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RS/MP Lesson 3: “Jesus Christ, the Divine Redeemer of the World” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on January 27, 2008

The general structure of each and every lesson in these Presidents of the Church manuals is interesting: the “doctrine” is taught only after an introductory section that provides “real life” situations in which the given prophet is shown to have situatedly learned, undeniably embodied, profoundly comprehended, or magnificently taught the particular “doctrine” covered in the chapter. Of course, this way of structuring things could just be said to be a kind of appeal to authority: this guy is exemplary for whatever reasons, and so you ought to trust the following pages. But then, who is going to be spending any serious time looking at these books who is not already convinced that the prophet is exemplary? Which makes me think that there is another important way to understand the relationship between the two sections of the lesson: we are being shown, again and again, that “doctrine” is something we piece together as we go about the work, that we are working out an understanding of the God we encounter rather than developing a systematic or theoretical theological science. This would seem, to me, to be especially true of Joseph Smith… and perhaps especially true of Joseph Smith in his thinking about Jesus Christ.

The first word in the introductory section in this chapter is a cited “prophecy” of Joseph’s grandfather, Asael Smith, that “something would happen in his family that ‘would revolutionize the world.'” I find it interesting that Joseph employed this very same phrase in 1844 in one his discourses: “I intend to lay the foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.” But the question that must be asked is this: why begin a chapter on Christ with this curious genealogical detail? Would it not have been more appropriate in the biographical introduction found at the beginning of the manual? The implication would seem to be this: it is precisely in Joseph’s doctrine of Christ that he undertook this curious revolution. In other words, it is Joseph’s understanding of the atonement that marks him as a revolutionary, as a radical… and as the prophet of the Restoration.

The experiences related in the remainder of the “From the Life of Joseph Smith” section are all visions of Christ: the First Vision, the Vision recorded as D&C 76, and the Kirtland Temple vision. A subtle set of allusions to the Apocalypse runs through all three records. Least obvious is the short message we have from the First Vision: “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!” But if the speculations I (with Margaret Barker) laid out in December about the connection between the baptism of Christ and the text of the Revelation are at all moving in the right direction, then there is at least reason to see apocalyptic themes at work in the First Vision account. The other two experiences make quite explicit reference to Revelation. In close relation to Revelation 4-5: “And we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness; and saw the holy angels, and them who are sanctified before his throne, worshiping God, and the Lamb, who worship him forever and ever.” In close relation to Revelation 1: “We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying: I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father.”

The importance of these apocalyptic themes seems to me to be this: Joseph’s Jesus is John’s Jesus, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the Savior who breaks the seals of the book of life, the revealed revealer who comes to feast with the saints at Adam-ondi-Ahman. This apocalyptic Jesus is on display throughout the chapter… and it will become clearer and clearer why that is quite radical. I suppose I can provide at least this teasing hint of what all of this will mean: Joseph’s Jesus did not suffer the atonement according to any kind of “penal substitution” model. That is, while Joseph’s Jesus certainly died for our sins, died to take away our sins, died to free us from our sins, died to overcome death and hell, etc., there is no hint at all that He died to make good the eternal balances of justice, to appease the justified wrath of an offended God, to erase our infractions against some divine law, or to transfer our massive debt from one creditor (the Father) to another (the Son).

At the root of this most fascinating—I’ll say, revolutionary—understanding of Jesus, I would suggest, is the understanding of the Godhead articulated in chapter 2 (see my analysis of chapter 2 here): a rather complicated intertwining of creation and redemption, of Father and Son, is unfolded as the very history of the earth (as will be seen below, the Epistle to the Romans is perhaps the best place to think about what this means). That is, in a way, chapter 3 is really a kind of further explanation of some rather undeveloped points of chapter 2: if the Father and the Son are bound together in covenant (a covenant sealed by the Holy Ghost) to work out the creation and redemption of a peopled earth, how are we to think about the work of the Redeemer, of this Jesus, especially if the Father is presented as the Creator rather than the Incriminating Judge? The answer to this question, I hope, will emerge clearly in the following.

Sections One and Two (On the Atonement and the Resurrection Quite Broadly)

Much of the first two sections is drawn from a single source, a circular letter written by “the elders” in Kirtland to the saints scattered abroad, published in the Church’s periodical in 1834. It should be noted that it is thus rather difficult to tease out what in this section can be said to be specifically Joseph’s teachings. In fact, it is probably safest to assume that very little of it was actually written by Joseph, given the style of argumentation and expression. At the same time, it is clear, reading through the teachings as they are laid out in this section, that whoever did write these words had had his understanding profoundly influenced by the revelations of the Prophet Joseph. In a sense, the one sentence here that is undeniably Joseph’s (that is, the first sentence in the section) confirms this quite directly: it is taken from a discourse, by Joseph, on the meaning of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that is, on the very subject taken up far more systematically in the circular letter. There is, then, a kind of continuity between Joseph’s teachings and revelations and the letter as written, though the style is emphatically not Joseph’s.

The teachings from the circular letter are rather straightforward. They are caught up in a lengthy discussion of the law of heaven, a law that had been revealed, withdrawn, and now restored in the last days. Most of what has been excerpted here is taken up with the earlier revelations of that law. Interesting, the law in question is the law of sacrifice. In teachings obviously grounded in the Epistle to the Hebrews (but perhaps just as easily in Alma 12-13), the elders lay out an understanding of the relationship between the law of sacrifice and the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The relationship, as might be expected, is entirely typological: “And as the sacrifice was instituted for a type by which man was to discern the great Sacrifice which God had prepared, to offer a sacrifice contrary to that, no faith could be exercised . . . .”

But it is quite clear that typology is uniquely understood here, in fact, is understood in a way that might be called uniquely Mormon. Typology is usually understood as a reading back into something: one takes one’s own experiences as the antitypes of earlier, usually scriptural events. For example, I might take the wandering in the wilderness to be a type of my own spiritual meanderings, etc. When typology is done this way, the meaning of ancient and apparently closed narratives and events are reopened by my taking my experiences as, so to speak, eschatological: I become, in my attempt to live a Christian life, the fulfillment of the scriptures. But this kind of typology is emphatically not what is at work in the teachings here. Instead of being focused on how a present event gives meaning to an otherwise infinitely distant past, the typology under discussion is focused on how a future event disrupts the hegemony of the present, on how the primacy of the now is constantly disrupted by something still to come. This distinction, it seems to me, is of great importance. Rather than justifying the past in the name of the present, we “look forward in faith to that time . . . .” Everything God does is “calculated to draw [our] minds to the great object, and to teach [us] to rely upon God alone as the author of [our] salvation, as contained in His law,” specifically, the law of sacrifice.

In the quotations that appear in these first two sections that are more directly (and far more obviously) the words of Joseph himself (instead of the teachings of Joseph filtered through the institutional voice of the “elders of the Church”), this typological relationship is fleshed out in a rather rich way. This is particularly true of the last two paragraphs of the second section (the last two paragraphs on page 51). These teachings are taken from a discourse in 1843, and the immediate subject is of course the resurrection, but Joseph’s emphasis is on how the present is (typologically) disrupted by the past event of the atonement and the connected future event of the resurrection. It is almost as if, so soon as Joseph himself begins to speak in the chapter, we hear him radicalizing the blander, more argumentative teachings of the corporate “elders of the Church.” A word or two, then, ought to be devoted to these two paragraphs in particular before moving on to the far richer teachings in the last two sections of the chapter.

Joseph offers three ways, essentially, that the doctrine of the resurrection affects the present. First, it is a comfort because it assures the saints that the accounts will eventually be settled: “All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection, provided you continue faithful.” This is, interestingly, to be taken as a comfort when everything looks particularly grim: this truth “will be a help to you when earthquakes bellow, the clouds gather, the lightnings flash, and the storms are ready to burst upon you like peals of thunder.” What is interesting about this teaching is that though it might appear in a sense to be profoundly economic (the resurrection is about balancing accounts), it is only so in order to disrupt all economy: because the resurrection will balance all accounts, we ought not bother ourselves now with economic calculation.

Second, it is to be a comfort in the face of death: “what mattereth it whether we lay them down, or we lay down with them, when we can keep them no longer?” One should notice, here, that the focus is not on comfort in mourning, though that is usually the way Latter-day Saints speak of the resurrection (we are comforted when someone dies because we know the resurrection will restore our relationships). Rather, the focus is on our willingness, this very moment, to die or to let die: death itself is distracted by the resurrection, and the sacrifice of natural life is, so to speak, only a passing matter. What seems most interesting about this to me is that it calls for a radically different kind of ethics than that usually promoted today: ethics is almost universally oriented by death (the good is whatever promotes not-death), whereas the Latter-day Saint ethic is one that ought to be oriented by life (not life as living-toward-death, but life as eternal: the saints build the kingdom).

Hence, third, the atonement is to bring into reality, this very moment, right now, eternal life: “Let these truths sink down in our hearts, that we may even here begin to enjoy that which shall be in full hereafter.” This, it seems to me, is the most glorious truth of all that Joseph teaches here: the resurrection means that we can, this very moment, let the world and the natural man be so profoundly distracted that we live eternal life right now, the kind of life that God leads, going about the work without a care. Economics and ethics set aside, we can live the law of consecration and work to build up Zion. It is a marvelous teaching. And it is a kind of climax of the first two sections. What is amazing is that the last two sections are still more profound.

Sections Three and Four (On Being a Joint Heir)

A scriptural theme clearly runs through the second half of the lesson: Romans 8. Two paragraphs in section three make reference to Romans 8:16-17, one paragraph in section three makes reference to Romans 8:29, and one paragraph in section four makes reference to Romans 8:20. This emphasis on Paul’s epistle to the Romans is of some importance: there is a theme running through the first eight chapters of Romans (one that is, incidentally, nicely articulated by Adam Miller—who occasionally puts in a word or two here on this blog—in his forthcoming book) of a grace-filled creation that is struggling for redemption (a theme that, as I have hinted before, is to be found in 1 Corinthians 15 as well). That is, Paul deals at length (eight chapters, mind you!) with the idea of the relationship between the Creator and Redeemer, a relation that Joseph seems to see at the heart of the idea of the Godhead.

The idea, roughly, is summarized in Romans 8:20, cited in the second full paragraph on page 53: “The creature [or creation: either translation would be correct] was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but Christ subjected the same in hope.” That is, the work of creation is at once glorious and yet peculiar, because what is created is given over to vanity. But this giving over is not without a purpose: the creation is thus subjected to a structure of hope by being turned toward redemption. In other words, creation and redemption are inextricably bound in Christ, and it is for this reason that Paul can rebuke the Gentiles in the first chapter of Romans: they see the world (the creation/creature) as disconnected from the work of redemption and so reduce things to a natural state, to a state of corruption. What they miss—and with this point, the teachings in these final sections must be seen as closely tied to those in the first two sections—is the typological relationship between the creation and the redemption: the creation is a kind of “earthen vessel,” to cite another phrase of Paul’s, within which the grace of God is slowly accomplishing its work, in which the creation is slowly being brought to its completion by the power of the redemption (day seven is yet to come!).

But these last two sections in the chapter are not primarily concerned with the earth or with the animals. Rather with man, but with man as an earthen vessel. This is a point that absolutely must not be missed! In fact, what might seem to be missing from this chapter on atonement is something that, in the end, perhaps ought to be missing from our own talk of the atonement much more often: the utter depravity of human beings. The whole of these final two sections should be read several times through so that this point will not be passed over: the entire emphasis of the atonement is on how it can bring creation to its full fruition, on how it can bring even human beings—for all our failings—to fulfill the measure of their creation.

This would seem to be why there is so much here about being a joint heir with Christ: He was, so to speak, creation and redemption in one. As the title of the last section summarizes it: “Jesus is perfect, pure, and holy, and He has called us to be like Him.” The theme of these two sections would seem best summarized thus: Christ’s atonement has more to do with the relationship between creation and redemption—and hence with the meaning of enactment or exemplarity—than it has to do with overcoming depravity or particular sins.

Which is why I find it helpful to focus on the third-to-last teaching in the chapter (the third full paragraph on page 53), which happens to be the very last words we have from Joseph during his life on Jesus Christ. These were spoken by Joseph on the day of his martyrdom, and it is worth pulling out the sixth volume of the History of the Church to look at the broader context of the teachings. What Joseph was talking about when he taught this is this: Jesus had, from the very beginning, enough understanding and power to rule the kingdom of the Jews, but He was also a mortal being, and so had to be careful about how He used His knowledge and power, so that He would not be killed before He had finished His work. Joseph compares this to the situation at the time with the Church in Nauvoo: he was worried that he had revealed too much of the sins and wickedness of his enemies and that it was about to cost him his life. But notice again that the theme here is exactly what runs through the whole of this section: the Church itself is an earthen vessel in which there is—praise be to God!—far too much power. When Joseph says that we are, even individually, called to be like Christ (“He has called us to be perfect in all things, that we may be prepared to meet him in peace when he comes in his glory with all the holy angels . . .”), he means, I think, to suggest that we are called to hold power far beyond those that the natural man can handle: we will have to let Him change us completely (“if so be that we suffer with Him”) so we can become not natural but spiritual and so begin (at last!) to fulfill the measure of our creation . . . that is, to become as He is . . . kings and queens, priests and priestesses, the very image of God.

So, at least, it seems to me as I read Joseph’s teachings.

7 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 3: “Jesus Christ, the Divine Redeemer of the World” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. robf said

    Thanks Joe. I have to give the sharing time in Senior Primary this week, and this gives me lots to think about.

  2. NathanG said

    I second that thanks. I’ll also be in primary (every week). Very interesting thoughts.

  3. Robert C. said

    Joe, your thoughts about how the resurrection can comfort us in the face of death by effecting a kind of eternal life now, are fantastic.

    I’m still a bit perplexed by this “subject to vanity” bit in Romans 8:20. If Christ’s (and our own) being subject to vanity was ultimately for a purpose, in what sense was it vanity? Vanity/futility from a worldly, death-oriented perspective? It seems more than that is going on here that I’m still missing. I think my hang-up here is related to the following way we might deconstruct the meaning of sacrifice (you’ll surely notice I’m following Derrida’s deconstruction of gift here): if sacrifice is giving up something good for something better, it’s ultimately more of a beneficial exchange than sacrifice per se….

    Finally, I’m glad you mentioned the context for this third-to-last paragraph of the lesson. I’ve recently been thinking about these themes of truth, secrecy, and that which is “forbidden” (esp. as it pertains to not speaking or writing about something), so the context of this quote is very interesting to me. However, I was puzzled by the phrase “until Jacob is of age”—I’ll paste the entire paragraph (for others’ benefit) and italicize this phrase in the last sentence:

    Our lives have already become jeopardized by revealing the wicked and bloodthirsty purposes of our enemies; and for the future we must cease to do so. All we have said about them is truth, but it is not always wise to relate all the truth. Even Jesus, the Son of God had to refrain from doing so, and had to restrain His feelings many times for the safety of Himself and His followers, and had to conceal the righteous purposes of His heart in relation to many things pertaining to His Father’s kingdom. When still a boy He had all the intelligence necessary to enable Him to rule and govern the kingdom of the Jews, and could reason with the wisest and most profound doctors of law and divinity, and make their theories and practice to appear like folly compared with the wisdom He possessed; but He was a boy only, and lacked physical strength even to defend His own person, and was subject to cold, to hunger and to death. So it is with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; we have the revelation of Jesus, and the knowledge within us is sufficient to organize a righteous government upon the earth, and to give universal peace to all mankind, if they would receive it, but we lack the physical strength, as did our Savior when a child, to defend our principles, and we have of necessity to be afflicted, persecuted and smitten, and to bear it patiently until Jacob is of age, then he will take care of himself. [History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 6, pp. 608-609]

    What is this “until Jacob is of age” referring to??

  4. joespencer said

    Robert, I have the same questions about that verse in Romans 8. I’ve been compiling (and working through, of course) a bibliography for thinking about that very question. I’ll keep you posted, you can be sure.

    Though I’m not at all sure that this is what is meant by “until Jacob is of age,” I had assumed that reference was simply to the Church (as in Church=Israel=Jacob). I can’t come up with any text or tradition Joseph would have had reference to with the phrase, so I’m assuming it is that simple. Anyone have any further insights into this?

  5. robf said

    After thinking more about this lesson, I skipped ahead to Lesson #17 and was blown away again by the compilation of quotations–most of which I had read but hadn’t thought about for awhile, especially those associated with this quote:

    Salvation is nothing more nor less than to triumph over all our enemies and put them under our feet.

    Something about the Atonement made it possible for Christ to vanquish “all our enemies”–especially Satan and Death, so that they can have no claim on us.

    I like this view.

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