sign to them that this baby was Jehovah, the God in their scriptures (Nelson, p. 4; Skousen, p. 22; Bible Dictionary, Jesus; McConkie, p. 318).

Jesus was the first child born in the family, but was he the only one?  No.  He had at least four half-brothers and at least two half-sisters, so there were at least seven children in the family, and maybe more.  Four brothers, James, Joses, Simon and Judas and an unspecified number of sisters are mentioned in Matt 13:55-56.  James and Judas (Jude) became apostles and their writings are found in our New Testament.  The JST gives us a little more information about Jesus' childhood and youth.  "And it came to pass that Jesus grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come.  And he served under his father, and he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him" (JST Matt. 3:24-25 in the Bible Appendix).


Shepherds were on the low end of society in the days of Christ.  The very low end.  Because their work required them to be out in the fields constantly, they couldn't keep all the Jewish customs and rules, all the hand-washings, and social mandates.  So they were looked down upon, and they weren't trusted.  Most "respectable" people lived in houses and were farmers or merchants.  Shepherds were a little like homeless people.  They had to sleep out on the ground with the filthy animals.  (Rt. Rev. Edwin F. Gulick, Bp. of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky, "And There Were Shepherds in the Field..." sermon printed on the Internet; also Randy Alcorn, "A Second Glance at the Christmas Shepherds", Moody Magazine, Dec. 1982).  The witnesses of Christ's birth came from both ends of society:  the magi at the top, and the shepherds at the bottom.  He is the Savior for everyone, and in His sight, everyone is equal.

Did you know that the Christmas carol "Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains" was written by a Latter-day Saint in the 1880s?  His name was John McFarlane and he lived in southern Utah.


Bethlehem is very near to Jerusalem, only 5 miles or so away.  So the shepherds outside the town of Bethlehem were also outside the city of Jerusalem.  And what was in Jerusalem?  The temple, of course.  According to the Law of Moses, the first-born sheep were offered as sacrifices in the temple.  The shepherds watching over these sheep had the responsibility of making sure which lambs were the firstborn and could be used in sacrifice.  They tended those lambs that were set apart for their temple worship in special flocks. In fact, by law, only these temple flocks could be pastured so near the city.  If the shepherds brought some of the lambs with them to the manger, as we always picture them doing, they would have been holy lambs that were being raised to be sacrificed in a similitude of what Jesus, the "Lamb of God," would later do for all of us (Kimberly Webb, New Era, Dec. 2003, p. 23; McConkie, p. 347).


The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is close to 100 miles, all over rough terrain, and the Jews actually traveled a longer distance in order to skirt Samaria.  Fortunately, the small varieties of donkeys in the middle east give a very nice ride.  The rider can simply come up behind and sit on the donkey, with her legs nearly touching the ground.  She sits up by the tail on the hips of the donkey, which do not move much while the donkey walks, making for a fairly comfortable ride (Skousen, p. 16).


As emphasized in the conclusion to the previous lesson, the Holy Ghost wrought upon those who were seeking the Christ child.  This happened to two significant individuals who are not a part of our Nativity sets:  Simeon and Anna.  Note that the role of the Holy Ghost is mentioned three times in the account of Simeon:

"And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.  And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ.  And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, then he took him up in his arms and blessed God" (Luke 2:25-28).

In keeping with his unusually fair treatment of women, Luke gives equal credence to the witness of a woman.  (See "Luke" in a previous post.)  Not only does he mention her testimony, but he calls her a "prophetess."  There are different meanings for the word prophetess in the Bible.  In at least one instance it refers to the wife of a prophet (Isa. 8:3), but, more often, it refers to a woman who "who possessed the power to prophesy, who declared that [she] spoke God's message, and whose prophecies were fulfilled" (Hurd, p. 12; see Exo. 15:20; Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14).  Anna was the latter.  A prophetess would not be the equivalent of the prophet of a dispensation who holds the keys of the priesthood, but as "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10), any righteous woman being moved by the Spirit and testifying of Jesus could be a prophetess.  This is what Anna did.  She "spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38).  Like John the Baptist, she helped prepare the way of the Lord before His ministry began.

As Latter-day Saints, it is our responsibility to follow the example of the star, the angels, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna and testify of Christ.  I love this little testimony-poem by C.S. Lewis, the great English testator of Jesus Christ:


Among the oxen (like an ox I'm slow)
I see a glory in the stable grow
Which, with the ox's dullness might at length
Give me an ox's strength.

Among the asses (stubborn I as they)
I see my Saviour where I looked for hay;
So may my beastlike folly learn at least
The patience of a beast.

Among the sheep (I like a sheep have strayed)
I watch the manger where my Lord is laid;
Oh that my baa-ing nature would win thence
Some wooly innocence!

--C.S. Lewis


Russell M. Nelson, Wise Men and Women Still Adore Him
W. Cleon Skousen, Days of the Living Christ
Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, Book 1
James E. Talmadge, Jesus the Christ

Brent Landau, Revelation of the Magi
Jerrie Hurd, Leaven: 150 Women in Scripture Whose Lives Lift Ours
C.S. Lewis, Poems

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Testament Lesson #2 "My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord"

Luke 1; Matthew 1

Preparation:  Make cards with one of each of the following names on them: Zacharias, Elizabeth, John, Mary, Joseph.  Tape the cards under chairs in the classroom.  (If you typically have a lot of empty chairs in your room, this might not work as well.  In that case, you can either just pass them around, or have people look under all the chairs near them until all the cards are found.  Cards under the chairs would work better with teenagers or young adults rather than older people who may have a hard time kneeling down or bending over.)


Ask the class to check under their chairs for a card listing one of the first Christians in the New Testament.  Ask those who have cards to think of something to share about this person; something they admire, something interesting they know, whatever.  (If someone doesn't want to participate, let them give the card to another.  Sunday School should be a place where people feel comfortable.  Those who don't read well or are afraid to speak out shouldn't be afraid to come to class.)  If your class is not terribly knowledgeable about scriptural figures, you can list a scripture on the board for each of the names (from the notes below), and give them a few minutes to read about their person and learn something to share.  Use the ideas below to supplement what the class members share.  You can discuss the individuals in any order that the class members choose.


Read Luke 1:5-10.  "In the court of the priests stood the great altar of unhewn stones whereon the sacred sacrifices were offered; this was open to the view of the people.  Entrance was gained to the Holy Place through two great gold-plated doors.  In this sanctuary were the two tables--one of marble, one of gold--on which the priests laid the candlestick with its seven lamps and, most importantly, the altar of incense.

"It was into this sacred sanctuary that Zacharias went, accompanied by another priest who bore burning coals taken from the altar of sacrifice; these he spread upon the altar of incense and then withdrew.  It then became the privilege of [Zacharias] to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, that the ascending smoke and the odor might typify the ascending prayers of all Israel"  (McConkie, p. 307)

Keep in mind it had been 400 years or so since Malachi, the last prophet we have record of in the Old Testament, had been on the earth, and we don't know of any angelic ministrations that had happened in the interim.  So those people undoubtedly thought such things were in the past.  (See Talmadge, p. 77.)

Read Luke 1:11-13.  "What prayers did Zacharias make on this occasion?  Certainly not, as so many have assumed, prayers that Elisabeth should bear a son, though such in days past had been the subject of the priest's faith-filled importunings.  This was not the occasion for private, but for public prayers.  He was acting for and on behalf of all Israel, not for himself and Elisabeth alone.  And Israel's prayer was for redemption, for deliverance from the Gentile yoke, for the coming of their Messiah, for freedom from sin.  The prayers of the one who burned the incense were the prelude to the sacrificial offering itself, which was made to bring the people in tune with the Infinite, through the forgiveness of sins and the cleansing of their lives.  'And the whole multitude of the people were praying without [meaning, outside] at the time of incense'--all praying, with one heart and one mind, the same things that were being expressed formally, and officially, by the one whose lot it was to sprinkle the incense in the Holy Place." (McConkie, p. 307-308)  So why did the angel say, "Thy prayer is heard and thy wife shall bear a son," if he wasn't then praying for a son?  Because of the son's role:  Read Luke 1:16-17.

"The last words Zacharias had uttered prior to the influction of dumbness were words of doubt and unbelief...The words with which he broke his long silence were words of praise unto God in whom he had all assurances, words that were as a sign to all who heard, and the fame whereof spread throughout the region"  (Talmadge, p. 79).

Read Luke 1:18-20.  But this sign made the visitation much more obvious to the people.  When Zacharias emerged deaf and dumb, it was a testimony to everyone, in addition to what he might have told them.  So maybe that was part of the reason that the angel was so hard on him.

Zacharias died a martyr.  Jesus blasted the Jews for it: "Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel [the first martyr] unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias [the most recent martyr], whom ye slew between the temple and the altar" (Matt. 23:34-35).  It is confusing because the prophet Zechariah of the Old Testament was killed in the same manner and his father was named Barachias.  But Zacharias' father must have had the same name, because Joseph Smith specifies that this Zacharias is John the Baptist's father:

"When Herod's edict went forth to destroy the young children, John was about six months older than Jesus, and came under this hellish edict, and Zacharias caused his mother to take him into the mountains, where he was raised on locusts and wild honey.  When his father refused to disclose his hiding place, and being the officiating high priest at the Temple that year, [he] was slain by Herod's order, between the porch and the altar, as Jesus said" (Smith, p. 261).

Zacharias' testimony is recorded in Luke 1:68-79.  It has been set to music and performed over the centuries in the Roman Catholic Church under the title "The Benedictus."  Add in the JST change that is not included in the LDS Bible for verse 77 and an additional insight is gained:  "...salvation unto his people by baptism for the remission of their sins."  (If you would like to know how to find JST changes that are not in our LDS edition, follow this link to a previous post on the JST.)


Read Luke 1:5-7; 24-27; 39-45; 56-60 for Elizabeth's story.  Elizabeth was both the daughter and the wife of a priest.  She was righteous before God and blameless.  She was childless until old age.  We know that she also knew that the baby should be named John, whether from the Spirit or from her husband.  We know she had an intimate relationship with Mary (Luke 1:40-45).  She had loving and supportive family and friends (Luke 1:58).  We know from Joseph Smith that she raised her little boy, John, in hiding in the wilderness without her husband.  (See notes on Zachariah.)  We have her testimony (Luke 1:42-45).


The scriptures specifically tell us that John was of priestly descent through both parents.  "There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth" (Luke 1:5).  "This lineage was essential, since John was the embodiment of the law of Moses, designed to prepare the way for the Messiah and make ready a people to receive him" (BD, p. 714).  There was never any doubt in the Jews' minds that John had priesthood authority, and this created big problems for those who did not want to believe his witness.  When the chief priests and elders challenged Christ's authority, He had only to refer them to John's authority to flummox them.  They could not publicly doubt John's authority, as it was fully established.  Yet, if they acknowledged it, they would also have to acknowledge his testimony of Christ as the Son of God.  So they did not answer at all.  (See Matt. 21:23-27.)

Why was it so important that the baby be named John, and not Zacharias?  Couldn't he just as well have been "Zacharias the Baptist?"  Well, just as there is a meaning for every number for the Hebrews, there is also a meaning for every name.  The name John, Jochanan in Hebrew, means "the grace or mercy of Jehovah."  John was foreordained to be the one who would go forth ahead of Jehovah to proclaim his grace and mercy.  (See McConkie, p. 335)

What do we know about John's childhood?  We know he was raised in the wilderness.  And modern-day revelation tells us more fascinating details.  "And the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel; Which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John, whom God raised up, being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb.  For he was baptized while he was yet in his childhood, and was ordained by the angel of God at the time he was eight days old unto this power, to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews, and to make straight the way of the Lord before the face of his people, to prepare them for the coming of the Lord, in whose hand is given all power" (D&C 84:26-28).

John was the forerunner in almost every instance.  He was born just before Christ and testified of Him even from the womb, as he leapt in His presence.  He started his ministry before Christ started his, declaring that there would be a greater One to come.  He laid down his life for the testimony of Jesus before Jesus died, and therefore he was also the forerunner into paradise to announce that the captive spirits would soon be free.  And in the final dispensation, ours, he came again to prepare the way for the Second Coming by restoring the Aaronic Priesthood to the earth so that others could be baptists.  (See McConkie, p. 302)

So John has ministered in three dispensations on the earth:  "He was the last of the prophets under the law of Moses, he was the first of the New Testament prophets, and he brought the Aaronic Priesthood to the dispensation of the fullness of times."  (BD, p. 715)

Let's read what John the Beloved wrote about John the Baptist:  "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  The same came into the world for a witness, to bear witness of the light, to bear record of the gospel through the Son, unto all, that through him men might believe.  He was not that light, but came to bear witness of that light, which was the true light, which lighteth every man who cometh into the world; Even the Son of God.  He who was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not" (JST John 1:6-10 in the Bible Appendix).

John the Baptist's testimony of Jesus Christ is found in the same scriptural location, JST John 1:15-33.


Read Matthew 1:18-25 for information about Joseph.  Matthew and Luke both give genealogies of Christ (Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38).  The genealogies are different, but this only testifies to their validity.  The genealogy of Matthew is the sequence of the legal successors to the throne of David.  The account from Luke is a personal pedigree of actual father/son relationships, also demonstrating descendence from David.  Both of them offer claim to the throne.  Luke's record is thought to be the pedigree of Mary even though it is Joseph's name that is mentioned, and Matthew's is thought to be Joseph's.  Where in Matthew it says Joseph's father is Jacob, Luke says Joseph's father is Heli.  Jacob and Heli were brothers, and Mary and Joseph, their children, were therefore first cousins.  Elder McConkie thinks Jacob was Joseph's father-in-law and Mary's father (McConkie, p. 316).  Never did the Jews accuse Jesus of being ineligible to be the Messiah based on his heritage.  With the great emphasis that the Jews placed on genealogy, this testifies that his genealogy correctly placed him as King of the Jews (Talmadge, p. 86-87).


Mary's history is found in Luke 1:26-45, and Luke 2.  "Jesus Christ was to be born of mortal woman, but was not directly the offspring of mortal man, except so far as his mother was the daughter of both man and woman.  In our Lord alone has been fulfilled the word of God spoke in relation to the fall of Adam that the seed of the woman should have power to overcome Satan by bruising the serpent's head" (Talmadge, p. 83).  (See Genesis 3:15 and Moses 1:21.)

"In respect to place, condition, and general environment, Gabriel's annunciation to Zacharias offers strong contrast to the delivery of his message to Mary.  The prospective forerunner of the Lord was announced to his father within the magnificent temple, and in a place the most exclusively sacred save one other in the Holy House, under the light shed from the golden candlestick, and further illumined by the glow of living coals on the altar of gold; the Messiah was announced to His mother in a small town far from the capital and the temple, most probably within the walls of a simple Galilean cottage" (Talmadge, p. 82).

Her testimony is preserved in Luke and, like Zacharias', has been set to music and performed many times over the centuries in many Christian churches under the title "The Magnificat."  It is found in Luke 1:46-55.


We have a written testimony from each one of these first five great Christians except Joseph, and his testimony is manifest in his works.  How did all of these great early saints gain their testimonies in these unbelievable circumstances?  Through the same power by which you and I gain ours and continue to strengthen them:  The power of the Holy Ghost.  John, as we read in both Luke 1:15 and D&C 84:27 "was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb," and that is how he knew that the unborn Christ was near.  Elizabeth, when she greeted Mary "was filled with the Holy Ghost" (Luke 1:41) and that is how she knew.  Zacharias was "filled with the Holy Ghost" at the naming of his child (Luke 1:67).  Mary, Joseph and Zacharias all had the additional privilege of seeing an angel, but even seeing an angel does not necessarily give a person a testimony--Laman and Lemuel saw an angel and it made no difference to them (1 Nephi 3:29-31).  We don't need to see an angel to know that Jesus is the Christ, and that His gospel is the Way; we have the Holy Ghost, and that's all we need. 

"When a man has the manifestation of the Holy Ghost, it leaves an indelible impression on his soul, one that is not easily erased.  It is Spirit speaking to spirit, and it comes with convincing force.  A manifestation of an angel, or even the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase" (President Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:151).

"When Jesus came into the coasts of C├Žsarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:13-18).  What is "this rock?" Joseph Smith asked.  He answered his own question:  revelation through the Holy Ghost.  (See Smith, p. 274.)

Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, Book 1
James E. Talmadge, Jesus The Christ
Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Bible Dictionary