Jesus perfectly understood the path before him when he led his disciples into Jerusalem for Passover. He knew he would be leaving them and told them directly, and through parable, that it is imperative that they learn to recognize him. The ten virgins, the talents, the sheep and the goats, and so many other stories all for the sake of pleading with his followers that they will learn of him and get to know him. “This is life eternal,” he prayed for them, “that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)
The message of scripture is consistent. Each story points to this same truth, that we must come to know our God in order to be sanctified. Joseph Smith taught, “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God.” (Teachings, 345) This is also one of the first trials which the Lord places before his elect, to see if they are willing to really know Christ and apply that knowledge to their earthly ministries. Will we leave our old lives and our deeply ingrained cultural traditions to embark on a quest to truly come to know our God?
This is the very test which Abraham encountered with his son Isaac. When we read of Abraham’s story, we are harshly confronted with a God who seemingly commands child-sacrifice only to prove the moxy of a future prophet. Abraham was raised in a polytheistic world, constantly involved in idol worship and god-sanctioned murder. His own father attempted to take Abraham’s life in order to move up in the ranks of the local religion. Would Abraham sacrifice his son for this new monotheistic God? The question seems to be, “How far are you willing to go into the depths of hell for your beliefs?”
But this isn’t a question God ever asks us. God knows our hearts. He doesn’t need to test us and run it through some divine scan-tron to discern who we really are. But what he does do is present us with experiences which will give us an opportunity to really understand ourselves and formulate our faith. Abraham had been walking with God, learning of him for many many years. Yet, still, there was something in him that clung to the old ways, and God wanted to give him an experience which would inspire a spiritual paradigm shift.
When Abraham embarked on his journey with Isaac, believing that God would want him to kill his son in order for him to become the most enlightened of the priests, he was allowing his old cultural indoctrination to creep in. But it was slight, and God knew that through the experience he was about to have Abraham would learn once and for all that this new God was different. He also knew that Abraham would listen to the angel, so it was safe to let Abraham travel the road he was on and learn for himself.
Sure enough, the angel stopped him, and Abraham now knew, beyond an inkling, that God was loving and merciful and did not condone murder under any pretense. It’s hard for us to fully comprehend how crazy that new knowledge was, and just how reasonable it was for Abraham to doubt it leading up to that scene on the mountain. The pre-Christ world was harsh and unforgiving. Man makes God in his own image, vengeful and unloving, in spite of God’s constant pleas for us to come to know him. And he lets us do this, because he knows that until we experience for ourselves we will never really know who he is.
We’ve been taught that the Abraham and Isaac story is a type of Christ, to point us to him. Some believe that this is because God sacrificed his son the way that Abraham did. But Abraham didn’t sacrifice his son. The real parallel is that we are confronted every day with whether or not we will come to know God. We are presented with experience after experience where we need to choose. Will we rely upon on our senses and worldly learning or will we get to know Christ and understand his ways? The Abraham and Isaac story is not merely a type or fore-shadowing of Christ’s life on Earth. It is a fore-shadowing of our own relationship with our Savior.
Fast forward a few years to Christ’s mortal ministry in Jerusalem. After teaching his disciples about love and it’s many applications in as many ways as he could, through story, direct doctrine, and living example, it was finally time for him to leave and for his disciples to experience for themselves. They had walked with Christ and could have easily made an educated guess about the right way to live, like Abraham, but this wasn’t the kind of test where you read about something and then fill in a bubble with a No. 2 pencil. This had to be lived, their relationship with Christ had to be breathed into their very beings.
Christ’s final week was the test of all tests. Not for Christ, but for his followers. Before leaving for the Mount of Olives, Christ presented an opportunity for his disciples to try living what they had learned.
And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye anything? And they said, Nothing.
Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.
For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.
And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough. (Luke 22:35–38)
Christ knew the force which he would be met with, and that two swords would not be “enough” if the intention was to fight. But this wasn’t the intention. Instead, he was inviting those whose hearts understood his teachings to remember the miracles they had seen and stay true to their faith. He also was giving those who still doubted or feared an opportunity to ask themselves what they would do. To learn for themselves just how dedicated they were to the Christian way, because Jesus wouldn’t be around much longer to help them as they’d been used to.
We don’t have many details as to who did what, but we do know that two swords were presented. Most of the disciples must have seen the experience for what it was and did not bring a sword to the garden. Some would represent the “transgressors” in this story, those who were fearful and felt the need for purse, scrip, and sword. If I’m honest with myself, I often fall into this camp. So did Peter, so I feel like I’m in pretty good company. Much to learn, but an honest desire to do the work to get there.
Jesus’ response when Peter used his sword against Malchus was telling. This is not the way of the Lord. God does not rule with blood and horror. That’s Satan’s gig. Christ’s one and only most perfect law is that of love. He has given us direct commands, poetic parables, a litany of scriptural stories, and even his very life to show us that love is the only way. After all, the very power of God himself is the priesthood, and “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41)
To be like our Father in Heaven we must understand that power. His power. And he abides with us as we have endless earthly experiences which give us opportunity to learn about him, about ourselves, and about the power he wants us all to be able to have. It takes real trial, real calling upon the Lord, and real seeking to get there.
Fast forward again, and we’re in Kirtland, Ohio, in the winter of 1833. Joseph Smith has been receiving report after report of the atrocities befalling the saints in Missouri. He’s been pleading with the Lord for an answer, something he can do to fix it all. So far, very little has been given. Finally, the heavens open and Joseph receives what would become Doctrine and Covenants 101.
Verily I say unto you, concerning your brethren who have been afflicted, and persecuted, and cast out from the land of their inheritance—
I, the Lord, have suffered the affliction to come upon them, wherewith they have been afflicted, in consequence of their transgressions;
Yet I will own them, and they shall be mine in that day when I shall come to make up my jewels.
Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.
For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified.
Behold, I say unto you, there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances.
They were slow to hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; therefore, the Lord their God is slow to hearken unto their prayers, to answer them in the day of their trouble.
In the day of their peace they esteemed lightly my counsel; but, in the day of their trouble, of necessity they feel after me.
Verily I say unto you, notwithstanding their sins, my bowels are filled with compassion towards them. I will not utterly cast them off; and in the day of wrath I will remember mercy.
Pretty heavy charges. He had been trying to guide them for a while, but their attitudes, their fighting and jealousy, kept them swimming in the mire of their own unfaithfulness. They didn’t know him. But he has a plan, a way to give them an experience like Abraham’s, where they will have the opportunity to get out of themselves and learn of Christ. They will get to know God in a way they never have before.
Zion will not be moved. Build up the storehouses, build up the churches, purchase the land, do not be in haste, take your time, and let me be God. Watch and learn. A few months later, Parley Pratt and Lyman Wight show up in Kirtland with more reports for Joseph, and they receive more revelation (Doctrine and Covenants 103).
But verily I say unto you, that I have decreed a decree which my people shall realize, inasmuch as they hearken from this very hour unto the counsel which I, the Lord their God, shall give unto them.
Behold they shall, for I have decreed it, begin to prevail against mine enemies from this very hour.
And by hearkening to observe all the words which I, the Lord their God, shall speak unto them, they shall never cease to prevail until the kingdoms of the world are subdued under my feet, and the earth is given unto the saints, to possess it forever and ever.
But inasmuch as they keep not my commandments, and hearken not to observe all my words, the kingdoms of the world shall prevail against them.
For they were set to be a light unto the world, and to be the saviors of men;
And inasmuch as they are not the saviors of men, they are as salt that has lost its savor, and is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.
To be saviors. There is only one way. To be like Christ and love as he did. And the good that comes from that can begin right away, there is no waiting period. Know Christ, be like Christ, and all the earth will be theirs. And not just theirs, but all saints, including those who will come to know Christ by their light. This is how Zion is built. “Behold, I say unto you, the redemption of Zion must needs come by power.” (Doctrine and Covenants 103:15).
Remember, God’s power is the priesthood. It is love and kindness, persuasion and gentleness, and cannot exist in any other way. The Lord directs Joseph to gather a group of men who will go to Missouri with this “power”. Ask the men, he commands, try to get 500, but even if you can only get 100 go anyway. See, it’s not about how many go because this isn’t about some great grand battle you’re going to fight. This is about who will hear my voice and heed the call to build Zion by virtue of God’s love.
A trip to Missouri would be dangerous. If they are to go into hostile territory as saviors of men, their lives would be on the line. They were not commanded to go in guns blazing. They were commanded to go in with diligence, faith, and prayer, to be a light to the people of Missouri. To slowly but surely establish Zion in the Lord’s own time. “Let no man be afraid to lay down his life for my sake; for whoso layeth down his life for my sake shall find it again. All victory and glory is brought to pass unto you through your diligence, faithfulness, and prayers of faith.” (Doctrine and Covenants 103:27,36).
So the Camp of Israel marches out of Kirtland on their way to help the saints in Missouri reclaim their lands. They left with provisions, purse, scrip, and armed to the teeth. They were going to go down and march those displaced people right back into their lands. Many of the leaders of the camp were unsure how to maintain order with what over the course of the march became an unruly mob. They finally reached the Mississippi River and Joseph heard reports that Missourians were preparing for battle.
Apparently their group of armed men marching to Missouri didn’t look like a peaceful band of Zion-seeking saints, and the Missourians were ready for a fight. The campers became afraid and were on edge, often fighting among themselves. New recruits arrived and the group marched on. They learned that the governor would not help them and they began to lose faith that they could take the lands peacefully, as if simply having more guns on their side than the other was the key to peace.
Still, the Lord stuck with them, and even delivered them from a large mob attack via a storm and subsequent flash flood. But, he tells them, they clearly aren’t ready for this. Zion will have to wait, for it can “only be built upon the law of the celestial kingdom. Therefore, in consequence of the transgressions of my people, it is expedient in me that mine elders should wait for a little season for the redemption of Zion— That they themselves may be prepared, and that my people may be taught more perfectly, and have experience, and know more perfectly concerning their duty, and the things which I require at their hands.” (Doctrine and Covenants 105:5,9–10)
The Lord then gives them some insight into the power which they need to have. He’s going to have them build a temple, so they can more fully learn about him and his priesthood. They’ll need those temple experiences. Without that pure knowledge of God’s power, Zion will never be reclaimed. The majority of the people have not hearkened to the Lord, but for those that have God will prepare an endowment of power if they will remain faithful. Many of the faithful campers became tried and true leaders of God’s church in later years. And again, Zion will be reclaimed, according to the Lord’s timing.
The message of scripture is consistent. Each story points to this same truth, that we must come to know our God in order to be sanctified. Will we leave our old lives and our deeply ingrained cultural traditions to embark on a quest to truly come to know our God? Will we follow him? Will we learn at his feet, through personal study, prayer, and temple worship? Will we abandon our violent methods and become saviors of men? Trim your lamp, top off your oil, for the bridegroom cometh and the only way to salvation is to know him.