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Book of Mormon Lesson #15: “Eternally Indebted to Your Heavenly Father,” Mosiah 1-3 (Sunday School)

Posted by joespencer on March 20, 2012

King Benjamin’s speech in two lessons? Well, it’s a bit slower than we’re usually forced to go, but there’s anything but the necessary space here to deal adequately with Benjamin’s pregnant words. In many ways, Benjamin’s sermon is the Sermon on the Mount of the Book of Mormon, the presentation of the hard, practical demands of the gospel of Christ. It’s here that one finds the equation of service to others with service to God, the most overt obliteration of every idea of salvation by works, the divine demand to be like a child, the requirement to see oneself as absolutely nothing and God as everything, the condemnation of those who reject beggars because they brought it on themselves, the unavoidable importance of the covenant, etc. It is here, first and foremost in the Book of Mormon, that the theological rubber meets the road of everyday living. We would do well to pay the closest attention to Benjamin’s words.

Here’s what I want to do is the following:

(1) Deal a bit with the setting of the sermon (drawing in part on the historical work of my last post)
(2) Analyze the opening of Benjamin’s speech—his analysis of kingship and servitude
(3) Work at some length through Benjamin’s discussion of grace
(4) Touch lightly on the presentation of Mosiah as the new king
(5) Say a few words about Benjamin’s warnings against contention, etc.
(6) Tackle very carefully the words Benjamin attributes to an angel: the doctrine of Christ

That should keep us quite busy.

The Setting of Benjamin’s Speech

In my last post (linked to above), I had a fair bit to say about Benjamin’s experiences leading up to this speech. In many ways, Mosiah 1-6 attempts to bring Benjamin’s efforts at unification to completion. He has ejected the Lamanites from the land of Zarahemla, he has seen a goodly number of Nephites interested in being elsewhere out of the land as well, and he has used a critical mass of prophets to put down a series of internal strifes. It would seem that things are moving in a nice direction. What remains to be done? We’ll see as we work through the first bits of this text.

Mosiah 1:1 begins with a reference to the political situation in Zarahemla:

And now, there was no more contention in all the land of Zarahemla, among all the people which belonged to king Benjamin, so that king Benjamin had continual peace all the remainder of his days.

As simple as the point of this verse might be, the way it communicates that point is rather complex. There is a constant repetition here of “all,” emphasizing unity and universality. And that repeated “all” obliterates every distinction that might usually be drawn between Nephites and Zarahemlaites. When Zarahemla is spoken of, it’s a land that’s in question, not a people, so that both Nephites and Zarahemlaites are included. And when King Benjamin is spoken of, it’s the people who belong to him who are mentioned, not his blood kin, so that both Zarahemlaites and Nephites are included. The single first verse is written in a way that obliterates long-drawn lines between different components of Nephite/Zarahemlaite society.

When, a few verses later, Benjamin describes to Mosiah what he aims to do on the occasion of his speech, he makes clear that he wants even to obliterate the distinction between the names of the two combined nations:

And moreover, I shall give this people a name that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem. (Mosiah 1:11)

There will no longer be Nephites and Zarahemlaites, but a single people with a single name—the name, it turns out, of “Christian.” Benjamin aims to bring his efforts at unification to perfection by obliterating even the distinction between named peoples, unifying them all in the universal name of Christ.

I’ll have more to say about all that as we go along. First, though, Mormon inserts into the story here a lengthy aside about what Benjamin taught his three sons. Why is this here at all? Isn’t it a bit of a distraction from the sermon that’s about to be given? I haven’t the space to go into a lengthy argument in this regard, but I think it’s important to read this aside as closely connected with the sermon. It’s no passing tack-on, nor is it the remnant of a more general introduction to the Book of Mosiah of which we only have a part. A few words, at least, should be dedicated to it.

The focus throughout these verses is on the brass plates, on the way the brass plates make remembrance possible. We’ve seen already (again: in my last post) that the brass plates have been taken to be central to Nephite ascendency. It isn’t difficult to want to read into Benjamin’s teachings here a kind of reinforcement of Nephite hegemony, immediately before pretending to overcome all distinction between Nephites and Zarahemlaites through an appeal to Christian religion. But I think there’s a good deal more to the story than just that. The comparison drawn in verse 5 is not between the Nephites and the Zarahemlaites, the one with true tradition and correct language and the other with false tradition and corrupt language, but between the Nephites/Zarahemlaites and the Lamanites. And the concern even then isn’t with some kind of superiority, but with the production of a kind of possibility of being taught. Here’s the crucial passage:

Were it not for these things [the brass plates], … we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, which know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct. (Mosiah 1:5)

What’s the point? Because Benjamin’s people has access to the brass plates—because they have some kind of recognized binding relationship, however attenuated in practice, to the sacred texts—they can be taught from them. The Lamanites won’t believe anything taught to them because they don’t feel any implicit allegiance to scripture. But the Nephites, because they at least feel bound to these sacred texts, recognize that they’re supposed to believe what comes from the brass plates.

There’s a remarkable parallel here with Latter-day Saints. To be a bit frank, Latter-day Saints are woefully uninformed about Mormon scripture and remarkably uncommitted to serious study of the texts. (That’s not to say that they aren’t more informed than lay persons of other religions or religious organizations. That’s just to say that they still have startlingly little knowledge of their scriptural texts.) But one thing that can always be counted on is that believing Latter-day Saints will feel an obligation to believe whatever is taught from Mormon scripture. They might not study it themselves, and they might know little about it, but if someone can show them what a passage says or claims or demands, they will believe it to be true.

It’s something like this that Benjamin is trying to establish with respect to his people. He wants his sons to be familiar with the brass plates because it is perhaps the only way that the people can be taught. They collectively feel an obligation to believe what’s in the sacred texts, though they’re unfamiliar with it. Those in leadership, then, had better be familiar with those texts, because the best work of all can be done by using them. Hence this conclusion to Benjamin’s instruction to his sons:

And now, my sons, I would that ye should remember to search them diligently, that ye may profit thereby. (Mosiah 1:7)

I think the same might go for us.

The next verses give us Benjamin’s more particular words to Mosiah, his setting up of the actual occasion of the sermon. The focus, of course, is royal succession: Mosiah is to be crowned as the new king:

My son, I would that ye should make a proclamation throughout all this land among all this people, or the people of Zarahemla and the people of Mosiah which dwell in this land, that thereby they may be gathered together. For on the morrow I shall proclaim unto this my people out of mine own mouth that thou art a king and ruler over this people, which the Lord our God hath given us. (Mosiah 1:10)

Mosiah is to be the new king, and specifically the king over what still here sound like two distinct peoples: “the people of Zarahemla” and “the people of Mosiah.” But much more than the crowning of a new king will take place, as we’ve already made clear. The people are to be united, not by Mosiah, but by the real king: Christ.

And moreover, I shall gives this people a name that thereby they may be distinguished above all people which the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem. … And I give unto them a name that never shall be blotted out except it be through transgression. (Mosiah 1:11-12)

The point is to give the people a unifying name that will bind them as one, rather than as a tense two. Again, we’ll watch this unfold.

With all that taken care of, Benjamin already and in advance hands the kingdom over to Mosiah (“he gave him charge concerning all the affairs of the kingdom,” says verse 15), marking the succession by a handing over of the tokens of royalty in the Nephite tradition: “the plates of brass,” “the sword of Laban,” and “the ball or director which led [their] fathers through the wilderness” (Mosiah 1:16)—the three things Nephi brought from Jerusalem.

The beginning of chapter 2 reports the actual gathering of the people. The occasion, as has been pointed out many times, would seem to be that of the Israelite Autumn Festival—the Feast of Tabernacles and the Day of Atonement. (FARMS put out a big book of essays dealing with this and other aspects of Benjamin’s speech some years ago. See here.) I don’t have much to say about these details, since they can be read elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it’s an important ritual occasion, the most important elements of which we’ll come back to later (when Benjamin actually announces Mosiah’s succession).

I want to get on to what Benjamin actually has to say.

Kingship and Servitude

The opening sequence of Benjamin’s speech—I’m thinking here of Mosiah 2:9-19—seems intended to accomplish two major purposes. First, it would seem that it’s meant to clarify the nature of kingship, to clarify it specifically as a kind of service (or slavery—more on that in a moment). Second, it would seem that it’s meant to point attention away from every earthly king to put the focus on the Heavenly King. Both of these purposes serve to level the playing field between Benjamin and his subjects an to position them all—king and subjects alike—before the real sovereign. Once that is fully accomplished, Benjamin moves on to the second sequence of his sermon, which is focused entirely on the question of grace.

The work of leveling the distinction between king and subject begins with the very first words Benjamin utters:

My brethren, all ye that assembled yourselves together, you that can hear my words which I shall speak unto you this day—for I have no commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view. (Mosiah 2:9)

What has this opening word to do with leveling distinctions? Well, frankly, the language of this verse is the language of initiation ritual, of rites in which the initiate is washed and/or anointed—his or her ears so as to ear, his or her heart so as to understand, his or her mind so as to know the mysteries of God, etc. And what sort of person was initiated in the ancient world? Ruling royalty and officiating priesthood. Benjamin’s words, at least figuratively, begin by preparing his hearers to become, as it were, kings and priests, queens and priestesses. This opening word is no condescending or patronizing exhortation, but a demand that hearers see themselves on a level with their king—they as much as he have the right and responsibility to receive the word of God.

He continues in the same vein, only more directly:

I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I, of myself, am more than a mortal man. But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind. (Mosiah 2:10-11)

Here things couldn’t be much clearer. He wants it known that he’s a mere mortal, as infirm as any of his subjects. His position as king is no privilege, but rather a responsibility, as he goes on to point out:

Yet as I have been chosen by this people, and was consecrated by my father, and was suffered by the hand of the Lord that I should be a ruler and a king over this people, and have been kept and preserved by his matchless power to serve thee with all the might, mind, and strength which the Lord hath granted unto me … . (Mosiah 2:11_

Benjamin is still in the middle of a thought here, but I want to look at what he says here. He’s merely human, but he has been chosen (by the people), consecrated (by his father), allowed (by the Lord), and preserved (also by the Lord). Even then, there’s no privilege in that, since all that has merely allowed him “to serve.” Two hundred years after the birth of modern democracy, that claim may not sound terribly striking to us, but in the ancient world it’s simply amazing. In Hebrew, interestingly, there is no distinction between the ideas of service and slavery (“servant” and “slave” are the same Hebrew word, as is, incidentally, “subject,” as in “subject of a king”). For the king to describe himself as a servant of the people (and not, say, of the Lord) is unthinkable: he calls himself their servant, their slave, even their subject, reversing assumed roles. Every apparatus that has selected him out as a ruler has only positioned him as the people’s slave or servant or subject.

For that reason, he can go on to explain the ways in which he’s been a servant in all his work:

I say unto you that as I have been suffered to spend my days in your service, even up to this time, and have not sought gold nor silver nor no manner of riches of you, neither have I suffered that ye should be confined in dungeons, nor that ye should make slaves one of another, or that ye should murder or plunder or steal or commit adultery, or even I have not suffered that ye should commit any manner of wickedness, and have taught you that ye should keep the commandments of the Lord in all things which he hath commanded you; and even I myself have labored with my own hands that I might serve you, and that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievious to be borne. (Mosiah 2:12-14)

This is quite a resume. Servant and nothing else. And so it would seem that his initiatory language in verse 9 is not so much preparing the people to “come up” to his level, as asking them to “come down” with him to the level of servitude, of self-imposed subjection or servitude or slavery: they too should be doing all they can to serve others.

But then, might he just be pointing all this out in order to show how kind and gracious a king he’s been? He has a response to this:

Yet, my brethren, I have not done these things that I might boast, neither do I tell these things that thereby I might accuse you. But I tell you these things that ye may know that I can answer a clear conscience before God this day. Behold, I say unto you that because I said unto you that I had spent my days in your service, I do not desire to boast, for I have only been in the service of God. And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God. (Mosiah 2:15-17)

None of this, he says, is about demonstrating his own goodness or showing how gracious a king he has been. The point is actually to teach his people precisely what it means to be a king—both so that they won’t understand him to be any different from them, and so that they can ascend the throne themselves in accordance with his initiation of them into a royal order. This has all been aimed at their learning wisdom, at their coming to know that being God’s servant (being a king, a priest, a queen, a priestess) is a question simply of being servant to other human beings. Interestingly, we usually read this passage in order to tell ourselves that our worship is worth nothing if we don’t serve others, or in order to tell ourselves that our lack of devotion is made up for by our menial acts of service. Benjamin’s aim is, however, different. He wants to make clear what it means to come before God as His servant, to assume the position of king and priest, queen and priestess.

Of course, with all this leveling of distinctions between king and servant, between king and subject, wouldn’t it be best just to see all of Benjamin’s people—himself included—as prostrated before God? That’s exactly what Benjamin says next:

Behold, ye have called me your king. And if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then had not ye ought to labor to serve one another? And behold, also, if I, who ye call your king, who has spent his days in your service and yet hath been in the serve of God, doth merit any thanks from you, O how had you ought to thank your heavenly King! (Mosiah 2:18-19)

Here, without reticence, the shift focuses directly to God. The earthly king is no more than a pale mirror image of the Heavenly King, and it’s He who deserves thanks and praise. Why? Because of His grace! And that’s where Benjamin is headed next.

Grace

The next sequence in Benjamin’s speech (Mosiah 2:20-26) may be the most important, theologically speaking. Benjamin lays out the Book of Mormon’s doctrine of grace, and it’s wonderful. I’m tempted to say that we should read these seven verses every morning.

It begins this way:

I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole souls hath power to possess to that God who hath created you and hath kept and preserved you and hath caused that ye should rejoice and hath granted that ye should live in peace one with another—I say unto you that if ye should serve him who hath created you from the beginning and art preserving you from day to day by lending your breath that ye may live and move and do according to your own will and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole soul, and yet ye would be unprofitable servants. (Mosiah 2:20-21)

That’s marvelously blunt. All our thanks, all our praise, and even all our service, given to God, cannot overturn the fact that we are unprofitable servants. And why? Because God has created us and kept and preserved us and caused us to rejoice. We don’t do anything without or apart from God. It’s all His work.

And then this further point:

And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments. And he hath promised you that if ye would keep his commandments, ye should prosper in the land. And he never doth vary from that which he hath said. Therefore, if ye do keep his commandments, he doth bless you and prosper you. (Mosiah 2:22)

There’s only one requirement for God’s servants: to keep His commandments. And then He even blesses the servant who keeps those commandments, so that one even then remains an unprofitable servant. Our creation, our preservation, our ability to rejoice, and our every blessing—all this comes from God and from God alone, not from us or because of anything we do. Grace. It is all in God’s remarkable graciousness that the motivation for every goodness is to be found.

But Benjamin doesn’t want to let this point slip by his hearers, so he gets a bit more rigorous and logical:

And now, in the first place, he hath created you and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him. And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you, for which, if ye do, he doth immediately bless you. And therefore he hath paid you, and ye are still indebted unto him, and are and will be forever and ever. Therefore, of what have ye to boast? (Mosiah 2:23-24)

Benjamin here divides his point up into two sequences. First, we were created and granted life, and that amounts to a debt. Our very createdness puts us in an indebted relation to God. Second, we’re asked to keep His commandments, but in response to any obedience we render, God immediately pays us, thus keeping us entirely in His debt. We cannot be anything but in God’s debt. Our very nature is to be drawn out toward Him. We have nothing of which to boast.

Grace. We can stop bothering with whether we’re good enough or strong enough or smart enough. We can stop bothering with whether there’s some way to corner God into giving us what we want or to get God to do what we want or to trick God into leaving us alone. We are bound to Him through and through. And so Benjamin can ask:

And now I ask: Can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you: Nay. Ye cannot say that thou art even as much as the dust of the earth—yet thou wast created of the dust of the earth, but behold, it belongeth to him who created you. (Mosiah 2:25)

We’re no more than dust, and dust entirely under His power and control. All good we do is already predicated on His grace. All good we desire is already predicated on His grace. There is nothing we do of our own goodness, but only out of His goodness.

And this holds as much for Benjamin as for his subjects:

And I, even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are. For I am also of the dust. And thou beholdest that I am old, and am about to yield up this mortal frame to its mother earth. (Mosiah 2:26)

Grace. This couldn’t be much clearer. What it all implies will have to be made clearer, though, as we move along through the remainder of the sermon. At this point—and not surprisingly, given the question of sovereignty that opened onto it—the whole emphasis has been on God’s absolute power and goodness. But there’s a good deal more to the story. We’ll watch it unfold, but only after a few other topics have been covered.

A New King

Beginning in verse 27 of chapter 2, Benjamin turns to what might be called the practical matter at hand: announcing Mosiah’s succession. But he begins, interestingly, with a mention of a very old Nephite theological theme:

Therefore, as I said unto you that I had served you, walking with a clear conscience before God, even so I at this time have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together that I might be found blameless and that your blood should not come upon me when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you. I say unto you that I have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together that I might rid my garments of your blood, at this period of time when I am about to go to my grave, that I might go down in peace and my immortal spirit may join the choirs above in singing the praises of a just God. (Mosiah 2:27-28)

There are echoes here of 1 Nephi 1, 2 Nephi 16, 2 Nephi 31—as well as, in a different vein, of 2 Nephi 9 and Jacob 1-3. The latter set of texts are echoed by Benjamin’s concern to rid his garments of his people’s blood by announcing the truth to them. But the cleanness thus obtained allows him to go to his grave in peace while hi spirit “join[s] the choirs above in the singing the praises of a just God,” and there is the echo of the other set of texts—the echo of Lehi’s inaugural visions, of Isaiah’s call to prophesy, of Nephi’s promise to the baptized followers of Christ. The very assembly arranged for this coronation ritual is meant to open up the way between heaven and earth and so to allow Benjamin to pass into the heavens and become one of the angels surrounding the throne of God.

But this is a passing note. The real focus becomes clear a moment later:

And moreover, I say unto you that I have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together that I might declare unto you that I can no longer be your teacher, nor your king. For even at this time my whole frame doth tremble exceedingly while attempting to speak unto you. But the Lord God doth support me, and hath suffered me that I should speak unto you, and hath commanded me that I should declare unto you this day that my son Mosiah is a king and a ruler over you. (Mosiah 2:29-30)

There’s the announcement. Simple and straightforward. And it comes with a bit of encouragement to relate rightly to the new king:

And now, my brethren, I would that ye should do as ye hath hitherto done: as ye have kept my commandments, and also the commandments of my father, and have prospered and have been kept from falling into the hands of your enemies, even so if ye shall keep the commandments of my son—or the commandments of God which shall be delievered unto you by him—ye shall prosper in the land, and your enemies shall have no power over you. (Mosiah 2:31)

There’s the injunction and the associated promise. It’s all quite straightforward. But it opens onto Benjamin’s series of warnings, which close out chapter 2. I’ll take these up relatively briefly so that I can then focus a good deal of attention on the contents of chapter 3.

Against Contention

The discussion of grace that followed the introductory leveling of the distinction between king and subject and preceded the brief announcement of the new king was focused first and foremost, note, on creation. The central theme, the thing that marked the indebtedness all human beings sustain toward God, was the fact that God created them and preserves them. Now, interestingly, Benjamin turns from the theme of creation to deal with the theme of the fall. Indeed, I don’t think it could be much clearer that that’s where the focus is. Here’s the first verse of this sequence:

But O, my people, beware lest there shall arise contentions among you and ye list to obey the evil spirit which was spoken of by my father, Mosiah. (Mosiah 2:32)

After a paradise of sorts has been produced thus far in Benjamin’s sermon—one in which all human beings are put on the same indebted level before God—there now enters into that paradise “the evil spirit,” the one who hopes to stir up “contentions.” And that introduces all kinds of problems:

For behold, there is a woe pronounced upon him who listeth to obey that spirit, for if he listeth to obey him and remaineth and dieth in his sins, the same drinketh damnation to his own soul—for he receiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment, having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge. (Mosiah 2:33)

The language of the fall is plain here: the focus is not only on obeying that evil spirit, but on dying in one’s sins, of everlasting punishment, of transgression of God’s law, on knowledge, etc. Of course, it’s clear that all this talk of transgression, etc., is literally talk of what can happen in this post-Edenic fallen world, but the way this theme plays off the earlier theme of creation shouldn’t be missed. Benjamin, having gathered his people to the temple, has walked them through the creation (or at least its relevance for their immediate situation) and the fall (or at least its relevance for their immediate situation). It shouldn’t be surprising what’s going to come next: an angel—a true messenger—is going to announce the way to overcome the fall and return to God’s presence (chapter 3), opening the way to talk of being grasped by God’s hand, pulled through the veil, and sealed into the family of God (chapter 5), all this separated by a bit of instruction about what one should be doing in the meanwhile (chapter 4). It doesn’t take much imagination to call this a temple text—since it’s being given at a temple—but our own familiarity with the temple experience in the latter days might open our eyes to some of the significance of what’s going on here.

With the remainder of chapter 2, Benjamin continues in this vein, but ties this talk of the fall to a couple of themes that are clearly meant to set up the content of chapter 3. For example, verse 34 is of real importance:

I say unto you that there are not one among you—except it be your little children—that have not been taught concerning these things but what knoweth that ye are eternally indebted to your heavenly Father, to render to him all that you have and are, and also have been taught concerning the records, which contain the prophecies which hath been spoken by the holy prophets, even down to the time our father Lehi left Jerusalem, and also all that hath been spoken by our fathers until now. (Mosiah 2:34-35)

Why will this be important? It introduces the theme of the relationship between having been taught and what takes place in the judgment—and it makes clear that it is little children alone who are exempt from the knowledge/judgment entanglement. All of that will be crucial to the logic of chapter 3, but we’ll have to wait to see why. Also quite important is the language of the next verses:

And now I say unto you, my brethren, that after ye have known and have been taught all these things, if ye should transgress and go contrary to that which hath been spoken, that ye do withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in wisdom’s paths, that ye may be blessed, prospered, and preserved—I say unto you that the man that doeth this, the same cometh out in open rebellion against God … . Therefore, if that man repenteth not and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice doth awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt. (Mosiah 2:36-38)

Rebellion, and specifically as “an enemy to God.” This sets up, as well, what will be said in chapter 3 by the angel. There the angel will have things to say about being an enemy of God, and about how that enmity can be overcome. All this talk of a kind of fall, then, is clearly meant by Benjamin to set up the stakes of what the angel will have to say about atonement, of what the angel will teach about returning to God’s presence in the right way. It will have everything to do with the exception of the child to the otherwise universal human status of being an enemy to God. We’ll look closely at how that unfolds in just a moment.

One last word on chapter 2. It ends, interestingly, with a turn from “the awful situation of those that have fallen into transgression” (Mosiah 2:40) to a brief consideration of “the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God” (Mosiah 2:41). Why this sudden turn? Again, it sets up the theme of atonement that saturates the words of the angel in chapter 3. Let’s turn there now.

An Angel’s Message of Atonement

Benjamin transitions from chapter 2 to chapter 3 by calling his people’s attention anew, turning now from the present situation to “that which is to come” (Mosiah 3:1). And what he has to say now is drawn directly, as he explains, from the message of an angel. He recounts the experience:

And the things which I shall tell you are made known unto me by an angel from God. And he said unto me: Awake! And I awoke, and behold, he stood before me. And he said unto me: Awake and hear the words which I shall tell thee, for behold, I am come to declare unto thee glad tidings of great joy. For the Lord hath heard thy prayers and hath judged of thy righteousness and hath sent me to declare unto thee—that thou mayest rejoice, and that thou mayest declare unto thy people that they may also be filled with joy. (Mosiah 3:2-4)

There’s the situation. The angel comes to announce the way out of the difficulties in which human beings have mired themselves, despite the abundance of grace God displays toward them.

Now, for the message:

For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that, with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth—which was and is from all eternity to all eternity—shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men working mighty miracles, such as: healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases. (Mosiah 3:5)

The message, of course, concerns the coming Christ. There’s no surprise there. But there are some details we’ll want to note here.

First, it shouldn’t be missed that it’s not the Son-as-distinct-from-the-Father that Benjamin announces, but God—God who “was and is from all eternity to all eternity”—who is announced to come into a tabernacle. As elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, and particularly in this historical period associated with the land of Zarahemla, the doctrine of the Christ is the doctrine of God Himself coming into the flesh. There’s no talk of the difference between the Father and the Son as two distinct beings. (We’ll be dealing with this quite forcefully in Mosiah 15, where Abinadi describes Christ alone as both Father and Son.) What Benjamin announces here, then, is quite radical (radically Christian): God will become man.

Second, it shouldn’t be missed that the whole focus of this descent is miracle-working. What the angel announces is not that God-come-to-earth gets about the work of atonement immediately, but that God-come-to-earth gives His mortal tabernacle to overflow with divine power, such that healing is what he does. (Verse 6 goes on to mention casting out devils, etc.) That’s the focus from the beginning.

But soon this becomes more complex:

And lo, he shall suffer temptations and pain of body—hunger, third, and fatigue—even more than man can suffer except it be unto death. For behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people. (Mosiah 3:7)

While God-come-to-earth heals others, He is himself tormented. Again there is an emphasis on the divine that can’t quite be contained by a human body: where before it meant that divine healing overflowed him and so healed others, now it means that God can suffer a great deal more than human beings can.

But we have to be quite careful here. There’s a strong tendency among Latter-day Saints to read this verse as a description of the Gethsemane experience (nothing in the Gospels speaks of blood coming from every pore, only of Christ sweating, as it were, great drops of blood), and therefore to use the angel’s words to Benjamin as a prooftext to show that the atonement indeed took place in its fullness (or at least in the majority of its fullness) in Gethsemane (though it isn’t clear that this verse refers to the atonement rather than simply to the suffering Christ experienced at the hands of others). But everywhere else in the Book of Mormon, however, the atonement is understood to take place on and after the cross. Is Benjamin at odds with everyone else, or is there more to the story here? Verse 11 will indeed state that “his blood atoneth,” but it isn’t entirely clear that the blood spoken of there is the same as the blood shed here, since between verses 7 and 11 there will be talk of the crucifixion, etc. Before taking this verse to overturn everything else said in the Book of Mormon about the atonement—displacing the triumph of God over death from the cross to the garden—we might want to do some closer work on the text.

So what is said in verse 7? The emphasis, clearly, is on suffering, on how deeply human this divine experience is. The suffering experienced is beyond human capacity. The only explanation given for the suffering associated with blood, interestingly, is this: “so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.” There’s less talk here of suffering the consequences of others’ sins (indeed, there’s nowhere in scripture where that idea is stated clearly) or of suffering in order to effect atonement (again, there’s too much between verse 7 and verse 11 for that to be clear) than there is talk here of simply how deeply God-in-the-flesh feels the wickedness of the people. There’s something like the scene of 3 Nephi 17 at work here: Christ so deeply feels the wickedness of His people that it causes Him to suffer infinitely. There’s more of the deepest experience of compassion here than anything else. Such, at any rate, is my minimalist reading.

But then a most interesting move in the next verse:

And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning. And his mother shall be called Mary. (Mosiah 3:8)

Why so interesting? For one, we get the name here in full—Jesus Christ—and we get a clear indication that Father and Son are one person (what we would call Heavenly Father simply isn’t a part of this scene), and that the God-in-the-flesh to which the angel refers is the Creator (we thus have a link back to the talk of grace, etc., from chapter 2). But that’s not the really interesting move; it’s this: “And his mother shall be called Mary.” What should we say about this sudden revelation?

First, it’s important to fit this into the sort of progressive revelation concerning Christ in general that we have in the Book of Mormon. At the start, in 1 Nephi 1, there is talk only of the “Messiah.” By 1 Nephi 10, there’s talk of the Savior of the World, and then of the Lamb of God. 1 Nephi 11 gives us a clear picture of the Savior’s birth and ministry. By 1 Nephi 19, we have still clearer picture of the details surrounding the Savior’s death and resurrection. 2 Nephi 2 fits the story of that death and resurrection into an expansive plan of salvation, which is further fleshed out in 2 Nephi 9. 2 Nephi 10 provides us with the name “Christ” for the first time. 2 Nephi 25 then provides us with the full name “Jesus Christ.” 2 Nephi 31 goes further by giving us a full theology of Christ’s baptism. And then, suddenly, there’s little talk of Jesus until Benjamin. Here we get talk of the miracles, etc., but the really new and novel element is that we not only know of the virgin (she was a part of 1 Nephi 11); we know her actual name. This is, in many ways, the very last and culminating element of this progressive revelation concerning Christ. The last thing we learn is that His mother’s name was Mary.

Second, it’s worth noting that Mary is one of very few women actually gets a name in the Book of Mormon. Only three “native” women have names in the book: Sariah, Abish, and Isabel. And only three “non-native” women have names: Eve, Sarah, and Mary. Mary is thus one of very few. I don’t want here to address the complex question of women in the Book of Mormon (something I’ve attempted to address in a preliminary way in a series at Feminist Mormon Housewives), but just to note that of the very few women who actually have names in the Book of Mormon, Mary is one of them. And Mary is, in many ways, unique among them. Of the three “non-native” women who appear in the book, only Mary has her name revealed to the Nephites and Lamanites. Eve’s and Sarah’s names were obviously pre-Nephite and available on the brass plates. But Mary’s name came through a revelation—this word from the angel. There’s much to think about there.

Third, it’s important to note the connection between Mary’s name and the context in which it’s being introduced. Mary’s name in Hebrew means “bitterness,” and the Gospels are emphatic about the bitter experiences related to Mary’s association with Jesus. Mary’s name is introduced in the angel’s words between the explanation that Jesus will suffer “more than man can suffer” and the explanation that he will be scourged and crucified. That her name with all its rich resonances is introduced right in the middle of these announcements is likely significant. Whatever else can be said about Jesus’ mother in such a circumstance, it should be recognized that she will be called “bitterness.” (Note that that’s how it’s phrased here. It’s not that “his mother’s name will be Mary,” but that “his mother will be called Mary,” his mother will be called bitterness.)

Fourth, it’s crucial, given the larger context of Benjamin’s speech, etc., to recognize that the note concerning Jesus’ mother’s name marks this passage as a royal succession announcement. The clear pattern from the Hebrew histories is to announce the enthronement of a king by stating not only that the king became king, but also by stating that the king was the son of a named woman. The pattern is followed here, and it thus appears that—in the thick of this coronation ritual—Mary’s name intervenes in part in order to reveal who the real king is. Mosiah is being enthroned, but it is really Christ who is the enthroned. There’s an echo here of 1 Nephi 1, as well as of 2 Nephi 16 (= Isaiah 6): at the time a new Judean king is being enthroned, the prophet has a vision in which he sees God seated on a throne—revealing the real king who rules in Israel.

Fifth, it’s also theologically crucial to recognize how “the Son of God” and “the Father of heaven and earth” at the beginning of verse 8 is balanced by “his mother” at the end of the verse. This verse thus introduces Jesus as split in some sense (again, take a look at Mosiah 15) between His roles of Father and Son, but what’s unique to this passage in the Book of Mormon is that it introduces Mary as the one who allows for that split to happen. There’s no talk here of Heavenly Father, and there’s no talk of Joseph—only of Mary is the sort of mediating figure who allows God to be divided into Father and Son. There’s implicit here a larger Marian theology that deserves fleshing out, one that will be echoed (though without the actual name of Mary appearing) in the most detailed narrative about women in the Book of Mormon (Alma 19)—where there will be a heavy emphasis on the fact that the Redeemer will be “born of a woman,” etc. It’s absolutely fascinating that Mary is introduced without any qualification—without any note that she’s merely human or mortal.

That’s enough for the moment, I think, about the introduction of Mary into this story. I hope these brief comments make clear that there’s plenty of thinking to do, plenty more to say. But let’s get on to the atonement, which is finally introduced right after Mary’s introduction.

And lo, he cometh unto his own that salvation might come unto the children of men, even through faith on his name. (Mosiah 3:9)

We begin with an announcement of the intention. It’s clear, of course, that “his own” has reference to the covenant people, to Israel: God-in-the-flesh comes specifically to the covenant people. And we’re told that He does so “that salvation might come unto the children of men.” Note how carefully that’s done. He doesn’t come to the covenant people in order to redeem them, but in order to allow salvation to come to “the children of men,” those within and without the covenant. The coming of Christ is directed to the covenant people, but precisely so that the bounds of the covenant can be opened up and reworked. Finally, we’re told the means of salvation—something we as Latter-day Saints are loathe to recognize, because the means here are identified as “faith on his name.” Salvation comes by faith, not by works, as everywhere else in the Book of Mormon, though we seem not to want to see that. It’s quite clear, though. At any rate, the plan or intention is thus laid out. What actually takes place?

And even after all this, they shall consider him as a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him. (Mosiah 3:9)

This story is quite familiar. The thing that strikes me as odd is the “even after all this” that introduces the story. After all what? Specifically after Christ’s coming to His own to bring salvation to the children of men? Is that the goodness that is flouted? Or is this a reference back, perhaps, to the healing and miracles of verses 5 and 6? Or is it a reference, maybe, back to the charitable suffering of verse 7? Or does the “all” suggest that all of these things are referred to here? He comes working miracles and healing; He casts out devils; He suffers for Israel in great charity; He comes as the Creator in the flesh in order to bring salvation to the whole of humanity—and after all this, they consider Him a man. Is that the point?

There is, at any rate, a good deal of weight carried by the phrase “consider him as a man.” It has just been stated that He is God, and so this “consideration” is deeply problematic. It’s also important that the people claim that “he hath a devil,” since verse 6 tells us that “he shall cast out devils.” There is almost a point-by-point reversal going on here: while Christ heals, the people scourge Him, etc. From these details, I’m quickly convincing myself that “all this” does refer to the whole of verses 5-9. The death of Christ marks a complete inversion of everything He came to do.

But it’s not entirely a tragedy:

And he shall rise the third day from the dead, and behold, he standeth to judge the world. And behold, all these things are done that a righteous judgment might come upon the children of men. (Mosiah 3:10)

There’s a great deal going on in this short verse.

First, there’s no surprise to the reader in the announcement that Jesus will rise from the dead after three days. Within the context, though, there’s a reversal of the reversal—all that has been overturned with the attack on Christ is in some sense restored through the overturning of death itself. But the emphasis is less on the actual rising than on the position or place to which the resurrected Christ rises: the position of judgment. At first this sounds as if we’ve set up a situation of retribution: Christ rises from the dead so that He can wage war on those who put Him to death. But then we’re told that “all these things are done that a righteous judgment might come upon the children of men.” The two highlighted elements here complicate the story. There’s no revenge or retribution, because all this aims at making possible a righteous judgment. And there’s no revenge or retribution, because the judgment to be taken up is a judgment of the children of men generally and not just Israel, not just Jesus’ own. So what’s the story of judgment really about?

Second, then, we have to ask what’s meant by “all these things.” Before, “all this” seemed to refer to the whole of verses 5-9. Does “all these things” refer to the same set of things? Perhaps to the same set of things, plus the death announced in verse 9 and the resurrection announced in verse 10? Perhaps just to the death and resurrection of verses 9-10? It’s difficult to know, and perhaps especially difficult to know without getting clear on what’s at stake in the judgment in question. What makes the judgment a righteous judgment? And what makes it apply to the whole of the children of men? These are perhaps the more important questions immediately, and they can only really be answered through a careful reading of the passages that follow.

Consequently, we’ll move on, but our reading of verses 11 and on will be guided by this question at every step: What’s the doctrine of judgment the angel is working out?

Verse 11, then:

For behold, and also his blood atoneth for the sins of those who have fallen by the transgression of Adam who hath died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned.

First element of a righteous judgment: it has to allow for leniency for those ignorant of the law. We’ve already seen some indications of this idea in the Book of Mormon. 2 Nephi 9:25, for instance: “Where there is no law given, there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment, there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation, the mercies of the Holy One of Israel hath claim upon them because of the atonement, for they are delivered by the power of him.” Here in Mosiah 3, things are stated just a bit differently. There’s a stronger statement here of something like “original sin”—we’re talking about “those who have fallen by the transgression of Adam”; there’s no talk of law (certainly not in the cosmic, abstract sense that Jacob, following Lehi, talks about), but rather of “the will of God concerning” people; and there’s talk specifically of Christ blood as what does the atoning for those ignorantly sinning. If, then, there’s a similar principle at work, there are enough differences to keep us on our toes, and we’ll soon see that the whole idea here turns out to be quite distinct. We’ll have much to say about that as we proceed through the chapter.

At any rate, we’re clear on the first element of a righteous judgment. It can’t be righteous unless there’s some way of addressing ignorance.

Then verse 12:

But woe! Woe unto him who knoweth that he rebelleth against God, for salvation cometh to none such, except it be through repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now the angel deals with those who know God’s will—and so who rebel against God. The language here, remember, echoes Mosiah 2:36-37: anyone who transgresses God’s will after knowing it “cometh out in open rebellion against God.” From this it would appear that there are only two options: either one doesn’t know concerning God’s will, and so one is atoned for by the blood of the Christ, or one does know concerning God’s will, and so on is in open rebellion. But then that second option is complicated because of “repentance and faith.” To know God’s will is, ultimately, to come out in rebellion against Him, but one can either continue in that rebellion, or one can repent and believe.

And here, it seems, we have the second element of a righteous judgment: it has somehow to make for the possibility of giving up rebellion against God. And, as well, we have, somewhat more implicitly, the third element of a righteous judgment: it has somehow to allow for those who continue in rebellion to face up to woe. These two elements can be combined, perhaps: a righteous judgment is one that allows those who will wickedness to be wicked and to be judged as such, while allowing those who will goodness to be good and to be judged as such. A righteous judgment, in a word, is a judgment that allows those judged to be as they will. The situation of “original sin,” hinted at in verse 11, has to be overcome, overturned, reversed. It has to be possible for human beings to will goodness, or to will wickedness, of their own. Only then is a righteous judgment a possibility. And, coming back, for a moment, to the first element, it also has to do something for those who never have a chance to realize that there’s a way to will otherwise than to do wickedly.

From all this, can we say something more definite about what “things” establish the possibility of a righteous judgment? Key, it would seem, is Christ’s resurrection as described in verse 10, if the angel’s words are to be understood to be in continuity with the words of Lehi and Jacob in the small plates: the resurrection frees the flesh from its entrapment to death and thus allows for the possibility of genuine responsibility. But key to the possibility of the resurrection having such effect, it would seem, is the complete enfleshment of God, as described in verses 5-9: it would seem that Christ would have had first to be fully enfleshed so as to be in a position to redeem the flesh. Consequently, “all these things,” as described in verse 10, would seem indeed to be all these things.

But there’s more to the story still. Benjamin has so far given us three possible outcomes for any given individual in the plan of salvation. First, there is a division between those who have known God’s will and those who have not—the latter being atoned for by the blood of Christ. And second, there is a division between those who have known God’s will and followed it and those who have known God’s will and not followed it. Now Benjamin tries to close the gap between the two groups in the first division:

And the Lord God hath sent his holy prophets among all the children of men to declare these things to every kindred, nation, and tongue—that thereby whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins and rejoice with exceeding great joy, even as though he had already come among them. (Mosiah 3:13)

There has been, it would seem, a deliberate effort to make God’s will known systematically among all of earth’s inhabitants—as if the plan is to empty out the category of those who don’t know the will of God so that there will be a simple split between those who know and follow God’s will, and those who know and don’t follow God’s will. But this gesture is more complicated than just that. The angel here makes reference to what we’ve talked about in earlier posts as Nephite messianism—this idea that redemption is not a question only of right orientation to God after Christ’s coming but even before, this idea that the Messiah has, in some sense, always already come.

What the angel indicates here, then, is that there has been a deliberate effort on God’s part to ensure that Nephite messianism has been preached—at least to some extent—throughout the ancient world. That’s quite a claim, and one has to wonder to what extent it has been reworked through the specifically Nephite view of things. But what the angel goes on to say next is so startling when placed side by side with this that it has to give one pause:

Yet the Lord God saw that his people were a stiffnecked people, and he appointed unto them a law—even the law of Moses. (Mosiah 3:14)

We have to feel the force of the “yet” that opens this verse. God has ensured that prophets in one capacity or another have preached Nephite messianism to every nation on earth, and yet there was one in particular that couldn’t handle that message—Israel, the covenant people. There’s no mention here of how other nations did or did not receive the message—and one has to wonder to what extent it was even delivered. But the point would seem to be that the one nation who was prepared most carefully for it couldn’t receive it at all. Is the point then that the nation with which the Lord began didn’t receive the message, and so the Lord never really delivered it to other nations? Or is the point that other nations received it at some point, and only Israel held out? All this is unclear. What is clear, especially as the text goes on, is that God is portrayed as having tried to give Israel to understand this concept of the Messiah without actually giving it to them. Here’s what the angel says:

And many signs and wonders and types and shadows shewed he unto them concerning his coming. And also holy prophets spake unto them concerning his coming. And yet they hardened their hearts and understood not that the law of Moses availeth nothing except it were through the atonement of his blood. (Mosiah 3:15)

It’s hard to know exactly what sense to make of this passage. Is the idea that God gave Israel a kind of code in the Law that pointed to Christ but without making it explicit, so that they both had and didn’t have a clear understanding of the Messiah? But what of the prophets in all this? Is the idea that the Law was supposed to be a clear indication of what was coming, but that there was a boneheaded refusal of this indication? Or is the idea that the Law was supposed to encode what was coming in an obscure way so that only those who listened to the prophets could understand? The angel’s words are too quick and too schematic to get a clear sense, and then he moves on. We’ll move on as well.

The preceding verses have given us a universally preached gospel: all would seem to have had, at least in some fashion, access to the message of the coming Christ. But there remains one group who cannot know the will of God even then:

And even if it were possible that little children could sin, they could not be saved. But I say unto you: They are blessed, for behold, as in Adam or by nature they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins. (Mosiah 3:16)

There will always be three possible outcomes for the plan of salvation, simply because children die without a knowledge of God’s will.

That might seem a minor point, but it’s going to be crucial, as we’ll see. Children are blessed, are atoned for by the blood of Christ. And that sets a kind of paradigm for everyone:

And moreover, I say unto you that there should be no other name given, nor other way nor means, whereby salvation can come unto the children of men—only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent. For behold, he judgeth, and his judgment is just. And the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy, but men drinketh damnation to their own souls, except they humble themselves and become as little children and believeth that salvation was and is and is to come in and through the atoning blood of Christ the Lord Omnipotent. (Mosiah 3:17-18)

Here we witness a kind of revision of the three outcomes we’ve been working with to this point. A bit of review:

(1) At first, there seemed to be a kind of basic distinction between two groups: (a) those who don’t know the will of God (and so are atoned for through the blood of Christ) and (b) those who do know the will of God.
(2) Then, there seemed to be a kind of split introduced into the second of these first two groups: (b1) those who know the will of God but persist in rebellion and (b2) those who know the will of God but turn to repentance and faith.
(3) Then we saw a kind of deliberate attempt on God’s part, through the work of the prophets, to close out group (a) by making known the will of God as universally as possible, the consequence being that all people would seem to be forced to assume a position in either group (b1) or group (b2).
(4) Finally, we had a brief notice that group (a) never really empties out because there are children who die without yet knowing the will of God, and the blood of Christ atones for them.

That’s been the picture so far. Now what? Now it seems as if we’ve returned to the original distinction between (a) and (b), and there seems to be no real possibility of redemption for group (b)—or, the same thing, there is no distinction between (b1) and (b2): all who know God’s will rebel. Why do I come to that conclusion? The distinction in verse 18 is simply between “the infant,” who does not perish spiritually thanks to Christ, and “men,” who drink damnation to their own souls. But isn’t there a way out for those “men”? Well, yes, but note what that way out is: “except they humble themselves and become as little children.” The idea is, roughly, that those who would escape the damnation of being “men” have to become again “children,” have to slide back from group (b) to group (a). Put another way: group (b2) is here described as a having a constitutive relationship to what’s left, after universal preaching of the gospel, of group (a). Group (b2) is made up of those who go back, at least symbolically or metaphorically, to group (a)—“men” become “children.”

The picture we end up with, then, is the following: There are groups (a) and (b), and (a) is progressively emptied of all but children, with the result that (b) is filled with those who are in one way or another rebels against God; except that there is a possible way out of (b), and that is to return—at least symbolically—to (a): “men” become “children” and put their trust in the blood that redeems those in (a), but in the place of the “ignorance” of (a) one now has “humility.”

We end, then, with the following:

(5) In the end, (b1) and (b2) are collapsed into a single category (b), rebellious men, while (a) is split into (a1) and (a2), the former being children ignorant of God’s will but therefore atoned for by Christ’s blood, and the latter being adults humble before God and therefore atoned for by Christ’s blood.

And all of this sets up the most famous line from Benjamin’s speech—a passage we don’t think about nearly as deeply as we ought:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be forever and ever—but if he yieldeth to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man, and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child: submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)

Note how strongly this is put: human beings are enemies to God—that’s the way it’s always been and always will be—and the only way out of that is to become as a child, to shift back from (b) to (a). But there’s more that has to be said here. The language of “yielding” deserves more attention (particularly in connection with “enemy”), as does the phrase “putteth off the natural man”—not to mention the very idea of the “natural” man as such. A few thoughts, then, before we turn to what follows in the last verses of chapter 3.

First, I think we ought to take quite seriously the language of being “an enemy to God.” What’s the imagery here? War. There’s a kind of battle scene—something like Alma and Amlici facing off at the center of a battle. And who are the two fighting face to face? “The natural man” and “God.” There’s a fight to the death going on, and either God will have to kill the natural man, or the natural man will have to kill God. That, it seems, is how it’s been since the Fall and it’s not going to disappear any time soon.

So is there any way out of one’s rebellion against God, any way to cease being an enemy? Of course: one has to yield. What does that mean? One has to lay down one’s sword and give oneself up to God. How radically? As radically as possible! Indeed, one has to “put off the natural man.” What does that mean? For the natural man to put off the natural man would mean, I should think, to die. One has to yield to God not simply in the sense that one gives up, but more radically in the sense that one gives oneself up for dead—one gives oneself up to the sword. To put of the natural man would seem, at the very least, to be to die.

But what is this “natural man” that is being given up? This is a bit difficult to work out, in some ways. The phrase, I assume, is borrowed in the English translation from the writings of Saint Paul, who has much to say about the “natural man” in especially his first epistle to the Corinthians. And what does the “natural man” mean there? “Natural” there translates the Greek word psychikos, “psychical,” “soul-ish.” And the “natural man” is opposed there to the “spiritual man.” The distinction, for Paul, is between the soul-ish and the spirit-ish man, between the man oriented or organized by the psyche or soul and the man oriented or organized by the Spirit—by one’s own psychic economy or by something that outstrips that economy. The natural man is the one—Paul has deliberate reference to Genesis 1-3—who was created in the Garden of Eden and then subjected to death through the Fall. The natural man—the psychical man—is the one whose soul’s economy is organized by death. The spiritual man is the one who has that economy disrupted by the Spirit, by the Spirit that binds one’s conviction to the resurrection, to the triumph over death.

If all that is even comprehensible (I’d want to do that at much greater length and more carefully—apologies for the brevity!), and if any of it is right, then it would seem that putting off the natural man is not simply dying, but allowing one’s orientation to death to die. What dies in yielding to the Spirit is precisely the grip death has on one. One fights against God in the first place because one is fighting for one’s death (not for one’s life, ironically). What one yields when one yields is, precisely, one’s death—one’s drive or desire for death. (I borrow here from Freud, who is in many ways the most important theoretical disciple of Saint Paul in modern times—on this see Jacob Taubes’s fantastic book, The Political Theology of Paul!—and who is unmistakably among the most important thinkers of the “natural” or “psychical” man.)

Well, I fear that was less than comprehensible, especially for anyone who hasn’t been reading my previous posts. I’ll now move on something a bit more concrete and down to earth.

Verses 20-21:

And moreover, I say unto you that the time shall come when the knowledge of a Savior shall spread throughout every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. And behold, when that time cometh, none shall be found blameless before God except it be little children—only through repentance and faith on the name of the Lord God Omnipotent.

Here we have a kind of summary of what the angel had presented before about the three groups, again collapsed into two. Further, it becomes clear at this point that the preaching to all nations remains largely future, rather than largely past. That’s a most helpful qualification. But then the angel moves from this more abstract statement to a much more immediate and concrete statement:

And even at this time, when thou shalt have taught thy people the things which the Lord thy God hath commanded thee, even then are they found no more blameless in the sight of God, only according to the words which I have spoken unto thee. (Mosiah 3:22)

The angel, it seems, doesn’t want Benjamin or his hearers to move too quickly from the immediate implications: because of the angel’s announcement, once it has been passed along by Benjamin, this people now pass from not knowing the will of God to knowing the will of God, and the result is that they must either continue in rebellion or repent and become as children. And with this accomplished, the angel has largely finished his task:

And now I have spoken the words which the Lord God hath commanded me. (Mosiah 3:23)

But then the Lord’s own word intervenes—and it isn’t clear whether it’s the angel or Benjamin himself who is the announcer of the Lord’s word. At any rate, the Lord puts the point a bit more strongly:

And thus saith the Lord: They [the angel’s words] shall stand as a bright testimony against this people at the judgment day, whereof they shall be judged every man according to his works—whether they be good or whether they be evil. And if they be evil, they are consigned to an awful view of their guilt and abominations, which doth cause them to shrink from the presence of the Lord into a state of misery and endless torment, from whence they can no more return. Therefore, they have drunk damnation to their own souls. Therefore, they have drunk out of the cup of the wrath of God, which justice could no more deny unto them than it could deny that Adam should fall because of his partaking of the forbidden fruit. Therefore, mercy could have claim on them no more, forever. And their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever. Thus hath the Lord commanded me. Amen. (Mosiah 3:24-27)

This is a pretty harsh way to end this angelic message, but it makes the stakes quite clear. And it will have had, as we’ll see at the beginning of chapter 4, a profoundly disturbing effect on Benjamin’s people.

But with that, the chapters covered in this lesson come to an end. We’ve begun to get a sense for what Benjamin’s doing. Indeed, much of the most profound theological work is accomplished already. But we’ll get a much clearer sense for the implications and aims of all this only in the next three chapters, which I’ll take up in my next post.

4 Responses to “Book of Mormon Lesson #15: “Eternally Indebted to Your Heavenly Father,” Mosiah 1-3 (Sunday School)”

  1. […] #14: “For a Wise Purpose,” Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon (Gospel Doctrine)Book of Mormon Lesson #15: “Eternally Indebted to Your Heavenly Father,” Mosiah 1-3 (Sun… on Book of Mormon Lesson #14: “For a Wise Purpose,” Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon […]

  2. ghostcrab said

    I found it interesting that Benjamin is giving a divine appointment to Mosiah’s kingship here, especially in light of the covenant that will be made further on.

    “But the Lord God doth support me, and hath suffered me that I should speak unto you, and **hath commanded me** that I should declare unto you this day that my son Mosiah is a king and a ruler over you. (Mosiah 2:29-30)”

  3. David Brand said

    How sobering to know now how much I must repent of,now. King Benjamin speaks to me, today.
    Mosiah 3:24-27

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