These chapters are Nephi’s literary swan song, his winding down. He’s now in the position Lehi was in 2 Nephi 1-4, that is, old, preparing for his exit, and wanting to leave behind some words of guidance and distilled wisdom…. which makes for some interesting comparisons. Whereas Lehi spoke to his immediate children, Nephi speaks to his descendants and people. Notably, the closing arguments of Nephi’s life as the basics of the Gospel. He pleads with people to repent (31:11, 13, 17), be baptized (31:4-14), receive the Holy Ghost (31:12-14), and endure to the end (31:15-16, 19-20). This, according to the Book of Mormon, is the Gospel (see Noel Reynolds here for a shorter summary and here for an Ensign version.) The rest is just details or, as Joseph Smith called them, “appendages.”
Related to this is the logical-but-wrong idea that “fulness of the Gospel” includes all those “details” like eternal marriage, baptism for the dead, three degrees of glory, etc. The Book of Mormon, as is well known, is said to contain “the fulness of the gospel” but these things are not really mentioned in the Book of Mormon (although on becoming-as-God, see 3 Nephi 28:1), probably because the Nephite prophets didn’t know about them. Remember that line-upon-line thing. Also of interest is that the 1981 edition Introduction also said that the Bible too contained the fulness of the Gospel. (See this LDS history blog for data and discussion.)
But for outsiders who assume the Book of Mormon is The Mormon Bible, they are surprised (and often critical) to find that the it doesn’t forbid alcohol, or talk about endowment sessions, or any number of other uniquely Mormon things. The implication, then, is that “fulness of the gospel” does not mean a comprehensive laundry list of every practice, doctrine, policy, or ordinance, but is defining “the gospel” narrowly as the good news of Jesus’ salvation… as we saw Nephi (and Noel Reynolds) just do. For more on this aspect, see here.
31:3 “For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.” I think one can parse this language in several ways, but it’s strikingly similar to D&C 1:24.
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
Both passages touch on the idea of accommodation, that God must adapt his message and commands to mankind’s fallen state. At minimum, this means language, but also extends to knowledge, culture, and worldview. This accommodative principle comes out of the Bible, was used extensively by Christians and Jews (including Jesus), and also has support from Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and a dozen other General Authorities. I’ve got a chapter on this in my book with plenty of citations, but in the meantime, you can watch my presentation on it from BYU’s New Testament Commentary conference last summer. I adapted my research to fit the conference topic of Corinthians, where it turned out to fit quite naturally.
31:5 -“if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water!” Nephi makes a classic Jewish qal wahomer (pronounced “call wah hoe-MER) argument for baptism. The phrase literally means “light and heavy” and reasons from lesser to greater or vice-versa. That is, if something applies in a small case, surely it applies even more in a large case! This type of rhetoric/argument occurs in Old Testament (Pro. 12:3, 11:31, Jer 12:5, Eze 15:5, Exo 6:12, Genesis 44:8, etc.) but much more explicitly in the Talmud and New Testament, e.g. Matt 6:30, John 7:23, Rom 5:15, 2Co 3:7-11, etc.)
31:13-15 Baptism is not the covenant itself, but the witness or sign of the covenant we make. (At least in modern times, the terms of that covenant are spelled out in the pre-baptismal interview, where the baptisee must verbally agree to the terms of the baptismal covenant; otherwise, they don’t get baptized. This does not seem to be in force for e.g. Acts 8:27-40.) Mosiah 18:10 says that our baptism serves as “as a witness before [God] that [we] have entered into a covenant” and Alma 7:15 similar says “show unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by going into the waters of baptism.” Thus did Joseph Smith preach that “Baptism is a sign to God, to angels to heaven that we do the will of God ” Words of Joseph Smith, 108. The association of a public witness or visible sign with a covenant goes all the way back to Genesis 9:12-13, and Genesis 17:11, and is found elsewhere too.
31:19 “And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.” I aways liked the phrase “mighty to save.” It’s an odd English construction, but the phrase appears in Isa. 63:1, and the construction elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g. “near to flee” Gen 19:20) More importantly, when it comes to salvation and we are baptized people, upon whose merits do we rely? Our own? No, still on Christ’s merits! See my lengthy discussion on grace and works here.
32:8 Said Brigham Young, on the subject of not praying,
When we neglect any one of these duties, the enemy says, “I have made so much ground.” If the Devil can induce an Elder to drink a little, he is not satisfied with this triumph, but says to him, “Your wife and children know it, don’t pray tonight.” The Elder says to his family, “I feel tired tonight, we won’t have prayers.” The enemy says, “I have gained another point.” You indulge still further, and you will find other excuses. Your head is not right, your heart is not right, your conscience is not right, and you retire again without praying. By and by, you begin to doubt something the Lord has revealed to us, and it is not long before such a one is led away captive of the Devil. JD 18:216.- Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 81
33:2-3 “I Nephi, have written what I have written, and I esteem it as of great worth…” Back to 1Ne 19:6-7. Nephi’s writing what he thinks is worthwhile and important, and at this point, he says “Yeah, well… Those plates are all inscribed now, and I think it’s good.” Could he have done it better? Maybe. We acknowledge potential errors in judgment and writing from the get-go in the Book of Mormon, with the Title Page, c.f. Mormon 8:17, 9:31.
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