Jesus Christ: Overview
Robert L. Millet, “Jesus Christ: Overview,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 8–12.
Jesus Christ is the central figure in the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that “the fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it” (Teachings, p. 121). Latter-day Saints believe that complete salvation is possible only through the life, death, resurrection, doctrines, and ordinances of Jesus Christ and in no other way.
Christ’s relationship to mankind is defined in terms of his divine roles in the three phases of existence—premortal, mortal, and postmortal.
In the premortal life, Jesus Christ, whose main title was Jehovah, was the firstborn spirit child of God the Father and thus the eldest brother and preeminent above all other spirit children of God. In that first estate, he came to be more intelligent than all other spirits, one “like unto God” (Abr. 3:19, 24), and served as the representative of the Father in the creation of “worlds without number” (Heb. 1:1–3; D&C 76:24; Moses 1:33; 7:30). LDS leaders have declared that all revelation since the Fall of Adam has been by, and through, Jehovah (Jesus Christ) and that whenever the Father has appeared unto man, it has been to introduce and bear record of the Son (Joseph Smith Translation [JST], John 1:19; Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1:27). He was known to Adam, and the patriarchs from Adam to Noah worshiped him in humble reverence. He was the Almighty God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God-Lawgiver on Sinai, the Holy One of Israel. Scriptural records affirm that all the prophets from the beginning spoke or wrote of the time when Jehovah would come to earth in the form of man, in the role of a messiah. Peter said, “to him give all the prophets witness” (Acts 2:25–31; 10:43). Jacob taught that “none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ” (Jacob 7:11; cf. Mosiah 3:5–10; 13:33; 3 Ne. 20:24).
Jehovah was born into this life in Bethlehem of Judea and grew up as Jesus of Nazareth. He came in condescension—leaving his station as the Lord Omnipotent to undertake a mission of pain and humiliation, having everlasting consequences for mankind (see 1 Ne. 11; Mosiah 3:5–10). His life was one of moral perfection—he was sinless and completely submissive to the will of the Father (John 5:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; Mosiah 15:2). Jesus is the model and exemplar of all who seek to acquire the divine nature. As taught by Joseph Smith, the Savior “suffered greater sufferings, and was exposed to more powerful contradictions than any man can be.” Through all of this, “he kept the law of God, and remained without sin” (Lectures on Faith, Lecture 5, paragraph 2). The risen Lord asked the Nephites, “What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:27; cf. 12:48).
Jesus was more, however, than sinlessness, goodness, and love. He was more than a model and teacher, more than the embodiment of compassion. He was able to accomplish his unique ministry—a ministry of reconciliation and salvation—because of who and what he was. President Ezra Taft Benson stated, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the most literal sense. The body in which He performed His mission in the flesh was fathered by that same Holy Being we worship as God, our Eternal Father. Jesus was not the son of Joseph, nor was He begotten by the Holy Ghost. He is the Son of the Eternal Father!” (Benson, p. 4). From Mary, a mortal woman, Jesus inherited mortality, including the capacity to die. From his exalted Father he inherited immortality, the capacity to live forever. The Savior’s dual nature—man and God—enabled him to make an infinite Atonement, an accomplishment that no other person, no matter how capable or gifted, could do (cf. Alma 34:9–12). First, he was able, in Gethsemane, in some majestic but incomprehensible manner, to assume the burdens and effects of the sins of all mankind and, in doing so, to engage suffering and anguish beyond what a mere mortal could endure (2 Ne. 9:21; Mosiah 3:7; D&C 18:11; 19:16; Taylor, p. 148). Second, he was able to submit to physical death, to willingly lay down his life and then take up his body again in the resurrection (John 5:26; 10:17, 18; 2 Ne. 2:8).
Latter-day Saints believe that between his death on the cross at Calvary and his resurrection, Jesus’ spirit entered the spirit world, a postmortal place of the disembodied, those awaiting and preparing for the reunion of their bodies and spirits. Peter taught that Christ went into this realm to preach to the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:18–20; 4:6). A modern revelation explains that Jesus did not go himself among the wicked and disobedient who had rejected the truth. Rather, he ministered to the righteous in paradise and organized and empowered them to teach those spirits who remained in darkness under the bondage of sin and ignorance (see D&C 138:29–32). Thus, the Messiah’s mission to “preach good tidings unto the meek,” to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18–19) extended after death into the life beyond.
Jesus “broke the bands of death”; he was the “first fruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20; Alma 11:40–41). He rose from the tomb with an immortal, glorified body and initiated the first resurrection or the resurrection of the just, the raising of the righteous dead who had lived from the days of Adam to the time of Christ (Matt. 27:52–53; Mosiah 15:21–25; Hel. 14:25–26; 3 Ne. 23:7–13). Jesus Christ will come again to earth in power and glory. The first resurrection, begun at the time of Christ’s resurrection, will resume as the righteous dead from the meridian of time to his second coming return with him in resurrected and immortal glory. This second advent will also signal the beginning of the Millennium, a thousand years of earthly peace during which Satan will be bound and have no power over the hearts of those who remain on earth (Rev. 20:1–2; 1 Ne. 22:26). Joseph Smith taught that “Christ and the resurrected Saints will reign over the earth during the thousand years. They will not probably dwell upon the earth [constantly], but will visit it when they please, or when it is necessary to govern it” (Teachingss, p. 268). During this era, Jesus will reveal himself, and, in the words of Isaiah, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Heb. 2:14).
Jesus Christ is the God of the whole earth and invites all nations and people to come unto him. His mortal ministry, as described in the New Testament, was primarily among the Jews. Following his death and resurrection he appeared to his “other sheep,” groups of scattered Israelites. First, as described in the Book of Mormon, he ministered to the Nephites in America. He taught them his gospel and authorized them to officiate in his name. He then visited the lost tribes, the ten northern tribes of Israel, which were scattered at the time of the Assyrian captivity in 721 b.c. (John 10:16; 3 Ne. 15:12–16; 17:4). In addition to the appearances recorded in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, which are ancient scriptural witnesses of the Redeemer, Joseph Smith testified that Jesus Christ, in company with his Eternal Father, appeared to him near Palmyra, New York, in the spring of 1820 to open the dispensation of the fulness of times (Joseph Smith—History 1:1–20). On subsequent occasions the risen Savior has visited and revealed himself to his latter-day prophets and continues to direct his latter-day church and kingdom.
Latter-day Saints center their worship in, and direct their prayers to, God the Eternal Father. This, as with all things—sermons, testimonies, prayers, and sacraments or ordinances—they do in the name of Jesus Christ (2 Ne. 25:16; Jacob 4:4–5; 3 Ne. 18:19; D&C 20:29; Moses 5:8). The Saints also worship Christ the Son as they acknowledge him as the source of truth and redemption, as the light and life of the world, as the way to the Father (John 14:6; 2 Ne. 25:29; 3 Ne. 11:11). They look to him for deliverance and seek to be like him (see D&C 93:12–20; McConkie, 1978, pp. 568–69). In emphasizing the transforming power of Christ’s example, President David O. McKay observed that “no man can sincerely resolve to apply to his daily life the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth without sensing a change in his own nature” (Improvement Era 65 [June 1962]: 405).
Jesus Christ brought to pass the bodily resurrection of all who have lived or who will yet live upon the earth (1 Cor. 15:21–22; Alma 11:40–42). Because he overcame the world, all men and women may—by exercising faith in him, trusting in his merits, and receiving his grace—repent of their sins and know the peace of personal purity and spiritual wholeness (John 14:27; Phil. 4:7; 2 Ne. 2:8; 25:23; Enos 1:1–8; Mosiah 4:1–3). Those who have learned to rely on the Lord and lean upon his tender mercies “sing the song of redeeming love” (Alma 5:26). Nephi, the Book of Mormon prophet-leader, exulted, “I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell” (2 Ne. 33:6). “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, . . . that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Ne. 25:26). A latter-day apostle has written:
I believe in Christ; He stands supreme!
From him I’ll gain my fondest dream;
And while I strive through grief and pain,
His voice is heard: Ye shall obtain.
I believe in Christ; so come what may,
With him I’ll stand in that great day
When on this earth he comes again
To rule among the sons of men.
(Bruce R. McConkie, “I Believe in Christ,” Hymns, no. 134)
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Dahl, Larry E., and Charles D. Tate, eds. The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective. Provo, Utah, 1990.
McConkie, Bruce R. The Promised Messiah. Salt Lake City, 1978.
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McConkie, Bruce R. The Millennial Messiah. Salt Lake City, 1982.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols. Salt Lake City, 1954–56.
Smith, Joseph. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith. Salt Lake City, 1976.
Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ. Salt Lake City, 1915.
Taylor, John. The Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Salt Lake City, 1882.