The Tree of Life: The Love of God

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Nephi’s experience with the tree of life is interesting. He desired to see the things his father saw in vision. He pondered in his heart and was “caught away by the Spirit of the Lord…into an exceedingly high mountain, which [he] never had before seen, and upon which [he] never had before set…foot.” (1 Nephi 11:1)

Nephi was faithful, he desired, and he acted (pondered and prayed). Then he was taken to an elevated place. Mountains typically represent temples in the scriptures. In that place of holiness he conversed with the Spirit of the Lord.

Nephi wanted to see all that his father saw but the Spirit showed him the tree of life first (after asking a question about Nephi’s belief; asking about Nephi’s testimony) (1 Nephi 11:2-4,8). The Spirit told Nephi the schedule for his vision: after Nephi was to see the tree, he would also “behold a man descending out of heaven”. Nephi was charged with witnessing this man and then bearing record that he “is the Son of God” (1 Nephi 11:7).

Nephi was faithful, desirous, active (pondering), and in a temple. As a result he saw the tree of life and wanted to know the interpretation of its symbolism.

In response and without answering Nephi’s question, the Spirit showed Nephi another vision. In this vision he saw Mary and then Mary and the infant Christ (1 Nephi 11:13-20). After Nephi saw the Christ Child and Mary, the Spirit asked him if he knew the meaning of the tree. Nephi had received his own answer: “It is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” (1 Nephi 11:22) The Spirit confirmed that response, adding additional insight: “Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.” (1 Nephi 11:23) Nephi, conversing with the Spirit of the Lord, was able to answer his own question about the meaning of the tree. The Spirit led him to the answer and provided additional information when needed but Nephi was able to receive his own answer.

It was only after seeing the tree and Jesus Christ that Nephi saw the rest of the symbols from Lehi’s vision. Before spending any time with those additional symbols, we need to understand what the love of God is. The love of God is manifest in Jesus Christ’s birth but there is more to it. It includes charity. What is charity? Charity is the chief virtue. It is the “pure love of Christ, [that] endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” (Moroni 7:47) Charity is without end, it endures forever. Charity is not helping others, it is not treating others well; charity is the pure love that comes from God. Charity is a gift from God. It is a pure fruit from an everlasting tree of beauty and purity with preciousness above all else. Charity is the love of God for all His children but this cannot be what the tree of life symbolizes because not everyone partakes of the fruit of the tree.

So what is the symbolism of the love of God expressed by the tree of life? Elder Nelson taught: “The Book of Mormon…describes how one is born of God and how one gains the power to love as He does. It identifies three core principles that bring the power of God’s love into our lives.” (Source) These three core principles are: 1) exercising faith in Christ and entering into a covenant with Him to keep His commandments; 2) the power to become more like Him comes through receiving the ordinances of the gospel; and 3) needing to “follow His example: ‘What manner of men ought ye to be?’ [Jesus] asks rhetorically. His answer: ‘Verily I say unto you, even as I am’ (3 Nephi 27:27). Truly, He wants us to become more like Him.” (Source)

Elder Neil L. Andersen taught: “What does this tree with its most precious fruit symbolize? It represents ‘the love of God’ and proclaims our Heavenly Father’s marvelous plan of redemption. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ This precious fruit symbolizes the wondrous blessings of the Savior’s incomparable Atonement. Not only will we live again following our mortality, but through our faith in Jesus Christ, our repentance, and our keeping the commandments, we can be forgiven of our sins and one day stand clean and pure before our Father and His Son. Partaking of the fruit of the tree also symbolizes that we embrace the ordinances and covenants of the restored gospel—being baptized, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and entering the house of the Lord to be endowed with power from on high. Through the grace of Jesus Christ and by honoring our covenants, we receive the immeasurable promise of living with our righteous family throughout eternity.” (Source; emphasis added)

The tree of life represents the Savior and His Atonement. We unlock the power of the Atonement by making and keeping sacred covenants, receiving ordinances, and striving to be like the Savior. We do not partake of the fullness of God’s love without making certain qualifying steps.

Jesus taught this lesson:

“As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” (John 15:9-14)

The Savior taught His disciples. He expressed His love for them and encouraged them to continue in His love. He then clarified the condition required to continue in His love: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love.” Those who do this will have a fullness of joy. The Spirit taught this to Nephi during his vision when he said the tree — the love of God — is “most joyous to the soul.” (1 Nephi 11:23) The Savior then expressed His great love for His friends. Friends of the Savior are those who “do whatsoever [He] command[s]”. For these faithful friends, the Savior expressed great love by laying down His life.

Abiding in the love of God is thus conditional on obedience. God loves all His children but we have to do certain things to abide in His love. While conditional, this is not exclusionary. To understand this, let’s turn to Alma 13. There we read Alma’s teachings about the priesthood and high priests. While this chapter is focused on high priests and the Melchizedek priesthood, it applies to women and men and offers insight into how we abide in God’s love.

“And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such. And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.” (Alma 13:3-4; emphasis added)

Blessings from heaven, covenants, priesthood authority and responsibilities/callings (which are offered to women and men), ordinances, and fruits of the Spirit are offered to all. Those who exercise faith and choose good obtain the privileges. They are those who abide in the love of God and partake of the fruit of the tree of life.

The Faith of Nephi: Laban and the Brass Plates

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While reading one of my favorite books of scripture – 1 Nephi – I was struck again by the story of Lehi’s sons returning to Jerusalem to procure the brass plates, which contained a record of the Jews and the genealogy of Lehi’s family. So Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam all returned to Jerusalem. Laman was chosen first to try and get the plates. Laman was, if you believe Hugh Nibley, likely a successful businessman and trader, at least one who worked with Lehi in the family business; he knew how to deal with people. In any case, Laman was chosen by casting lots. He went to Laban and tried to make the case for having the plates. What was Laban’s response? He called Laman a thief (i.e., he bore false witness against Laman – maybe not to anyone other than his household but Laban was a liar) and threatened to kill Laman (1 Nephi 3:11-14). Now, we do not know all that transpired between Laman and Laban but that seems like an extreme reaction by Laban.

What happens next? Nephi convinces his brothers to try again.

“And it came to pass that we went in unto Laban, and desired him that he would give unto us the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for which we would give unto him our gold, and our silver, and all our precious things. And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property. And it came to pass that we did flee before the servants of Laban, and we were obliged to leave behind our property, and it fell into the hands of Laban.” (1 Nephi 3:24-26).

Laban lusted after all their gold and was successful in stealing it. In addition, he tried to kill the brothers. Laban was a thief, which is one reason why he was so quick to condemn Laman as one. Was Laban a murderer as well? It’s possible, although we have no evidence of that other than the fact that he so readily tried to kill Lehi’s sons. He had servants who served as hit men or at least doubled as hit men. Laban was someone of some influence in Jerusalem who possibly served in a military leadership role (see 1 Nephi 4:1). This was a dangerous time in Jerusalem; there were threats of invading armies and assassins. Maybe Laban had threats against him before and he thought Laman and his brothers were going to steal the brass plates. Maybe Laban had paranoid delusions. We do not know but Laban stood in the way of Lord’s will. We know he was a wicked person (see 1 Nephi 4:13).

So in this context, Nephi decided to head back in to Jerusalem to try and get the plates. He did not have a plan but he trusted in the Lord and was following His Spirit. Now we come to a part of the Book of Mormon that some have balked at its brutality. I hope the context I provided gives some idea of the necessity of what Nephi was commanded to do. Nephi was walking in the darkness of Jerusalem when he came across a drunken man passed out near Laban’s house. It was Laban.

“And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him. And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Yea, and I also knew that he had sought to take away mine own life; yea, and he would not hearken unto the commandments of the Lord; and he also had taken away our property.” (1 Nephi 4:10-11)

Nephi was prompted by the Spirit to kill Laban. He, obviously, did not want to do it. Then the Spirit reminded Nephi that Laban had stolen their property, tried to kill Nephi and his brothers, and was actively defying the commandments of God. Laban was keeping this record of the Jews and his forefathers, he was a guardian of the scriptures, but he was not faithful to the laws of God. Laban was not a good person. Also, because of his connections in the city, Laban’s sins and breaking of laws would liekly remain ignored. Besides, how could Lehi’s family protest, they had to leave the city under threat of death because of Lehi’s prophecies.

After two more commands from the Spirit, Nephi followed the Lord and killed Laban. He then dressed as Laban, went to Laban’s home, and was successful in getting the plates of brass.

There are some questions some might have.

  1. Why did Nephi have to kill Laban? Why could not the Lord have just caused Laban to die and spare Nephi the task?
  2. Did Nephi sin in killing Laban?
  3. Did not Nephi just do what Laban accused Laman of wanting to do – namely, steal the plates?

For the first question the answer is simple for those who understand the Plan of Salvation. Why does the Lord ask us to do anything? Why are there commandments for us to follow? Why are we given a prophet to follow? We are here on earth to see if we will remain faithful to the Lord. Are we willing to sacrifice everything for the Lord? Can we be like Abraham and be willing to give up even that which we love most for the Lord? We are not always asked to do easy things. The Lord needed to know that Nephi really would go and do all things that the Lord commanded him. Nephi needed to learn this as well. That is why the Lord could not just kill Laban to make things easier for Nephi.

Question 2. No, it was not a sin. The sin would be in not following the commands of the Lord, even if what you were asked to do seems to contradict other commandments. This is also a special case in special circumstances. If my answer seems simplistic, it is. Sometimes we try to analyze things too much when all the Lord needs is our simple faith.

Question 3. It’s not stealing if the Lord gives the plates to Nephi. Besides, once Laban was dead Lehi’s family had a good claim to the plates. There’s a lot we do not know about the circumstance though. The record we do have is abridged. Nephi with his limited time and space wrote mainly of spiritual things. He did not have time to chronicle his whole history. Lehi and his family needed the brass plates in order to preserve their family history and the laws of God. It also helped preserve their language.

What looks like a complicated and concerning situation is not nearly as concerning to those who have faith in God and in His plan. When the Lord commands, it is time to obey, even if it is a hard thing. What might look brutal and wrong to us today was appropriate for the situation. This isn’t a pandering to moral relativity, this is recognition of God’s supremacy. He knows what He is doing. It is up to us to trust Him.

The Sacrament – Part 2

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“See that ye are not baptized unworthily; see that ye partake not of the sacrament of Christ unworthily; but see that ye do all things in worthiness, and do it in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God; and if ye do this, and endure to the end, ye will in nowise be cast out.” (Mormon 9:29)

Sacrament – sacra-ment. Sacra- is the same word as sacred. Or, more accurately it comes from the Latin sacrare, which means to consecrate (or to make sacred). -ment is a modifier that turns a verb into a noun. It means “the action or result of what is denoted by the verb” (source). This means that partaking of the sacrament is to partake of something holy, something consecrated, that in turn helps us be holy and consecrated. The sacrament is thus both sanctified and sanctifying. This scripture in Mormon has an important phrase: “the sacrament of Christ.” It is Christ’s sacrament. He gave it unto us and His atonement gives it the power it has. We eat and drink in remembrance of His body and blood. It is sanctified and sanctifying through Jesus’ Atonement.

The sacrament is an ordinance that is meant to help us become sacred. Being sacred is to be sanctified and holy and set apart. It is a calling of chosenness – a responsibility to shine as an example unto others and help them know the way by which they too can become sanctified and sacred. Being chosen or set apart is not a pandering to vanity, it is a call to responsibility. As we partake of the setting apart of the sacrament, we should feel a greater responsibility for our actions. We should feel like the brothers Jacob and Joseph: “And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day” (Jacob 1:19). We must act with all diligence.

Today when we partake of the sacrament, what are the covenants we make? We promise our Father in Heaven that we will:

  1. Take upon us the name of Christ.
  2. Always remember Christ.
  3. Keep the commandments of Christ.

First, I think it is important to note that we make these promises to Heavenly Father. Just as we pray to the Father (in the name of Christ) so do we covenant with the Father (in the name of Christ) as we partake of the sacrament. We first promise that we will take upon us Christ’s name. That is a heavy responsibility! As Christians we should emulate Christ. We should take upon us His name by our words and actions. When we are baptized and confirmed members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we reject the old man or woman of sin and become new creatures in Christ. The old “us” dies and is buried and the new “us” arises as a spiritual child of Christ. We can then become heirs and joint-heirs with Christ (see Romans 8:17).

We also promise to always remember the Savior and keep His commandments. Those are no two small tasks but that is what is required of us. Those are terms many or all of us accepted before this life and they are terms that all will have the opportunity to accept in this life or in the next. As we accept and keep these promises we will always have Christ’s Spirit with us. He is bound by the covenant when we do what He asks (see D&C; 82:10).

The sacrament is a holy ordinance with which we make covenants with our Father in Heaven in the name of Christ. As we partake of it worthily and remain true to the covenants we make the sanctified bread and water will be sanctifying unto us.

The Rich Young Man

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One scripture character I like is the rich young man who approached the Savior to learn what he could do to gain eternal life. “And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And [Jesus] said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He [the young man] saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matt. 19:16-19). The Savior taught two important lessons. First, that He was distinct from His Father. Second, the way to eternal life is to keep the commandments (this does not minimize the atonement of the Savior).

Here’s the young man’s reply to the Savior: “All these thing have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” He honestly answered the Savior; he was a good person. Jesus knew the young man’s heart: “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” (Matt. 19:20-22). In Mark it reads, “Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest…” (Mark 10:21). The Savior saw the young man’s heart and honesty. This is someone who truly was a good person. However, he had one main problem, he loved his riches. Why is a love of riches contrary to eternal life?

Loving riches is a sign of pride. Loving riches is having a god before the One True God. It is worshiping at the haughty altars of Mammon instead of with the humble followers of Christ. If someone loves their riches, they are unable to consecrate their all to the Lord. This consecration is necessary to enter into the kingdom.

I like to believe that this young man later repented and followed the Savior. He may not have – there are many good people who are not willing to make the necessary sacrifices that are required by the Savior – but I like to be optimistic. He was a good person who let his trust in money overpower his trust in the gospel and in the Savior. I like this story because it helps me keep worldly goods in perspective. Those who love money – whether they have it or not – have a hard time fully living the gospel and making the sacrifices required of them.