Today I taught the Sunday school lesson, as a substitute teacher in my ward. It was a humbling experience and happened in the middle of some stressful times for my wife and I. Preparing for, then actually giving, this lesson helped to grow my faith and give me confidence to move forward with some things.
The lesson was over 3rd Nephi 22-26. The words of Isaiah in chapters 22 & 23, are powerful and Christ commands us here to study them, but as in my lesson, I’m not sure we have time to discover them now. So I want to focus on 24-26. As Christ is teaching the Nephites, there are patterns, points, and a structure. So here’s what I have learned about these chapters, both in studying, & teaching them, now and in the past.
Several of my mentors have taught the power of one simple principle: try to throw away preconceived ideas about the popular verses we often read without context. I encourage everyone to do the same. The Sunday school understanding we normally assign to many very sacred verses may be one very important way to read them, but in many cases there are much deeper, more powerful meanings we avoid if we stick to those surface-level interpretations.
Its important to realize that Christ is quoting Malachi (from the end of what is now our Old Testament), who was speaking/writing the words given him by Jehova. So Christ is quoting his own words, but makes it very clear for both the Nephites and us, that these are Malachi’s words. Probably so we can quickly realize he’s giving them something they didn’t have, and so we can realize he’s giving us something we already have, a second time. Why?
In these two Chapters, whoever organized the verses has made the Book of Mormon version exactly parallel the OT version. So the purpose here is to look deeper to find the reasons why Christ thinks this is so important, and why he made sure and said it was Malachi that originally said it, so we’d be clear we were getting the same stuff a second time.
Problem & Symbolic Solution
Here we have this image of Christ (“he,” “his,” refer to Christ who verses 1 & 2 say is coming) “like refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap” and also “as a refiner & purifier of silver.” Now don’t get Christ and his messenger mixed up. We’ll look at the messenger more in 25. Its interesting that Christ is portrayed in two ways in each instance, first as fire, then fuller’s soap; next as both a refiner, and purifier of silver. It seems there are two processes being alluded to here one of fire that refines, then as soap that purifies. My feeling is that Christ is suggesting multiple ways in which he, through the Atonement, can make us pure and holy. First we need refining into something he can work with, then a final purifying through heightened heat or soap that can ultimately allow us to ultimately be perfected. He also lets us know that He’s not just the fire we’re exposed to, but also the “refiner” who exposes us to the heat, the refining and purifying process.
At the end of verse 3 he tells us why all this is necessary: “that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” Israel, and each of us as members of the house of Israel, are probably not currently offering this offering in righteousness. Vs. 7 says that “ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them.” Then that is followed with a solution and commandment: “Return unto me and I will return unto you.” Then Israel (us) responds: “Wherein shall we return?” It’s clear we think we’re doing okay, just as Israel often did throughout the OT, BoM, and NT. In these cases we have the prophet who’s writing the story to tell us the people were wicked, so we think “isn’t it obvious, you’ve gone away from Jehova, and need to return to him.” But we get lost in the same forest and don’t realize our own need for the Savior in his Atonement in our lives. “I’m a pretty good person,” I often think to myself. Other’s take on the “all is well in Zion” attitude that Nephi warns us about. The simple fact is, we all need Christ, no matter what, and must return to him again and again.
Now, with that context, we’ll look for new meaning in verses we often read, as I said in the introduction, “without context.” Please try to see these verses with fresh eyes:
8 Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say: Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.
9 Ye are cursed with a curse, for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.
10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in my house; and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of Hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.
The “wherein have we robbed thee?” question parallels the previous question that we’ve asked: “wherein shall we return?” But that question wasn’t answered, this one is: “in tithes and offerings.” Here’s where we need to throw out the Sunday-School interpretation and think like a Hebrew, to whom Malachi’s original prophecy was directed. With this in mind, and in context of the previous verses we realize that the tithes and offerings referred to isn’t our modern tithing and fast offerings, but a sacrificial lamb (tithe), offered as a burnt offering to the Lord. This, in turn, is symbolic, the same “offering in righteousness” referred to in vs. 3. The tithes are that with which we make the offerings: perfect firstborn lambs, but symbolically its ourselves. Just as the sins of the people were put upon a scapegoat that was sent into the wilderness to perish, and other goats were burned upon the altar during the Day of Atonement, we are asked to offer ourselves in “righteousness” to the Savior. This way he, through the purifying and refining power of the Atonement, can make us perfect, sacred, and holy.
We are to be symbolically burned on the altar until the impurities come to the surface and we become truly refined and pure. This can only happen though, if we offer ourselves in righteousness. He won’t force us in any way. Thus we must have a pure heart, completely submitting to his will in this cleansing processes that can often be painful. However, the promised blessings are worth it, and he acts also as the refiner: sitting, holding each of us over the fire, ensuring that we are not heated more than we can endure.
Most of the rest of the chapter is spent telling us all the blessings that are given us if we can make this “offering in righteousness.”
Now that we understand what this offering is, in Part 2 we will explore what ordinances we “are gone away from,” that allow us to offer this “offering in righteousness,” and how it is that we return to them.