“I Beheld the Redeemer of the World”

Brant Gardner

This passage echoes verse 16’s question: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” which was answered by a vision of the Messiah’s birth. Here, the angel does not ask Nephi if he knows the condescension of God but is rather commanded to behold the condescension of God. What he sees, again, is the person of the Atoning Messiah. In this text, “condescension of God” is actually a title for the Messiah, just like “Prince of Peace,” “Only Begotten,” etc. Each title has a dual function: it is a synonym for the Atoning Messiah and also describes one of his qualities or attributes.

Literature: Nephi’s vision of the Messiah is a perfect example of where the Book of Mormon apocalyptic diverges from the Old World literary canons. The Messianic themes in the Old Testament (as we have received it, and therefore as Joseph Smith experienced it) are eschatological (dealing with the earth’s end). The biblical expectation of a Messiah is that his arrival will end the world as we know it (e.g., Isa. 35:4, 40:10; Joel 3:15–17).

Beginning with Nephi’s Christological exegesis of his father’s vision, the Book of Mormon takes a very different approach. Nephi’s Messianic vision does not focus on the end of time but on the meridian of time. The Messiah is not a king coming to his realm (the triumphant Messiah) but a redeemer atoning for the sins of the world (the Atoning Messiah). Of course, Nephi does not deny the Messiah’s return in glory, but his emphasis is on the first, not the second, coming. The Book of Mormon emphasizes the Atoning Messiah in ways that the epigraphic literature tells us that the pre-reform Judah understood the role of the Messiah.

This conceptual division is echoed in the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from around two hundred years before Christ, but not discovered until 1947). The Messiah figures strongly in several texts pre-dating Christianity, principally from the Hasmonean period, but possibly reflecting even earlier thought. Particularly interesting is the idea of the presence of two messiahs, one a descendant of Aaron and the other a descendant of Israel. The two messiahs of Qumran differ from the conceptual division in Nephi, but the pre-Christian possibility of a multi-faceted Messiah lends strength to Nephi’s position.

The Dead Sea Scrolls also establish a pre-Christian origin for the Messiah’s atoning function. A fragment of 4Q541 describes a future priest who shows dramatic correlations to the atoning mission of the mortal Messiah:

And he shall make atonement for all those of his generation, and he shall be sent to all the children of his people. His command is like the command of Heaven, and his teaching is like the will of God. The Sun everlasting will shine and its fire will give warmth to all the ends of the earth. It will shine on darkness; then will darkness vanish from the earth, and mist from the land.
They will speak many words against him, and many [falsehood]s; they will concoct lies and speak all kinds of slander against him. His generation is evil and perverse.

In addition to the emphasis on atonement, the Qumran community apparently also connected a future figure (who was not necessarily the Messiah), with the resurrection of the dead:

[. . .] those who do good before the Lor[d] [shall bless… and no]t as these who curse. They shall b[e] destined to die, [when] the One who revives [rai]ses the dead of His people.
Then we shall [giv]e thanks and relate to you the righ[teous acts] of the Lord that [. . .] thos[e destined to d]ie. And He shall open [graves.…]

This figure will perform tasks that we know as the Savior’s work. When the Nephites speak of the Atoning Messiah, they will also deal with the resurrection from the dead. While this is certainly a Christian theme, it is not as foreign to pre-Christian thought as has been assumed.

Nevertheless, the Nephites emphasized the Atoning Messiah more strongly than any other known literature. Perhaps the separation from the Old World allowed the people of the New World to form a more accurate picture of the coming of the Atoning Messiah, as they would not be participating in the events of his life other than the signs that appeared at his birth. Of course, Christ’s manifestation to the Nephites is an experience perhaps even greater than his post-resurrection appearances in the Old World, but even that is a question of degree, not kind. Nephi’s vision sets before his people a different religious theme than that of post-Josiah Israel, but it was not a theme completely foreign to that world. It is, rather, what Lehi and Nephi would see as the restoration of an important doctrine. It would not be surprising if early Nephites saw themselves as part of a restoration of an earlier form of the gospel similar to what Latter-day Saints understand as the modern restoration of the early Christian gospel.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1