Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Commentary on D&C 76 (Be prepared - it's a long one)

For one of my religion classes, I'm supposed to keep a record of my reading responses throughout the semester. My teacher has been really supportive of posting our responses on blogs, so I'm gonna try it out and see how it goes. Normally I write these in my regular journal or a separate scripture journal; with this, I'll make each reading assignment its own post, even though it may cover several sections (I usually take notes on one section or chapter at a time).

So, here's Doctrine and Covenants, section 76 (all 119 verses of it...)

The chapter heading says the revelation(s) was received after Joseph Smith had read John 5:29 from the Bible. I can understand his confusion on reading that: ("And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."). People are a lot more complicated than just "good or evil"; we all do stupid things and sometimes malicious things, and we are also frequently moved by compassion to help others even if its occasionally to our own detriment. How do you box people up as either "just good" or "just evil", and condemn someone to damnation? (I prefer to err on the side of giving people too much credit). God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful, so it doesn't make sense to have a black-and-white, either-or situation, because people just can't be categorized like that. Questions like this probably went through Joseph's head and prompted him to pray and receive this vision.

In the first verse several verses, it clearly establishes that God is pretty awesome, and He is cause for rejoicing. Starting in verse 5, He enumerates the blessings given to those who love God and serve Him: they receive his mercy, grace and honor (v. 5); great reward and eternal glory (v. 6); knowledge of mysteries (v. 7-8, 10); and great wisdom and understanding (v. 9). And really, verse 10 describes my feelings about the "mysteries" and "secrets of my will": "For by my Spirit will I enlighten them, and by my power will I make known unto them the secrets of my will--yea, even those things which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart of man" (emphasis added). The mysteries of God aren't really any great secret - they're free for all, and all are invited to learn them. The key is that these mysteries can only be unlocked by the power of the Spirit. And how do we gain that Spirit? By fearing the Lord and serving Him in righteousness and in truth unto the end (verse 5), and by doing the things that He has asked (following His commandments; living our lives in harmony with His standards; becoming a faithful, charitable, Christlike people). As we grow in obedience, we grow in understanding of these mysteries. The mysteries that I've come to understand so far are just a deeper understanding of the Plan of Salvation (Visit http://mormon.org/plan-of-happiness/ for the outline, or leave me a question if you want to know more) and a better understanding of who exactly Christ is and how I can be more like Him.

Another vision, or a second part of the same vision opens in verse 11 (this chapter is broken into sections of multiple, connected visions). Verse 12 explains that the Holy Ghost was present and enabled them to see and understand things on a spiritual plane, more than just seeing things with physical eyes (imagine the difference between seeing a literal object versus seeing the object and understanding symbolically - there's more to it than meets the physical eye because you have greater understanding). Versus 13 and 14 really make me wonder why some people refuse to believe that Mormons are Christians; clearly they haven't actually read any of our scriptures ;) The first thing that Joseph Smith and his friend Sidney Rigdon saw in vision was an affirmation that Jesus Christ is Jehovah, the Son of our Eternal Heavenly Father, and they bore witness of Him. Verse 19 shows us by example what we should do when we come across a scripture or a doctrine that we don't understand: when Joseph read the scripture in John about the resurrection, he meditated about it and pondered as to what it could mean. Taking time to do more than just read the scriptures, and actually think about what you read will open the door to personal revelation, wherein you can receive answers and have "the eyes of your understanding opened" (still verse 19) to see what the scripture is trying to teach.

Verses 20 through 24 are a beautiful, beautiful testimony of the divinity of Jesus Christ. What follows next is very interesting, but totally makes sense when you think about how the gospel works (opposition in all things - read 2 Nephi chapter 2). Verses 25 to 29 describe Satan's (Lucifer's) fall and how he became the devil. All of God's children have agency (the ability to choose); while we were in heaven, before coming to earth and receiving a physical body, we still had agency. Satan was also a son of God, like us, but he decided to turn away and rebel against God. Because Satan sought to take away our right and ability to choose and make decisions for ourselves (the ability that God had given us), he was cast out of heaven and became the devil, in opposition to God and His righteousness. Being in opposition to God is a pretty miserable existence, since you're condemned to fail, so Satan likes to make other people miserable (verse 29).

Now, for the different camps of followers under these leaders we can choose to follow. Verses 30 through 38 talk about a rare group of people: the sons of perdition. These are "those with whom [Satan] had made war with and overcame," and who "know [God's] power, and have been made partakers thereof, and suffered themselves [an important distinction] through the power of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy [God's] power." Sons of perdition are rare because they have received an indisputable witness of Jesus Christ and then denied it or turned against it, and very, very few people have a witness that strong in order to deny or reject it. I called attention to the "suffering themselves... to be overcome", because I believe very strongly in our power to choose. Satan cannot take anyone by force (and neither can God, for that matter) - if we are to become subject to anyone, it is by surrendering our obedience to them. Surrendering to God is good (He loves us and we can trust Him to take care of us and lead us to happiness); surrendering to Satan is bad and will only make you more thoroughly miserable than you've ever been in your life. Between the two, I prefer and recommend the former over the latter.

Verses 39 to 49 discuss the resurrection in general, testify of the mission of Jesus Christ, and describe a little bit more the outcome for the sons of perdition. The mission of Christ is really simple and powerful: "That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved whom the Father had put into his power and made by him" (verses 41-42). Christ did for us what we could not do for ourselves; His love is so pure and so powerful that it enabled Him to suffer the weight of justice for all that we've ever done wrong (which is a lot), and all He asks us to do is to meet his conditions of repentance to receive the blessings of His Atonement (forsaking our sins, making retribution where possible, and seeking forgiveness). These are also the conditions that, if we live by them, will lead us to become more like God is, and show us the way to live that will bring the most happiness. The last bit that covers the sons of perdition basically says "You don't want to find out how bad it's gonna be for them." It's pretty sad, because the only reason they can't enjoy the blessings of the Atonement is because they refuse to accept them.

The next vision, or part of the vision, is concerning the resurrection of the just. Verses 50 to 70 cover the celestial kingdom, or, the highest of the kingdoms of heaven (verse 70). The solution to the Joseph's confusion was this: to have several degrees in heaven, respective to the obedience and faithfulness exhibited by those who inherit each degree or kingdom. Qualities of those who inherit the celestial kingdom: received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name, and were baptized by immersion for the remission of sins (v. 51); received the gift of the Holy Ghost through proper priesthood authority (v. 52); overcome (sins or weaknesses) by faith and are "sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise" (v. 53). Blessings they get are: that they are given all things by the Father (v. 55, 59); they are priests/kings/gods/sons of God after the order of the priesthood after receiving of God's fullness and glory (v. 56-58); they shall overcome all things (v. 60); they shall dwell in the presence of God forever and ever, in Mount Zion (v. 62, 66); they shall have part in the first resurrection/the resurrection of the just (v. 64, 65); their names are written in heaven (v. 68). In short, individuals (or rather, families, when you learn more about the celestial kingdom) who inherit the celestial kingdom are "they who are just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood" (verse 69, emphasis added). These are people who tried their hardest, who repented when they messed up, and who kept trying all the way to the end. After they did all that, Christ made up the difference and raised them to perfection. The most detail is given about the celestial kingdom because, to paraphrase Joseph Smith, that's the one we're aiming for! Why would you aim for only second-best? You want to give it your best shot, and so we have a more detailed recipe for how to get to the celestial kingdom than we do for the other two kingdoms (which are soon to follow).

The terrestrial kingdom is discussed in verses 71 to 80. Where the celestial kingdom is compared to the glory of the sun, the terrestrial kingdom is compared to the glory of the moon (v. 71). I think the best descriptions are in verses 74-76 and 79. Inhabitants of the terrestrial kingdom "received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it [v. 74]. These are they who are honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men [v. 75]," who "receive of his glory, but not of his fullness [v. 76]," and "who are not valiant in the testimony of Jesus [v. 79]." An important doctrine to understand is that God is a just and fair god; it's not fair for someone to be condemned to hell just because they were born in the "wrong" time or place and never heard the name Jesus Christ in their life. There are perfectly good and wonderful people in all times and places who would have accepted the message of Jesus Christ if only they had heard it. This is why Mormons believe in performing proxy ordinances in temples for the dead: we believe that if someone didn't have a chance to hear the gospel during their mortal life, they will get the opportunity to in heaven, and have the chance to either accept it or reject it. Thus, they have an equal opportunity to inherit the same blessings as someone who was raised with a correct knowledge of God their whole life and lived virtuously in accordance with what they had been taught. Therefore, what I currently believe regarding verse 74 is this (and I am willing to be persuaded by someone wiser than I am): that someone who inherits the terrestrial kingdom perhaps held reservations when they heard the truth in mortality, and so because of where they were in life, they weren't able to fully hear, understand, and accept the gospel, whereas maybe they would have in more favorable circumstances (such as post-death, in heaven, where they can hear the whole thing and have plenty of time to understand and digest it). God wants all of His children to succeed, to be happy, and to come unto Him, so He will do everything He can to give them the best chance He can for them to accept Him. God is both perfectly fair and perfectly merciful. Amazing how it all works and makes sense, isn't it?

The telestial kingdom is the lowest of the three kingdoms of heaven, comparable to the glory of the stars, and is described in verses 81-86 and 88-90. "These are they who received not the gospel of Christ, neither the testimony of Jesus. These are they who deny not the Holy Spirit [in contrast to the sons of perdition]. These are they who are thrust down to hell" (verses 82-84). This one is a bit harder for me to understand (but thankfully, I'm aiming for the celestial, so hopefully I don't need to worry about it). When it says that they "received not the gospel of Christ," I'm assuming that refers to them rejecting it and saying "No thanks" rather than saying that they never heard the gospel of Christ (you can be introduced to the gospel, but not receive the gospel because you choose not to accept and internalize it). So, these seem to be just the mean people in the world who enjoy being mean and miserable (that said, there are a lot of "Mr Scrooge"s who've had a rough life and can and will change in more favorable circumstances. That's why I'm so glad God is our Judge, because He is fair. We, often, are not fair to each other). More about the telestial kingdom is given later, in verses 98 to 106. It's similar to the preceding verses, with details about why they suffer (because they love to break the commandments, v. 103). Verses 110-112 also add that even though they reject Christ, they will confess that He is Christ, the Son of God, who atoned for their sins even though they rejected His sacrifice. Verse 111 could almost apply to everyone - "For they shall be judged according to their works, and every man shall receive according to his own works, his own dominion, in the mansions which are prepared" - except for one important detail; grace (available through the Atonement of Jesus Christ) is missing. Like I noted earlier in talking about the celestial glory, we are saved by grace after all that we can do (2 Nephi 25:23). This grace is available through the Atonement; if we choose to reject the Atonement and reject Christ, that grace is no longer extended to us, and we are judged by works alone (which doesn't bode well for any one of us). The telestial glory includes separation from God, which I'm not a fan of (v. 112) - another good reason to aim for the celestial kingdom.

Verses 86 to 88 is pretty much administrative details. Celestial beings dwell with God and are in the presence of Jesus. Christ also visited members of the terrestrial kingdom (v. 73) and taught them the gospel. However, people who reject Christ (telestial kingdom) probably wouldn't feel very comfortable in the goodness of His presence. So, members of the terrestrial kingdom can visit those below them in the telestial kingdom to teach them, and members of the telestial kingdom can also be visited by the Holy Ghost and by angels (v. 86, 88). Members of the celestial kingdom can likewise visit the terrestrial kingdom and minister to them.

Yet, in the midst of this comparative scale, there is a reminder of what exactly we're talking about. We're still talking about heaven, for the most part! In verse 89, we read "And thus we saw, in the heavenly vision, the glory of the telestial [remember, this is the lowest of the kingdoms], which surpasses all understanding." Even in the very lowest degree, the kingdom is that is referred to as "hell" and "suffering the wrath of Almighty God", is still glorious beyond understanding (verse 106 states that they will suffer "until the fullness of times, when Christ shall...have perfected his work", so I'm guessing the glory comes post-suffering). Think about who we just established makes up the telestial kingdom... How many of us, when you examine our deepest desires, would really fit in to that place? (Or want to fit in?). Even with the glory bit said, how many of us want to suffer like that? The great news is that it's possible to get the glory (even more than the telestial) without nearly as much suffering! Because the problem with the telestial is that they rejected Christ and rejected His Atonement. If they had accepted it, they would almost have a "get out of jail free" card - the only conditions of which would be coming unto Christ and being obedient to His commandments. Christ suffered so that we don't have to! He already suffered for our sins - for the lies, for the whoredoms, for the time we stole something from our brother, for the time we said something really hurtful to someone else - so that we could accept His merciful terms and avoid the suffering ourselves. No, it's not fair to Him, but He did it willingly for us because He loves us and wants to spare us. He is the only One who had to power to help us. We become indebted to justice because inevitably as humans, we mess up. We can't repay the debt alone. But, Christ is perfect. Entering the world as half-mortal and half-God, He had the ability to sin and also the power to avoid it. Because He didn't sin, He was not indebted to justice. When He offered Himself as a sacrifice on our behalf, He fulfilled the demands of justice, and made mercy available by becoming our Mediator, on much softer terms. Christ offers us the way out, but it is only available by coming unto Him and accepting His terms. Hence why those who rejected Him (those in the telestial kingdom) are required to suffer and satisfy the demands of justice. Going back to the glory scale, verse 91 tells us that the terrestrial (a step above the telestial, for honorable men and women) glory far exceeds the telestial, and in turn, the celestial exceeds the terrestrial, even to make them equal with God (v. 92, 95).

Doctrine and Covenants, section 76 started with talking about mysteries, and now it also ends with them. Verse 114: "But great and marvelous are the works of the Lord, and the mysteries of his kingdom, which he showed unto us, which surpass all understanding in glory, and in might, and in dominion." So, the mysteries of God are just the gospel plan and how it works. It is confusing and a mystery how exactly we go from point A to point B, from where we were before we were born on earth to where we are now, and from where we are now to someday becoming gods and goddesses (heck, understanding how I became who I am today is hard enough). But these things can be learned, step by step, through the guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit. "Neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows upon those who love him, and purify themselves before him" (verse 116).

Once again, the first very first verse of section 76 was a testimony of Christ, and so it also ends: "And to God and the Lamb be glory, and honor, and dominion forever and ever. Amen" (verse 119). Like I've said, and also countless others before me (and countless to follow), Christ really is at the center of it all. We can't do it without Him. He is the only answer there is to a happy life.

Congratulations! If you read through this whole thing to the very end, I am considerably impressed. I hope it was worth your time to read it. Approximately 6 hours after starting... I think it was worth mine to write it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. This is really an amazing comment on the riches that are held in Section 76, Katie. You have borne testimony of the truths evidenced in these verses and show a good understanding of the Gospel truths--congratulations to your parents for sound teaching over the years. Great format and response.