Living Scriptures from a Living God through Living Prophets and for a Living Church

Neal A. Maxwell

Neal A. Maxwell, “Living Scriptures from a Living God through Living Prophets and for a Living Church,” in Scriptures for the Modern World, ed. Paul R. Cheesman and C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1984), 1–12.

In the spring of 1820, there was no living church. There were no living prophets. There was a living God, however, and there were living scriptures, and these combined to bring forth a living prophet and the living Church.

I, for one, believe that, while the fifth verse in the epistle of the Apostle James has been helpful to many in various ages, it was also a specific verse implanted by divine design to help bring to pass the First Vision in the last dispensation. Of that verse, the Prophet Joseph Smith said with authority, “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine” (JSH 1:12). How blessed we are by the living God, the restored living Church, and living prophets that emerged through use of the living scriptures!

As we labor in the vineyard of the Lord, our ability to stay on the straight and narrow path will be in proportion to our continued contact with the living scriptures. If we feast upon the word of Christ, we can be much aided in our efforts to stay on the course: “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” (2 Nephi 31:20; italics added.)

Further, as the world we live in increasingly questions the historicity and divinity of Christ, the meaning of Ether’s words will become even clearer to us: that if we cannot believe the words of the Lord as recorded in scriptures, we will have difficulty believing that he really is and that he lives (see Ether 4:12).

In his inspired translation of the King James Version, the Prophet Joseph Smith even gave us the otherwise missing definition of “the key of knowledge.” (Who would not want that key?) This “key of knowledge” is, in fact, “the fulness of the scriptures” (JST, Luke 11:53).

Nor should we be surprised if, in fact, in the last days (more than has been the case in the past), we find, as Nephi foresaw, that the Book of Mormon further establishes the truth of the Bible:

And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records, which thou has seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain and precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved. (1 Nephi 13:40; italics added.)

As marvelous a book as it is, the Bible by itself has not sustained precise faith in the living lordship of Jesus Christ for as many people as once was the case. The Book of Mormon comes forth not only as a second witness, but in some respects a more powerful witness, “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ” (title page, Book of Mormon).

Furthermore, as one who cherishes the Bible—who is everlastingly grateful for it and its skilled translators, for the truths in it, and for the supernal power of its literature—I must always bear in mind that many plain and precious things have been taken away from it (see 1 Nephi 13:28). Some are restored in the Book of Mormon, and still others in other modern scriptures.

Some historians regard America and the Western world as now being in the post-Christian era. Faith in the divine, resurrected Jesus Christ has diminished to the point in Western societies that, in fact, we are becoming highly secularized. The Lord has said of the scriptures, “And they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). As such testimony is heard less and less frequently, there is also less faith in him. Thus, man’s lack of familiarity with the living scriptures—his nibbling instead of feasting upon them, not using them in their cross-supporting power—increases the distance between mankind and our Savior.

If I were to make a few suggestions as to ways in which the scriptures can be made to come alive in a dying world, they would include the following:

First, we must do what Nephi did for himself and his people, that is, liken the scriptures to ourselves and our contemporary circumstances for “our profit and learning” (see 1 Nephi 19:23). Failure to do this leaves the wrong impression: that the scriptures are merely an abstract record suspended in time and space rather than a relevant and throbbing reality in our lives and times. And as we read the scriptures, let us read distinctly as the Levite leaders did anciently when “they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused [the people] to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). We, too, can cause others to understand distinctly how relevant the living scriptures are to them.

Second, we can make full use of the wonderful new LDS edition of the King James Version of the Bible, with its topical index and remarkable system of cross-referencing—all to the end that when we study the living scriptures we study them as a continuum and in the context of added revelations and insights given to us by modern prophets. Ponder, for instance, the rendering of Matthew 6:33 in the King James Version: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Then read the Joseph Smith Translation of this verse: “Wherefore, seek not the things of this world but seek ye first to build up the kingdom of God, and to establish his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (JST, Matthew 6:38; italics added).

It is a reality that certain plain and precious things were taken from the Bible long before the King James scholars performed their marvelous service. In another instance, we read in the King James Version, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). The missing portion of that scripture is found in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson,” and so forth. (D&C 121:34–35.)

Third, the Christian connection of the dispensations can best be appreciated if we realize the interconnectedness or ecology of the scriptures, as we see in this instance several centuries before Christ: “For, for this intent have we written these things, that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us. Behold, they believed in Christ and worshiped the Father in his name.” (Jacob 4:4–5; italics added.)

Now note, incidentally, one of the plain and precious things that was not taken from the Bible in this rather direct reference of Paul’s to the fact that Moses followed Christ: “By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward” (Hebrews 11:24–26; italics added).

Fourth, when we study the scriptures, we should not skim but ponder carefully, lest we move across and ignore insights of great power and meaning in our lives. Notice, for instance, three key words in this verse of Nephite scripture: “And whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that ye shall receive, behold it shall be given unto you” (3 Nephi 18:20). The three key words are, of course, “which is right.” We may in faith ask something of our Father in Heaven and yet his answer may be “no” because that which we ask for is not right. By reading carelessly and superficially that verse in Nephi, one might not realize that he has been given one of the reasons why our prayers are not answered as we sometimes place those petitions before the Lord!

Confirming scriptures tell us this: “Whatsoever ye ask the Father in my name it shall be given unto you, that is expedient for you; and if ye ask anything that is not expedient for you, it shall turn unto your condemnation (D&C 88:64–65).

Fifth, connecting the scriptures with the utterances of modern prophets is one important dimension of their “livingness.” In this expression of Enoch’s we sense the expansiveness of God’s creations: “And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there, and also thou art just; thou art merciful and kind forever” (Moses 7:30; italics added). Centuries later, Brigham Young said there are “millions of earths like this” one. [1]

Sixth, using the scriptures in their topical totality can produce a helpful amplification. Notice, for instance, in these discussions by two different prophets of sorrow, how much we need to use both of these scriptures to understand better the many faces of sorrow. Paul said: “Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Corinthians 7:9–10.) In contrasting godly sorrow with worldly sorrow, notice how much we are helped by this insight found in Mormon concerning the attitudinal territory in between: “But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin. And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die. Nevertheless they would struggle with the sword for their lives.” (Mormon 2:13–14.) Have we not often seen people with worldly sorrow, or experiencing the “sorrowing of the damned,” mistaking such for godly sorrow? The “mighty change” of heart was not working in them as it should have been.

Seventh, we should also see the remarkable correlation of the prophets as we read the scriptures carefully. Notice this statement from Paul: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). You see, brothers and sisters, how well it ties with what we read in the revelation given to Joseph Smith: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment” (D&C 121:7).

Perhaps the best case showing how there is a conceptual correlation between the prophets in different dispensations and different hemispheres is found in the prophetic descriptions of the insensitivity which comes with immorality. We first see the two vital words centuries before Christ in the utterance of Nephi: “Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words; wherefore, he has spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder.” (1 Nephi 17:45; italics added.) We then see it several centuries later in the writings of Paul to the Saints at Ephesus: “Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Ephesians 4:19; italics added). Finally, we see the phrase in the words of a prophet who describes the decadence of another people several centuries after Christ: “And now, my son, I dwell no longer upon this horrible scene. Behold, thou knowest the wickedness of this people; thou knowest that they are without principle, and past feeling; and their wickedness doth exceed that of the Lamanites.” (Moroni 9:20; italics added.) Why not let companion scriptures travel together through the length and breadth of our mind?

We mentioned earlier a difference in the quality of sorrow; it appears important, too, that the Lord has warned us to be on guard against artificial love or love which is feigned. Paul said it first: “By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned. . .” (2 Corinthians 6:6; italics added). Peter confirmed it: “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Peter 1:22; italics added). And the Lord in a revelation to Joseph Smith spoke of it also: “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” (D&C 121:41; italics added).

Of course, later prophets reading earlier prophets are influenced by phraseology. Translators may color the revelations. At the same time, is it not significant how certain concepts hold steady in space and time? It is a precision that can be explained in only one way! After all, Paul did not send a photocopy of his epistles to the Saints at Corinth to Peter, urging Peter to use the same concept so that they could later be shown to be correlated by translators.

As mentioned earlier, if we can cluster and then liken the scriptures to ourselves and our needs, we can better cope with suffering in tribulation-of which there will be more, not less, in the years ahead. Notice how Paul opens the windows of his soul in this portion of his epistle to the Saints at Corinth about his “thorn in the flesh”:

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7–9.)

The Lord’s grace is sufficient for us. He will help us. Paul even intimates that certain weaknesses can somehow become a strength to us. Notice now how another prophet is told the same thing, but in an amplified way:

And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness;

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:26–27.)

Thus the Lord gives Moroni the same basic assurances that he gave to Paul, indicating that his grace is sufficient for those who humble themselves before him. He also says that we are even given certain kinds of weaknesses in order that we may be humble and that these weaknesses could then become a strength to us.

If we would understand even more about trial and tribulation, is it not vital for us to juxtapose scriptures such as the following? The first indicates that one requirement of sainthood is that we be “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19). Notice the wise words of Peter to the expectations about discipleship: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you” (1 Peter 4:12). Moroni tells us that there will be some challenges which come to us in life that we will not be able to understand until after the trial of our faith (see Ether 12:6). And notice the description given by Paul about the calisthenics of righteous suffering: “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Hebrews 12:11). Unsurprisingly, the living scriptures can even help us cope with dying!

(Parenthetically, a computer would have been too clumsy to have taken account of these parallels and concepts and phraseology as they appear in these degrees between the various books of scripture.)

If one is dealing with the challenge of temptation, why not bring the whole family of scriptures to bear? Notice how the massing of these companion scriptures can provide added illumination:

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. (1 Corinthians 10:13; italics added.)

But that ye would humble yourselves before the Lord, and call on his holy name, and watch and pray continually, that ye may not be tempted above that which ye can bear, and thus be led by the Holy Spirit, becoming humble, meek, sub- missive, patient, full of love and all long-suffering. (Alma 13:28; italics added.)

The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished. (2 Peter 2:9; italics added.)

Behold, and hearken, a ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, your advocate, who knoweth the weakness of man and how to succor them who are tempted. (D&C 62:1; italics added.)

And again, I say unto you, that my servant Isaac Morley may not be tempted above that which he is able to bear, and counsel wrongfully to your hurt, I gave commandment that his farm should be sold. (D&C 64:20; italics added.)

Notice now, brothers and sisters, how the prophets often play a clarifying role, as in the case of the Apostle James who turned the hose of common sense upon those who might have misunderstood who is responsible for temptation: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed”(James 1:13–14).

Again the interplay of modem revelation through the Prophet Joseph Smith gives us insight about suffering and its role in our lives: “God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without suffering they could not be made perfect” (JST, Hebrews 11:40).

The Lord in modem revelation gives us some sense of how our challenges may increase as we are able to bear them:

Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth. (D&C 50:40.)

And ye cannot bear all things now; nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom is yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours. (D&C 78:18.)

How fitting it is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the most Christ-centered church upon the face of the earth, that it has brought forth at this time a new edition of the Bible with a topical index and all the scriptures referenced, to join in witnessing for Christ. No wonder the Church is named after Jesus Christ-not after one of his disciples, not after a day of the week, not after one of the ordinances in his gospel, not after a country, but after him!

As a Christ-centered church, we believe not only in the fulfillment of the scriptures pertaining to Jesus’ birth and earthly ministry, but also in all the scriptures that pertain to his second coming. We believe not only that Jesus Christ lived but that he lives, to which fact there is ample attestation in Joseph Smith’s vision and in the Lord’s other appearances in our time.

Happily, alterations have been made in the Church’s meeting schedules in order to give families, if they will use it, more time, not only for each other, but for the study of the scriptures and, significantly, for added Christian service-all to the end that we might have the Savior’s blessings and Spirit to accompany us in this time of special challenges.

How marvelous it is to be blessed with living scriptures in a time when more and more people (to use an apt phrase which appears twice in the scriptures) “live without God in the world” (Mosiah 27:31; Ephesians 2:12). Alma wrote that those so situated “are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness” (Alma 41:11). Surely, therefore, those who “live without God in the world” will find, as Saint Teresa of Avila said, that without God, mortal life is “no more than a night in a second-class hotel.” [2]

In some respects, our very aliveness as individuals depends upon our affirmative, individual response to the question, “Believest thou the scriptures?” (Jacob 7:10.) Livingness begets livingness. And likewise our response to the question put by Paul to King Agrippa, “Believest thou the prophets?” (Acts 26:27)—because the living prophets add constantly to the living scriptures!

Thus it is that we see, too, the importance of the observation, “Behold, the scriptures are before you” (Alma 13:20)—and so expandingly before us! And how important it is that we place the scriptures ever before ourselves, our family, our friends, our students, and our neighbors. By our so doing, the scriptures can, in fact, testify of the reality of the living Lord and of the divinity of his Church and his gospel which he has placed here-thus reaffirming again and again that the answer is “yes” to these vital soul-cry questions: “Is God really there?” “Is he really in charge of things?” “Is he aware of me?” “Are the things allotted to me in life part of his divine design?”

When we can receive and accept the affirmation of those searching and recurring questions, then it is no wonder that what Alma said is true; for in an otherwise sad world, we “owe all our happiness” to the sacred word of the Lord (see Alma 44:5). It was Goethe who called architecture “frozen music.” [3] The scriptures are, as it were, frozen truth—truth preserved over the length of all the human experience—but, ironically, these frozen truths melt us, warm us, nourish us; they are “preserved,” but they are also “living” scriptures.


[1] Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855–86), 11:41.

[2] As quoted by Malcolm Muggeridge, “The Great Liberal Death Wish,” Imprimis (a publication of Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI), 1979.

[3] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Philosophy of Art,” in Conversations with Eckermann, trans. Schelling (New York: Dutton and Co., 1930), 303.