"Whom Say Ye That I Am?"
Jeffrey R. Holland
As they journeyed together toward Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples the most important question of their lives.
To the Lord's covenant people, names—particularly proper names—have always been very important. Adam and Eve themselves bore names that suggested their roles here in mortality (see Moses 1:34; 4:26) and, when important covenants were made, men like Abram and Jacob took on new names that signaled a new life as well as a new identity. (See Gen. 17:5; 32:28.)
Because of this reverence for titles and the meanings they conveyed, the name Jehovah, sometimes transliterated as Yahweh, was virtually unspoken among that people. This was the unutterable name of Deity, that power by which oaths were sealed, battles won, miracles witnessed. Traditionally, he was identified only through a tetragrammaton, four Hebrew letters variously represented in our alphabet as IHVH, JHVH, JHWH, YHVH, YHWH.
Since those early days of the Hebrews, others have thought the attempt to know the Lord God of Israel by naming him was both irreverent and impossible. The theologian Augustine kept warning his colleagues, "Melius scitur Deus nesciendo"—"God is better known by not knowing." (De Ordine.) And Pierre in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (Book 6) scribbled in his diary against those religioscientists who would "dissect everything to comprehend it and kill everything to examine it." These two might have formed a highly unlikely trio with Goethe's Faust to say:
"Who dare name Him? . . .
Name it Happiness! Heart! Love! God!
I have no name for that!
Feeling is all in all;
Name is but sound and smoke,
Beclouding Heaven's glow." (Faust, Part 1.)
In fact, name is not sound and smoke, but rather one method, given of our Father, by which we try to know better the great Jehovah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Even while granting there is one sense in which "feeling is all in all," we know that somehow "happiness, heart, love" are not enough to describe the living son of the living God. Those are abstractions and he is clearly the least abstract being in our lives. So, while we must be fully aware of the limitations—in our lives, in our language, in our ability to comprehend or appreciate—we still do well to praise Deity by name and in some small way come to know him better by what he says he is. Men should be aware, and beware, "how they take my name in their lips." (D&C 63:61.)
To John on the Isle of Patmos, the resurrected Jesus announced himself, "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, . . . which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty." (Rev. 1:8.) Nothing is so pervasive in our lives, nothing so encompassing and enfolding and upholding, as the Savior of this world and the Redeemer of all men. Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, suggests commencement and inception. " . . . I was in the beginning with the Father, . . . " he reveals (D&C 93:21), and, as the Firstborn, he stood at the right hand of the Father in the councils of heaven and in the work of creation. It was by our unity with him (as he was one with the Father) that we survived a great conflict between good and evil before this world was created. By the "blood of the Lamb, and by the word of [our] testimony we overcame the opposition of Satan, "that old serpent, called the Devil" (see Rev. 12:7—11), and we saw him cast out into the earth ahead of us. Reaching back in time to scenes untouched by memory but still resonant in our souls, we realize that even then we recognized the role of one who, as both friend and brother, would pave for us the narrow path of perfection. However little we know of our premortal state, we know that this beloved Son of God strengthened our convictions and created this world to which we would come. He was "the firstborn of every creature." (Col. 1: 15.) I am Alpha.
As he was in the beginning, so will he be when this world ends. As Omega, a name taken from the last letter of the Greek alphabet, Christ is the terminus, the end cause as well as the end result of mortal experience. At his coming we will know what we might have become. John wrote, " . . . now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:2.)
Hopefully, we will be very much like him—not in sovereignty or station or degree of sacrifice, but perhaps in some portion of virtue and love and obedience. He will come to reign as the Messiah, Lord of lords and King of kings, and we will call him Master. In this finality, which is for the redeemed a beginning, the Lord of this earth will come, in Solomon's language, as "fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners." (Song of Sol. 6: 10.) I am Omega.
These letters from the Greek suggest the universal role of Jesus from the beginning of the world to its end. But he ought to be Alpha and Omega in the particular as well—our personal beginning and our individual end—that model by which we shape our journey of three score years and ten, and the standard by which we measure it at its conclusion.
In every choice we make, he ought to be our point of reckoning, our charted course, our only harbor ahead. He should be for us individually what he is for all men collectively—the very brackets of existence, the compass of our privilege. We should not stray outside him. We should not want to try. I am Alpha and Omega.
In addition to, and (to the extent it can be) more important than, Jesus's past and future life is his eternal presence. That is, Christ is not only Alpha and Omega, he is Alpha through Omega—complete, abiding, permanent, unchanged. As well as being before and after us, Christ will, if we choose, be with us.
The great challenge of our lives is usually not meditating on what we once were or wishing on what we may yet become, but rather living in the present moment as God would have us five. Fortunately, Christ can be in that moment for each of us since "all things are present" before him (D&C 18:2) and "time only is measured unto men." (Al. 40:8.)
To Moses, who was faced not with a dimming past or a misty future nearly so much as with the brutal presence of a godless Pharaoh, Jehovah said, "I AM THAT I AM . . . say unto the children of Israel, I AM . . . this is my name for ever . . . " (Exod. 3:14—15.) Repentance and faith, service and compassion—now is always the right time for these. The past is to be learned from, not lived in, and the future is to be planned for, not paralyzed by. God has declared himself in the present tense. I am the Great I AM.
Such a journey from beginning through present to end suggests a path, a course of travel, and Jesus said he was "the Way." He did not say he would show the way (although he did): he said he was the way. (See John 14:6.) To travel here suggests something more than merely knowing the terrain, watching for pitfalls, and setting out at a brisk pace. It means all of that plus the sobering admission that we will need his merciful assistance for every step of the journey.
This particular way is impassable alone. He waits patiently for us while we rest. He encourages us when we murmur. He calls us back when we stray. Ultimately, he carries us on his shoulders, rejoicing, because we find the heights are too great and the waters too deep. (See Luke 15:5.) Only strict adherence—adherence in its most literal sense—to the Lord Jesus Christ will see us through, for there is "none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12.)
Using the metaphor of the sheepfold, he told his disciples, "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved . . . " (John 10:9.) Thus, the place the way leads to is not only inevitable by, but also in a sense incidental to, the way itself. " . . . no man cometh unto the Father, but by me," Jesus warned. (John 14:6.)
It is little wonder that Nephi closed his record and his life with the stirring injunction to follow undeviatingly the straight and narrow path once it is, through the grace of God, begun.
" . . . ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men . . . My beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way . . . feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do." (2 Ne. 31:20—21; 32:3.) I am the Way.
In our dispensation the Lord has defined truth as "knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come." (D&C 93:24.) To his disciples in the meridian of time he said, "If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31—32.) The prescribed method for coming to knowledge (and subsequent freedom) is to "give diligent heed to the words of eternal life" (D&C 84:43), yet many of us spend precious little time with those words.
A monastic study of the gospel is not intended, for we are to be "doers of the word, and not hearers only . . . " (James 1:22.) But many of us neither hear nor do.
Furthermore, it is both reasonable and revealed that there is a dialectical link between learning the word of the Lord and coming to the Word, which is the Lord. (See D&C 84:45—47; John 1:1—14.) On one occasion Jesus said the latter-day members of his church were under condemnation because they had treated lightly the things they had received, "even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given (See D&C 84:54—57.) Like the world that groans under the bondage of sin and ignorance, we will be bound and burdened until we know the words of truth and salvation.
We can never get far from the revealed fact that it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance and that the person who has diligently gained more knowledge and intelligence (i.e., truth) in this life will have great advantages in the world to come. (See D&C 131:6; 130:19.) To study the scriptures, to obey the living prophets, to pray and meditate upon the truths of the gospel—in short, to know things as they really are—these will lead us to freedom. "If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you." (John 15:7.) I am the Truth.
Death and hell in their most extreme extensions have been referred to as outer darkness. (See D&C 101:91.) On the other hand, eternal life and the degrees of glory are sometimes scripturally described by metaphors of light and vision.
When God first looked out upon the earth, it was "without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep." The fundamental need was obvious, and he said, "Let there be light." (Gen. 1:2—3.)
Later, Jesus would say, "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12.) Christ is, according to our revelations, the light of the sun, the light of the moon, the light of the stars and of the earth. Furthermore, he is the light which "giveth you light . . . [which] enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings." (See D&C 88:7—11.)
Light, like truth, forsakes the evil one, that prince of darkness who was cast out of heaven into the earth. The casualty of that rebellious son's fall is glimpsed at least partially in the meaning of his name Lucifer, literally "a bearer of light," a son of the morning. Having lost that fresh radiance of an eternal dawn and destined to dwell in a kingdom without glory (i.e., light), Satan now consciously seeks to take away light from the children of men. We are able to elude such lifeless desolation, however, because God once again looked upon a darkened world and said, "Let there be light." He gave his Only Begotten Son that whosoever would believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (See John 3:16.) I am the Light and the Life of the world.
If in times of trial we wander, we need someone wise and concerned to give aid. To those, Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd, one who would leave the ninety and nine safely enfolded to rescue the lamb that is lost. And this shepherd is not a hireling, one who trembles at the sound of a wolf and flees at the sight of thieves. Ownership of the flock makes a great deal of difference and this watchman will protect at the very cost of his life. "I . . . know my sheep," he promised, and I lay down my life for the sheep." (John 10:14—15)
Safely returned, we again graze along, not knowing what the loss of our life might have been like. With staff in hand, Christ must often muse lovingly over such youthful artlessness. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye are little children, and ye have not as yet understood how great blessings the Father hath in his own hands and prepared for you;
"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 78:17—18.) I am the Good Shepherd.
Of course, by paradox, this Shepherd was also a lamb—the Lamb of God. From Adam to the atonement of Christ, men were commanded to offer the firstlings of their flocks, that purest lamb without spot or blemish, as a similitude of the sacrifice that God the Father would make of his Firstborn, his Only Begotten Son who lived with perfection in the midst of imperfection. As they met for the Passover meal to commemorate the preservation of the firstborn of their fathers, Jesus taught his disciples that the blood of the lamb was once again to save them from destruction. In the hours that then followed, Jesus offered both body and blood that all who would might come cleansed unto the Father, having washed white their robes in the blood of the Lamb. (See Luke 22:17—20; Exod. 12:2—20; Rev. 7:14.)
In some way that is to our minds incomprehensible and beyond the deepest appreciation of our hearts, Jesus Christ took upon himself the burden of men's sins from Adam to the end of the world. Before he was born into this mortal world, it was prophesied of him, "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
"He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken." (Isa. 53:7—8.) I am the Lamb of God.
The promise of this pursuit—seeking truth, following light, building on certainty; in short, living the gospel of Christ — is peace in this world as well as eternal life in the world to come. (D&C 59:23.) Peace is, unfortunately, a commodity that is little known to this world. Nations battle against nations, fathers are at war with their sons, conflicts rage within the individual soul.
But if we will, the "Sun of righteousness" may rise over such dark scenes "with healing in his wings." (Mal. 4:2.) Then peace, the only real peace we know, is indeed a reality with man.
The Latin term is pax, literally "an agreement." Agreement! agreement with him who has made agreement for us. Only then can the destruction of body and soul cease, not simply in armistice but victory.
" . . . Sue for peace, not only to the people that have smitten you, but also to all people." (D&C 105:38.) The worlds in and outside a man's heart cry out for harmony and agreement. I am the Prince of Peace.
Jehovah said to the prophet Isaiah that in building the kingdom of God on earth, a "stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation" would be used. (Isa. 28:16.) He was, of course, speaking of himself. Paul used that same imagery in declaring that Jesus was the chief cornerstone, that basic block around which a foundation of apostles and prophets would be laid and onto which the Church of God would be built. (See Eph. 2:20.) Peter noted that builders of lesser vision simply shoved him aside in favor of less substantial material. (See Acts 4:11.) The tragic irony is that to most he was not a building stone at all, but rather a mere stumbling block, a huge boulder obstructing the journey toward death. (See 1 Cor. 1:23.)
We must be wiser than this. Helaman pleaded with his sons as prophets and patriarchs plead today: " . . . Remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall." (Hel. 5:12.) Everyone will be tempered and tried. The sun will rise on the evil as well as the good, and the rains will descend on the just as well as the unjust. (See Matt. 5:45.) But a life built on a firm foundation will endure. I am the Stone of Israel.
The life of Christ is a precious jewel that flashes in the flame of the sunlight and blinds our eyes with its rays. The prophets have, in reverence and holy appreciation, sought to speak of it, to praise him for the love and glory he displays. Some of the titles we hear often—Savior, Redeemer, Messiah; others we recognize less well—Dayspring, Ahman, Bishop of our Souls. He is the Mediator, the Advocate, the Author and Finisher of our Faith. He is Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father. He is the Holilest of All, the Lion of Judah, the Mighty One of Jacob. He is the Man of Sorrows, the Horn of Salvation. He is Eternal and Everlasting. He is the Son of Man. He is the Bright and Morning Star. The list is only representative of another list that is only representative. What he is goes on forever, flashing in the sun.
We once called upon a member of our stake to bear her testimony during one session of quarterly conference. She told of losing her four-year-old son in a large metropolitan department store. She looked frantically up and down every aisle, her heart beating, faster and faster at every disappointing turn. She asked the store personnel to assist her and she even ran into the street to see if he had left the building. She kept reassuring herself that everything was all right, that he couldn't be far, that surely he was safe. But minutes turned into dozens of minutes and she could not find her son.
"I started to cry," she told us through a newer mist of tears. "I started to cry and wanted to run up to the people shopping in that store and grab them and shake them until they understood. 'My boy is lost!' I wanted to scream. 'How can you stand there and worry about shirts and slips and pocketbooks. Don't you understand? My boy is lost!'"
In the midst of that panic and despair she had an inspiration. She immediately took the escalator to the tenth—and last—floor of the building. There, at the top of the stairs, was Darren, not knowing quite how to get an "up" escalator to take him back down to his mother.
"I'm sure glad you came, Mom," he said, a bit shaken. "I think I was in real trouble." My friend said that there on her knees, with her arms "unfailing 'round" her son, she saw through her tears a bright new meaning in the redemptive pain of the Lord Jesus Christ, paid for loved ones who were lost.
"Whom say ye that I am?" We say with unshakable certainty, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." We say he lives! and that through him and in him we live to become again begotten sons and daughters unto God. We say this is his true and only church, that his prophets speak today, that his kingdom inexorably rolls forth to fill the whole earth with its magnificence. We say he loves all men and we must love them, too. I know that my Redeemer lives and that is wonderful—wonderful to me.