Lesson 21: “What Is the Sign of Thy Coming?”
Joseph Smith–Matthew 1
Matthew 23:39, 24
Purpose: To help class members recognize the signs that will precede the Savior’s Second Coming and to encourage members to prepare themselves for this great event.
Joseph Smith Translation
We’re all familiar with the “JST” footnotes in our Bible – small but significant changes Joseph Smith made to the text of the King James text that are found in the footnotes, and longer passages that are found in a separate section after the Bible Dictionary. The passage we’ll be discussing today – Matthew 24 – is so important, and was so heavily revised by the Prophet, that Franklin D. Richards, mission president in England saw a need for Saints to have some of the Prophet’s writings that were not then commonly available, chose to include it in his first edition of the Pearl of Great Price in 1851.
Let’s review a few things that you may already know about the Joseph Smith Translation.
On May 15, 1829, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood under the hands of John the Baptist, and each man baptized the other. The spiritual power of this ordination and ordinance were immediately recognized.
Joseph Smith–History 1:73-74 (1st sentence only)
73 Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation.
74 Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of.
This new ability to read and understand the scriptures, coupled with Joseph’s earlier concerns about the ambiguity of scripture – you’ll remember that the contentions of the various sects in his day was one of the things that put him on the path to his First Vision – coupled with what he was learning as he translated the Book of Mormon, apparently caused Joseph to engage even more deeply in Biblical study. In October of that year, he bought a new Bible in which to record the insights and revelations and new understandings he was gaining. That Bible, and some handwritten pages of Biblical text associated with it, exists today, in the archives of the Community of Christ in Independence; the good relationships and cooperation of leaders and scholars in both churches that have developed in the past generation and allowed us to study Joseph’s notes and intentions carefully, and to reproduce his text with a high degree of confidence. Many – but by no means all – of Joseph’s changes and additions marked in that Bible have been incorporated into the study aids of our own Bibles today.
Joseph worked more or less consistently on his translation for three years, and occasionally returned to it throughout his life. We do not have a complete record of how he worked, but there are some things we can say:
1. The Joseph Smith Translation is not a translation in the normal sense of the word – that is, Joseph did not have copies of Biblical texts in other languages which he simply converted to English.
2. Rather, Joseph appears to have made his changes through the exercise of his prophetic gifts:
a. He may have been shown in vision what earlier prophets saw and recorded their experiences, as with the vision shown to Moses, which is published in the Pearl of Great Price as well as making up an introduction to Genesis in the Joseph Smith Translation
b. He may, through revelation, have restored the original text of some passages that had been corrupted through the ages. This, I think, is what most Church members assume the entire Joseph Smith Translation to be, but there are good reasons not to believe that is the case most of the time. [Be prepared, if necessary, to explain with a whiteboard diagram the way in which scholars can identify the pedigrees of documents.]
c. Most revisions appear to be the result of independent insights given to Joseph Smith: latter-day revelations that clarified material that meant something to ancient writers but the context of which has been lost to us; expansions on the original Biblical text based on new revelation given to Joseph; commentary by Joseph on ancient prophecies that he adapted or expanded to latter-day situations, and so on.
One thing seems abundantly certain: The Joseph Smith Translation was not made as the Book of Mormon was, by recording from beginning to end a narrative dictated by God or recorded by earlier prophets. It was very much a product of Joseph’s own effort: he studied, he pondered, he asked God for explanations, he recorded his insights. In the course of his work – as a result of his asking God for help to understand confusing Biblical passages, he came to understand the gospel as no man had ever done, and many of his revelations received as a result of his Biblical study are recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Are there questions?
Setting for Matthew 24 (Joseph Smith–Matthew 1)
Jesus with his apostles made his last pilgrimage to Jerusalem to attend the Passover celebrations there. Before beginning the journey, he called the Twelve together and told them exactly what to expect. Let’s read from
31 Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.
32 For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on:
33 And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.
That’s explicit, isn’t it? Can you imagine any cause for misunderstanding? And yet the Twelve didn’t understand!
34 And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.
Why do you suppose they “understood none of these things”? Are there times when Latter-day Saints – we in this room – have failed to understand statements that seem – after the fact – to be just as plain as this one? That may be a hard question to answer – we aren’t aware of our own failure to understand until after the fact. [If class members don’t have examples, suggest some well taught principles of provident living: we were warned to get out of debt years before the economic crash; we have been urged to have emergency kits and some level of food storage – some of us may tend to think of those in terms of catastrophic disasters that almost never come, only to realize during a relatively minor personal crisis that such preparation would have made life easier.]
Jesus did go on to Jerusalem. He went to the Temple daily, and preached to both his intimate disciples and to the people at large. As usual, his sermons provoked the leaders of the people, and they laid traps for him in an effort to provide the excuse they needed to arrest him. They questioned him about the payment of taxes, and about points of the law regarding marriage, and about resurrection, and about which was the greatest commandment. He answered all their challenges in ways that left them baffled, with no excuse for his arrest. And he denounced hypocrisy, as discussed in last week’s lesson.
As Jesus left the Temple for the last time, his attention was caught by the building itself. Its stones were massive – some as big as 60 feet long and 9 feet high, with stone columns supporting the porches carved from single stones 37 feet tall. The Temple – this version of it, anyway – was still under construction. Everything was new and undamaged and at the pinnacle of its condition.
Let’s read Matthew 24:1-2
1 And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple.
2 And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
Now let’s read the same idea as modified by Joseph Smith in Joseph Smith–Matthew 1:2
2 And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple; and his disciples came to him, for to hear him, saying: master, show us concerning the buildings of the temple, as thou hast said – They shall be thrown down, and left unto you desolate.
Matthew has the disciples point out the buildings to Jesus, perhaps with some pride, and he dismisses their pride with the remark that the temple will destroyed down to its smallest part. Joseph Smith, on the other hand, has the disciples coming to Jesus to ask him for more information on his teaching about the destruction of the temple, something they have evidently been puzzling over. This is a small difference between the accounts, perhaps, a subtle one, yet for me, at least, it changes my perception of his disciples. Instead of being worldly men concerned with the magnificence of a worldly building, they have become disciples who have been thinking about what Jesus has taught, and sincerely want to understand.
If we were to do a careful verse-by-verse comparison between Matthew 24 and Joseph Smith–Matthew 1, we would note hundreds of differences, some as subtle and revealing as this one, some much more obvious. There isn’t time for that in class, but it would make an interesting project for home study, to line up the two chapters and examine what Joseph Smith has done to expand and clarify the prophecies recorded by Matthew. It’s a study that might strengthen your testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet, as someone who knew and understood the scriptures as no other man has ever done.
Signs of the Second Coming
So – Jesus and his closest disciples left Jerusalem, apparently heading to nearby Bethany where Jesus usually stayed on his trips to Jerusalem. The group paused to rest when they reached the Mount of Olives, and his disciples asked Jesus two questions:
Joseph Smith–Matthew 1:4
4 And Jesus left them, and went upon the Mount of Olives. And as he sat upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying: Tell us when shall these things be which thou hast said concerning the destruction of the temple, and the Jews; and what is the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world, or the destruction of the wicked, which is the end of the world?
The first question – the destruction of the temple, is chiefly of historical interest and I’ll leave you to read that on your own. The second question – the signs of the Lord’s coming – are of more immediate interest to us. We’ve all heard them before. Let’s look at a few of those signs. (All our reading will be from Joseph Smith–Matthew, rather than Matthew.)
27 And now I show unto you a parable. Behold, wheresoever the carcass is, there will the eagles be gathered together; so likewise shall mine elect be gathered from the four quarters of the earth.
28 And they shall hear of wars, and rumors of wars.
29 Behold I speak for mine elect’s sake; for nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
Who are the Lord’s elect? What does he mean by “gathering them from the four quarters of the earth”? What does that mean to us today?
Has there ever been a time, from the Lord’s first coming until today, when there have NOT been wars and famines and pestilences and earthquakes?
When there are clusters of natural disasters, as there have been this year with earthquakes and tornadoes, the tendency among Latter-day Saints is to claim that there are more such events than there have been in the past. Careful study shows, however, that while deadly events like this may be more common in one year than in another year, when you take the long view, there are no more such events in the past decade than there have been in earlier decades as far back as we have reliable records. What do you make of this?
Does that mean that earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes and tsunamis lose their power as signs of the times? Why or why not?
22 For in those days there shall also arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch, that, if possible, they shall deceive the very elect, who are the elect according to the covenant.
This verse (or at least the shorter version of it in Matthew) is often used against the Latter-day Saints, with the accusation that we worship a false Jesus, and we follow false prophets when we listen to Joseph Smith and Thomas S. Monson. How do you answer such accusations?
This verse does warn, however, that the elect of the covenant – the Latter-day Saints who have accepted the new and everlasting covenant, will be deceived by false prophets. How might false prophets come among us? How would we recognize them? What can you, individually, do to protect yourselves and your families against being deceived by such false prophets?
Another version of these prophecies – one that is expanded even from Joseph Smith’s translation – is found in Doctrine and Covenants, section 45, a revelation given, apparently, while Joseph Smith was studying Matthew and seeking to understand what he read there. Let’s read verses 40-42:
40 And they shall see signs and wonders, for they shall be shown forth in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath.
41 And they shall behold blood, and fire, and vapors of smoke.
42 And before the day of the Lord shall come, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon be turned into blood, and the stars fall from heaven.
Goodness! What do these verses mean?
Remember the verses from Luke that we read earlier today – before going to Jerusalem, Jesus told his apostles that his time was at hand, that he would be arrested, and beaten, and spit upon, and die – all of which was to be literally fulfilled a few days later. Yet his apostles did not understand the meaning of what seems to us to be very plain speaking.
“The moon [shall] be turned into blood.” I really have no idea what that really means. Does it mean that for some reason the appearance of the moon from the earth will be red? Does it mean bloodshed on earth over who will control the moon generations from now? Does it mean something else entirely? Whatever it means, I have a feeling that after it happens, the meaning of this verse will be so plain that people will wonder why we did not understand it today.
Is there any value in giving prophecies that we cannot understand today?
What other prophecies about the signs of the Lord’s Second Coming interest you? [During this part of the discussion, insist that class members cite their sources for any prophecies claimed. It is important to stress that we accept prophecies from authentic sources, but that we are equally aware of the false sources that sometimes feed our thinking.]
Conclusion: What It Means to Us Individually
Finally, what is the date of the Lord’s Second Coming?
36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
As important as it is to recognize the signs of the last days, I think it may be most important of all to remember this: that we do not know when the Savior will come. It may be as early as this afternoon; it may not be for another 1,500 years.
What predictions have you heard in the past few years regarding the date of the Second Coming? [Someone is sure to mention the “Rapture” predicted for this past May, or the end-of-the-world Mayan Calendar predictions for 2012:] Before we mock others too loudly, consider this: Haven’t Latter-day Saints also been guilty of predicting the Second Coming contrary to this warning that only God himself knows the time? [Give my own examples if the class doesn’t offer any. Keep discussion brief: the idea is to make the point that we should beware such false prophecies, not to derail the lesson by discussing them.]
Why do you think it is so common, for people both in the Church and out of it, to predict the time for the Second Coming despite this statement that only God knows the timetable?
The Second Coming did not occur in the lifetimes of our grandparents, or of any of the other generations that looked for the signs we have discussed. It may not happen in our lifetime. Has it been a waste of effort, a needless worry, for past generations to watch for the signs? If the Lord does not come until long after we are gone, is it a waste of our time to watch for Him? Why not?
[If no one mentions this, conclude with the observation that regardless of when the Lord returns, each one of us faces our own “end of the world,” when we pass from mortality. Bear testimony to the value of keeping our lives on track by living as though we expected the Second Coming at any time. For all we know, it could come tomorrow morning. For all we know, our own “end of the world” could come as soon.]