Robert L. Millet Blog Posts
Publications Director of BYU Religious Studies Center
POSTED BY: Millet
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the grand news, the glad tidings that through our exercise of faith in Jesus Christ and his Atonement, coupled with our repentance that flows therefrom, we may be forgiven of our sins and justified or made right with God. Our standing before the Almighty has thereby changed from a position of divine wrath to one of heavenly favor and acceptance; we have traveled the path from death to life (see Romans 5:9–10). “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). Or, as Peter taught, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: casting all your care upon him: for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7; emphasis added). Surely it is the case that we can cast our burdens upon the Lord because he cares for us—that is, because he loves us. But I sense that more is intended by Peter in this passage. We can give away to Him who is the Balm of Gilead our worries, our anxieties, our frettings, our awful anticipations, for he will care for us, that is, will do the caring for us. It is as though Peter had counseled us: “Quit worrying. Don’t be so anxious. Stop wringing your hands. Let Jesus take the burden while you take the peace.” This is what C. S. Lewis meant when he pointed out that “f you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way” (Mere Christianity, 130–31; emphasis added).
Following his healing of a blind man, Jesus spoke plainly to the self-righteous Pharisees: “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.” What an odd statement! And yet it goes to the heart of that which we have been discussing—our need to acknowledge our need. Those who have accepted Christ and his saving gospel come to see things as they really are. They once were blind, but now they see. Those who choose to remain in their smug state of self-assurance, assuming they see everything clearly, these are they that continue to walk in darkness. Thus Jesus concluded, “If ye were blind”—that is, if you would acknowledge and confess your blindness, your need for new eyes to see who I am and what I offer to the world—“ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9: 41).
It was Jacob, son of Lehi, who wrote that those who are “puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he [the Holy One of Israel] despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them” (2 Nephi 9:42; compare 1 Corinthians 3:18; 4:10; 8:2). On the other hand, “the poor in spirit,” those who consider themselves spiritually bankrupt without heavenly assistance and divine favor, those who come unto Christ and accept his sacred offering, inherit the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 5:3; 3 Nephi 12:3).
Let’s be wise and honest: We cannot make it on our own. We cannot pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. We are not bright enough or powerful enough to bring to pass the mighty change necessary to see and enter the kingdom of God. We cannot perform our own eye surgery. We cannot pry our way through the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem. We cannot make ourselves happy or bring about our own fulfillment. But we can “seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in [us] forever” (Ether 12:41). Then all these things will be added unto us (see Matthew 6:33). That’s the promise, and I affirm that it’s true.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, begins this Friday night at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” The eight-day festival in 2009 runs from Saturday, December 12, to Saturday, December 19. It is a holiday period of considerable significance, both religiously and historically, to Jews the world over. But it should also be of some importance to Christians, including Latter-day Saints, for without the events celebrated in Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas.
Here’s the story: The ancient Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted the name Epiphanes), and he set a goal to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon.
Seeking this goal with the Jews, Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and its Jewish temple, replacing the ceremonies that honored the God of Israel with pagan rites, and converting the edifice into a shrine for Zeus. The temple was defiled. Pigs were slaughtered on its altar by false priests in acts of disdain for the law of Moses and Jewish values.
Jewish religion in general was outlawed. The scriptures (books of what we call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Jewish ordinances and practices, such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became capital crimes. The historical book of 1 Maccabees reports that “the women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity would have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by a Hasmonean priest known as Judah Maccabee. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (around our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s temple mount, and liberated the temple from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy temple. According to rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests entered the temple they found only one jar of consecrated olive oil to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the temple holy place for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamp. The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This was seen as a miracle and a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Modern Jews do a number of things in their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukiah) is the main instrument of the lighting. Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the arms of the menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lit Hanukiah is placed in a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicey, fried potato pancakes) and donuts known as sufganiot. The frying in oil is a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the holiday season. And children often play a game with a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Sometimes Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the scriptural law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved.
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of interest to know that Jesus, who was genuinely Jewish, traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah. The Gospel of John reports, “It was . . . the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). Jesus honored the Hanukkah festival the same way he honored the Passover and other feasts: he taught the people of his own divine identity and mission.
Christians also ought to consider this: If there had been no Hasmonean revolt, and if Jerusalem and the temple had not been liberated and rededicated—if Antiochus and the Syrians had succeeded in obliterating Jewish religion and identity—then there would not have been a Jewish village called Nazareth, nor would there have been a Davidic Jewish village called Bethlehem. There would have been no Jewish nation awaiting the coming of that Redeemer. The entire setting for the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth would not have existed!
But, thanks be to heaven, there was a revolt, and the Jewish nation not only survived but thrived. And because of these events, the way was prepared for the first Christmas. It seems entirely appropriate at this season that we join in wishing each other “Happy Holidays.” Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by David Rolph Seely, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
The Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur in Hebrew—is the most solemn and holy day of the Israelite calendar. It falls on the tenth day of the seventh month, and this year (2009) it will begin at sundown on September 27. Ancient Israelites prepared themselves by refraining from work as on the Sabbath, repenting of their sins, and fasting. The purpose of this day is described in Leviticus: “For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord” (Leviticus 16:30). The high priest performed a series of rituals, including washing himself, offering sacrifices, and taking blood into the Holy of Holies of the temple, where he sprinkled it on the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. The power of the Lord to cleanse his people was dramatized when the high priest cast lots over two goats. One goat was designated as belonging to the Lord and was sacrificed by the high priest. The high priest took the other goat and transferred the sins of the people to this goat by laying his hands on its head. The second goat, called the “scapegoat” in English, was driven into the wilderness, symbolizing the cleansing of the people from the stain of ritual impurity and sin.
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament teaches the doctrine of the Atonement of Christ through the symbolism of the Day of Atonement. Christians believe that Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice to cleanse his people from their sins. Just as the high priest on the Day of Atonement, Jesus “by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12). Because Latter-day Saints understand the Day of Atonement was part of the law of Moses fulfilled in Christ, we do not formally celebrate this occasion, but we do regularly take of the tokens of the sacrament as symbols of the power of the redemption of Christ to cleanse us from our sins and transgressions.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 the Jews were no longer able to offer sacrifice, and the celebration of Yom Kippur moved from the temple to the synagogue. Today Jews celebrate Yom Kippur as the culmination of the process of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month. For nine days Jews engage in personal retrospection and repentance, reaching out to those around them to confess their sins and ask forgiveness. On the tenth day, Yom Kippur, each individual solemnly presents him or herself before God in the synagogue in fasting and prayer seeking for divine forgiveness for their sins and shortcomings. In light of the absence of the temple, the Talmud prescribes the study and recitation of the biblical ritual described in Leviticus 16 on Yom Kippur. The meaning of Yom Kippur is eloquently expressed in Song of Songs Rabbah 6.11: “Just as a nut falls into some dirt you can take it up and wipe it and rinse it and wash it and it is restored to its former condition and is fit for eating, so however much Israel may be defiled with iniquities all the rest of the year, when the Day of Atonement comes it makes atonement for them, as it is written, ‘For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you.’”
One year my family and I experienced Yom Kippur in Jerusalem. There was complete silence in the streets throughout the day as all normal daily activities came to a complete stop. It was a vivid reminder of the need to take time, whether once a year, or once a week, to pause and inventory one’s standing with God and with each other, and to seek to find “at-one-ment” with the Lord through repentance and divine forgiveness.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The Smithsonian magazine featured an interesting article by Barbara Kreiger on King Herod this past month (see “Finding Herod’s Tomb,” [August 2009]: 36–43). Last year, Ehud Netzer, a famous Israeli archeologist, announced that he had found Herod’s tomb (see RSC blog posting for December 12, 2008)—a startling news report that caught the attention of scholars and the popular media.
Archeologists have been looking for this tomb for a very long time. In this latest update of its discovery, Kreiger provides a wonderful word-picture of the Herodium (the fortress-palace of Herod in the Judean wilderness some seven miles south of Jerusalem) and some stunning photographs, including one of the reconstructed royal sarcophagus Netzer found (see p. 39)
In addition to telling an engaging story, the article provides a view of the original mausoleum reconstructed by Netzer himself (pp. 41–42). He estimates that it was a seven-story building located about halfway up the artificial mountain Herod built for his largest palace-fortress. So dominant was the site in antiquity, that the inhabitants of Jerusalem could see it. This is simply amazing!
When I lived in Jerusalem (1997–98) some 250,000 people visited the Herodium each year. We took our BYU students there each semester. I felt like I was walking up the hill myself as I read this article. Kreiger not only captures the lay of the land in her well-written essay, but also captures the tension that permeates the air today: “I see Arab villages and Israeli settlements in three directions” (p. 39). The conflict between Arab villagers and Israeli settlers has virtually stopped all tourism to the site today. “But to the east,” she continues, “cultivation abruptly stops as the desert exerts its authority, plummeting out of sight to the Dead Sea, then rising again as the mountains of Jordan” (p. 39). The conflict between wilderness and civilization is as real as the conflict between to people who claim ownership of the land. Standing at the Herodium and viewing the scene only heightens one’s awe at what Herod did here when he built his fortress-palace and then built his mausoleum.
In the end, no matter what one thinks of Herod, one must surely admit that Herod was one of the greatest builders in antiquity. His tomb and his fortress-place in the Judean desert demonstrate that fact. The work of Ehud Netzer provides us another window into the world of the first century—a world dominated by kingdoms and rulers who had a different vision than that of Jesus of Nazareth.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Luke prepared a two-part work known as the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts nearly two thousand years ago, but the stories are as still as fresh and exciting as any modern story. He may be at his best in the last two chapters of Acts, which contain one of the finest first-century sea travel narratives to have survived from the past (see Acts 27–28). Paul had been languishing in prison for two years at the Roman provincial capital of Judea when Luke begins this well-known part of the story: “And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band” (Acts 27:1).
Luke provides a dramatic account of a storm, a warning, and then a shipwreck. Paul, who has been pictured as tireless missionary out to save the world, does in fact save the crew, soldiers, and prisoners. They find safety on an island, most likely modern Malta, and after three months, board a grain ship from Alexandria, Egypt, headed for Rome.
Luke continues, “And landing at Syracuse [in modern Sicily], we tarried there three days. And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium [modern Reggio Calabria, Italy]: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli [modern Pozzuoli, just north of Naples]” (Acts 28:12–13).
I have been retracing Paul’s journeys during the last fifteen years. This has been not only a professional project (I teach New Testament) but also a personal quest—Paul has had a hold on me for some time. This past Sunday, I was finally able to visit one site that has been on my agenda for a very long time—Pozzuoli. With an old missionary companion, Steve Smoot, leading the way, we made our way to this quite small Italian seaside town.
Pozzuoli has been in the news lately. Only last week archaeologists unearthed a marble head of the Roman emperor Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (click here).
At this point, Luke transitions from the sea travel narrative to the land travel narrative with six emotionally laden words: “and so we went toward Rome” (Acts 28:14). Of course, Rome was the final destination of the journey, but more importantly, the climax of his story in Acts—Paul will announce the “good news” in Rome, the heart of the empire itself.
The best part of visiting historical sites is that from that day forward I will feel something different as I teach a particular story. Like Luke, I will be able to provide a word picture to my students. In this case, I will visualize the blue Mediterranean Sea, the shoreline crowded with boats, nets, and birds, and the surrounding hilltop horizon at Pozzuoli. In my mind’s eye, I will picture Paul climbing the bluffs that separate the village from the plain above to begin his journey toward Rome. I will recall the heat and humidity and the smell of the seawater and the fish. My students will travel with me as we travel with Luke and Paul to Pozzuoli while reading the account of a journey to Rome.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk every day and then celebrate with family each evening at dinner. Several years ago during this special season, I was leading a group of BYU Jerusalem students on a field trip into the West Bank (known today as the Palestinian Territories or simply as Palestine). Nablus, ancient Shechem, was just heating up as one of the flash points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so a BYU Palestinian security guard (all of whom were loved by the students) accompanied us as additional safety precaution for our trip into this Palestinian area. As we made our way back to Jerusalem, the students were surprised when he pulled out his lunch and began to eat it. As he looked around with a sandwich in one hand, he said to the shocked students, “Hey, I’m Christian!” It had not dawned on them that any of the security guards could have been Christians; they were simply assumed to be Muslims.
My experience as tour director to the Holy Land is that most North American tourists assume that all Palestinians or Arab-Israelis are Muslims. Truly the Arab Christians are “the forgotten faithful” (see “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians,” National Geographic, June 2009, 78–97). Surprisingly, in 1914 more than 26 percent of the population living in what is known today as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, and Syria were Christian (87). Not too long ago, Palestinian Christians constituted the majority in Bethlehem, representing about 80 percent of the population. Today they make up about 10 percent of what is now decidedly a Muslim city. The decline in Bethlehem, as well as Nazareth, parallels what has happened in the entire region, where Christians now constitute less than 9 percent of the total population. Ironically, today, much of the West views these Christians suspiciously, and at the same time they are increasingly marginalized and even forced to convert or flee by their Muslims neighbors. They are between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
It may be interesting to note that there have been many well-known Christians from the Middle East or Middle Eastern descent. For example, Abdalá Jaime Bucaram Ortiz, Lebanese Catholic president of Ecuador (1996–97); John Sununu, Palestinian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox Christian U.S. political leader; Carlos Ghosn, Lebanese Maronite Christian CEO of Nissan and Renault; Hanan Ashrawi, Anglican Palestinian activist and spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority; Paul Anka, Syrian Christian U.S. pop singer; Salma Hayek, Lebanese-Mexican Roman Catholic actress; Azmi Bishara, Arab-Israeli Greek Orthodox member of the Israeli Knesset; and Tony Shalhoub, Lebanese Maronite Christian and Emmy Award-winning TV star of Monk.
A few more experiences in the Middle East reveal the unique situation that Middle Eastern Christians find themselves in today.
In a private conversation with a Palestinian Christian friend several years ago, he told me he did not like living under Israeli occupation but he feared that if the Palestinian established their own nation, it would become an Islamic religious state. In what I can only describe as complete but composed despair, he added, “There may be no future for me and my family in this land,” a land where Christianity was born and a land where his family had lived for more than five hundred years as Christians.
During a tour of the Holy Land five or six years ago, several participants talked to a Palestinian during one of our rest stops. Apparently, the brief discussion had begun with a few harmless questions about his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, as they talked with him, it became clear that they supported the current policies of the political state of Israel, including the expansion of the Jewish settlements into Palestinian lands of the West Bank. As I drew nearer, they asked him, “Why don’t the Palestinians just move to Jordan and allow Israelis to have their own country?” They apparently assumed that Palestinians did not have the same kind of historical connection or claims to the land that Jews did—that the Palestinians, as Muslims, were aliens and foreigners in the Holy Land.
These tourists were surprised when he responded, “Why don’t you Americans think or care about us, your Christian brothers and sisters? Aren’t we followers of Jesus like yourselves? Aren’t Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and Jerusalem sacred to us too?” Then he revealed himself as a Palestinian Christian—not a Palestinian Muslim. They simply assumed, like my BYU students, that all Arabs or Palestinians were Muslims. They discovered in their conversation that his family had lived in the land for centuries and had been Christians far longer than their own families, who were most likely pagan peasants living in the backwaters of Europe when his progenitors accepted Christianity in the Holy Land nearly two thousand years ago. Somehow, it now seemed wrong to them that believing Christians who had lived in the land for so long were persecuted, driven, and marginalized by competing political, economic, and religious ideologies of the region.
This month’s National Geographic article on Middle Eastern Christians is a great introduction to their story, highlighting an important insight to the conflict that may not be as familiar to us as it should be. In the end, it is all a lot more complex than we generally assume.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
When Jesus came to Jerusalem on what would be his last visit, he walked from the Mount of Olives to the Holy City. As he did so, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). Luke adds, “And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:39–40).
Stones are everywhere in this rugged land. Not only do people see them everywhere; they walk on them and visit places made out of stone, such as the Garden Tomb or the rock-hewn tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the bedrock where Abraham offered Isaac, now covered by the Dome of the Rock; the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (part of the altar in the Church of All Nations); and the massive Herodian retaining wall of the Temple Mount. I returned this past week from a visit to Jerusalem. Sometimes church bells, the call of the muezzin, and the Jewish Sabbath siren capture our attention—competing sounds floating through the air. But the real story is in the stones.
On my flight to Jerusalem, I read Simon Goldhill’s latest book, Jerusalem: City of Longing (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008). It helped me in my visit, providing some insights that allowed me to tie together a mass of information and years of experiences in Jerusalem. As I thought about the people I met (guides, tourists, cab drivers, and a host of other people), I realized how often most of us want to see the stories about Jerusalem as “black and white.” However, as Goldhill proves in this well-written narrative, “the city has to be viewed from multiple perspectives if it is to be appreciated” (viii), and the stories are “much more complicated and much more interesting than the stereotypes” (ix).
Instead of producing a chronological storyline, the author provides a look at different places (most associated with rock or stone) connected to pivotal points in the story of Jerusalem. As he tells his story, Goldhill provides some of the “competing narratives” (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) providing their own black-and-white versions of the events (282). He adroitly concludes, “The tensions between the three Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] are intently aimed at the holy places, their possession, their guardianship, their symbolic value” (47). In a very real sense, guardianship of each site allows each group to share its own validating narrative.
Goldhill concludes, “Jerusalem has a strange relation to stone” (224). He notes that even “the archaeologists try to make [them] speak” (225). Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is “the inevitable disappointment of the lost, the fragmentary, the unknowable and shattered past” when relying upon archaeology (225).
Not everyone will agree with the sites and stories Goldhill decided to include, but readers will discover that he “tried to tell this story in as simple and as neutral a way as possible” (281). Whether you have visited Jerusalem in the past, plan to visit Jerusalem in the future, or are only interested in Jerusalem, this book is worth a visit—providing a nuanced approach to a complex city. He concludes, “To be in Jerusalem is always to wander in a city of longing, as one seeks to find one’s own place in the layers of history, imagination, belief, desire, and conflict that make Jerusalem what it is” (332).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
This week’s blog was written by guest writer Eric D. Huntsman, associate professor of ancient scripture.
During his conference talk of April 5, 2009, President Uchtdorf referred to Sunday morning as Palm Sunday. Looking forward to Easter, he encouraged members of the Church to focus their minds more fully on the great atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. President Uchtdorf said, “It is fitting that during the week from Palm Sunday to Easter morning we turn our thoughts to Jesus Christ, the source of light, life, and love. The multitudes in Jerusalem may have seen Him as a great king who would give them freedom from political oppression. But in reality He gave us much more than that. He gave us His gospel, a pearl beyond price, the grand key of knowledge that, once understood and applied, unlocks a life of happiness, peace, and fulfillment.” In his talk, Elder Holland also pointed to the events of the Savior’s last week: “As we approach this holy week—Passover Thursday with its Paschal Lamb, atoning Friday with its cross, Resurrection Sunday with its empty tomb—may we declare ourselves to be more fully disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today is Good Friday, observed by much of the Christian world as a day of great solemnity and holiness. As a young boy, aware of the day because of my many Roman Catholic and high-church Protestant friends and neighbors, I thought the term “Good Friday” was an oxymoron. What was so good about the day Jesus died? Only as I became more mature in the gospel did I come to understand that Jesus’ death was holy, a sacred act sealing the atoning journey that had begun the night before when he took upon himself our sins and our sorrows and then, as a sacrificial victim, carried that burden to the altar—in this case a cross—where he paid the ultimate price. Later I came to understand another, linguistic nuance. Many see the use of “good” in Good Friday to be an archaic use as in “good-bye.” Here it may be a synonym for “God,” in which case it is “God’s Friday,” that day of cosmic significance when the Father reconciled the world to himself: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:8–12).
As a Latter-day Saint, so much of what Good Friday commemorate once seemed uncomfortable to me. “We worship a living Christ, not a dead Christ,” was the common refrain I grew up hearing. It was easier to acknowledge that Jesus somehow took upon himself the burden of our sins and sorrows in Gethsemane and then move as quickly as possible through all the unpleasantness of the trial, abuse, and crucifixion to the joy of Easter morning. The cross was particularly unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, to me. The Church does not rely heavily upon images in our churches and temples, although other kinds of symbolism abound. Not understanding the theological details of the mass being a “real sacrifice” in the Roman Catholic tradition, I did not grasp why the crucifix carried such weight to my friends. Not bothering to ask my Protestant friends what the cross meant to them, until adulthood I was oblivious to the fact that to them the cross was not just a symbol of his death for us, it was also, to them, a symbol of his resurrection because the cross was empty!
Further study, however, has brought a new awareness of the scriptural and symbolic richness of the imagery of Jesus’ death on the cross. Here it is not the cross itself, whether it was an upright pole or simple scaffolding upon which the victim’s crossbeam was tied or nailed. Nor is it the religious iconography of a Latin or Greek cross. Instead, for me, the significance of the crucifixion lies in the image of Christ “being lifted up,” the cross itself as a tree, and in the lasting marks or tokens of his sacrifice that it left.
Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he must be lifted up as part of his returning to the Father and his drawing of all men to himself (see John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32–33), and the last time he makes it clear that this was a reference to how he would die. Crucifixion was a humiliating but above all a very public form of execution, but what seems to be significant here is that Jesus’ sacrifice is there for all, in every age and place, to see. John 3:14 directly connects it with the raising of the brazen serpent upon a pole in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:9), an image that Book of Mormon authors recognized and expanded (see 2 Nephi 25:20; Alma 33:19; Helaman 8:14–16). Therefore the crucifixion illustrates that Jesus’ salvific death provides healing and life to all who will simply look to him.
But perhaps the strongest endorsement of “lifting up” imagery came from Jesus himself, who told the Nephites: “My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works” (3 Nephi 27:14–15).
Recognizing that crucifixion was tantamount to “being hanged on a tree” adds another level of symbolism. Under the law of Moses, cursed was anyone who was hanged on a tree (see Deuteronomy 21:22–23), perhaps explaining one of the reasons why Jesus’ opponents were anxious to have the Romans crucify him. While it is not completely clear what rights of capital punishment the Jewish authorities might have had (the prohibition against putting any man to death in John 18:31 might have referred to Jewish law, since they could not execute on Passover), having the Romans kill Jesus did more than shift blame. Jewish execution for blasphemy would have been stoning, whereas Roman execution for treason or rebellion was crucifixion. The high priest had asked Jesus the night before, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61), and nothing could have proved that Jesus was just the opposite, cursed of God, than having him hanged on a tree. Nevertheless, this “cursing” was part of the Savior’s descending below all things. Indeed, Paul wrote, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).
What was amazing, however, was that the cross, the Tree of Cursing, became, in effect, a Tree of Life to us. After Jesus expired, a soldier pierced his side with a spear, “and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:24). Hearkening back to Jesus’ discussion of living water with the Samaritan woman in John 4 or his discourse on the life-giving Spirit in John 7 in which rivers of living water flow out of him, this sign suggests that Jesus’ death brought forth life. Indeed, in medieval iconography there developed the image of the “verdant cross,” or green cross, which was often portrayed as sprouting leaves and fruit.
Finally, crucifixion left lasting tokens of the Lord’s saving act, marks that were used to impart a sure witness that he was the Lord and God of those whom he saved. Although the experience of Thomas after the Resurrection does suggest that we should be believing before we receive such assurance (see John 19:24–29), Jesus’ display of the marks in his hands, feet, and side took on almost ritual significance when he appeared to the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).
For these reasons, as I read, review, and ponder the Savior’s last acts on this day, I am no longer skittish of imagery that was once foreign to me. Instead, I rejoice in what Jesus did for me and see it as a necessary precursor not just to Easter morning but to the great gift of eternal life, the precious fruit of the tree, which “is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:26; see also D&C 14:7).
POSTED BY: holzapfel
During December, our thoughts may turn to a wintry day in a small farmhouse in Vermont where Joseph Smith Jr. drew his first breath in 1805. Or we may ponder a hot, muggy Thursday afternoon in June 1844 when the Prophet drew his final breath.
During his lifetime, Joseph Smith was many things—a dutiful son, a loving father, a kind neighbor, a visionary community leader. In addition, he was a prophet of God.
From the beginning, prophets have had specific duties. Noah built an ark. Moses led the children of Israel out of bondage. Joshua let the Israelites into the promised land. Lehi and Jeremiah warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem about an impending exile. Peter and Paul took the gospel to the nations of the earth. No matter what specific assignments they have, all prophets stand as witnesses of the Lord.
Joseph Smith was no different. He received numerous assignments from the Lord. Nevertheless, his greatest and most important role as a prophet was to be a modern witness for Jesus Christ. In 1820, Joseph Smith recorded, “It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith—History 1:17).
In 1832, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon testified, “For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:23).
In 1836, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery testified, “We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah” (Doctrine and Covenants 110:2-3).
Joseph Smith’s prophetic ministry can easily be divided into two separate but related duties.
First, the Prophet was called to testify of Jesus as Savior and Redeemer. He did this primarily through bringing forth the Book of Mormon and establishing the Church of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon and the Church focus on the Atonement of Christ, repentance, salvation, and eternal life. This first assignment saw its culmination in the restoration of the first principles and ordinances of the gospel, which allow us to enter the celestial kingdom. This is called the “fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Second, the Prophet was called to testify of Jesus as the “maker and finisher of our faith.” He did this primarily through the revelations he received, beginning in 1832, regarding exaltation and eternal lives (see Doctrine and Covenants 76, 84, 88, and 93). This last assignment saw its culmination in the temple, in which Latter-day Saints receive the ordinances of the Church of the Firstborn that allow them to come unto the presence of Elohim.
All the blessings and promises we announce to the inhabitants of the earth come through and by Jesus Christ—God’s own son. Certainly, it is all “good news.” Without Jesus Christ, we have nothing. Joseph Smith said on May 12, 1844, just a few weeks before he was murdered, “The Savior has the words of eternal life—nothing else can profit us” (Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., Words of Joseph Smith [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980], 365).
As we listen to Joseph’s witness of Jesus Christ, we hear the voice of Jesus because “Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer” (William W. Phelps, “Praise to the Man,” Hymns [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 27).