Updated: Mar 16
The Lord commanded the Children of Israel to hold many celebrations and observances throughout the year. They were all instituted to help the Israelites look forward to the coming of the Messiah. The Passover reminded the people of both their bondage in Egypt and their release by the power of God- presaging the Atonement. The Feast of Weeks celebrated the revelations found in the five books of Moses. The Feast of the Tabernacles commemorated the Israelites dependence on the will of God. Some festivals lasted for days or weeks while others lasted for only a day.
Once a year, Aaron the High Priest- and any High Priest to follow him, was to take a goat and symbolically transfer the sins of the people to it and send it off into the wilderness. This was known as the Day of Atonement. This day was to symbolize the Great and Lasting Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It served as a physical foreshadowing to the Children of Israel of how the Atonement of Jesus Christ was to work. By the time of the New Testament, this ceremony became just another one of the many things the priests did at the temple in Jerusalem.
When the Jews returned to the Holy Land from the captivity in Babylon and Persia, they were worried that they would again end up breaking the Law of Moses and be subjugated by foreign powers. While they had good intentions, they “aimed beyond the mark” and built a wall of extra laws around the Law of Moses so they would not accidentally break it. This wall blinded many to the wonderous signs of the times for the coming of the Messiah. While Jesus walked among them, His miracles and prophecies were dismissed and rejected- most strenuously by the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were the ones who had built the wall around the Law and looked down on all those who contravened their teachings.
The Atonement was an amazing gift of love to all of us. Jesus willingly gave Himself as a sacrifice so we would not have to pay for our own sins. As has been said in the scriptures, God cannot look on sin in any degree of allowance (Alma 45:16). We needed an intercessor that was perfect to pay the price for us. The Apostles worked extremely hard to teach all they met that their sins and pains were taken care of and if they chose to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they would be given eternal life. Many thousands joined the church gaining access to the power of the Atonement.
Unfortunately, the people soon began to reject the words of the Apostles and the priesthood authority was taken from the earth. With no one able to receive revelation on behalf of the whole church, understanding the blessings of the Atonement was lost and other things took centre stage- mostly a focus on penance as a price for sinful acts. There were attempts to reform the church, but these attempts only caused more churches to organize and further confused of the doctrines of Christ.
We have been told that God will never leave His children but always reach out to them. After eighteen hundred years of no priesthood authority on the earth, He knew that the world was once again ready to know the true nature of the Atonement. To do this He prepared two things.
Joseph Smith and the Need for Understanding
First, there was Joseph Smith. When he was a young man, the desire of his heart was to join the true church of God. He was confused by the sermons of the many ministers who were preaching in around his home in Upstate New York. There were so many churches and ministers that they all disagreed over the many points of doctrine set out in the Bible to one degree or another. This meant that young Joseph could not turn to any of the ministers to receive answers to his questions. His solution was to turn to the Bible itself. Over the course of time, he came to James chapter one. He read up to verse five and was struck with what he read. James wrote: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Joseph said that no scripture had ever penetrated his soul like this one verse had. It laid hold upon his mind, and he could not shake the feeling that he needed to ask God what church he should join.
Joseph, all of 14 years old, chose to go to the grove of trees close to his home and pray. He knew that he would receive an answer. James promised that if he did not waver, he would be told what he was to do. Indeed, his prayer was answered- it was with a marvelous manifestation. Joseph wrote:
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me[…]. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
Joseph was being visited by God the Father and His son Jesus Christ. He learned that they are two separate beings- which was a lost truth for many Christians. Jesus taught Joseph that the churches on the earth at that time did not have His authority and did not have the full gospel. Joseph was told not to join any of them.
Three years later, Joseph was once again praying to God and asking for more guidance. He was visited again- this time by an angel named Moroni. Joseph was told by Moroni about a record of the ancient people called Nephites who had lived in the Americas after leaving Jerusalem 600 years before Christ was to come. He was told to dig it up and translate it. This translated record was printed and published as “The Book of Mormon.”
The Book of Mormon and the Atonement
The Book of Mormon is the second thing Heavenly Father prepared to help us understand the Atonement better. The Book of Mormon is a second witness to the divinity of Jesus Christ and helps us understand more of His mission. In it, we learn more about how the Atonement of Jesus Christ affects our lives.
Our foundation of knowledge begins with the prophet Nephi quoting Isaiah chapter 49. In it, Isaiah writes as though the Saviour is speaking:
Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; […] and break forth into singing, O mountains; for they [us] shall be smitten no more; for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted. But, behold, Zion [we] hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not. For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.
We are being told that Jesus always remembers us. The nail prints in His hands remind Him of what was done to take our sins upon Him. There is never a moment where Jesus does not think of us.
Next, we read of Lehi teaching his family about opposition. He teaches why there needs to be opposition in all things(see 2 Ne 2:11). He then shares that all things are done “in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things” (2 Ne 2:24). Right after explaining opposition (2 Ne 2:25), Lehi proclaims that we are to have joy in this life. We can find and have that joy because of the opposition- we know the good because of the bad. This message echoes the words of Eve after she and Adam were thrust out of the Garden of Eden: “Were it not for our transgression we never would have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:11)
In the Book of Mosiah, King Benjamin taught his people how to gain joy- he said that it is by overcoming the “natural man”- in other words, the desire to do what is easy rather than what is right. To overcome this desire, King Benjamin invited us to become as little children. We are to be meek, submissive, and humble to God (Mos 3:19). We must trust God- he will not lead us astray. When we follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost, we will be lead safely along the covenant path. The Holy Ghost is the member of the Godhead that testifies of the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He also brings us comfort and warnings when we need it.
Alma was a prophet about one hundred years before the coming of Christ. He spent much of his time preaching repentance to the Nephites. In the Land (province) of Gideon, Alma taught that the Atonement of Jesus Christ was for more than sins (see Alma 7:11-13). It also included in its scope every time we experience pain and sickness. This was done so Jesus could know how to succour use in our times of need. This was one of the major pieces missing from the world’s understanding of the Atonement. Many of the other churches on the earth are focused on the rooting out of sin and neglect the infinite scope of the Atonement. The Atonement is a gift of peace not of punishment.
Later, while preaching with Alma, Amulek explained how we can receive the remission of our sins. Amulek taught the people in the city of Amonihah that we would not be saved in our sins but from our sins (Alma 11:26-37). He showed the people that we need to repent and recommit to God that we are going to follow His commandments. It is not enough to proclaim our repentance- we must back up our words with works. Elder David A Bednar taught that “True faith is focused in and on the Lord Jesus Christ and always leads to action[…]. [F]aith is not only the principle of action, but the power also.” When we show that we are doing our best to follow the commandments and repent daily, we can continue to have access to the refining power of the Atonement which will then enable us to go forward along the Covenant Path.
After His resurrection, the Saviour came to visit the Nephites. He taught them the same things he taught the Jews in Jerusalem. He even gave the Sermon on the Mount to them. The message He gave was one of hope and promise. He once again told the people to repent and come unto Him. The Saviour confirmed all that the prophets had said concerning the Atonement and promised that if the people would follow the commandments and be baptised, they would be saved in the Kingdom of God (3 Ne 11:35, 37-38). As part of His visit, He literally opened His arms and called the people present to come and feel the nail prints in His hands and feet. He physically showed them that He is there waiting for them (and by extension, us) to come to Him (3 Ne 11: 14-17).
In the final chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni (who later appeared to Joseph Smith) implored us to pray to God and ask about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost- Moroni 10:4
In essence, Moroni is saying what James said- if you lack understanding, pray to God and He will give you the knowledge you lack. Millions have followed this counsel. They have received witnesses that the Book of Mormon is true, and that Joseph Smith was called to translate it and restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth.
Allowing the Atonement to Empower Us
It must be understood that while we will get an answer from our Heavenly Father, it may not be the answer we want or seek. In the Book of Isaiah, we are reminded that the Lord’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8-9). Sometimes the answer will be the opposite of what we want. Other times, the answer will not come for a long time. In some cases, our answers will be given right away with full clarity.
This is done for a very good reason. The Lord knows us individually and understands how we learn. He answers us in diverse ways so we can learn to trust Him. We are given knowledge according to our circumstance and our ability to understand. Imagine being in kindergarten and being taught how to do calculus before being taught how to count. It can be hard waiting on the Lord. Joseph Smith pondered and questioned which church was true for a long time before he read James chapter one. He then took more time to ponder on the counsel James gave before he went to pray. All of his preparation allowed Joseph to be in a place spiritually where he could receive a visitation from God and Jesus Christ.
When we come to trust God and Jesus, we come to understand that they are reachable and are reaching back to us. Jesus performed the Atonement so he could know how to assist us. He is the Expert Helper.
In the television show “The West Wing” one of the characters suffers from PTSD after being shot. As it begins to affect his ability to work, his boss sits him down and tells him this story:
This guy's walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out.
A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, "Hey you, can you help me out?" The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up "Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?" The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
Then a friend walks by. "Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole.
Our guy says, "Are you stupid? Now we're both down here."
The friend says, "Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out."
Jesus has been where we are and knows what we need to do to return to the Covenant Path when we stray. He is not an overbearing monarch who seeks to punish. He is our brother who is ready to give us a hug and help us be better. His encouragement and guidance are what we need to begin the repentance process. Once we start that process, we can then have the blessing of being forgiven of our sins.
Sometimes, to return to the Covenant Path, we need to be the forgivers. The part of the Atonement that was for our pains and sicknesses covers this. When we hold onto grudges and slights from the past, we are harming ourselves and our progress towards eternal life. President James E Faust taught a wonderful principle of forgiveness in April 2007 General Conference. After talking about the power of forgiveness, President Faust quoted Dr. Sidney Simon:
Some hold grudges for a lifetime, unaware that courageously forgiving those who have wronged us is wholesome and therapeutic.
Forgiveness comes more readily when,[…] we have faith in God and trust in His word. Such faith “enables people to withstand the worst of humanity. It also enables people to look beyond themselves. More importantly, it enables them to forgive.
When we let go of grudges and grievances, we immediately feel better. Jesus told us that the yoke is easy and the burden light when we follow him. By forgiving others, we allow the Saviour to lighten our yoke through the power of the Atonement.
As we change from the natural man that wants to hold onto past grievances, mistakes and refuses to be humble, we will come closer to Christ. The closer we come to Him, the more we will want to be like Him. One of the ways we will desire to be like Him is through missionary work. We will want to share how we feel when we repent and forgive. We will want to share the joy of having peace after experiencing hardship. We will want everyone we meet to feel what we feel.
Missionary work can be done in many ways. It is done as a full-time proselyting missionary where we are sent out into the world to preach the gospel. It can be done as a full-time service missionary- preaching true religion through example. It can be done sitting at a table with friends at lunch. It can even be done when searching out ancestors who have not yet received the blessings of temple covenants. When we strive to share what we know about the true nature of the Atonement with friends and family, they too will feel the Spirit stir their souls and begin to desire the blessings of the Atonement.
It is my testimony that Jesus is the Christ. He performed the Atonement so we could gain access to a remission of our sins. He also did it so he can help us in our times of trial and trouble. The Saviour stands beside us waiting for us to call on Him to help us. No matter what we do, He is there to provide a way for us to do better. When we trust His guidance and counsel, given through the Holy Ghost, we will shake off the natural man and become more like the little child King Benjamin encouraged us to be. Forgiveness is a powerful tool in becoming humble like the little child- our forgiving others removes the shackles of hurt, anger, and pride and allow us to feel joy. It is my prayer that we can all use the Atonement to grow closer to our Saviour and continue along the covenant path. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.