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Posts Tagged ‘Atonement’

The prophet Jacob gives a great definition of what exactly Jesus Christ did for us and, therefore, why we celebrate Easter.  The diagram below outlines the two-fold victory on our behalf:

Jacob

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I’ve been wanting to write a Pilgrim’s Progress-style allegory for young children.  Here it is.  Happy Easter, everybody.

*****

 

Once upon a time there was a wonderful king.  He had very many children and they all lived in a beautiful castle high on a mountain.

One day the king told his children that he was sending them on an important journey.  They had to go on a long walk through the whole world.  The king said that they had to do this in order to grow up.

“Will it be hard?” the princes and princesses asked.

“Yes,” said the king.  “But it will also be an exciting adventure.  And it will help you become ready to be kings and queens yourselves someday.”

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I recently listened to a talk by David A. Bednar where he said this: “I believe we can learn much about this vital aspect of the Atonement if we will insert “enabling and strengthening power” each time we find the word grace in the scriptures.”

Accordingly, here is every Topical Guide entry for “grace,” with that key word replaced by “enabling and strengthening power.”  Many of these verses truly do open up this way!

  • Noah found enabling and strengthening power in the eyes of the Lord: Gen. 6:8 . ( Moses 8:27 . )
  • thy servant hath found enabling and strengthening power in thy sight: Gen. 19:19 .
  • if I have found enabling and strengthening power in thy sight: Ex. 33:13 . ( Ex. 34:9 ; Judg. 6:17 . )
  • for a little space enabling and strengthening power hath been shewed: Ezra 9:8 .
  • Lord will give enabling and strengthening power and glory: Ps. 84:11 .
  • he giveth enabling and strengthening power unto the lowly: Prov. 3:34 . ( James 4:6 ; 1 Pet. 5:5 . )
  • pour upon the house of David … spirit of enabling and strengthening power : Zech. 12:10 .
  • enabling and strengthening power of God was upon him: Luke 2:40 .
  • enabling and strengthening power and truth came by Jesus Christ: John 1:17 .
  • great enabling and strengthening power was upon them all: Acts 4:33 .
  • gave testimony unto the word of his enabling and strengthening power : Acts 14:3 .
  • through the enabling and strengthening power of … Christ we shall be saved: Acts 15:11 .
  • the ministry … to testify the gospel of the enabling and strengthening power of God: Acts 20:24 .
  • By whom we have received enabling and strengthening power and apostleship: Rom. 1:5 .
  • Being justified freely by his enabling and strengthening power : Rom. 3:24 .
  • it is of faith, that it might be by enabling and strengthening power : Rom. 4:16 .
  • (more…)

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A great article in the current Ensign makes this fantastic symbolic connection I had never seen before:

An ancient Hebrew tradition held that the Messiah would be born at Passover. We know that April in the meridian of time indeed fell in the week of the Passover feast—that sacred Jewish commemoration of Israel’s salvation from the destroying angel that brought death to the firstborn sons of Egypt. Each Israelite family that sacrificed a lamb and smeared its blood on the wooden doorposts of their dwelling was spared (see Exodus 12:3–30). Thirty-three years after Christ’s Passover birth, His blood was smeared on the wooden posts of a cross to save His people from the destroying angels of death and sin.

Searching online for illustrations of this powerful spiritual metaphor found an abundance of images.  Two of my favorites:

doorpost

 

 

 

 

 

 

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plan of salvation map

There’s a joke that Mormons are the only people in the world who can communicate a profound spiritual sermon by drawing three circles in a row.  This traditional paradigm for teaching the gospel—with its circles for the premortal world, Earth life, the spirit world, and the three degrees of glory—has served very well as a visual aid of the plan of salvation.

Here, I propose a new way of visualizing these things.  Instead of the narrative flowchart model, I’m going to describe a great, eternal chiasm.  Yes, chiasmus as in the ancient Book of Mormon writing style where a series of ideas or phrases are given and then repeated in reverse order, to contrast parallel variations in the elements of the story and to highlight the central turning point.

Chiasms are typically shown as the left side of a letter X, looking like an arrow pointing to East on a map.  This one will be depicted as a letter V, because I want us to see the turning point as the end of a long descent and the beginning of an ascent.  You’ll see why shortly.

This new paradigm was inspired by the temple.  I won’t make any overt references to the basic floor plan of the average temple or to the content of the endowment, but the reader who is familiar with those things is encouraged to consider how they suggested the ideas presented below.

The elements of this story can be understood as following the ideal progress of each individual person or of “the whole human family of Adam” (Mormon 3:20).

A and A’: The Celestial Kingdom

Our journey, as far as we understand it, both begins and ends in the Celestial Kingdom.  This is where, from our point of view, our “descent” begins and our “ascent” ends.

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This week I finally saw Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.  What a beautiful film, in many ways.  I absolutely loved it.

The most striking part, though, was a scene near the end where a supporting character gets his screen time to talk to our protagonist, a pastor plagued by doubt and melancholy.  The church sexton confesses to the pastor that our apparent understanding of Christ’s suffering is superficial, limited to the cross.

He wonders if the emotional suffering of Gethsemane, and the spiritual elements of the crucifixion might not have been worse.  He describes these scriptural details in a way that deeply intensifies the Lord’s suffering.

I sat up pretty straight during this scene.  His confused reaching for truth brings him so close to a Latter-day Saint knowledge of the Atonement.  I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and talk about the Book of Mormon.  I wanted to show him Jeffrey R. Holland’s Easter talk below.

Sadly, YouTube doesn’t have a clip of just this scene.  It starts around 7:00 in the 7th video in the linked playlist, and runs about 40 seconds into the 8th.

Winter Light YouTube playlist

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“Virtually all Christian churches teach some kind of doctrine regarding the Atonement of Christ and the expiation of our sins that comes through it.  But the Book of Mormon teaches that and much more.  It teaches that Christ also provides relief of a more temporal sort, taking upon himself our mortal sicknesses and infirmities, our earthly trials and tribulations, our personal heartaches and loneliness and sorrows–all done in addition to taking upon himself the burden of our sins….”

“That aspect of the Atonement brings an additional kind of rebirth, something of immediate renewal, help, and hope that allow us to rise above sorrows and sickness, misfortunes and mistakes of every kind.  With his mighty arm around us and lifting us, we face life more joyfully even as we face death more triumphantly…”

“So Christ came to earth, lived his thirty-three years, then fulfilled the ultimate purpose for his birth into mortality.  In a spiritual agony that began on Gethsemane and a physical payment that was consummated on the cross of Calvary, he took upon himself every sin and sorrow, every heartache and infirmity, every sickness, sadness, atrial, and tribulation experienced by the children of God from Adam to the end of the world.  How he did that is a stunning mystery, but he did it.  He broke the bands of physical death and gained victory over the grasp of spiritual hell.  A God himself came down and made merciful intercession for all the children of men.”

–Jeffrey R. Holland (LDS apostle), Christ and the New Covenant, 223, 224, 228

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Last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine, we discussed Jacob chapters 1-3 in the Book of Mormon.  I noticed that Jacob says that his sermon in chapters 2-3 was given “in the temple” (1:17).  I looked through the sermon to see if perhaps that setting influenced the content of his message.  Jackpot.

Consider just the broadest outline of the address.  Jacob begins his sermon by telling the people that he was fulfilling his duty as a servant of the Lord (the “all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth,” he takes pains to note from the start, in 2:4) by bringing them an authorized message (2:2-11, especially verse 11).

The first major doctrinal topic that Jacob broaches, in 2:12-22, is the necessity of giving up our worldly gain and selfish desires for the good of others and the work of the Church.  Look at some of the Topical Guide subjects listed in those verses: almsgiving, generosity, welfare, worldliness, good works.  Jacob ties these themes of sacrifice in to a general command to obey the commandments (2:21), and, being the Book of Mormon, warns against pride.

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Latter-day Saints typically see the Atonement of Christ as comprising the suffering in Gethsemane as well as the crucifixion.  I’ve been wondering if there’s some kind of duality implied by the contrasting details in these two halves.  Consider the following chart, giving some details from Jesus Christ’s suffering in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha:

Gethsemane

Golgotha

Night Day
Private Public
Introverted/Psychic Emotional Suffering Extroverted/Physical Violent Torture
Primary instrument = liquid (bleeding) Primary instrument = solid (cross)
Inside of a garden On top of a hill
Cyclical narrative Linear narrative

Is it a coincidence that the circumstances of Gethsemane are stereotypically feminine, and the circumstances at Golgotha are essentially masculine?  (more…)

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A comment on a news article last week called the Book of Mormon racist because of its references to dark skin in conjunction with a curse.  I responded with the usual explanation: the curse is spiritual separation from God (2 Nephi 5:20), and the dark skin was just a useful way to distinguish those who’d been cursed.  However, the more I looked at what I’d written, the less satisfied I was.  I felt like I was missing something.  I went back to the text.

I don’t think the Book of Mormon references to dark skin are literal anymore; I think they’re only a poetic idiom.  Subsequently, I now have a different theory for what the mark of the curse really was.

The Controversial Verses

First, look at the relevant text.  There are three passages in the Book of Mormon that specifically mention dark skin as the mark of a curse (in 2 Nephi 5, Jacob 3, and Alma 3), and a fourth that bears on them (3 Nephi 2).  Here are the most controversial verses:

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3 Nephi 27:14 is one of the more rhetorically clever verses in the Book of Mormon.  It features an ironic parallelism that explains the point of the Atonement while emphasizing its apparent absurdity.

And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—

The part in bold is what’s so impressive.  There are several other passages in scripture that speak of Christ being “lifted up” in crucifixion, and a few of those link that with the salvation of mankind, but this verse uses the phrase “lifted up” twice, first to describe the sacrifice of the life of Jesus Christ, and then to summarize the Father’s ultimate goal of saving mankind. 

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I had the privilege again today of speaking in another ward’s sacrament meeting, on the topic of “faith of our fathers.”  I tried to take a slightly different approach to the subject, mostly trying to connect it to the Savior, scripture, and basic gospel doctrines.  I think it turned out pretty well:

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This is the time of year when we build inspiration and faith by focusing on the great lives of our pioneer ancestors.  Whether or not we have great grandparents who pulled handcarts across the plains, whether we were born into the church or were baptized yesterday, as Latter-day Saints, we all get to draw from this great well of pioneer devotion and sacrifice to fill our hearts. 

This is not the only dispensation where pioneer stories have been helpful in strengthening the Saints.  In Alma chapter 5 in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma gives a great talk where he does the same thing.  First he introduces himself and explains that he’s there to speak to them with authority from previous leaders, like any visiting authority in the church today.  Then Alma reminds them of the hardships faced by those previous generations who had founded their church, starting in verse 5:

I say unto you, they were in captivity, and again the Lord did deliver them out of bondage by the power of his word; and we were brought into this land, and here we began to establish the church of God throughout this land also.

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I’ve been reading James Ferrell’s The Hidden Christ, which is extremely excellent, and I just read chapter 19, “The Dispensation’s of the Lord’s People,” where he gives a chiastic chart of Earth’s history.  It’s very good, and it reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about for a month or so, since my wife and I had a discussion about what the Earth will be like after the Second Coming. 

That got me to researching, and some things clicked with me.  Below are some notes I’ve been putting together about these thoughts.  They represent my attempt to put some doctrinal concepts in a recognizable pattern, and it strongly emphasizes the role of Jesus Christ.  In fact, looking at our spiritual journey this way adds a powerful dimension to our understanding that, through the Atonement, Christ “descended below all things.”  We can see here that, literally, his suffering and distance from the Father were absolutely beyond even the worst of mankind’s experience.  It was also, again quite literally, the ultimate turning point in history. 

The only thing that confused me at first was the idea that, if Eden and the Millennium are Christ’s domain, then how could the Father also be present in the Garden of Eden?  I soon realized that God may go anywhere He wishes; it is we who are limited by veils and sin.  After all, didn’t both the Father and the Son appear personally to Joseph Smith in this fallen, telestial world?  Joseph Smith had to be transfigured for that to be possible, and I suppose Adam and Eve must have enjoyed a similar experience, in their innocent and immortal state, to behold the Father in the Garden. 

On a slightly less spiritual note, this map also highlights an aspect of good storytelling, which has also been on my mind lately.  I often think that basic story patterns are essentially encoded into us (think of Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, as well as the fondness for using elemental stories to resonate with us in the scriptures and temple), and one of the most fundamental aspects of good story is that the hero must face a daunting, scary setback in the middle, even suffering a literal descent.  Think here of Odysseus going down to Hades, the discouraging tones of The Two Towers and The Empire Strikes Back (each the middle of an epic), or the predictable fight that the lovers must have in the middle of every romantic comedy, before they reconcile and reunite (sappy, but also another Atonement-centered device). 

Most of the “insights” on this chart aren’t very original, but I enjoyed drawing it up to see these things together in graphic form for the first time.  This is only a rough draft, and any refinement to it is welcome.  Click to enlarge. 

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I went to the temple today specifically looking for references to Christ in the endowment.  It yielded a rich harvest that warrants much further investigation.  Not even counting every individual reference to Him, there were some pretty significant things I noticed.

The first and last words in the endowment are clear references to the Savior.  Truly, He is Alpha and Omega: even in the temple, Jesus Christ is the beginning and ending of everything.  Literally.

More fascinating still were the major references to the Atonement itself.  I counted five.  (I’d love to attend a session of work there with you sometime and discuss in more detail where I saw these five references and the insightful language the endowment uses to describe it!) 

Of course, this is perfectly natural.  The largest overarching theme of the endowment is the physical and spiritual reconciliation of mankind to God through Christ.  In fact, viewed in that vein, the entire endowment itself could be seen as a symbol of the Atonement.

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Even in the fairly brief hour and a half in typically takes, the LDS temple endowment frequently, both explicitly and implicitly, directs participants to identify themselves with–even to integrate themselves into–the narrative of the ceremony. 

As the endowment takes the form of a chronological story–a fully realized dramatization of the plan of salvation–I’ve often tried to benefit from it by pondering where I am at in that story.  Certainly none of us is at the very beginning, nor are we at the very end.  Mortality, by its very nature, lies in the middle. 

So, if the endowment tells the story of each of our individual lives and that story is in a recognizable order, then where in that story do we find ourselves in our lives today? 

Trying to pinpoint a specific, exact moment for this correlation is surely impossible–and probably counterproductive, anyway–but I find that having such a mindset fosters useful self-analysis.  Which aspects of the ceremony–certain covenants given, laws explained, standards taught, characteristics exemplified, degrees of light and truth attained, etc.–could we each say we’ve practiced faithfully, are working diligently on, or have yet to seriously attempt? 

Ultimately, such a course of meditation would lead us to this single, crucial query: How effectively are we following Christ, serving Him and letting His atoning sacrifice be active in our lives? 

The areas where I “see” myself most strongly in the endowment change almost every time I go to the temple, and I hope that means I’m making progress.  It’s good to have a clear vision of the final goal, though!

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