Something remarkable happened three years prior to the establishment of Zion among the Nephites. Seldom discussed, it is one of the most profound lessons in Zion literature. It speaks to two powers: 1) the mediating power of the priesthood to prepare a Zion people, and 2) the power of Jesus Christ to accomplish a miraculous transformation in the lives of people in a short period of time.
This entire episode revolves around the prophet, Nephi, son of Nephi, grandson of Helaman, great-grandson of Alma the younger and great-great grandson of Alma the elder, who established the Church of Christ in Zarahemla. For good reason, Mormon devotes a disproportionate percentage of the Book of Mormon to the ministries of this family of prophets.
Mormon first introduces us to the newly appointed prophet, Nephi, in a moment of crisis. Some five years earlier, Samuel the Lamanite had stood upon the walls of Zarahemla to call a grossly apostate people to repentance and attempt to prepare them for the birth of the Messiah. Samuel predicted astonishing “signs and wonders” in the heavens and a precise timetable for those signs. Proximate to the Savior’s birth, a new star would appear, and on the very night, the sun would set but its setting would not be followed by darkness.[i]
Many dismissed Samuel as a mad man; others attempted to murder him with arrows and slings. But a small group of believers clung to the words of Samuel and were baptized by Nephi’s father, whose name was Nephi.[ii] Establishing this group of believers was one of the last things that this Nephi did before he gave his son, Nephi, the stewardship of the plates and apparently appointed him to succeed as the prophet-leader.[iii]
Now five years had passed and as the prophesied date of the Messiah’s birth grew near, the believers watched the heavens with greater anticipation. Simultaneously, their persecuting neighbors heaped upon them increasing pressure to abandon the words of Samuel. During that period, something must have happened to nudge the contention past the tipping point. Suddenly, the believers were threated with annihilation if they did not acquiesce to the demands of the unbelievers. An ultimatum was issued with a deadline: Denounce your beliefs or forfeit your life in the morning.
Enter the new prophet, Nephi. With his people’s lives hanging in the balance, he “went out and bowed himself down upon the earth, and cried mightily to his God in behalf of his people.”[iv] This is priesthood mediation: the power to authoritatively appeal to heaven and draw down blessings for others that they could not otherwise achieve.
Mediation is a superlative priesthood power that we seldom discuss. We attribute the power to the great Mediator, Jesus Christ, but often we fail to view the power as resident in every man who is ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Nevertheless, priesthood mediation is a theme that permeates the scriptures. We constantly read about righteous priesthood holders mediating in behalf of their people.
For example, Adam gathered his people to Adam-ondi-Ahman, where he prayed and drew them into the presence of the Lord.[v] Enoch followed the pattern set by Adam by mediating in behalf of his people to protect them, bring them into the presence of the Lord and establish Zion.[vi] Responding to Noah’s mediation, the Lord established the rainbow as the token of his promise to save Noah’s posterity by restoring to the earth the Everlasting Covenant in the last days. This restoration would pave the way for the Savior’s Second Coming and for Enoch’s Zion to descend from heaven and meet and merge with latter-day Zion.[vii]
After the Flood, Melchizedek followed the pattern of priesthood mediation that had been established by Adam, Enoch and Noah. The name, Melchizedek, is actually a title. In Hebrew, Melchizedek is a combination of “king” and “righteousness.” Therefore, Melchizedek was the King of Righteousness, a fitting title for every man who receives the high priesthood.[viii] Melchizedek “represents the scriptural ideal of one who obtains the power of God through faith, repentance, and sacred ordinances, for the purpose of inspiring and blessing his fellow beings.”[ix] Every man who is ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood becomes a Melchizedek or King of Righteousness to bless and mediate in behalf of his family and his people.
Alma gave us insight into Melchizedek’s ministry: “Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem[x] and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; but Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace, for he was the king of Salem; and he did reign under his father.”[xi]
When Joseph Smith translated Genesis 14, he learned how Melchizedek employed the high priesthood to elevate his people’s faith, call them to return to the Lord, repent, and become converted so they could offer an acceptable offering and the Lord could come to heal them. Melchizedek accomplished this miracle by entering into the “order of the covenant which God made with Enoch,”[xii] which was the same order of the priesthood that Adam entered into to prepare his people and bring them into the presence of the Lord.
The powers associated with this “order of God” give men access to the power of God to protect their people, subdue and destroy their enemies, “stand in the presence of God,” command the elements, break every band that holds their people captive, accomplish the works of God and establish peace, which is the condition of Zion.[xiii]
Ultimately, Melchizedek mediated in behalf of his people and brought them into the presence of the Lord and established a Zion community in the land of Salem. “And his people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch [they were likewise translated].”[xiv]
Centuries later, Moses mediated many times in behalf of his people. On one occasion, Moses mediated a saving solution for the repentant Israelites who had murmured against the Lord and his prophet and were now suffering a plague of fiery serpents: “Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he may take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.”[xv]
Later, in what Alma calls the “first provocation,”[xvi] when the Lord was ready to disinherit and destroy the Israelites for not going forward into the promised land, Moses mediated for them again and extracted from the Lord a stay of execution and a lesser punishment. “And the Lord said, I have pardoned according to thy word.”[xvii]
King Benjamin could be called the Melchizedek of the Book of Mormon. His example had a lasting impact on Nephite religious history. Like Enoch and Melchizedek, Benjamin became a prince of peace by laboring with his whole soul and exercising the high priesthood to confront and overcome the evil one in all his manifestations. Benjamin became a prince of peace; having destroyed his people’s enemies, he enjoyed “continual peace all the remainder of his days.”[xviii]
Now Mormon states that the aging king is preparing to hand over the kingdom to his son, Mosiah. But, in Adam-like fashion, Benjamin has one more thing to do to complete his ministry: he wishes to give his people a spiritual endowment that has power to solidify their lasting conversion and bring them near to the presence of the Lord. To that end, Benjamin prays. In that prayer, he utilizes his priesthood authority to mediate in behalf of his people. In response, an angel is dispatched from the presence of God. Catherine Thomas writes:
What was King Benjamin’s role in causing his people to partake of the glory of God and to take the name of Christ, “that thereby they may be distinguished above all the people which the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem” (Mosiah 1:11)? As we shall see, King Benjamin, being a prophet of God, had the keys and power of revelation by which he could unlock spiritual blessings for his people, to triumph over the powers of evil, and to bring eternal peace and salvation to his community….
Benjamin was a prophet, seer, and revelator, a king and a priest, one who held the keys of power and blessing for his community. He had received all the accouterments of the high priesthood: the sacred plates, the sword of Laban, the ball or director, and the Urim and Thummim.[xix] To understand what King Benjamin did for his people, we need to understand more about the nature of priesthood and priesthood holders.[xx]
Catherine Thomas notes, “A priesthood holder can, in fact, exercise great faith in behalf of others of lesser faith and can ‘fill in’ with faith for them; thus a prophet and a people together can bring down blessings for even a whole community.”[xxi] We see why priesthood and mediation are inseparably connected.
The Lord seems to be interested not only in individuals, but also in communities of individuals who wish to establish holy cities and have the possibility of uniting with heavenly communities. A priesthood holder’s office is to sanctify himself and stand as an advocate before God seeking blessings for his community in the manner of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, whether the community be as small as a family or as large as King Benjamin’s. Like the ancients, one who holds the holy priesthood is always “look[ing] for a city” (Hebrews 11:10, 16).[xxii]
Catherine Thomas goes on to explain that priesthood mediation is connected to administering the mysteries (ordinances) and unlocking the mysteries (“spiritual realities that can only be known and understood by revelation”)
Priesthood is the great governing authority of the universe. It unlocks spiritual blessings of the eternal world for the heirs of salvation. The power to redeem is the most coveted power among righteous priesthood holders in time or in eternity. The greater the soul, it seems, the greater the desire to labor to bring souls to Christ through causing them to take his name upon them. “What was the power of Melchisedeck?” Joseph Smith asks. “Twas not the priesthood of Aaron etc., [but it was the power of] a king and a priest to the most high God. [That priesthood was] a perfect law of Theocracy holding keys of power and blessings. [It] stood as God to give laws to the people, administering endless lives to the sons and daughters of Adam.”[xxiii] He explains:
“[Priesthood] is the channel through which all knowledge, doctrine, the plan of salvation and every important matter is revealed from heaven . . . It is the channel through which the Almighty commenced revealing his glory at the beginning of the creation of this earth and through which he has continued to reveal himself to the children of men to the present time and through which he will make known his purposes to the end of time.”[xxiv]
Every covenant person is bound for the “city whose builder and maker is God,” but he needs help to make the journey and arrive. He needs a mediator. King Benjamin is about to swing open the gates to that city.
The new prophet, Nephi, understood the mediating power of the priesthood and implemented it in behalf of his people, who had been sentenced to die in the morning. By virtue of his authority and his righteousness, he obtained a promise from the Lord: “Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world….”[xxv]
For the next thirty-three years, Nephi ministered to the people during times of abject depravity, apostasy, widespread that threatened the country, desolating war, short-lived victory accompanied by prosperity in the Church, then widespread apostasy, a constitutional crisis that broke up the people into tribes and the murder of righteous saints and prophets. No wonder the Book of Mormon is a pattern for the last days.
Now Nephi is in the 31st year of his ministry. Apparently, there are very few actively practicing members of the Church. Mormon states that everyone whom Nephi teaches is in need of baptism.[xxvi] Is the apostasy so vast that Nephi and his brother[xxvii] are essentially standing alone?
Throughout Nephi’s three decades as a prophet, he has experienced extremes – highs and lows that qualify him as one of the greatest of all prophets. With the Lord’s death and resurrection drawing nigh, Nephi goes back to work to prepare a people to receive Him. In that 31st year, Nephi preaches tirelessly and performs many miracles in the name of Jesus, but he experiences scant success and the people react with anger towards him.[xxviii] Nephi persists into the 32nd and 33rd years of his ministry. Mormon reports that success does not come until the commencement of the 33rd year when “there were many…that were baptized unto repentance.”[xxix]
Less than a year later, “in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land.”[xxx] The storm and accompanying earthquakes, lightnings, thunderings, fires and tempests destroyed the wicked and their cities and transformed the face of the land. Thick darkness covered the land, and “it did last for the space of three days,” causing the people to mourn and fear exceedingly.[xxxi] Suddenly, the voice of Christ pierced the darkness pronouncing woes upon the Nephite nation. The Savior of the world described the extent of the destruction and its cause.
A few had been spared, He said, but only barely. The Savior gave a reason: “because ye were more righteous than they.”[xxxii] Not a glowing endorsement. Remember, most of these people were new members of the Church. Only a few months earlier had they received baptism. They were not mature, venerable, tried and tested saints. They were babes in the gospel. To these, Jesus extended an invitation:
…will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I might heal you? Yea, verily I say unto you, if ye will come unto me ye shall have eternal life.”[xxxiii]
If they would accept Jesus’ offer and believe on His name, He was willing to exalt them to the status of “sons [and daughters] of God.”[xxxiv] The price of this healing and redemption was the “sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit,” which would qualify them to receive a sanctifying baptism “with fire and with the Holy Ghost.”[xxxv]
Then, as if to allow them time to consider His invitation, the Savior ceased speaking. Deafening silence and great astonishment reigned for many hours. When Jesus spoke again, He tendered His previous invitation to “repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart,” but this time, He prefaced that invitation with his offer to gather the people: “O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings….”[xxxvi] The promised gathering would be realized within the year.
This narrative occupies 3 Nephi 9 and part of 10 with Mormon adding commentary. Uncharacteristically, Mormon writes nothing about the response of the people, their counting and burying the dead, the rebuilding projects, missionary efforts to reclaim the people – all things that he has typically described after calamitous events. He seems to purposely go mute until the end of chapter 10, when, with the power of understatement, he picks up the account “in the ending of the thirty and fourth year,”[xxxvii] approximately twelve months later.
When Mormon reacquaints us with these survivors, they are “gathered together…round about the temple which was in the land Bountiful.”[xxxviii] We must remember that Mormon did not necessarily divide his record into the chapters that we are familiar with. Likely, he created a long narrative. Therefore, when we meld the end of 3 Nephi 10 with the beginning of chapter 11, we see a seamless progression of events that end up at the Bountiful temple.
Mormon reminds us that the prophet Nephi was still among the people,[xxxix] suggesting that Nephi had been instrumental in organizing the gathering. Nephi certainly knew the prophecies concerning the destructions that would accompany Christ’s death[xl] and concerning the resurrected Savior’s appearing to the people on the American continent.[xli] The past three decades had prepared Nephi for the summit of his ministry: to ready a people to receive the Lord.
We wonder what Nephi had taught the people for the past year? How had he prepared them so that they could gather, come to Jesus and be healed? We surmise that Nephi focused on the Lord’s previous directives:
- Exercise faith in Jesus Christ[xlii]
- Return to him
- Become converted[xliii]
- Offer an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord: a broken heart and a contrite spirit.[xliv]
Is it astonishing that the Savior would appear to new members of the Church? And yet the Book of Mormon witnesses that it was so. What had happened to prepare these new members of the Church for such a supernal blessing? Is it possible to help good people (not necessarily exceptionally righteous people) return to the Lord with more purpose, fully repent so that they are purified from their sins, work with them until they are truly converted and sanctified, aid them to be able to offer a sacrifice that has power to pierce the veil, then help them come into the presence of the Lord and receive His healing – and do it all in one year?
If we believe that the Book of Mormon is actually “the greatest book in the world” and our guide for the latter days,”[xlv] we could profit by studying its description of righteous men like Nephi, who wielded priesthood power and mediated in behalf of their people to accomplish such miracles. This identical power is available to us, but often it lies latent. Perhaps a reason for our not rising to the potential of the priesthood is because we are still laboring under the Lord’s condemnation for treating lightly the Book of Mormon[xlvi] and not using it, as we should.[xlvii] Most assuredly, we live far beneath our privileges[xlviii] that are described in the Book of Mormon.
We would be remiss if we excused ourselves from the one-year goal by citing the fact that the Nephites had just suffered a devastating destruction to get their attention. Should our coming into the presence of the Lord and establishing Zion require a prior devastating event or could we simply apply the correct principles and achieve the same privileges? A survey of the scriptures contains no reference that Adam, Enoch or Melchizedek relied on a catastrophe to establish their Zions and bring their people into the presence of the Lord.
Brigham Young said, “The length of time required ‘to accomplish all things pertaining to Zion is strictly up to us and how we live…. [Zion] commences in the heart of each person.”[xlix] President Young was frustrated with the Saints’ slow pace. “We are not yet prepared to go and establish the Centre Stake of Zion…. [We] have been praying to the Lord for…years for that which we might have received in one year.”[l]
Since the dawn of the Restoration, the prophets have urged us to repent and seek to establish Zion. Joseph Smith taught, “So long as unrighteous acts are suffered in the Church, it cannot be sanctified, neither can Zion be redeemed.”[li] Our responsibility is to act now and embrace the principles of Zion, “or else,” the Lord warns, our “faith is vain.”[lii]
President Lorenzo Snow exhorted the Saints: “It is high time to establish Zion. Let us try to build up Zion. Zion is the pure in heart. Zion cannot be built up except on the principles of union required by the celestial law. It is high time for us to enter into these things.”[liii] And yet we continue to wait. That sense of apathy and well-being can become deadly: “And others will [Satan] pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.”[liv]
An editorial written by Bishop Newel K. Whitney and his counselors in the Messenger and the Advocate sums up the urgency: “Whatever is glorious. Whatever is desirable—Whatever pertains to salvation, either temporal or spiritual. Our hopes, our expectations, our glory and our reward, all depend on our building up Zion according to the testimony of the prophets. For unless Zion is built: our hopes perish, our expectations fail, our prospects are blasted, our salvation withers, and God will come and smite the whole earth with a curse.”[lv]
President Spencer W. Kimball taught, “Zion can be built up only among those who are the pure in heart, not a people torn by covetousness or greed, but a pure and selfless people. Not a people who are pure in appearance, rather a people who are pure in heart. Zion is to be in the world and not of the world, not dulled by a sense of carnal security, nor paralyzed by materialism. No, Zion is not things of the lower, but of the higher order, things that exalt the mind and sanctify the heart.”[lvi]
The list of prophetic and scriptural statements is myriad regarding the essential nature of seeking the Lord’s face and establishing Zion. According to the Book of Mormon and Brigham Young, we could have received these blessings in a relatively short period of time. But how?
Mormon’s brief account of Nephi’s ministry offers an answer. Imagine the transformation that could happen if a father fully understood who he is and the priesthood power that he could possess. Imagine a father who, like Adam, who gathers his family and mediates in their behalf to guide them to a place that they cannot arrive on their own. Such a father could draw down blessings from heaven to lift his family into heaven. He could establish Zion in his marriage, family and in his priesthood stewardships.
There are prophecies concerning such fathers in the latter days. By them will Zion be redeemed and established,[lvii] the Lord’s condemnation will be lifted[lviii] and they will form the “army of Israel” the will become “very great” and “sanctified…unto all nations; that the kingdoms of this world may be constrained to acknowledge that the kingdom of Zion is in very deed the kingdom of our God and his Christ….”[lix] In short, Zion will be redeemed and established by fathers who have learned to exercise the mediating power of the priesthood.
[i] Helaman 14:2-6.
[ii] Helaman 15:1-8.
[iii] 3 Nephi 1:2-3.
[iv] 3 Nephi 1:11.
[v] D&C 107:53-56.
[vi] Moses 7:13.
[vii] JST Genesis 9:21-23.
[viii] D&C 107:2–4.
[ix] “Melchizedek,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 879–80.
[x] “Salem means “city of perfection”[x] or “righteousness and peace.”[x] Salem was likely the forerunner of Jerusalem.[x]
- [xi] Alma 13:17–18.
[xii] JST Genesis 14:27.
[xiii] JST Genesis 14:26-36.
- [xiv] JST, Genesis 14:34.
[xv] Numbers 21:7.
[xvi] Alma 12:36.
[xvii] Numbers 14:11-23.
[xviii] Mosiah 1:1.
[xix] Although the Urim and Thummim is not mentioned among the things that Benjamin entrusts to his son Mosiah (see Mosiah 1:16), it is likely he had it because his father, Mosiah1, had the interpreters (as alluded to in Omni 1:20), and his son, Mosiah2, had them (according to Mosiah 28:11, 13); Mosiah 28:14 notes that the interpreters were handed down from generation to generation.
[xx] M. Catherine Thomas, “Benjamin and the Mysteries of God,” Selected Writings of M. Catherine Thomas, 83-97.
[xxi] M. Catherine Thomas, “Benjamin and the Mysteries of God,” Selected Writings of M. Catherine Thomas, 83-97.
[xxii] M. Catherine Thomas, “Benjamin and the Mysteries of God,” Selected Writings of M. Catherine Thomas, 83-97.
[xxiii] Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 244; corrected and emphasis added.
[xxiv] M. Catherine Thomas, “Benjamin and the Mysteries of God,” Selected Writings of M. Catherine Thomas, 83-97, quoting Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 38-9.
[xxv] 3 Nephi 1:13.
[xxvi] 3 Nephi 7:24.
[xxvii] See 3 Nephi 7:19.
[xxviii] 3 Nephi 7:18-21.
[xxix] 3 Nephi 7:26.
[xxx] 3 Nephi 8:5.
[xxxi] 3 Nephi 8:20-25.
[xxxii] 3 Nephi 8:13.
[xxxiii] 3 Nephi 8:13-14.
[xxxiv] 3 Nephi 9:17.
[xxxv] 3 Nephi 9:20.
[xxxvi] 3 Nephi 10:6, emphasis added.
[xxxvii] 3 Nephi 10:18, emphasis added.
[xxxviii] 3 Nephi 11:1. To make the point that months had passed between the time the people had heard the Voice and when they had gathered at the temple in Bountiful, we note that Bountiful lay north of Zarahemla. To travel to Bountiful would have required both time and effort. Although Bountiful was an important city to the Nephites, it surely was not the one and only place where the righteous Nephites were located at the time of the destruction. Apparently, the survivors had made a pilgrimage from various locations to the Bountiful temple, which was possibly the only undamaged temple. Interestingly, the people now had functional homes in the area (3 Nephi 17:3; 19:1), and they had food to eat (3 Nephi 18:3). Standing homes and fresh food would have been impossibilities immediately after the tempest, earthquake and whirlwinds. The destruction had annihilated entire cities so thoroughly that much of the topography of the land was changed (3 Nephi 8:8-18). Time and effort would have been necessary to rebuild roads for travel, plant crops, and establish essential infrastructure and safe homes to dwell in. Clearly, Mormon’s reference to one year between the destructions and the appearance of Christ in Bountiful is plausible.
[xxxix] 3 Nephi 11:18. The Book of Mormon index identifies him as the third Nephi or Nephi3, son of Nephi2 and grandson of Helaman.
[xl] Helaman 14:20-31.
[xli] Alma 16:20.
[xlii] Ether 12:7, 12.
[xliii] 3 Nephi 9:13.
[xliv] 3 Nephi 9:20.
[xlv] Ezra Taft Benson, “The Greatest Book in the World,” Church News, Jan 2, 1988.
[xlvi] D&C 84:54
[xlvii] Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon is the Word of God,” Ensign, Jan 1988.
[xlviii] Discourses of Brigham Young, 32.
[xlix] Journal of Discourses, 9:283-84.
[l] Journal of Discourses, 11:300.
[li] Joseph Smith, History of The Church, 2:146.
[lii] D&C 104:54-55.
[liii] The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, 181.
[liv] 2 Nephi 28:21.
[lv] N. K. Whitney & R. Cahoon. V. Knight, Messenger and Advocate, vol. 3 (October 1836-September 1837), Vol. 3 September, 1837 No. 36, 563.
[lvi] Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 363.
[lvii] D&C 105:16.
[lviii] D&C 84:54-59.
[lix] D&C 105:9, 13, 26, 310-32.