(Ask class members to relate the story of the vision of the tree of life, then ask the class for insights into the relevance to their lives found in the symbols. A few of my insights follow.)
The Dark and Dreary Wilderness
It's important to notice what happened to Lehi before he saw the tree of life.
"And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision...
"And it came to pass that I saw a man, and he was dressed in a white robe; and he came and stood before me.
"And it came to pass that he spake unto, and bade me follow him.
"And it came to pass that as I followed him, I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste." (8:4-7)
Lehi found himself in a wilderness. This is very significant.
A wilderness to Lehi would not have been just a barren place, but a life-threatening, terrifying place, full of ravenous wild animals, devoid of water or edible vegetation, and sprinkled with murderous highwaymen. A wilderness would have had no dwellings or places of safety and refuge. Remember, Lehi had just traveled through such a wilderness between Jerusalem and the Red Sea, eating uncooked meat for the fear of drawing attention of enemies or animals with the smoke of a fire. In the dream, as in real life, Lehi did not put himself in the wilderness; the Lord put him there.
"And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies." (8:8)
Many people today will say, when they find themselves in a "wilderness" due to no fault of their own, "The God I believe in would never (fill in the blank with what injustice they see in the world)." But Lehi was not worshipping a "Franken-God" (to borrow a term from pastor and newspaper columnist Eldon Peterson of the Herald Journal) a god of his own creation. Lehi knew the character of the God he worshipped. This is why we don't see him shaking his fist at heaven, but instead crying to God for mercy. He knew that the wilderness was part of his learning experience or God would not have put him there. He also knew that God, in his tender mercy, would bring him back out of it to a situation of greater light and love, if he exercised his faith in him. And he did.
Where have we seen that phrase "tender mercies" before?
"But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance." (1:20)
Even though we know intellectually that this life is a time of trial and learning, we are always shocked when we find ourselves in a wildernesss. We expect that the tender mercies of the Lord will make us "mighty even unto never having a need of deliverance." We expect that if we follow the Lord, we'll never meet up with trouble, we'll always be fed manna, and everything will be rainbows without floods. But that's not the way it is. We will be made mighty, even unto the power of deliverance, just as was Lehi in his dream and in his life.
"And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field. And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy. And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy..." (8:9-12)
Even though he cried unto the Lord for help, and even though the Lord answered his prayer, Lehi was still required to "go forth and partake." Personal effort is always necessary. The fruit is never dropped in our mouths.
The Four Groups of People
- Those who start on the path to the tree, but then become lost in the mist of darkness. They give in to the temptations of the devil, or the hardships (or luxuries) of life. (v. 23)
- Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, but then become embarrassed and fall away. (v. 24) They are distracted by worldliness, pride, pursuit of temporal goals, etc. Partaking of the fruit (the atonement of Jesus Christ) is not a one-time, end-of-your-life thing, but a part of the journey. The plan of salvation is not as linear as the vision of the tree of life. (see L. Tom Perry, Ensign, Nov. 1995)
- Those who hold to the rod of iron until they reach the tree and partake of the fruit, and who then remain faithful (v. 30). Note, Lehi saw "multitudes" doing this, "pressing their way forward, continually holding fast." That's encouraging! Also, note the spelling of the word strait in "strait and narrow path" (v. 20). A straight path doesn't turn, switchback, climb, drop, veer, or have rocks or bumps. But that's not the kind of path we're talking about. It is a strait path, which means it is narrow, with strict requirements. The interpretation of the path is never given, but we can figure it out from other scriptures easily enough: It is the keeping of covenants.
- Those who never start on the path but instead go directly toward the great and spacious building (v. 31).
- Commence on the path (8:22). The first three groups did this.
- Catch hold of the rod (8:24). The second and third groups did this (v. 24, v. 30).
- Cling to the rod (8:24). The second and third groups pressed forward, they did not have a casual grip (v. 24, v. 30).
- Continue (8:30). The third group is the only one who hung onto the rod for dear life continually.
NEPHI'S DOUBLE VISION
Whenever we receive a revelation from the prophet, it is our privilege to ask for a validation of it from the Spirit, if we need it. Nephi went beyond: he had a desire to see the whole vision for himself, and his desire was granted and even expanded upon. Nephi saw a vision within a vision, the second vision being the interpretation of the first vision. The first vision was similar to his father's vision, and the second vision explained the meaning of the symbols through prophecies that would take place in either the Holy Land or the Promised Land. Here is a brief outline:
- The Tree of Life (11:8-23) is explained through a vision of Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Mother of Christ, the Infant Christ-Child. It is the love of God the Father, manifested in His condescension (becoming the literal father of a part-mortal).
- The Rod of Iron (11:24) is explained through a vision of Christ's ministry in Israel and His faithful followers. It is the word of God.
- The Fountain of Living Waters (11:24-31) is explained through a vision of John the Baptist's ministry, the baptism of Christ, the descent of the Holy Ghost, Christ's ministry in Israel and rejection by the Jews, the 12 apostles, the ministry of angels, and the miracles of Jesus. It is the love of God the Son, manifested in His condescension (becoming part human and dwelling upon the earth to minister and redeem).
- The Large and Spacious Building (11:32-35) is explained through a vision of the trials of Christ, His crucifixion, and the persecution of His apostles. It is the House of Israel's rejection of the gospel in favor of the wisdom of the world.
- The Great Fall of the Building (11:36) is explained through a vision of the Great Apostacy. It is the downfall and destruction of those who reject the gospel.
- The Fountain (or spring) of Filthy Water (12:13-16) is explained through a vision of the wars of the Nephites and Lamanites. It is the depths of hell.
- The Mists of Darkness (12:17) are identified as the temptations of the devil.
- The Large and Spacious Building (12:18) is identified as pride.
- The Great and Terrible Gulf (12:18-23) is explained through a vision of the destruction of the Nephite civilization and the Apostacy in America. It is the word of the justice of God.
HAVING VISIONS, AND HAVING VISION
Visions from the Lord are often omniscient in nature, as the Lord is omniscient (or able to see all).
"Thus saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, the Great I Am, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made; the same which knoweth all things, for all things are present before mine eyes." (D&C 38:1-2)
I live in a mountain valley with Preston, Idaho at one end, and Avon, Utah at the other. If I want to see Preston and Avon and all the towns and farms between, I can get in my car and drive from one end to the other, and I would be able to see a certain dimension of those places over a period of an hour or two. But above the valley, there is a peak called Mount Logan.
When I am standing on Mount Logan, I am able to see all of the communities, the marshes, the rivers, the farms at the same time, rather than in a linear way. When God offers an omniscient vision such as Nephi had, he pulls the seer up to stand beside him and view the entire panorama at once. (Credit for this idea goes to Jerry Wilson, former instructor at the Logan Institute of Religion.)
Similarly in omniscient visions, there is no linear time, but all can be seen at once. That fact is reflected in the prophetic future tense used to record visions. Tense discrepancies are very common, since the tense doesn't matter. You can see future, past and present tense all three in 11:27: the prophet who should prepare the way (future); the Lamb went forth and was baptized (past); heavens open and the Holy Ghost comes and abides (present).
Nephi explained the reason that he was able to have this wonderful vision before he related the vision to us. It was because he asked. "For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost..." (10:19)
As a piano teacher, I love teaching all ages. Beginners are fun; they are so excited about every new thing. But it's really fun to have advanced students. There is so much wonderful material you can share with an advanced student. You can explain to them the fascinating theory by which the piece is constructed, the history of the composer and the reasons he wrote the piece, the nuances and techniques that can be used to bring out the beauty of the music, and it is a delight to share this with them.
I have the feeling that the Lord loves having "advanced students" like Nephi as well. If you are a "beginning" gospel student, he loves seeing your excitement, but don't stay in the "intermediate" stage forever: become an "advanced" student! We have all the information and inspiration necessary to be "advanced." Get up on the mountain!
"In this dispensation of the fulness of times, the revelation superhighway has been carrying heavy traffic of eternal truth ever since that day in the spring of 1820 when the Lord answered a farm boy's fervent prayer in the Sacred Grove and ushered in the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ." (Joseph B. Wirthlin, Ensign, Nov. 1995, p. 75)
We may not see the heavens opened, as did Joseph Smith, and we may not see the panoramic vision of the tree of life as did Nephi, but we can stand on a mountaintop and gain an eternal perspective that will guide us through our own lives. The "revelation superhighway" is open to us.
"In our own lives, in our daily workaday world, we can create our own 'mountaintop experience' so unique and personal that I wonder why more of us do not readily do so. The spiritual mountaintop of which I speak is the development and refining of a testimony of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Just as we can stand on the top of any great mountain and experience an awe-inspiring panorama, I believe we can stand in our own places and experience overwhelming awe in knowing that the Savior, in an act of love which defies mortal understanding, gave his life in taking upon himself our pain and suffering...
"It is in the development of our testimonies, in the moving even partway up the mountain and out of our comfort zones, that I think we begin to approach our own personal, spiritual mountaintop where we can receive inspiration and truth as never before." (Jack H. Goaslind, Ensign, Nov. 1995, p. 9, 11)