There are many self-styled prophets and teachers in greater Mormondom currently advocating the “doctrine” that Jesus will personally appear to you in this life if you follow the Doctrine of Christ. This is commonly referred to as “The Second Comforter” and can pretty reasonably be traced back to Joseph Smith’s misinterpretation of John 14. (The KJV translation didn’t help much, to be fair.) The problem with Joseph’s interpretation, however, is that he ignored the context and setting of Jesus words, particularly His audience: his disciples in the upper room. (We’ll get into the false doctrine of the Second Comforter in another post. Stay tuned.)
We’ll ignore the basic idea that one can summon Jesus by following a prescribed path for now and focus on how these teachers (and other sincere believers) have turned 2 Nephi 32:6 into a prooftext for their belief. It highlights a broader problem not only within Mormonism, but Christianity in general, of cherry-picking the scriptures to fit our current belief systems. Not too long ago I watched an interesting lecture by Joel Bader titled, “The Bible Doesn’t Say What You Think It Does.” His basic message is that rather than taking the time to study, engage the words on the page, and be serious students of the scriptural text, we often use the Bible as a prop or sledgehammer of authority or “truth.” (In Mormonism, “Joseph Smith said/taught…” is also used as a sledgehammer for certain views.) The problem, however, as he wisely says, is that,
“How [we] define authentic truth is very much in line with what [we] think.”
In other words, the scriptures often become the sledgehammer of authority for our preexisting beliefs, whether or not the text actually supports them. That’s what’s happening with the Second Comforter interpretation of 2 Nephi 32:6. Here’s the verse, stripped of context:
“Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and there will be no more doctrine given until after he shallhimself unto you in the flesh. And when he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you shall ye observe to do.”
If you already have a belief that Jesus can and will appear to you, chances are you will read the Second Comforter into this. However, there’s plenty of danger in reading this, or any other passage, in a vacuum or devoid of that all-important context. When we take to time to look at the whole of scripture, which we’re going to do, we see that 2 Nephi 32:6 has nothing to do with the Second Comforter and everything to do with Christ’s appearance at Bountiful in 34 AD.
Let’s get started.
Our first obligation in reading scripture is identifying the setting and the audience. Since 2 Neph 31 and 32 comprise one sermon (curse Orson Pratt and his chapter breaks), we need to go back to the beginning of the address:
“And now I, Nephi, make an end of my prophesying unto you, my beloved brethren...” (2 Nephi 31:1)
Then again in 2 Nephi 32:1 we read,
“And now, behold, my beloved brethren, I suppose that ye ponder somewhat in your hearts concerning that which ye should do after ye have entered in by the way…”
Five verses later he writes,
“And when he shall manifest himself unto you [my brethren] in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you shall ye observe to do.” (32:6)
Crytal clear. Nephi is speaking to his people. Yes, of course there are eternal truths that transcend time and space, but in this particular instance, regarding the appearance of Jesus in the flesh, Nephi’s speaking and writing to his people and telling them that Jesus would appear to them after His resurrection. We know this because he previously said so. (See below.) Nephi’s writings and prophecies were part of the Nephite canon and those prophets and writers who followed Nephi read his words and understood exactly what he meant and how the prophecy would be fulfilled.
With that said, let’s take a chronological look at the Book of Mormon prophecies of Christ’s appearance at Bountiful, starting with Nephi’s vision and working through 3 Nephi,
“For, behold, saith the Lamb: I will manifest myself unto thy seed, that they shall write many things which I shall minister unto them, which shall be plain and precious; and after thy seed shall be destroyed, and dwindle in unbelief, and also the seed of thy brethren, behold, these things shall be hid up, to come forth unto the Gentiles, by the gift and power of the Lamb.” (1 Nephi 13)
Then towards the end of Nephi’s life he writes,
“And after Christ shall have risen from the dead he shall show himself unto you, my children, and my beloved brethren; and the words which he shall speak unto you (Nephites) shall be the law which ye shall do.” (2 Nephi 26:1)
Having already established Christ’s post-resurrection visit, he adds,
“Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and there will be no more doctrine given until after he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh. And when he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you (Nephites) shall ye observe to do.” (2 Nephi 32:6)
“And these are the words: Behold, I perceive that this very people, the Nephites, according to the spirit of revelation which is in me, in four hundred years from the time that Jesus Christ shall manifest himself unto them (the Nephites), shall dwindle in unbelief.” (Alma 45:10)
Then the appointed time came. Mormon, who also read Nephi, writes,
“And it came to pass that in the ending of the thirty and fourth year, behold, I will show unto you that the people of Nephi who were spared, and also those who had been called Lamanites, who had been spared, did have great favors shown unto them, and great blessings poured out upon their heads, insomuch that soon after the ascension of Christ into heaven he did truly manifest himself unto them—Showing his body unto them, and ministering unto them…” (3 Nephi 10:18-19)
And of the event itself we read,
“And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words the whole multitudeto the earth; for they remembered that it had been among them that Christ should himself unto them after his ascension into heaven. (3 Nephi 11:12)
That’s it. It’s not any more complicated than that. For six hundred years the Nephite writers prophesied that God Eternal would come into mortality in the person of Jesus Christ and that h\He would manifest Himself to the Nephites after His resurrection. And He did. Prophesy fulfilled. The end. There’s nothing in these passages allude to a personal visit from Jesus Christ to a gentile in the year 2022 or any other time.
But you might be wondering what doctrine Jesus gave to the Nephites at Bountiful that they were supposed to follow? Didn’t Nephi already spell it out? Part of the issue is our understanding of the word “doctrine.” In the religious sense, we tend to think of it a codified set of guidelines associated with salvation. It is that, but it’s not just that. Again, context. Webster’s shines a little more light on the word as it was understood to an 1830s audience:
“DOCTRINE: 1. In a general sense, whatever is taught. Hence, a principle or position in any science; whatever is laid down as true by an instructor or master. The doctrines of the gospel are the principles or truths taught by Christ and his apostles. The doctrines of Plato are the principles which he taught. Hence a doctrine may be true or false; it may be a mere tenet or opinion.”
Did Christ give additional doctrine, or teachings, at Bountiful? He sure did. The Sermon on the Mount, for starters. Can this be considered doctrine? Absolutely. Nephi said Christ would give additional doctrine. What else could it be? Said Jesus after giving the Nephites the Sermon,
“Therefore come unto me and be ye saved; for verily I say unto you, that except ye shall keep my commandments, which I have commanded you at this time, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (3 Nephi 12:20)
Once again, Nephi’s prophecy was fulfilled. Let me propose a way to approach this. Perhaps there’s a difference between “big D” Doctrine: Faith, repentance, baptism of water and fire, etc., also known as “The Doctrine of Christ”; and then there’s “little d” doctrine, or teachings and instructions: The Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes.
And I want to add one more for consideration for new instruction (doctrine) given to the Nephites: the sacrament. Prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Nephites were under Mosaic Law, which they observed because it was a commandment,
“And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled. For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.”
But at Bountiful Jesus said,
“And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons of God; and even so will I to as many as shall believe on my name, for behold, by me redemption cometh, and in me is the law of Moses fulfilled. I am the light and the life of the world. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.”
Then we later read new instructions (doctrine) Jesus gave them,
“And when the disciples had come with bread and wine, he took of the bread and brake and blessed it; and he gave unto the disciples and commanded that they should eat. And when they had eaten and were filled, he commanded that they should give unto the multitude. And when the multitude had eaten and were filled, he said unto the disciples: Behold there shall one be ordained among you, and to him will I give power that he shall break bread and bless it and give it unto the people of my church, unto all those who shall believe and be baptized in my name. And this shall ye always observe to do, even as I have done, even as I have broken bread and blessed it and given it unto you. And this shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you. And it shall be a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you.” (3 Nephi 18:3-7)
What impresses me the most when reading these passages is the perfect harmony and symmetry between Nephi’s prophecies and Christ’s exact fulfillment of those prophecies. It’s perfect. Nephi told his descendants Christ would manifest Himself to them. He did. Nephi said Christ would give additional doctrine. He did. It’s inconceivable to me that Joseph Smith would have had the foresight and attention to detail to add these things to the narrative.
Be mindful of making connecting unconnected scriptures and creating new doctrines out of whole cloth. And if nothing else, remember that the Gospel and Doctrine of Christ are simple.