Lesson 1: “That Ye Might Believe that Jesus Is the Christ”
Doctrine and Covenants 91
Luke 3:4-11 (JST)
John 1:1-14, 20:31
To introduce the year’s study of the New Testament and encourage class members to strengthen their testimonies of Jesus Christ by –
– studying the New Testament
– understanding the continuity between the Old and New Testaments
– understanding that the Jesus of the New Testament is identical to the Jehovah of the Old Testament
[Hold up a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants, and leaf thoughtfully through it.] The Doctrine and Covenants is a record of the revelations of God to direct his Church in our dispensation. I see many, many revelations recorded by Joseph Smith … one by Brigham Young … one written by John Taylor … one statement by Wilford Woodruff … nothing by Lorenzo Snow … one section by Joseph F. Smith … and then nothing more until the Declaration of 1978 under Spencer W. Kimball.
Does this mean that the Church was in apostasy, or that no revelation was received by Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, or Joseph Fielding Smith? No? Well, how do you explain that? Where is the record of God’s dealings with his people through all those years?
[Encourage a brief discussion with testimony that God continued and continues to guide the Church whether or not every action is recorded in canonized scripture; note where the words of prophets and their teachings, evidencing the continued direction of God, can be found; accept suggestions as to why those teachings are not formally canonized.]
So a person would show a serious misunderstanding of revelation and prophetic leadership if he based his judgments solely upon formally canonized scripture in this dispensation.
We often have the same unawareness of God’s directing hand in the lives of his people in former days because we limit our attention to the formally canonized scripture contained in the Old Testament. We see a lack of canonized history between the days of Ezra and Nehemiah and the opening of the New Testament, and we mistakenly see that lack as evidence of the unfaithfulness of the Israel and the silence of the heavens.
To introduce our study of the New Testament this year, I want to take a few minutes to build a bridge between the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, whom we talked about last week, and the heavenly revelations of the coming of first John the Baptist, and immediately afterward the Lord Jesus Christ, which we will talk about next week.
As we’ve discussed, a large number of the Israelites living in the Kingdom of Judah were carried away into Babylonian exile, a captivity that became Persian exile when the Persian empire conquered Babylon. At the end of the Exile – near the end of Old Testament history – several groups of Jews were allowed to go, or were sent back to, Jerusalem. They found a very different country from the one their parents or grandparents had left: For one thing, the Jews no longer had a kingdom. They were under the political direction of other people – and they would remain in that condition for many hundreds of years, until the restoration of political control began with the 1948 founding of the State of Israel. This condition of political reality – that of having no country of their own, but living as a minority people in countries controlled by alien civilizations — caused a major change in the religious lives of the Jews. They had to learn to adapt, to preserve their faith without an Israelite king, without resorting to the sword, without the safety of a protected homeland, and with the challenge of living within other cultures that always proved attractive and tempting to their young people.
** The same kind of thing happened in our own dispensation, didn’t it? In the early years of this dispensation, especially after the Church settled in the Great Basin, members were encouraged to come here to build up Zion. We were in many ways isolated from other cultures; we had a homeland that, if not invincible, was far more protected than we had been in, say, Missouri or Nauvoo. While we were subjected to political control from a distant government in Washington, still, our distance and our isolation meant that we could run things pretty much as we pleased. But eventually we became fully surrounded by, and generally integrated into, other cultures. We had to adapt, to preserve our faith while living in other cultures, with the attractive temptations those other cultures have always had for our young people.
Instead of a united, political kingdom, we turned to a more private, more interior kind of spiritual kingdom. Instead of a political kingdom, we made the temple – the temples (multiple) – the focus of our spiritual kingdom. Instead of asking converts to gather to the Salt Lake Valley, we asked everyone, here and abroad, to turn to our wards and stakes and make them a part of Zion no matter where they were located. Instead of controlling the kind of education and recreation and fashions that were available to our young people, we turned to teaching our families to make the best choices among all the temptations that are available.
Something very similar happened to the Jews at the end of their Exile: They redefined what it meant to be an Israelite, or, as they became known at this time, a Jew. Because they had no political kingdom, because they lived in small communities not just in Palestine but in Persia, and very soon in Greece and Egypt, and later in Rome, and eventually throughout Europe and then even further abroad, their definition of “Jew” became not someone who lived in Palestine, but increasingly someone who descended by blood from Abraham through one of the Tribes of Israel, no matter where in the world he lived. The definition of “Jew” became one who followed ever more strictly the laws spelled out by Moses. Just as we turned to the temple and the ordinances offered there, the Jews turned back to their writings – the scriptures – to define themselves and to set themselves apart from the rest of the world.
We talked last week about Ezra reading the scriptures to the people who returned from exile. I’d like to reread parts of that account now, from Nehemiah, chapter 8:
1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street … and they spake unto Ezra the Scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses …
2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women …
3 And he read therein … before the men and the women … and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law. …
5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people … and when he opened it, all the people stood up …
7 … [Priests, some of whom are named in this chapter] caused the people to understand the law …
8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.
These verses hint at something that is more complicated than we might think at first reading. During the two or three generations the Jews had lived in exile in Babylon, they had ceased to speak Hebrew, and had adopted Aramaic, the language of the people among whom they lived. They were still speaking Aramaic at the time of Christ.
But the scriptures were written in Hebrew, a language that, by now, only the specially trained scribes and priests could understand. When Ezra and the other priests read the book of the law to the people in the streets of Jerusalem, they had to – as is mentioned in verse 8 – “read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and give the sense, and cause them to understand the reading” – in other words, they read a part of the Hebrew scripture, then translated it into Aramaic – orally, not in writing – and then taught them what it meant, or “caused them to understand the reading.”
Because the Jewish people could no longer understand their own sacred writings, but needed to have them translated and explained by those with special education, that educated class – “scribes” – became ever more important in the Jewish world. Unlike in the past, when the Israelites were a small people living in a small country who could all, more or less, hear and understand the law when they offered their sacrifices at Jerusalem, they were now scattered in small communities throughout the known world. Each congregation needed its own copy of the law and needed to be able to study locally the history of the people of Israel.
During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and for a time thereafter, the scribes worked on defining exactly what was sacred scripture. They re-wrote their national history to suit the needs of the new world in which they were living – for example, the Books of I and II Chronicles were written at this time, as a rewriting of the books of I and II Kings. Whereas Kings had stressed the political history of Israel as a separate and conquering nation, Chronicles focused on the ways in which Jehovah had blessed and cursed Israel according to their obedience and disobedience. Kings, in other words, is generally a secular history, while Chronicles is a spiritual history of the same times.
** [This might remind you of Nephi and the two sets of plates he kept: one set with “an account of the reign of the kings, and the wars and contentions of my people” (1 Nephi 9:4) and a second set with “the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them” (1 Nephi 19:3).]
The scribes also attempted to compile an authoritative version of the scriptures from all the many versions that had been handed down over the thousands of years of their history. This rewriting and compilation possibly accounts for some of the puzzles in our Bible today, as when two different and sometimes mutually exclusive accounts are given for the same events. [Examples, if anyone asks: There are two accounts, quite different from each other, of how Hagar and Ishmael are driven out of Abraham’s household – see Genesis 16 and 21; see Genesis 7:2 which tells Noah to take seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals, while 7:9 and 7:15 direct him to one pair of animals regardless of the kind; and the Genesis 37 story of his brothers selling Joseph is apparently garbled – is it Reuben, or is it Judah, who pleads to save Joseph’s life through this method? These and other instances seem to be cases where the scribes extracted stories from different sources.]
Stories that had apparently existed only in oral form were written down during the first generations after Ezra and Nehemiah. Interestingly, two of those stories that entered the Hebrew canon at this time may reflect some of the struggles that the Jews were having in adapting their religious life to the new realities: While one faction of Judaism made it imperative that a man be a blood descendant of Abraham in order to be a Jew – an emphasis that contributes to the rejection of the Samaritans by the Jews — another faction of Judaism emphasized that Jehovah was the God of the entire world, not merely of the Jews. It was this second faction that was responsible for the books of Ruth and Jonah being written down. Ruth, of course, tells of a righteous woman who is not of the blood of Israel, but who nevertheless becomes an ancestor of King David, and eventually of Jesus Christ. Jonah tells of a prophet who is sent to a non-Israelite people, who repent and accept Jehovah as their God. We see echoes of this struggle within Judaism at the time of Christ, when John the Baptist tells the Jews that blood isn’t what matters, because “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).
And in addition to writing their past history, the Jews continued to write their contemporary history, which shows both their continuing faith in Jehovah and his continuing care of the Jews as his chosen people. Much of this history is contained in the books that we call the “Apocrypha.” The Apocrypha are writings which were considered sacred by some branches of Judaism in the years between the Old and New Testaments, but which were not included in the final compilation of Jewish scripture. Most of the Christian churches – Catholicism, and Greek Orthodoxy, and Russian Orthodoxy, and some Protestant churches – accept the Apocryphal books as scriptural, as being as fully authoritative as any other book in the Bible, and most Bibles published today include these books.
Latter-day Saints do not study and quote from the Apocrypha as we do the rest of the Hebrew scripture – but it is important to emphasize that this does not mean we treat these books as untrue or false or apostate. Far from it. In practice we ignore these books, but as a matter of doctrine we do not discredit them.
The copy of the Bible that Joseph Smith used when he began his editing of what we call today the Joseph Smith Translation included the Apocrypha. This Bible – [hold up my copy of such a Bible] – is a modern Bible that includes the Apocrypha. You can see that these books – [indicate by means of previously placed bookmarks] – constitute a considerable number of pages. They cover quite a bit of history and prophecy. Joseph Smith considered the Apocrypha while he was making his translation, and made them a matter of prayer. He received a revelation in response, recorded in Section 91 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
That revelation confirms that “there are many things contained therein that are true” but also cautions that “there are many things contained therein that are not true.” The Lord told Joseph that “it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated,” but also told him that “whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom.”
Even though the Apocrypha are omitted from our LDS Bibles, our Bible Dictionary contains a long article listing many of the most important Apocryphal books and suggesting what may be of value and what not be, according to the judgment of the men who worked on the dictionary. If you’re not already somewhat familiar with the Apocrypha, you may want to spend some time at least with the Bible dictionary. We are a people who believe that God has spoken to many people in many ages, and we look forward to additional scripture someday – to the contents of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon plates, for instance. Yet we have a body of scripture which the Lord has endorsed as largely true, and by which we will be benefited if we study by the Spirit, yet most of us know nothing about them.
During the same years that Ezra and Nehemiah were rebuilding the temple and defining what it meant to be a Jew after the Exile, Greece was becoming a powerful nation – Aeschylus and Sophocles and Aristotle and Plato and Socrates and all the other names you remember from school were living at this time and in the hundred years following. In 323 B.C. the Greek general Alexander the Great began his conquest of the known world; soon Palestine came under Greek control. Greek colonies were built in Israel itself, and Greek governors were placed over the Jews. The Greek governor of Egypt built the city of Alexandria with its great library and attempted to collect every manuscript ever written, including the Hebrew scriptures. Hebrew scribes carried those scriptures to Alexandria, and for the first time they were translated into a language other than Hebrew – Greek.
Greek culture and civilization began to have a serious effect on Judaism, as Greek became the language of government, and Greek policies controlled the Palestinian economy, and as Greek schools and gymnasiums and theatres were built in Palestine and as the Jews spread into other parts of the world controlled by the Greeks. Many Jews welcomed the wealth and education and political position that came with Greek control; many others resented it as a threat to Judaism. During these years we see a divide develop in Judaism that still existed at the time of Christ: The Jews who welcomed Greek advances and who adopted a more liberal, more go-along-to-get-along philosophy, became the Sadducees of Jesus’s day; the Jews who rejected Greek influence and stressed more complete devotion to the Law of Moses became the conservative, law-bound Pharisees of Jesus’s day.
At first the Jews were free to have these debates and make their own religious choices under Greek rule. But eventually, under new governors, Greece was not content merely to spread its cultural influence – there was a serious, prolonged attempt to stamp out Judaism altogether. Critical elements of Jewish practice – the circumcision of male children, the reading of the scriptures, the keeping of Sabbath laws – became capital offenses. The temple at Jerusalem was seized and sacrifices of unclean animals – pigs – were made on its altar. A statue of Zeus was erected on the temple grounds.
It is at this time that we turn especially to the Apocryphal books to read Jewish history and to recognize their continued devotion to Jehovah: the Jews of Palestine revolted against their Greek masters. They committed themselves to Jehovah again, and he helped them gain control of Jerusalem and drive the aliens from their temple. The Books of the Maccabees tell us how they cleansed the temple and re-established the worship of Jehovah there. During the shortages of the war, they could find oil enough only to light the temple for one day – but miraculously the lamps burned for all eight days of their services, a sign of Jehovah’s acceptance of their efforts, and the origin of the modern Hanukkah celebration.
Although the Jews regained their religious freedom, they remained under the political domination of foreign powers. The Greeks gave way to the Romans, who were in control of Palestine at the time of Jesus’s birth.
It was into this world of political turmoil and recommitted dedication to Jehovah that the angel came to announce, first, to the priest in the temple, the coming of John the Baptist, and soon after, to his mother Mary, the birth of Jesus Christ, which will be the focus of our lessons in the next two weeks.
Scripture Discussion and Application
1. Isaiah and John the Baptist prophecy of Jesus’s mission
2. The apostle John testifies that Jesus Christ is “the true Light”
The Jews of Jesus’s day were well aware of the prophecies in their scriptures about the coming of the Messiah. Some recognized Jesus Christ as that Messiah; most did not. One of those prophecies is found in Isaiah 61:1-3:
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.
Luke tells us that when the Savior began his formal ministry, he read these lines from Isaiah to the men in the synagogue, and announced that he had come to fulfill those words. Let’s read Luke 4:16-21:
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
17 And there was delivered uno him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
18 The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19 to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
Most, of course, did not understand or did not accept that Jesus – the carpenter’s son – was the prophesied Messiah. One who did, who had been prepared from before his birth to proclaim the coming of the Savior, was Jesus’s cousin, John. He, too, quoted from the prophecy of Isaiah when he announced the coming and the mission of the Savior. Let’s read from the Joseph Smith Translation of Luke 3:4-11 (p. 805-806 of LDS edition of Bible):
Luke 3 (JST):
4 As it is written in the book of the prophet Esaias; and these are the word, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.
5 For behold, and lo, he shall come, as it is written in the book of the prophets, to take away the sins of the world, and to bring salvation unto the heathen nations, to gather together those who are lost, whoa re of the sheepfold of Israel;
6 Yea, even the dispersed and afflicted; and also to prepare the way, and make possible the preaching of the gospel unto the gentiles;
7 And to be a light unto all who sit in darkness, unto the uttermost parts of the earth; to bring to pass the resurrection from the dead, and to ascend up on high, to dwell on the right hand of the Father,
8 Until the fulness of time, and the law and the testimony shall be sealed, and the keys of the kingdom shall be delivered up again unto the Father;
9 To administer justice unto all; to come down in judgment upon all, and to convince all the ungodly of their ungodly deeds, which they have committed; and all this in the day that he shall come;
10 For it is a day of power; yea, every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
11 And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This year, as we study the New Testament, our purpose is not just to learn facts about the mortal life of Jesus Christ. Our purpose is rather to develop a testimony that Jesus is the Christ – or, as it is expressed in the testimony of John,
31 … that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
We will talk about Jesus as being identical to the Jehovah of the Old Testament – the one who covenanted again and again to remember Israel as often as Israel would repent and return to the Lord. We will talk about what it means for Jesus to be “the Christ” and “the Savior” and “the Redeemer” and the other titles that he bears. We will talk about what it means to follow Jesus, to be his disciples and to rely upon him for our salvation.
** What are some specific steps that we can take, as a class and as individuals, to make our Sunday School hours lead to a stronger belief “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”?
[Encourage class members to commit to reading the passages of scripture in their student study guides before coming to class, and to be prepared to bear testimony, if appropriate, to the principles expressed in those passages. Accept all other suggestions, especially commenting on and committing to any suggestions that are especially relevant to me as a teacher.]