THE MESSAGE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
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).
WHAT THEN SHALL WE DO?
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.
THE BAPTISM OF JESUS CHRIST
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 TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
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
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.)
THE CALLING OF THE APOSTLES
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
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.