Nephi’s Teachings in the Book of Mormon
Noel B. Reynolds
Nephi, son of Lehi, is the dominant figure in the Book of Mormon as we have it today. He is the founding progenitor of the Nephite people. He was their first prophet and ruler, and he was the first, possibly, of the Nephite kings. The Nephite people go by his name, and his successors, after his name, were named first Nephi, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth (see Jacob 1:11). This gives us an indication of the central position that Nephi plays in the history of this people, a people who endured over a thousand-year period. A thousand years later, as Mormon sets out to write his own history of the Nephite people, he proudly tells us that he is a pure descendant of Nephi.
Nephi was the first great record keeper of the Nephite people; he incorporated the record of his father into his records, and in the process, he defined both religious and political traditions of the Nephites for centuries to come. He is the most learned man in the Nephite tradition. He was educated at Jerusalem. The Book of Mormon tells us that Nephi’s father taught him in “all the learning of the Jews” (1 Nephi 1:2). Nephi brought that Jewish educations and culture with him to the promised land.
I would like to begin our discussion of Nephi, then, with a life sketch. I would like to show what Nephi told us about himself. We would probably know a lot more about Nephi if the first 116 pages of the translation that Joseph Smith was making had not been loaned to Martin Harris and subsequently lost. After the loss of those pages, Joseph Smith was instructed to resort to Nephi’s abridgement in the small plates to replace them, but the small plates give only cryptic accounts of the author, and much has to be inferred. Let’s read the first verse of the Book of Mormon together and see what Nephi tells us about himself:
I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
Well, Nephi speaks here of “goodly parents.” What do you think of when someone says “goodly parents”? If you go to your Webster’s Dictionary, it will tell you that goodly means “good looking.” Well, is Nephi telling us that his parents were good looking? If we dig deeper and go to the Oxford English Dictionary, we will find that an older meaning for goodly, and the one that obviously applies here, is “of good quality,” “being admirable,” or “being excellent at your job”—in this case, at the job of being parents. Nephi thought highly of his parents as parents. And because he had goodly parents, in this sense, Nephi was “taught somewhat in all the learning of [his] father” (1 Nephi 1:1). Nephi explains, a few verses later, that the language of his father, Lehi, consisted of two things: First of all, “the learning of the Jews” (1 Nephi 1:2), as is evidenced quite widely throughout Nephi’s writings by Hebrew literary devices that Nephi uses continually; the second component of the language of Lehi, according to Nephi, is “the language of the Egyptians” (1 Nephi 1:2). So Nephi is bilingual. He commands both the Egyptian and Hebrew languages. He also has all the learning that goes with the Hebrew language, an apparatus developed by scholars of the Bible and Hebrew writings over the centuries.
Nephi also says he has suffered many afflictions. We need to understand that he is trying to help us understand him; he is not asking for sympathy or pity. But we need to know that he suffered many afflictions. Through 1 and 2 Nephi, Nephi tells us what those afflictions were. Some come to mind immediately. What do you think of? Laman and Lemuel’s murmuring is the most obvious thing, isn’t it? And especially since Nephi immediately gets into some stories of conflicts with his brothers. He was put in some very severe situations and suffered greatly because of his brothers. Nephi also refers explicitly to some other things. He indicates that he suffered great personal pain when the Lord answered his prayer and told him what was going to happen to his future descendants, because not only did Nephi see the good things, but he saw that they would eventually fall into complete apostasy and be destroyed. He cites this as his greatest affliction.
Nephi goes on, then, to tell us of the goodness of God. Nephi is someone who is touched by the Spirit of God early in his life. He said that as a result of this, he had “great knowledge of . . . the mysteries of God” (1 Nephi 1:1). Now, when Nephi speaks of mysteries of God here in verse 1, we need to understand that he is not talking about deep, dark teachings about which most people don’t know. Nephi explicitly refers to the simple plain and precious truths of Jesus Christ. Why does he call these mysteries? He calls them mysteries because those who are stiff necked and hardhearted cannot be touched by the Spirit of God to understand these plain and precious truths. To them, these truths are mysteries. And that is why Nephi uses this language.
I would like to say just a little bit more about Nephi’s education. Lehi, himself, was a learned man, and he had had the best education available in Jerusalem while Nephi was still in his youth. It was the privilege of a wealthy family to hire tutors and scholars to teach the children. You might also ask yourself, If Nephi, the younger son, received this education, what about Laman and Lemuel? We might suspect that they were also educated. When a mother has the idea that her children should have piano lessons, they all get piano lessons. It takes better with some than others, doesn’t it? We can see, from the ensuing events in their lives, that the education Nephi and his brothers got wasn’t as effective with Laman and Lemuel as it was with Nephi.
We should talk about the family position that Nephi occupies. Because he is such a dominant figure, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that he was the youngest of four sons at the time the family left Jerusalem. There are also sisters mentioned, but not by name. We might suspect that some of them were older than Nephi because there is reason to believe, as Brother Nibley has shown us, that one or more of the sisters of Nephi may have been married to the sons of Ishmael before the departure into the wilderness, making these two families related by marriage. It is also possible that there were sisters in this family who were younger than Nephi. At any rate, it appears that when the two family groups separate when they reach the promised land, some of the sisters of Nephi are described as if they were single, going with Nephi to the new City of Nephi, which Nephi founded.
Being the youngest son is a big problem in this story, because the older sons feel that they have the right to be in charge. As a result, Nephi finds himself in the same difficult position that Joseph, son of Jacob, was in centuries before. Joseph became the ruler and teacher of his family, the chosen son. It [being younger and called to rule over older ones] caused him a lot of trouble. The same goes for Nephi, and we will see that trouble as it develops.
We can note some other interesting things about Nephi. Have you ever stopped to think what a world traveler he was? Very few of us, with all the modern travel systems that we have, have traveled as much as Nephi did. This was an incredible experience by sixth century B.C. standards. First of all, he crossed the full length of the Arabian Peninsula—that is, from the northwest corner of the Peninsula to the southeast corner—on foot! Not many people have done that. Then Nephi supervised the construction of a ship, which they used to cross, first of all, the Indian Ocean. Then they navigated through the complicated island geography of Southeast Asia. Look at a map sometime if you want to see how difficult that journey might have been. And from there, they crossed the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific Ocean. Arriving in the Western Hemisphere, Nephi colonized an unknown land. At the time Nephi left Jerusalem, he was one of the younger members of the expedition. When the group arrived in the New World, Nephi was the acknowledged leader of the group.
I would also like to speak briefly about Nephi as a prophet, because Nephi is the preeminent prophet, perhaps the greatest prophet, of the Book of Mormon. At the time he left Jerusalem, Nephi was, as he says, exceedingly young, and he had great desires to know the mysteries of God. Let’s look at 1 Nephi 2:16.
Nephi observed his brothers disputing with their father and then saw how their father, with the power of God, was able to quell their rebellion. Nephi wanted to know about these matters. Father Lehi had claimed to receive marvelous revelations, so marvelous that he would walk away from his wealth, his homeland of Jerusalem, and go into the wilderness. This was a great concern to all the sons, for it was also their inheritance that was being abandoned. Look at verse 16:
And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.
And then Nephi goes on in the next verse to tell us that he goes back and tells his older brother Sam what had happened: “And I spake unto Sam making known unto him the things which the Lord had manifested unto me by his Holy Spirit. And it came to pass that he believed in my words” (1 Nephi 2:17). So Sam believes Nephi’s experience. Nephi had been touched by the Holy Spirit, and he says that what his father was saying was true. This is the beginning of Nephi’s career as a prophet, and he learns to listen to the Holy Spirit as the Lord speaks to him in this manner. As we go on, we will see that Nephi receives many glorious manifestations from the Lord, including many great and important prophecies. Within a few chapters, it will be explained how Nephi asked to see the visions his father had seen. He receives those visions and gives a fairly detailed report of them to us. The longest passages in 1 Nephi are the reports of this great vision.
We should also take a minute to talk about Nephi’s career as a ruler. Also in chapter 2, Nephi reports the revelation in which he was to become “a ruler and a teacher” over his brethren (1 Nephi 2:22). After speaking with Sam, Nephi goes to speak to Laman and Lemuel. Going on, we can read this in verse 18: “But, behold, Laman and Lemuel would not hearken unto my words; and being grieved because of the hardness of their hearts I cried unto the Lord for them.”
Now, this is Nephi’s second experience.
And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me [so he hears the voice of the Lord], saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart. [And now the Lord makes a covenant with Nephi.]
And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper, and shall be led to a land of promise; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands. (1 Nephi 2:19—20)
Now, at this point, Nephi is told that his brothers may rebel against him, and if this happens, they are to be cut off from the presence of God, but the Lord tells Nephi, “Inasmuch as thou shalt keep my commandments, thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren” (1 Nephi 2:22).
Well, thirty years later, Nephi undertakes to make the small plates. The basic theme of the relationship between the Nephite group and that Lamanite group is the Lamanite claim that Nephi usurped his brothers’ right to rule. These accusations are later reduced to a formula that resurfaces throughout Nephite history. When Lamanite armies or apostate Nephite armies seek to justify invasions of Nephite territory, they drag out these accusations. For example, if you will look at Mosiah 10:12, Mosiah records an oral tradition of the Lamanites that perpetuates a specific list of charges. Let’s look at those charges.
The first accusation is that Lehi, and maybe Ishmael too, the fathers, were driven out of Jerusalem because of their iniquities. Look at how that contrasts with Nephi’s explanation of why they left Jerusalem—a departure based on some glorious revelations, completely ignored and denied in the Lamanite tradition.
The second point in this oral tradition of the Lamanites is that Nephi had wronged them—that is, he had wronged Laman and Lemuel and others of their followers—when he took the lead of the group’s journey in the wilderness. The Lamanites acknowledge that Nephi was a leader of the group through the wilderness here but claim that somehow, he had done wrong by taking the lead. You might ask yourself in a private moment how in the world Nephi could take the lead away from those big older brothers. How did they let that happen? Did he trick them somehow? What are they admitting to here? And, of course, Nephi’s record tells us how this happened.
The third charge is that Nephi had wronged Laman and Lemuel during the ocean crossing. Compare that claim to the story we get from Nephi.
The fourth charge is that Nephi had wronged them in the land of their first inheritance—this is after they had reached the promised land—by fleeing into the wilderness with the people who would follow him, robbing them of the brass plates, the sword of Laban, the Liahona, and so on. Who did those plates belong to, anyway? Who got the plates? We know the answer because we read the story. Who got the sword of Laban? Well, can you see that 1 Nephi is written as an answer to these claims that the Lamanites and apostate Nephites will later perpetuate over the over the centuries to justify their position?
Nephi’s brothers accused him, at one time, of wanting to be a king over them. Later, Nephi’s own people desired him to be a king, showing clearly that he had not yet taken the step of becoming a king. Nephi states at that point that he did not want to be king, but we learned later that he anointed his successor to be king. There is a mystery here. Was Nephi a king? Neither Nephi nor anyone else ever states plainly in the record that Nephi officially assumes a monarchical role. Some passages could be read as supporting the view that he never took that step. Remember, there is a certain awkwardness for an Israelite king to occupy that role without being anointed by a prophet. But Lehi was the only prophet who could have anointed Nephi, and it seems that he did not take that step before he dies. How could Nephi do it for himself? We can see how awkward that situation was for Nephi.
If Nephi were not an anointed king, he still filled all the kingly functions for the Nephites until the end of his life, setting a pattern of kingship in Nephite society that would last until the institution of the reign of the judges five hundred years later.
Well, let’s bring out one other aspect of Nephi’s life. Nephi was a temple builder. Once Nephi had established his own regime in his own city, he undertook to erect a temple, following the model of Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem, except Nephi’s was not as grandiose, Nephi explains. The [the Nephites] did not have as many rich materials. You need to know that in the ancient Near East, building a temple was an important political symbol, because if a king were divinely approved, he could build a temple for God, and the temple, of course, houses the presence of God. So building a temple is an important political reinforcement of the legitimacy of a regime.
Well, the priestly hierarchy of Nephi’s day had gone to great lengths to discourage the building of temples outside Jerusalem. In spite of this fact, archaeologists have now identified a number of sacred sites and temples in outlying areas of Israel. One example, the one most visible for us today, is the Temple of Arad. This structure is up on a hill, completely exposed above ground. We can go into it, walk through the rooms of the temple, see the Holy of Holies, see how it is set up, and imagine how Nephi, at this same general time period, could have been building a similar structure in the New World in the City of Nephi.
The Book of Mormon says very little about the functions of Nephite temples; however, we know they are an important part of Nephite life. We have some examples from the text: besides Nephi’s temple, we read about people who were gathered at the temple in Bountiful at the time Jesus appeared to them. They chose the temple as the obvious place to get together; they were there for some specific purpose. Likewise, Benjamin’s great sermon was delivered on the temple grounds at Zarahemla. So we have three specific Nephite temples mentioned—all mentioned casually, in passing, without any detailed explanation of how they were being used.
I would like to move now to a discussion of Nephi as a record keeper. The writings of Nephi set the pattern for the people of Nephi for a thousand years, and they provided the basic records underlying the Nephite tradition of writing. The principle records created by Nephi were called the plates of Nephi and are distinguished by us as the large plates of Nephi. (Now, that is not what Nephi called them. That is what we call them, to distinguish them from other plates.) Nephi had received the commandment to make these plates shortly after the family’s arrival in the promised land, which was approximately ten to twelve years after Lehi’s group left Jerusalem. Any records Nephi was keeping before were kept in some other manner. The plates Mormon used in his compilation were not begun until ten to twelve years after they left Jerusalem. That record, Nephi said, contained the book of Lehi, or Lehi’s account. In it Nephi also put the more detailed history of his people, including their wars, contentions, and prophecies (the prophecies of his father and his own prophecies).
This record is passed on from one king to another, becoming the official record of the Nephite people for centuries. Finally, Mormon abridges it to produce the Book of Mormon. However, as I already mentioned, the first 116 pages of translation of this abridgement were lost and not retranslated. Instead, the Lord instructed Joseph Smith to translate Nephi’s second record, which covers approximately the same time period as the lost manuscript. What did Nephi call this second record? Do you remember? He calls it by the same name as the first record—the plates of Nephi. It might surprise us that they both have the same name, so we call it the small plates of Nephi so that we can keep the two straight.
When did Nephi start writing the small plates, if he started writing the large plates ten years after departure from Jerusalem? Anybody remember? Thirty years after the departure from Jerusalem, Nephi received a special direction from the Lord. Look in 2 Nephi 5. Nephi was instructed to begin a new record. At this point, Nephi is no longer the exceedingly young man who was being taken from the Jerusalem environment. He is a mature prophet/king in the promised land, probably in his fifties, and certainly in his sixties by the time he finished this record.
It took Nephi ten years to write the first twenty-seven chapters (1 Nephi, plus the first five chapters of 2 Nephi). In 2 Nephi 5:34, he says, “Forty years had passed away.” So Nephi gives us a time period in which this was written. He is looking backward. Nephi is already aware of the big contention that has developed between the Nephites and the Lamanites, and this is what he is dealing with in his record. This is not his journal being written by the campfire at the side of the trail as his family went through the Arabian Peninsula. This is something he is writing very carefully, very deliberately, thirty years later, looking back. He is using his first record as a resource and writing with very clear, mature, reflective purposes.
Nephi had two principal purposes for this record, and he points them out to us. Let’s look at 2 Nephi 25:23 first, because this is his principal purpose: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” So his first and principal purpose is to persuade his descendants to believe in Christ. Why? Because man can only be saved through the grace of Christ. He says, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all that we can do.”
There is a second purpose articulated in other places in the writing. This is to provide the Nephite people with an unassailable defense against the accusations of the Lamanites and the apostate Nephites. The defense is that it was the Lord who installed Nephi as ruler and teacher, and that on various occasions, Laman and Lemuel had acknowledged and accepted Nephi as their leader. The small plates are carefully written to make these two points on many occasions.
Nephi advances a thesis for this record in 1 Nephi 1:20. Let’s go back and look at that together. When you take English, they teach you to use a thesis statement in your essays or papers. Well, Nephi had been similarly instructed, apparently, and in verse 20 he says this: “Behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you [Nephi is speaking to the reader and telling him what he is going to show] that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.”
Let’s look at some key elements in this thesis: First, the “tender mercies of the Lord.” What are the tender mercies of the Lord? Well, Nephi is going to show us. Second, “those chosen because of their faith.” To Nephi, faith means obedience, so he means those chosen because of their faith and obedience. What will the Lord do to their people to show his tender mercy” Third, he will “make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.” In other word, they will be delivered from the evils that beset them—enemies, troubles, afflictions. Well, Nephi develops this thesis in three different dimensions. When we follow these three dimensions through, we get a much better understanding of this book, 1 Nephi.
In the first dimension, the most obvious, Nephi tells six stories. They are all the same in the general pattern they follow. In each of these six stories, the murmuring of Laman and Lemuel threatens either Lehi or Nephi directly, whose physical welfare is at risk. In each of these stories, Nephi is obedient and faithful, and the Lord delivers him from these dangers by divine power. So we see the power of God delivering Nephi, who is chosen because of his obedience—this shows the tender mercies of God delivering Nephi from these dangers. Let’s look briefly at these stories.
In the first story, the murmuring of Laman and Lemuel is confounded by Lehi. This is the story right at the beginning of chapter 2 when Lehi is commanded to lead his family into the wilderness. The family goes into the wilderness, and Laman and Lemuel complain loudly. Lehi speaks to them “with power, being filled with the Spirit, until their frames did shake before him [And] they durst not utter against him; wherefore, they did as he commanded him” (1 Nephi 2:14).
Nephi goes on to explain that in contrast to his brothers, he went and sought the Lord and did not rebel against Lehi like unto his brothers. So this is the first story, and it results in Laman and Lemuel being overcome by the power of the Lord that was given to Lehi as he spoke to them. That is probably the briefest and quickest of the stories, and it features Lehi. The rest will feature Nephi.
The second story begins in chapter 3, as Lehi receives a command from the Lord to send his sons back to Jerusalem for the plates of brass. How did Laman and Lemuel respond to this? They murmured! And so, Lehi sends for Nephi and says, “The Lord has given me a commandment, but your brothers have murmured.” How does Nephi respond to this? This is the famous passage where he says: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7).
So, expressing faith and obedience, Nephi responds, and the brothers go back to Jerusalem. Well, it wasn’t that easy. Their first two attempts to get the plates fail. Laban chases them off and they fear for their lives. How do Laman and Lemuel respond to this? Well, in their frustration, they take up sticks and they begin to beat Nephi and Sam, their younger brothers, who got them into this. They were going to quit after their first attempt and go home, but they tried again and lost everything. What happens now? Remember what happens at this point in time? An angel appears! What does the angel say? “Stop beating up Nephi. Why are you beating on him?” And then the angel has one more little message to deliver, something that is not exactly welcomed by Laman and Lemuel. Please look at the end of chapter 3, verse 29: “Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him [Nephi] to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities?” How about that! That is an important little verse throughout all of Nephite history, because if the Nephites were ever moved to doubt that Nephi was the rightful ruler, who told them [that he was]? An angel told Laman and Lemuel, who rejected the words of an angel speaking not to someone else, but to them. That is a pretty strong indictment, isn’t it? This is the point. Nephi is telling these stories to put these facts in place.
Well, Laman and Lemuel decide to let Nephi take the lead, and the Lord delivers Laban into the hands of Nephi. The brothers successfully acquire the plates and return to their father’s tent in the wilderness. So, divine intervention delivers them from Laban and his fifty. The great fear they have of this military leader [Laban] proves to be for naught.
Well, in the third story, Lehi receives a command for his sons to return to Jerusalem again, this time to bring Ishmael and his family down into the wilderness with them. This is so they might have more people and wives for Lehi’s sons so they can start a colony in the promised land. This all went without incident. Ishmael said, “Sure!” and down they went. But during the return to camp, Laman and Lemuel recruit the sons of Ishmael to assist them in rebelling against Nephi again. Now, what does Nephi understand his role to be this time? Is he to stand idly by when these guys do bad things? What has the Lord appointed him to be? A ruler and a teacher. He is responsible, and so he stands up, younger brother notwithstanding, and calls them to repentance. They don’t like it! They don’t like it at all!
Enraged, they bind him with cords and, with murderous intent, left him to be eaten by wild beats. Nephi prays to the Lord for deliverance, his bonds are miraculously loosened, and he stands before his brothers a second time. Has he learned his lesson? Is he intimidated? Is he going to quit this ruler/teacher business? No! He starts right in again. Nephi is obedient. He trusts the Lord. He angers them again, and as they set on him a second time, the women intervene and soften the heart of Nephi’s brothers to the point that they actually bow down and beg his forgiveness. So now you have the picture of Nephi standing here with his brothers bowing down and begging for his forgiveness. Who is usurping leadership here? Did he do it? See that they voluntarily bowed before Nephi is the point to that story.
In the fourth story, the group is crossing the wilderness of the Arabian Peninsula, moving toward the promised land. As Nephi and his brothers are hunting for food to sustain their families, Nephi’s steel bow is broken. It is obvious this bow is a major source of food for them. Food runs out without this tool and general murmuring develops throughout the camp. Only Nephi holds completely faithful. Even Lehi succumbs to the murmuring! This is a turning point in the story, the point when Nephi emerges as the leader of the entire expedition. Nephi remains faithful. He makes new hunting weapons. He seeks the Lord’s guidance, through his father and the compass (which had ceased to work during the murmuring). Lehi repents sincerely, as do the others. The compass then works and directs Nephi to find food. All are grateful and rejoice.
But this is a double story, because murmuring breaks out again with the death of Ishmael. Laman and Lemuel plot with Ishmael’s sons to kill Lehi and Nephi. They aren’t going to beat Lehi and Nephi up and put them behind a bush. They plot to kill the pair, to take their lives, so they can return to Jerusalem. The problem, from their point of view, is Nephi and Lehi, not their own wickedness or disobedience. They justify themselves in this by claiming that Nephi had wrongly appointed himself as their ruler and teacher, just a short time after the angel had told them the truth himself. They claim Nephi is lying when he says angels have ministered unto him, and that he has received visions from the Lord.
Well, this notion of Nephi as a liar is passes down to the Lamanite descendants, but who is lying? See, we know the story from Nephi’s point of view. We know who is lying about this. In this extremity, what happens? How is Nephi delivered this time? The voice of the Lord speaks directly to the rebels. The Lord has sent them an angel and now speaks to Laman and Lemuel in his own voice and successfully chastens them, and Lehi and Nephi are delivered from this threat upon their lives. They repent and the group is blessed with food so that they do not perish. Again, they are delivered.
The fifth story begins after they reach the land of Bountiful by the sea where there is plenty to eat—fruit, honey. The Lord tells Nephi to go up unto the mountain and pray. Nephi prays, and the Lord commands him to build a ship to carry his people across the oceans to the promised land. Have these people ever seen a ship before? These people are desert people. Laman and Lemuel are amazed that Nephi thinks he can build a ship. Nephi was probably amazed to think that he could build a ship! He trust the Lord and tells his brothers he needs their labor. This puts Laman and Lemuel in a power position again, because without their help, Nephi can’t do it. Laman and Lemuel think, “So, exercise your power and don’t to it!” They refuse. Well, Nephi gets very discouraged about all this, and they are thrilled to see him discouraged. Again, they decide to kill him, so they rush to grab him to throw him over a cliff into the sea.
At this point, Nephi responds to their threat. (Compare their situation to the Israelites who were led out of Egypt, under the inspired leadership of Moses, who expresses complete dismay with their hard heartedness. As Laman and Lemuel rush upon him, Nephi stops them and warns them that he is filled with the power of God, and if they touch him, they will “wither as . . .dried reed[s]” (1Nephi 17:48). There must have been something in Nephi’s countenance that convinced his brothers that maybe he was telling the truth, so they backed off and began to work for him. They worked for several days. Finally the voice of the Lord spoke to Nephi and said “Reach out and touch them,” and when he did, they were shocked, but not injured. It convinced Laman and Lemuel that Nephi had been telling the truth. What did they do at this time? They fell on their faces before him to worship him. So again, we have this image of Nephi with his brothers paying obeisance to him, choosing him to be their leader and acknowledging his role.
One more story. This sixth story occurs while the group was crossing the ocean. Bored with the journey, Laman, Lemuel, and the sons of Ishmael have a party. They begin to entertain themselves, to revel, or to “make themselves merry,” as the scripture says (see 1 Nephi 18:9). They lapse into such great “rudeness,” as Nephi calls it, that Nephi feared the Lord would condemn and destroy all for this misconduct. As ruler and teacher, Nephi again stands and rebukes them. Again, they reject his leadership—one time, two times, three times, four times, five times, they have been persuaded to accept him. The sixth time, they reject him again. The learning curve here is making no progress at all. The Lord stops the compass from working and sends a great typhoon that threatens to sink the ship. Frightened by impending death, Laman and Lemuel free Nephi, who is in terrible shape from being tied up so so long. Nephi prays and is answered by the ending of the storm. He takes the helm, the compass works, and he guides the ship safely to the promised land. Again, they are all delivered because of Nephi’s obedience.
So, that is one dimension of 1 Nephi of the way Nephi defends his thesis that “the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20). The second dimension in which Nephi develops his thesis is his teaching that through the atonement of Christ, all who will come unto Him can be delivered from death, hell, and the devil, the true enemies of God’s children. While the Lord’s servants may be required to suffer many afflictions in this life and are certainly not delivered from all pain and suffering, the repentant will be delivered completely from their sins through the mighty power of Jesus’ atonement. So, in this second dimension, Nephi sees this as always and completely true. That, of course, is the main sense for which his thesis is intended—this gospel sense that all men can come unto Christ and be saved from their sins.
Nephi goes further and develops his thesis in a third dimension, the dimension of prophecy. He develops the accounts that are given him, to his father Lehi, to Isaiah, and to other prophets, which accounts talk about a future day in which the Lord will “[make] bare his arm in the eyes of all the nations” (1 Nephi 22:10—11). Until that time, the Lord is working through people, and people can say, as Laman and Lemuel say, “You are not inspired. The Lord is not speaking unto you. You are making this up. Joseph Smith did not receive revelation”—whatever you want to say. But the day will come, according to these prophecies of Nephi, Lehi, and others, that the whole world will be able to see that these claims are valid. The Lord will “make bare his arms in the eyes of all the nations,” for though the nations of the world may combine against the saints of God who are scattered throughout the earth, as Nephi reports in his vision, the power of God will at that time descend on His faithful people, and they will be protected by His power. They will be saved, even if necessary, as by fire.
This third dimension of prophecy is very important to Nephi, and he returns four times in 1 and 2 Nephi to the discussion of these particular prophecies to explain how it is that even though the Lord has made this great covenant with the house of Israel from the time of Abraham down to the present time, and even though Israel is being scattered throughout every nation—as Nephi explicitly says, “upon all the face of the earth”—and throughout the islands of the sea, the day will come when the Lord will fulfill that covenant and will bring Israel back to him. And it will be through the power of this great restoration of the gospel, of which the Book of Mormon itself will be a part.
Now I want to turn to the important pattern for gospel teaching that Nephi set in the Nephite tradition, because the pattern that Nephi sets up is a pattern that is followed by all the Nephite prophets thereafter. In the next lecture, after this one that concerns Nephi’s teachings, we will look in detail at the way Nephi taught the gospel, and we will see that he identified a six-point formula, or pattern, that could be used to present the gospel, or doctrine, of Jesus Christ in a variety of ways.
Nephi and his brother Jacob apparently spoke of the gospel of Jesus Christ by the name of the “doctrine of Christ” (see 2 Nephi 31:2, 21; 32:6; Jacob 7:2, 6). They used these two terms for the teaching of Christ interchangeably (see Jacob 7:6). The elements of this teaching were presented by Joseph Smith in a shortened form, in the Wentworth Letter, as the first principles and ordinances of the gospel. They are: First, faith in Jesus Christ. We are to believe in Him and to obey Him. Second, to repent of all our sins, coming down into the depths of humility. Third, to be baptized by water. Here, Nephi gives us distinctive understanding about the meaning of baptism, for he represents our being baptized as a witness that we make, a witness to the Father, as we do when we take the sacrament, that we are willing to take upon us the name of Christ and to always keep His commandments, and that we are to remember Him always.
Once having made that covenant, through baptism, and repentance, Nephi says we will receive that cleansing power that brings the remission of sins and the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, who witnesses to us that the Father has accepted our repentance and our covenant. Nephi further explains that the Holy Ghost brings specific knowledge that it is the Word of God to individuals, that the Holy Ghost will show us “all things what [we] should do” (2 Nephi 32:5). So Nephi’s fifth point is that with the guidance of the Holy Ghost, we can endure to the end. That is a fifth principle for Nephi, and he says that without enduring to the end, we cannot be saved. All who endure to the end will be saved, and that is the sixth point in his formula—eternal life or salvation.
Nephi was indeed the dominant figure in the Book of Mormon., in the record, in the history, and in the teaching of the gospel. I bear my testimony that Nephi was, as he claimed, a great prophet of God and that the things he taught are true, and are as true for us today are they were for his own descendants. They are as important for us today are they were for them. And as Nephi was promised, the Book of Mormon now becomes the means by which the fullness of the everlasting gospel can be sent forth throughout all the earth in preparation for that great day of the Lord that Nephi, his father, Isaiah, and other great prophets testified of. And I say that in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.