4 Nephi 1
This is the “Zion” chapter in the Book of Mormon; the only glimpse we get into what it would be like to belong to a celestial society and what it takes for us to achieve such peace. After the complete conversion of all the remaining Nephites and Lamanites, so that all were organized into a Church after their repentance and baptism, they became a people who were equal. This equality came on two fronts. There were no more rich or poor, there was no more bond or free. They were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.
There is a side conversation that has resulted from my study of these verses and helps me to orient in my mind the proper role of government among us. Government does not exist to bring us to a Zion state. Government cannot do that. But it can allow us basic freedoms and a framework in which to allow us to be free as far as is possible. So government has a role to preserve freedom, not to compel equality. Equality must be chosen and must come from within oneself. Perhaps with this perspective, I might more willingly engage in civil activities of government.
Government cannot dictate the conscience of man, it can only ensure that man is free to act and answer to the voice of his own conscience, but never compel a man to so do. Only when man, of his own free will, chooses to act kindly towards another will true equality exist within the world.
After Christ’s appearance and ministry, it took two years for the complete conversion of all the people, from the 34th year to the 36th year.
Verse 5 talks about the miracles that the disciples of Christ were able to perform. The list is not unlike recorded miracles that we find Jesus himself performing in the New Testament. I read this and think to myself that this is evidence of this great conversion to Christ that took place among the people. It is faith in Christ that brings to pass miracles, and such was the people’s faith in Him on every hand that “all manner of miracles” were able to be performed by the disciples.
By verse 7, we are now two decades in to the Zion experiment. Faith continues strong among the people and so curiously, our author points out that the Lord had prospered them exceedingly in the land. Consequently, the people have rebuilt cities that had been destroyed at the time of the Lord’s coming.
Verses 10 and 11 deal with the manner of their family life in this dynamic situation. (I have more to say about this, given the recent changes in my own family dynamics.)
One of the proofs of the society’s well being that is offered here is that they were married and given in marriage. Having experienced a transformation in my own marriage, and this through the my increased earnestness in prayer as a disciple of the Christ, and working directly on my marriage with my wife, I can see how this could be a blessing of the highest magnitude.
There is no mention of or reference to temple ordinances or blessings here, but after referencing marriage, it does state: “and [they] were blessed according to the multitude of the promises which the Lord had made unto them.” Does not the same thing happen in the temple?
Verse 12 holds keys to their prosperity:
- They obeyed the commandments.
- Continued in prayer and fasting
- And they gathered often to hear the word of God.
And then in verse 13, we read that the dream of every noble heart had finally been realized: “there was no contention among all the people, in all the land”. There is no other way to achieve peace. This is the pattern which must be followed. And of a truth, it seems that only Christ is able to effectively realize such a goal on a global scale.
The use of the word “generation” in verse 15 is different than how we use it modern terms. My understanding of the term “generation” has to do with the duration of time between parent and child: 30 years on average. “Generation” as it is used in the Book of Mormon seems to suggest the life span of a human being, being somewhere between 70 to 100 years. And we have this available to us because of the dual reckoning of time both by years and generations. So one (1) generation in Book of Mormon terms is the equivalent of what I had traditionally thought to be three (3) generations.
There are prophecies from Nephi early into the Book of Mormon that talk about the time of Christ’s visitation and how afterwards three (3) generation should pass away in righteousness, and also many of the fourth generation. (See 1 Nephi 12:12 & 2 Nephi 26:9–10, and also 3 Nephi 27:30–32 )
Continuing to piece together this time table of generations. Verse 18 confirms that by the 110th year all the first generation had passed away. Or this would be approximately 76 years from Christ’s visitation in the Americas, so not exactly 100 years, but more the average life span of a human. Then in verse 22, all but a few of the second generation has passed away by the 200th year. This is 90 years from when the end of the first generation was indicated.
Interesting to note, is that by the end of 200 years, a small faction has broken off into Lamanites again. The prophecies state that is the 4th generation from Christ that would be destroyed.
In verse 23, Mormon breaks into the narrative to point out ( and I find it important to understand these points that Mormon feels to interject into the narrative) that the people had spread out across the land and had become rich, through their prosperity in Christ. Then immediately after making this observation, Mormon notes how pride began to seed itself among the people, and division and class resulted.
Is there no other direction for a people to go other than towards pride and self destruction, when the people wax strong and rich in the prosperity of Christ? Why then would Christ want to bless us with prosperity, if it leads to destruction? Is there something more that we should be doing with prosperity?
In the situation of the Nephites, they had all things in common. They were living the law of consecration. If Christ desires that we living in prosperous circumstances, what is its purpose? This cannot be the end goal? Is it just to give to the poor? The Nephites had no poor among them.
Within the space of just 100 years, we go from a history of a people who are undivided in their faith in Christ, to a people who (through a series of progressive steps) are all esteemed as wicked, focused on their riches and the pursuit of more riches. Such a society naturally has robbers because that’s all anyone is at that point: a robber – someone who unjustly takes from another to get gain.
One of the more interesting facets of the Gospel of Christ is the very real inability of one to judge their own performance and progress based on the fruit or outcomes of others, even immediate family members. This is one of the thoughts that I have as I re-read and contemplate this shift away from righteousness among the Nephites.
The righteousness of the leadership of the church was likely no less powerful during the Nephites’ decline than during their periods of righteousness. We read that the three Nephites still had power over beast and element. At one point, the members of the Church were mocked for their humility and belief in Christ. It became unpopular to believe. Societal shifts are powerful influencers.
One of the first steps away form Christ and God was to setup a new form of religion, a new church that was focused on getting gain. (See verse 26) As I read this, I think that church here becomes representative of any organization, focused on getting gain.
These “churches” were growing because of iniquity. False churches were able to administer things to the unworthy that was not allowed them in the true church of Christ. (See verse 27) Thus in their iniquity, these churches became popular. Therefore, growth is not always the best indicator of progress.
In verse 29, we learn that despite persecution, among the true disciples of Christ there was humility, faith, and miracles. The power of God remained with the church. Those disciples who did tarry were still working mighty miracles in the name of Jesus. And yet, multiple times the people tried to kill them. And multiple times they did harden their hearts against the truth. (See verses 31, 34)
This strikes me as an important distinction and reminder: that even in the presence of strong faith, people can and do reject the truth.
An important commentary on labeling or classifying people is offered here (see verses 35-39). A very subtle nuance is offered in verse 36. These labels originate from Lamanites, or those that had rejected the gospel of Christ. Not only did labels come from those that didn’t have faith in Christ, but they also tried to compartmentalize and label those that did have faith in Christ, separating the true believers into different groups. “and among [the true believers in Christ] there were those who were called by the Lamanites—Jacobites, and Josephites, and Zoramites;”
This is so important to understand where the labels are coming from. Christ does not divide people into groups or classes, and neither should we.
Now in the 300th year, all are esteemed as following wickedness. Trafficking of goods here seems to be pointed to as a sign of their wickedness. That is a sober thought, for such activities significantly describe the activities of our modern world. (There are other scriptures that point to trafficking as a sign of an industrious society. See Ether 10:22)
I’ve gone back to the beginning of the chapter, looking specifically for references to the Christ. It’s always bothered me how the authors of the Book of Mormon seem to glaze over the first 200 years as if nothing was worth noting. Today, however as I look for Christ in these verses, I can see that this chapter is a testament to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the reality that it actually does work. There is nothing to report, because the teaching and everything that constitutes their faith in Jesus Christ has already been spelled out elsewhere. What we have here is the proof that the gospel of Jesus Christ really does make for an ideal and better society.
There are no contentions, no suffering for sin nor wickedness. “Where’s the fun in that?” one might say. Yet there is no impediments to their spiritual progress. The field is wide open to allow the real work of Christ: our disciplined, becoming like the Father through Christ and His atonement. This is where real growth happens.
Not the very first, but one of the first actions in denying the Christ was building up churches for gain, which subsequently led them to step away from His true church. Verse 27, again, talks about churches administering that which was sacred those whom it had been forbidden because of unworthiness. Why is this important? It not because the church needs to be protected from defilement, as if it were a delicate flower easily spoiled. It seems to me that this has more to do with the spiritual progress of the individual or the group. When all manner of wickedness get received into the church, then the individuals cease to progress.
Two final thoughts as I am seeking to find Christ at the end of this chapter/book. First, we go from having a Church of Christ, to a people of Jesus, to just a few disciples of Jesus. The author makes a set of interesting observations. Secondly, the people now have robbers in the land and are storing up gold and silver. Then in the final verse we learn that Ammaron feels constrained to hide up the record unto the Lord. I wonder if there is not a correlation here in that he longer felt it safe to have possession of the records, owing to the wickedness of the people, and the chance for theft that now existed among the people. The one surety that Ammaron has is that he can turn to the Lord and seek to protect the record after this manner.