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In Our Ward: Lesson 2: “Thou Wast Chosen Before Thou Wast Born”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 12, 2014

Lesson 2: “Thou Wast Chosen Before Thou Wast Born”

Abraham 3
Doctrine and Covenants 138
Moses 4

Purpose: To help class members understand the doctrine of foreordination and their own responsibility to help build up the kingdom of God and bring souls to Christ.

Scripture Discussion and Application

[1. Abraham learns that in the premortal life many spirits were foreordained to their mortal missions.2
2. Jesus Christ was chosen in the Council in Heaven to be our Savior; we chose to follow him. Lucifer (Satan) and the spirits who followed him were cast out of heaven.]
[1. “And we will prove them herewith”
2. “The great and mighty ones”]

LESSON DEVELOPMENT AND APPLICATION

Napoleon Bonaparte.

Probably few Sunday School lessons have ever started with a recollection of the military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte, but that’s how this one begins. In 1797, with much of Continental Europe under his control or influence, the emperor Napoleon laid plans to extend his military conquests even more widely. He wanted to establish a French presence in India, with all the wealth that trade with that part of the world would produce, and weaken England’s trade with India, in preparation for an eventual attack on England herself. The route that Napoleon chose to reach India was across the Mediterranean, into Egypt, then eventually through the Middle East and on into Asia.

His plan did not work. He did capture the island nation of Malta, and conquered several cities in Egypt, and struck out toward Syria. But the Turks and the British, who controlled the Middle East in those days, resisted the French invasion, and eventually drove Napoleon out of Egypt. Napoleon sailed away from Egypt under cover of darkness with a few close associates, leaving most of his troops behind. The abandoned French army eventually surrendered to the British, and as part of their surrender they turned over to the British artifacts they had collected from Egyptian tombs.

The British took those artifacts back to England, and put them on display. Almost overnight, they created a sensation in Britain, not only among scientists and scholars, but among ordinary British subjects. All things Egyptian became the rage – art, jewelry, fashion, architecture, all were heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian artifacts. Untold numbers of archaeologists – or treasure seekers – descended on Egypt, excavating pyramids, plundering tombs, taking back to England anything and everything they could find from ancient Egypt.

In about 1820, some of these treasure-seekers plundered a tomb near Thebes, and collected a number of mummies and other artifacts. Those mummies were sent to New York City for exhibit and sale, and in 1835 four of those mummies found their way to a small town on the western frontier: Kirtland, Ohio. The Latter-day Saints there, as fascinated by Egyptian artifacts as the rest of the world, raised a large amount of money to purchase the four mummies and some papyrus scrolls that had been found wrapped with them.

Joseph Smith’s diary shows that for the next six months he spent some considerable time studying and translating the papyrus records. One of the documents he produced during that time, with some later revisions, was published in 1842 as the Book of Abraham, a first person account of the ancient patriarch Abraham.

Exactly what materials Joseph Smith had, and how he produced the Book of Abraham, has become something of a controversy. His collection of materials was believed to have been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – but in the 1960s, a very small part of those materials, including a facsimile published with the Book of Abraham, turned up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and were acquired by the Church. Egyptologists today say there is nothing in those scraps that have survived that can be translated as the Book of Abraham, and detractors regularly try to cast doubt on Joseph Smith’s prophetic gifts based on the Book of Abraham.

Rather than go into detail concerning the controversy or the rebuttals made by faithful LDS scholars, I will suggest these things:

1. Joseph Smith had prophetic gifts, and was a seer. Studying the King James Bible opened his mind and spirit to the reception of a vision of the three degrees of glory, and caused him to see the “grand panorama” of the vision first seen by Moses thousands of years ago. I have no doubt that having his mind turned to Egypt and the ancient patriarchs, like Abraham, who lived there, could open for him a vision from God of the events written down as the Book of Abraham.

2. We’ve already seen that “translation” as used by Joseph Smith had a different meaning from the usual modern sense of converting text in one language to text in another – without further information, we should not limit our understanding of his “translation” of the Book of Abraham to what might be the usual meaning.

3. In the past few weeks we have seen the Church publish new articles on difficult historical issues – the origin of the restriction of the priesthood, and the 19th century practice of polygamy, and the multiple accounts Joseph Smith gave of his First Vision. I will not be surprised to learn in the next days? or weeks? that the Church has prepared a significant article on the Book of Abraham, or that the scholars working on the Joseph Smith Papers project will offer greater understanding in the coming months. I am perfectly content to wait for these coming resources to better understand the history and translation of the Book of Abraham.

But as far as the content of the Book of Abraham goes, there is no question: It is some of the most powerful scriptural material given by God to the Church. It extends our knowledge of human existence back beyond the beginning of time in a clear and connected picture that is only hinted at in isolated phrases in the Bible.

The Lord showed Abraham a vision, which is recorded in Abraham, chapter 3. Like the later vision shown to Moses, Abraham’s vision opens with a view of the vast creations of God, including all the spirits of mankind. May I have a volunteer read Abraham 3:11-12:

11 Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face, as one man talketh with another; and he told me of the works which his hands had made;

12 And he said unto me: My son, my son (and his hand was stretched out), behold I will show you all these. And he put his hand upon mine eyes, and I saw those things which his hands had made, which were many; and they multiplied before mine eyes, and I could not see the end thereof.

Sometimes people try to dismiss the visions of prophets as merely dreams, or figments of the imagination. Is there anything about the way Abraham reports this experience that strikes you as – I don’t know, more concrete, maybe, than a daydream? [I am struck by the intimate, almost physical nature of the encounter between God and man, of speaking face to face, of the Lord’s hand on Abraham’s eyes.]

The human mind has a limit to what it can comprehend in the way of number. I’ve read that we can comprehend 1, 2 and 3 at a glance, but that above that [draw 6 dots on the board, arranged as they are on the sides of dice] we actually have to count – we recognize this instantly as 6 because we are so familiar with the pattern, but if the dots were scattered at random [draw 6 scattered dots] we would actually have to count them to know how many there are.

** Have you ever tried to understand how vast are the creations of God? How do you do it? How does that make you feel about God? How does that make you feel about yourself – do you feel significant being associated with such glorious things, or do you feel insignificant by being one of so many? Does thinking about the number of God’s creations influence how you think about God himself?

The Lord told Abraham:

Abraham 3:21:

I dwell in the midst of them all; I now, therefore, have come down unto thee to declare unto thee the works which my hands have made, wherein my wisdom excelleth them all, for I rule in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, in all wisdom and prudence, over all the intelligences thine eyes have seen from the beginning; I came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligences thou hast seen.

Then the vision became personal. Could I have a volunteer, please, read Abraham 3:22-23?

22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

23 And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

These scenes of the souls of the human race, before the world was created, were shown not only to ancient prophets like Moses and Abraham, but to latter-day prophets as well. Joseph F. Smith, a few short weeks before he died in 1918, was given a vision that included scenes from before the world was created. That vision is recorded in Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Doctrine and Covenants 138: 53-56

53 The Prophet Joseph Smith, and my father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and other choice spirits who were reserved to come forth in the fulness of times to take part in laying the foundations of the great latter-day work,

54 Including the building of the temples and the performance of ordinances therein for the redemption of the dead, were also in the spirit world.

55 I observed that they were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.

56 Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men.

I asked a minute ago how you felt to think about yourself as merely one of a vast number of spirit children of God. when I am tempted to feel insignificant because of that, these verses from the vision of Joseph F. Smith counteract that – did he see only a mass of spirits, as alike and indistinguishable as the grains of sand on a beach? If Joseph F. Smith, a mortal being, could recognize those whom he named here, to know them as distinct persons by face and name and their callings on this earth, what does that suggest to you about God’s ability to know his children?

[Note: It seems that the standard Sunday School routine is to make a big fuss distinguishing between “foreordination” and “predestination” at this point in any discussion. I think that is a tired remnant of earlier generations’ doctrinal arguments with other churches, and I do not intend to mention it – but of course will accept it if, out of habit, a class member insists on making the point.]

Both Abraham and Joseph F. Smith mention the spirits of some who were “noble and great,” or who were “choice spirits” who were prepared from the beginning to fill important assignments during mortality. Are they and other prophets and apostles the only spirits who were given assignments in the premortal existence? [Look at D&C 138:6 again if necessary, and draw attention to “they, with many others.”] Latter-day prophets have taught that faithful men and women of our generation have callings to fill in this life, every bit as much as those who lead dispensations.

** How would or do you recognize a calling for which you were foreordained? [Accept all reasonable answers. If necessary to spark the discussion, read Doctrine and Covenants 58:27-28:

27 Verily I say, men should be anxioulsy engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;

28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.]

Although we cannot know all the behind-the-scenes, or beyond-the-veil, guidance that may be involved in the lives of individual human beings, I suppose it is reasonable to assume that God sends us to earth in the time and place necessary to fill our foreordained callings. It is impossible for me to imagine that Joseph Smith could have filled his mission to open this last dispensation had he been born into the royal family of Russia or into an impoverished family in rural India. How do you feel about being born when and how and to whom you were born, in terms of filling your foreordained role in the world?

This brings us to another question, an unpleasant one that we seldom address but that I think is important to discuss in context with thinking about foreordination. When you think of the number of souls that have been born into this world in, say, the last 30 years, to say nothing about all of human history, you have to be aware of the miserable circumstances so many were born into. Some children lived only a few hours, discarded in dumpsters and left to die of cold and neglect, without knowing even a moment of love in this world. Some were born into places where they suffered the brutalities of war or starvation or untreatable disease. Some were abused in horrific ways. A very great many were born into such abject poverty that they will never learn to read, much less be able to contribute to the world in recognizable ways. Some, even in our own community, were born under circumstances that practically guarantee they will never know about God or learn his gospel in this life.

How do we account for this? If, as we’ve discussed [someone surely has commented on prominent roles in life being the natural result of greater valiance in heaven – summarize and paraphrase without being so specific that it points to any particular class member], great contributions to the kingdom of God have been made in this life by those who were noble and good in the premortal life, does it naturally follow that those who do not have an obvious role in the plan of God were disobedient in the premortal existence?

Isn’t that a common, sometimes unrecognized assumption, though? His disciples asked Jesus, “Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” And how many times did you hear it whispered, or even openly taught, that the reason black men did not hold the priesthood before 1978 was because they had been “neutral in the war in heaven”?

Let’s go back to Abraham 3, and read verses 22-28:

22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

23 And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

24 And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;

25 And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

26 And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.

27 And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will send the first.

28 And the second was angry, and kept not his first estate; and, at that day, many followed after him.

We read in other places, especially in Moses 4, that Lucifer and all those who followed him were cast out, never to be born into physical bodies in this world. By definition, then, all of those who have been born into the world were followers of Jesus Christ, who kept their first estate and inherited their second estate. Some may not have been as devoted to Christ as others, or have been as noble and intelligent as those who were called to be God’s leaders. But everyone you meet in this life – every soul you hear about in the news – everyone, no matter how humble or great, how righteous or wicked – was a follower of Jesus Christ in the premortal existence. No matter the circumstances of life here, no one is being punished for any act or failure to act in the premortal existence.

Am I just ranting about a pet peeve, or does this have any effect on how we think about the rest of mankind?

Conclusion

I don’t know how you feel individually about being foreordained to an assignment in this life. The challenge seems to be first to find that assignment, and then to figure out how to fulfill it. For many of us, it may not be until the end of our lives when we look back that we are able to recognize what we have done that, at the time, seemed only like routine life and not like filling an assignment from God. But whether we recognize those assignments in this life or have to wait until all is made clear in the next life, we do know this: We have kept our first estate under conditions where a great many of our brothers and sisters fell. We have inherited our second estate, and all of us, in this room at least, have some knowledge of how we should behave and what we must do to keep it.

Next week we will begin reading the Old Testament itself, along with our modern-day scriptures. Reading assignment for next lesson: Moses 1-3, Abraham 4-5, Genesis 1-2.



6 Comments »

  1. I heard the following story at an area conference about 20 years ago. I’m thinking the speaker was Elder Buche, but I can’t be sure.

    A woman went to her bishop and asked for a blessing. She was struggling with her husband, an alcoholic, and her two sons who were starting to follow his example. The bishop felt like pointing out that most of her problems were of her own making and caused by her choices. But as he gave her the blessing he found himself telling her that the Lord was very pleased with her efforts. He had counseled her to choose an easier life, but because of her great love for these people, she had chosen to support them in the mortal trials they knew they would face. The woman went away comforted, and the bishop went away humbled.

    Since hearing that, I have always wondered if perhaps the people undergoing horrible trials are the particularly good spirits taking the advanced courses here, while I’m still working on Mortality 101 and not always doing so well.

    Comment by LauraN — January 12, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

  2. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. I stayed home from church with two sick babies and enjoyed reading what people at church the world over would be learning in Sunday School. You tricked me with Napoleon. I thought you were leading to this quote by F.W. Boreham (which also applies to the lesson):

    “A century ago [in 1809] men were following with bated breath the march of Napoleon & waiting with feverish impatience for news of the wars. And all the while in their homes babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles.

    “In one year between Trafalgar and Waterloo there stole into the world a host of heroes: Gladstone was born in Liverpool; Tennyson at the Somersby Rectory; and Oliver Wendell Holmes in Massachusetts. Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, and music was enriched by the advent of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg.

    “But nobody thought of babies, everybody was thinking of battles. Yet which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies of 1809? We fancy God can manage His world only with great battalions, when all the time he is doing it with beautiful babies. When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants discovering, God sends a baby into the world to do it.”

    I can’t wait to share the history you shared here with my husband tonight when he finally makes it home from church.

    Comment by Chocolate on my Cranium — January 12, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

  3. Wow – this line:

    But as far as the content of the Book of Abraham goes, there is no question: It is some of the most powerful scriptural material given by God to the Church.

    Comment by David Y. — January 12, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

  4. I agree with David Y. and with your assessment. The PoGP is my favorite volume of the scriptures for that very reason.

    Comment by Eric B — January 13, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

  5. Re: foreordination and the fulfilling of assignments. I rather think of foreordination in a more generic way. I have had a gazillion different church callings in my 35 year church life. I don’t think I was foreordained to serve as a primary teacher – or bishop – at a certain time. Because we come to earth with some measure of spiritual gifts, I think we were “set apart” generally to build the kingdom of a God however and wherever we landed. I would concede that there are certain great and noble ones who build the kingdom in big ways. But all of us have just as great a chance to make it to the CK as a prophet. I think Abraham 3:25′s reference to proving ourselves means each of us willed be judged based on the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

    Comment by IDIAT — January 14, 2014 @ 5:07 am

  6. Thank you, Ardis! I didn’t know you wrote up your lessons. I love your comments on other blogs I follow, and I check out the occasional interesting historical post here.

    This spoke to me.

    I don’t know if you follow the Exponent, but they’ve been doing a series on birth. I used the story from this post in my lesson, along with the lyrics of O My Father, to lead into the “how do we find our assignment and figure out how to fulfil it?” section.

    I also loved that Boreham quote that ComC shared – I wish I’d started my lesson that way! And I’m glad I know to follow along here now, from the beginning of the OT :)

    Now to try and work Napoleon into a future lesson …

    Comment by Olea — January 17, 2014 @ 7:39 am

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